Wednesday, December 08, 2010


The flight from Seattle was reasonably short if not sweet. We landed in the pre-dawn dark on a peninsula in southern Iceland -- at a cute little airport that has been voted Europe's best.
Not wanting to waste my one full day in country, I rented a little car, fumbled around in the dark -- couldn't find the lights -- and found myself heading south, by fits and jerks, in the first stickshift I've driven in several years.
Fiddling with the car radio, I quickly found a Christian station that played a wide variety of music -- including Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, also Nordic musicians. The preaching was in Icelandic, but what the heck -- the station played some great music, and proved a good companion.
Dawn slowly broke over a black landscape, looking as if it had been indifferently paved centuries before by a giant with crude asphalt and working under union contract. Lichens and mosses had hence taken cautious root on the roughly horizontal but cracked and fissured surface. Not a tree could be seen until I neared Reykjavik, Iceland's little capital -- not one. (Coming back, I'd see what looked like a tree up ahead, and approaching, it would turn into a pile of rocks. Though the next day, walking across the same landscape from the airport, I did find some natural bonsai: dwarf birches, aspen, spruce and pine, about a foot tall, along with a dark blue berry on the ground, among a predominant patchwork of mosses and lichens.)

I stopped at a convenience store for pastries, water, and fruit -- expensive, but nothing horrendous, and the girl spoke English -- and headed south. The heck with jet lag! Let's see the country!

In ten miles or so, I came to an area in which mosses so deep your tennis shoes sink into them, lay over a harshly fissured ignious landscape. In the distance to left, steam rose from some of the island's many geothermal vents. The land is new: as lava boils out and forms Iceland, the newly laid pavement pushes two great tectonic plates -- apart: Europe and North America, Iceland belonging geologically to both. Iceland is to blame for divisions in NATO! They're litterally pushing us apart!
After passing a town with a stone bridge over a rushing, glacial-fed river (though I had yet to see any ice!), also a KFC and the usual modern conveniences, there was some 80 miles of open country, with mountains and sea both distantly in sight. Aside from small towns -- informal in architecture, with metal roofs built apparently to shed snow (or volcanic ash?) -- this area was partly agricultural. Here and there were bands of long-haired sheep, and frisky little horses with haircuts like the Beetles (bred for a thousand years in Iceland). Pity I didn't take any pictures of the horses. Sometimes the sheep had been allowed into what looked like pea fields, and there was some hay. But Iceland's cool summers seem to keep most vegetables at bay, aside from a few hothouses.
Finally I crossed a plain, with a volcano or two in the distance, to an area where numerous waterfalls fell from a higher tableland, with glaciers visible between the clouds that cover some upper reaches.

After hiking above a large waterfall, and trying to reach a glacier by car -- the road was too rough to get far -- I started heading back. It would have been nice to check out the place where the world's oldest democratic congress was held, or some of Iceland's geisers, but they were a bit off course. I also learned that Iceland has lots of blueberrys a bit earlier in the fall.

But I needed sleep, and badly needed a hot spring. I headed back towards the capital, looking for a bath along the way, stopping by the road once, and once in the KFC parking lot, to nap with the car seat pushed back.
People were friendly and spoke English, but sometimes gave confusing directions to the most famous hot spring, the Blue Lagoon, near the airport. Someone said a sign would tell me where to turn, forgetting to mention the sign was in Icelandic. (Not a language I speak: but "utganger" means "exit," I did get that. "Ut" for "out," "gang" for "opening," as in "To walk the Gangplank!" Very useful, if you're ever boarded by Norse pirates!)

Finally I found the Blue Lagoon, a huge pool of warm water with some hot spots, steam rising through the spa's foggy lights. I spent the night then at a reasonably-priced and comfortable little inn in a town nearby. The next day I studied at the airport -- only nine flights out that day, so I had the place almost to myself after the earliest. For lunch, I walked across the tundra to the nearest town for a hotdog, and discovered Iceland bonsai.
So where is the ice in Iceland? It was the middle of October, (and late November on the way back) -- but lowlands were bare. Reykjavik is almost even with Fairbanks, Alaska. Surprising what the Atlantic Current can do! Even in winter, the temperature is above freezing about as often as below. One tenth of the country is covered with ice, but that is only because of mountains -- the highest just some 7000 feet -- and almost equally cool summers. (The temperature seldom tops 60, even in summer.)
Nor could one call all the country "green." A more fitting name might be Leprechaunland. That is, if leprechauns to enjoy hotsprings as much as the monkeys in Hokkaido.
A phrase I heard at Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii came to mind:
"God is still creating."

Friday, November 12, 2010

From Oxford

From Oxford

My life these past few years has been divided into two realms, not as distinct as Augustine's City of Man and City of God, but sometimes it does seem odd that they're on the same planet. In Fall City, I write, do research, hike, garden, and relax with family, and unless I'm speaking or teaching, lead a fairly cloistered existence.

Oxford is quite different. I can't walk across the Cornmarket street, or jog around Christ Church meadow (scenes from which above center, and to left, my jogging path around it.) -- both within a minute of my front door -- without hearing a babble of tongues. (Above right is Broad Street in the morning fog, with Balliol College -- where John Wycliffe was master, before he translated the Bible.)
Last night at a church fellowship across the alley, the tall French girl sitting on one side of me was a biologist studying the three-dimensional shape of proteins, the Koreans to the right were studying English. Over breakfast, a slim Chinese lawyer in glasses told me about her research on the legality of Christian NGOs like the Salvation Army bringing drug addicts in the Southwest to faith. (I know the place -- the Dehong region of Yunnan, where minorities like the Jingpo suffer a high incidence of AIDS.) The day before, I found myself praying with a man who helped write the new Constitution of Zambia. Monday I spent an hour with Alan Chapman, the historian of science who plans to write a chapter for my coming book. The guy I eat popcorn with in the evenings does international finance every morning in China, India, and Brazil. I stop to talk with a guy who helps run the place -- a former imam and present lawyer from Uganda, who became a Christian when God spoke verbally to him in the mosque.

And so it goes.

Fascinating as it is, one can get networking-overload. (Which is why it is nice to relax with a few old-time friends who provide some continuity to these trips, also the popcorn.) But the conversation with the Zambian was particularly interesting, and I thought I'd share a little of what he said.

Zambia is an overwhelmingly ¨Christian¨ country of about 13 million. It has managed to avoid the tribal warfare that has engulfed its neighbors -- Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique.

The new Constitution acknowledges that ¨Zambia is a Christian country,¨ but also makes it clear that non-Christians have freedom. My colleague told me there are few Muslims in Zambia (Wikipedia says 5%), but even the Muslim in the committee he headed agreed that Zambia is a Christian country. ¨We want to show Muslim countries that we can be Christian, and also tolerant,¨ he told me. (Not an exact quote.)

The method by which Zambia is putting its constitution together also interested me: three stages: (1) Consulting the people in general on goals; (2) Leaders drawn from different areas of life then discuss philosophy of government (this is where he played a role) and then (3) The resulting materials go to Parliament to edit and mold into a formal document.

When I need a break from the books (one common thread between my two worlds) I also go for long walks through Port Meadow (right -->), where animals have grazed for thousands of years. (On the other side of the meadow are ruins of a nunnery, near which the Royalists and the Roundheads fought part of the Battle of Oxford.)
(<- Here is St. Aldates -- I live in the apartment to the left; we often hear people practicing music. It's a charismatic Anglican congregation, the largest in Oxford.)

Oxford can, no doubt, be a great place to study. For me, though, as much as I have enjoyed my annual visits to the UK, and hope to keep in touch with friends there, home is where most of the work has to get done.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust? 

New Atheism and the (Ab) Uses of History

Necessity is the mother of invention. Gaul tribesmen rolled stones onto Hannibal’s troops moving up Alpine valleys below. General Huang of Chinese kingdom of Wu floated flaming boats into the fleet of the northern warlord Cao Cao moored on the north bank of the Yangtze River. Stones and fire may seem awkward weapons: neither could box cutters have been Osama bin Laden’s weapon of choice.

The New Atheists must exploit the material of western history to defeat the Christian faith.  Curiously, the positions they defend often fall as much from "friendly fire" as from the arguments of their opponents.  It is as if the Gauls rolled their stones onto Huang's ships, and Huang accidentally set fire to the mountain fortresses where his allies the Gauls were encamped. 

Earlier this year, several well-known skeptics produced an ambitious anthology called The Christian Delusion. In one chapter Hector Avalos, who teaches religious studies at Iowa State (and with whom I have since traded blows), argued that Christianity caused the Holocaust. In another, Richard Carrier, former editor-in-chief of Internet Infidels and historian of Roman science, denied that Christianity caused modern science. The ensuing smash leaves both claims (ironically) in tatters, but sheds light on the nature and sometimes divine causes of human progress.

Did Christianity Cause Science?

Several Christian writers, including Stanley Jaki, Rodney Stark, and Dinesh D’Souza (now add James Hannam), have credited the rise of modern science to the influence of Christian ideas in Medieval Europe. The problem with this claim, Carrier argued, is that the deed had long been done: science came into full flower from 500 BC to about 150 AD. How could Christians invent what was already invented? Carrier’s attacks on Jaki and Stark often took an adolescent tone, and some historians disagree with his contention that pagans “fully united” hands-on craftsmanship with scientific theorizing. But Carrier’s stories of the ingenuity of ancient scientists are enlightening. And he does I think show that Christians have sometimes underestimated the achievements of the ancients.

Carrier went a bridge further, though, and claims that there was “nothing in the Bible or the original Christian mindset that had any tendency to favor” values that make for science. In fact, Christianity “sealed the fate” of ancient science by “putting an end” to significant scientific progress for a millennia. Yet he also admitted that two centuries before Christ’s birth, civil war and bad economic policy precipitated retreat from science into mystery and fantasy. If one cannot begin what has already begun, how can one stop what has already been halted?

Carrier admitted that “modern science did develop in a Christian milieu,” at the hands of Christians. Interestingly, he also admitted that theism was largely responsible even for pagan Greek science:

“Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons.”

Galen wrote, “I am composing this sacred discourse as a true hymn of praise to our Creator.”

Carrier admitted, “Most philosophers agreed. Seneca argued scientific inquiry was a pious enterprise superior to the sacred mysteries of pagan religion and Cicero argued God actually designed us to pursue scientific knowledge.”

(In fact, in On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero puts arguments in the mouth of a Stoic dinner party guest that would not sound shocking from Philip Johnson.)

1600 years later, Francis Bacon would use similar logic to try to foment the rebirth of empirical science, citing Ecclesiastes: “It is the glory of God to hide a matter, and of kings to find it out.”

What then of the claim that nothing in the Bible, or the early Christian mindset, encouraged “values necessary for scientific progress?” Carrier actually strengthens the link between God and the birth of science, in the process of trying to weaken it. But Avalos’ attack at Christian history from below is even more badly damaged by boulders slewing off of Carrier’s historical argument.

Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust?

The nominal purpose of Dr. Avalos’ chapter (“Atheism was not the cause of the Holocaust”) is to rebut Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that atheism was responsible for the Holocaust, and historian Richard Weikart’s more careful account of how Social Darwinism influenced Hitler. Avalos’ real goal is to show that Christianity was to blame for the Holocaust, and assorted other villainy.

No reasonable person denies that European Christians often treated Jews shabbily. Avalos cites many examples, but his smoking gun is a long citation from Martin Luther’s infamous tract, ¨On the Jews and Their Lies.¨ In it, Luther proposed torching Jewish synagogues and schools, razing homes, confiscating treasure, prayer books and Talmudic writings, forbidding rabbis from teaching “on pain of loss of life and limb,” (the “limb” part sounds horribly literal, in historical context) and sending Jews to manual labor. Avalos concludes:

"Luther's murderous seven-point plan, which is nearly identical to that of Nazism, proves beyond a doubt that Darwinism certainly was not 'necessary' to achieve a Nazi vision (see chart below). Nazism, indeed, was very much at home in a long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism."

Avalos concludes his argument with a chart that Carrier described on his website, bizarrely, as “perhaps the funniest thing ever.” The chart shows eight racist policies enacted by Hitler. To the right of this list, Avalos marks columns for “Luther” and “D  arwin,” neatly writing “Yes” under the former for each item, “No” under the latter:

“Hitler's policies     Luther   Darwin

Burning Synogogues Yes.   No.

Destroying Jewish homes   Yes.   No.

Destroying Sacred Jewish Books Yes. No.

Forbidding Rabbis to Teach Yes. No.

Abolishing Safe Conduct Yes. No.

Confiscating Jewish Property Yes. No.

Forcing Jews into Labor Yes. No.

Citing God as Part of the Reason for Anti-Judaism  Yes. No.

All this is, indeed, deeply embarrassing for Christians, if that is why Carrier laughs. But for serious students of history (which Weikart is), the challenge is not to find historical parallels, but to determine which mark plausible causal links and which do not. There are many problems with Avalos’ argument on this level:

A. First, if as Avalos says, "Nazism does not represent a radical departure from traditional Christian attitudes towards Jews," why were there 12 million Jews in Europe in 1933?  Even armed with pre-modern weapons, humans have proven capable of effective genocide: ask Arawaks, Tutsis, Cambodians, or even the wooly mammoth and giant sloth.

The truth is, while both Western and Muslim worlds owe deep debts to the Jewish people for our crimes, until Hitler, genocide was never official policy in either civilization. Luther’s rant aside, millions of Jews lived in Europe because the Church usually protected and often defended them – a fact admitted by sober Jewish historians.

Nor were those who committed mass murder always so orthodox. European pogroms began in earnest when Prince Emico led ten thousand Crusaders against Jewish communities in Germany. Albert of Aachan records that aside from “greed of money” and “fornication,” the mob “asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that a she-goat was not less filled by the same Spirit . . . These they worshipped excessively.” This crowd of rioters and murderers was wiped out before it left Europe, which Albert read as divine judgment. So one can reasonably place an asterisk beside the orthodoxy of these cutthroats, along with the idea that excess of Christian piety was quite responsible for European anti-Semitism.

B. Avalos stacks the deck terribly. Christianity has a long history, involving billions of people who see themselves as believers, some of whom actually knew what it teaches. Avalos goes through that history loosy-goosy, picking an unfortunate remark by a pope here, mob action by dubious "Christians" there. No definition or focus is apparent-- you can do this with any great and complex tradition. He does not even define "Christianity." (Could Emico’s mob have recited even the shortest catechism?)

C. Avalos neglects the larger phenomena of which racism is a part, and in the context of which it must be understood. Rene Girard has spent a long, fruitful career describing the functional use of blame and victimization. No one had to "invent" racism. Furthermore, the logic of evolution -- not just the theory of Social Darwinism -- implies that races compete to perpetrate “selfish genes.” In evolutionary context, racial conflict does not need to be explained: the Red Cross and the Society for the Abolition of Slavery are the real mysteries.

D. Avalos claims that Darwinism cannot be blamed for Nazi ideology, since elements of anti-Semitism were present in European religion before Origin of Species and Social Darwinism. But as Passover and Purim remind us, genocidal hatred of Jews could be found in the Middle East long before Jesus was born. By his own (bad) logic, Christianity could not therefore be to blame for Hitler's anti-Semitism.

E. The chart given in The Christian Delusion is an exercise in stacking the deck. One could just as easily write a list that distinguishes the policies of Luther and Hitler:

"Advocated the killing of all Jews."  No.   Yes.
"Set up concentration camps."       No.     Yes.
"Advocated invading Russia for 'living space.'" No. Yes.
"Killed cripples."                         No.           Yes.
"Tried to exterminate the Gypsies." No. Yes.
"Attacked Poland."                     No.           Yes.
"Caused the percent of theology students in Germany to take a nose-dive." No. Yes.

F. And why define Christianity by Martin Luther? Hitler wasn't Lutheran. A serious argument would define Christianity in relation to its founder:

Jesus vs. Hitler

"Told Disciples to Love Enemies." Yes.    No.
"Healed cripples."                         Yes.   No.
"Inspired medical revolutions." Yes.      No.
"Saw self as fulfillment of Jewish tradition." Yes. No.
"Refused to be made king."       Yes.     No.
"Said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’"  Yes.     No.
"Died for sins of the world."       Yes.     No.

The absurdity of this more pertinent comparison is the elephant in the room, revealing the credibility gap that help explains why some among this new generation of atheists have already gained a reputation for blind fanaticism.

One could also make a striking chart comparing Mohammed to Hitler that would focus on action rather than words: "stole property from Jews;" "Mass-murdered Jews;" "invaded neighbors;" "enslaved enemies;" "tortured critics." Such a comparison wouldn't mean Mohammed necessarily influenced Hitler. It would mean powerful people often do nasty things to minorities and foment hatred for political gain, and that from ancient times, Jews have suffered more than their share of racism and murder. Bigotry has a common source in the human soul, a fact that both Christian theology and evolution provide explanations for.

G. A more immediate and historically credible relationship can be traced from communism to Nazism.

Early in Mein Kampf, Hitler marks the influence explicitly. He's laboring at a worksite in Vienna. During breaks, other workers pester him with Marxist propaganda. He goes home, reads up on communism, and argues with lunch bucket mates, “from day to day better informed than my antagonists,” until they try to throw him off the scaffolding, making use of “the weapon which most readily conquers reason: terror and violence.” Hitler decides that he hates the sinners, but loves the sin. Why not channel communist terror on behalf of the nation? And thus, “I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror toward the individual and the masses.”

If we must make a chart, then, Lenin or Stalin and Hitler would be more historically plausible and include more specific behavior patterns:

Lenin / Stalin Hitler

"Tried to conquer as much land as possible militarily." Yes Yes
"Put people in concentration camps."   Yes    Yes
"Tortured enemies."                              Yes    Yes
"Employed terror."                                Yes    Yes
"Focused on specified groups within society to whip up mass hatred." Yes Yes
"Set up totalitarian regimes."               Yes    Yes
"Starved nations."                                 Yes    Yes
"Ran a deadly secret police force."     Yes    Yes

H. Nor were Lenin and Stalin the only atheists to influence the Nazis. Among others, one might cite Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and others who figure in Weikart’s story, whom Avalos overlooks.

I. Finally, Avalos’ argument for historical causation takes friendly but fatal fire from Richard Carrier’s argument against it. It his desire to prove that Christianity could do no good, Carrier almost proves it could do no evil:

"An obvious objection to this delusional claim (i.e., that Christianity was necessary for modern science to develop) is that it violates one of the most basic principles of casuality: when the cause is in place, its effect is seen. Christianity fully dominated the whole of the Western world from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and yet in all those thousand years there was no Scientific Revolution. A cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed . . . "

This seems simple enough. Christianity "fully dominated" the "whole of the Western world" for a thousand years. When the cause is in place, its effect is seen! Yet the effect (science) was not seen for a millennia in western or eastern Christianity. Therefore, Christianity was not a cause of science. Q.E.D.

One is surprised when such simple notions of causation, having been displaced in physics, show up in history!

The truth is, Christianity never "fully dominated" Europe. But if there is any sense at all to this argument, and if Avalos is right that there was no “radical departure” between Christian and Nazi attitudes towards Jews, why did anti-Semitic Europe take 1200 years, during 700 of which it "fully dominated Europe," before Emico and friends went after Jews? (And then only after, by Carrier’s own logic, it no longer “fully dominated” Europe?) Why did they "worship" a goose if their thinking was "fully dominated" by orthodoxy? Why in a millennia of "fully dominating" Europe, the Church never managed to invent the Holocaust, which Avalos thinks we wanted all along? How did Christianity thrive in America for 400 years without pogroms?

Readers may wonder why bother responding to such fanaticism. (Aside from the fact that people like Dr. Avalos not infrequently teach our children.) What great skewing of mind and spirit does it take for one to conflate the author of the Sermon on the Mount with that of Mein Kampf?

But these assaults do seem to shed light on historical causation. How can we know if A eventuated in B? A few basic ground-rules suggest themselves.

First, A must precede B. This may seem obvious, but it is remarkable how often the principle seems to be forgotten, for example in historical Jesus studies by scholars like John Crossan and Elaine Pagels. In this case, what this means is that Christianity cannot have stalled ancient science, since science had already been resting in the siding for a century and a half when Jesus turned water to wine. It’s too late to rob the train to Yuma, after the tracks have been turned into a jogging path.

Second, causation can leap forward, but prefers short hops. Early scientists like Jean Buridan, Robert Grossteste, and Francis Bacon stepped onto the stage soon after Western Europe settled Viking and Moorish invaders and began rebuilding its burgs. Hitler was more credibly influenced by Marxist agitators who tried to throw him off Viennese scaffolds, than by Martin Luther or mild contemporary Lutheran clergy.

Third, something in a cause should explain its supposed effect. As Carrier admits, the idea that the Creator is honored by studying Nature was present at the birth of both Greek and Renaissance science. By Hitler’s account, Marxist terror convinced him of the need for terror. It is therefore more reasonable to credit the Bible with inspiring Buridan, Grossteste, and Bacon (who, after all, read it, and could easily have found those ideas), than Hitler (who probably did not, and would have had to grossly misread the Bible to find Nazism).

Of course other hands also turned both levers – in the case of science, political fragmentation of the Roman Empire, expansion, voyages of exploration, influx of foreign technology, cultures that encouraged aristocrats to soil hands. There are no simple, deterministic calculations that tell us when science or diabolical evil will arise. One could not predict a priori that foot-binding would arise in China, sati in India, or the metaphysical flourish with which the Aztecs developed the age-old Mesoamerican rituals of human sacrifice.

But fourth, causation is also rendered clearer if there are no strong alternative prompts. Why would anyone hate someone of another race, diet, faith, or language? The answer is too obvious to need stating. As desert tends to sand, and jungle to weeds, so does human society to scape-goating. Group hatred needs no explanation. Science, by contrast, is a cultivated flower that only grows when the stars align, as they did in the society where Galileo and Kepler first viewed them.

As Weikart shows, however kind Darwin was personally, the idea of evolution, nature “red in tooth and claw,” carried a distinct internal logic. A document that says “love your neighbor” 700 times is less likely to cause genocide than the idea that species progress by killing one another off.

If a peasant near Shanghai drinks from the Yangtze River and sickens, blame industrial outflow fifty yards upstream, not a clear spring flowing out of marble in the Himalayan foothills two thousand miles away. By all reasonable criteria, it is exponentially more plausible to credit Jesus and his first followers for modern science, universities, the Geneva Convention, and the end of slavery, sati, and human sacrifice, than for Hitler’s hideous failure to follow in the steps of Christ. But apparently we live in an age when the obvious needs stating.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Alpine Paradise

I'm flying to Iceland tomorrow. Yesterday I took one last hike -- a hike I've been wanting to try for years. It's a thirteen-mile loop trail that passes six gorgeous mountain lakes, three miles over especially rugged territory with no real trail. How beautiful they are on a sunny day in mid-October!

Not all were named well, though -- Chair Peak Lake (right), what a clunker of a title, what an enchanting pond, rounded rocks, surrounded by steep cliffs 1500 feet up on both sides, snow still clinging to upper slopes, a waterfall cascading down to Snow Lake a thousand feet below.
I stopped to have a quick dip in another beauty, Gem Lake (below) -- green and lush and autumnal as Chair Peak Lake is rugged and wintry.

Coming down towards the always magnificent Snow Lake (left), I met two ladies who were carrying mushrooms I think they called Panchini, and recommended for eating -- I found their source and brought one back myself. Dare I risk it?

But enough talk. Photos say what needs saying best.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Did Lao Zi Prophesy the Coming of Jesus?

A philosopher who was involved with the Democracy Movement in China, Yuan Zhiming, makes two bold (some would say "wreckless") claims in his book Lao Zi vs. the Bible: (1) The "Dao" Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, wrote of is a synonym for God, and (2) the "Sage" (聖人) Lao Zi spoke of is Jesus.

Both these claims sound incredible. Both offend many ears -- atheists who doubt God can speak at all, traditional Chinese who disapprove of what they might perceive as religious imperialism, Christians who are afraid Yuan is falling into the trap of "syncretism."
I've been reading a dissertation this past week that analyzes these two claims. The author interviews 25 Chinese scholars, all but one of them Christians, and most of whom think Yuan has, at least, gotten a bit carried away.

What do you think? This is a new blog, and there are not many readers yet. Also answering the question would involve doing a little homework. But let me throw this out. Read the Dao Dejing -- it will only take an hour, it's a remarkable book well worth your time, and there are dozens of translations. Pay close attention to what the book says about "the Dao" (or "Way," or "Truth," or "Reason," depending on your translation) and "the Sage."

Could Lao Zi have been a theist of some sort?

Might he have been looking, warned perhaps in a dream, for a Savior like Jesus?

Let us know what you think in the comments forum below.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Outsider Test for Faith: Why Loftus is Wrong.

"The Outsider Test for Faith:" Where John Loftus goes wrong.

John Loftus is a popular atheist writer, a former student of William Lane Craig who edited the book The Christian Delusion. John kindly send me a pre-publication copy of his book. I found myself in strong disagreement with some of the contents, so rather than recommend the book, I bought my own copy and critiqued it. (See my disputes with Hector Avalos and Richard Carrier over the role of Christianity in Nazism and science on the web site, and the ongoing debate with Avalos in earlier blogs here.)

In this blog, I'll challenge John's prize argument, in chapter 4, "The "Outsider Test for Faith Revisited." This is an argument John promotes with all the pride of Thomas Edison showing off his new light bulb; and with some results, apparently. I'll begin by questioning his assumptions about faith. Then I'll examine his "Outsider Test," and explain why it does not work as an argument against Christianity, though it might work as paraphrase of the truism that one should be intellectually fair to beliefs one does not share. Finally I'll critique other assumptions John makes in his essay.

I. Faith? John begins his chapter with a comment about faith that those who have read my books will know I can't pass by in silence:

"The most important question of all when it comes to assessing the truth claims of Christian theism (or religion in general) is whether we should approach the available evidence through the eyes of faith or with skepticism."

In Christian thinking, "faith" is not something that is opposed to reason, as Loftus does here. As far back as Judges, Gideon conducts a rational experiment in faith: "If You are really speaking, God, make the dew rest on this cloth, and everything around it remain dry." As I show in my "Gullible Dweebs?" posts, the first Christians also came to faith in part through skepticism. I have also shown, in "Faith and Reason," that Christian thinkers down through the centuries have usually understood faith and reason as complementary, not locked in some zero-sum battle to the death.

This fundamental misundertanding about "faith" undermines Loftus' chapter, and permeates what skeptics who buy his argument say about the matter. Here, for example, is a recent comment on Loftus' blog:
"This to me is one more example of how the poor old believer is forced to simply pull up the drawbridge and live in Happyland, content with 'Faith' and all that wonderful pseudoscience . . . "

In reality, Christian faith in the true sense is exactly what created modern science itself.

So what is Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith?

II. An Outline of Loftus' Argument. John summarizes his argument in four points. I'll quote each point, offering preliminary responses to each point as I go along. This is not quite fair, because Loftus expands and defends these points later -- but a blog is a blog, not a journal essay. I'll quote some of Loftus' supporting arguments later, and offer rebuttals or responses. Then I'll offer a general evaluation of the main question here: should Christians adopt an agnostic stance to evaluate their own beliefs? And finally, open the issue up for discussion.

"1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis."

(a) People also "adopt and defend" a wide variety of skeptical ideologies because of where they were born and how they were brought up. Most young Chinese, for instance, are taught atheism in school, and millions will parrot those teachings back to you, if you ask them their views. (I've heard some do this!) Most young Danes, presumably, will similarly parrot back secular humanist views.

(b) Religious diversity may not be as great as Loftus assumes. In every culture, for instance, people believe in spirits, and in most cultures, life after death. Not only Christians, Muslims, and Jews (almost half the world's population!), but also many Hindus, Chinese, and Japanese who do not belong to these groups, believe in one Supreme God.
(c) True, in every culture, only a minority usually converts to some worldview other than what they were brought up in. But usually that is because of social disincentives, not because "intelligent people" have all fairly and honestly considered the evidence for other religions.

In some Muslim countries, for instance, convert out, and the penalty is death. Mohammed himself approved this penalty, and you often hear of it being carried out in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. This has also happened in recent years in Hindu countries, and historically in Buddhist and Christian countries as well. The cruelest retributions against conversion out have occured in some communist countries.

Most social pressure is less extreme, yet remains effective at keeping people "in the fold."

So while "rational people" accept a variety of faiths partly because of geography, the intellectual content of those beliefs may not always be as diverse as people usually assume -- G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man is good on this. And uniformity of beliefs can be the product of oppression in some cultures.

(2) "Consequently, it seems very unlikely that adopting one's religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis."

This is similiar to my point (c) above. The word "faith" here is misleading, though, as may be the word "religious." It would be more objective to say, "adopting a worldview is usually not just a matter of independent rational judgment." Otherwise we prejudice the issue against certain kinds of worldviews, and sneak in a misconception of why Christians, at least, are supposed to believe.

Also one must distinguish between free societies and societies in which choice is constrained by government, clan, or family. Most people in non-Christian countries lack freedom and / or opportunity to consider Christianity. In most Christian countries, there is relative freedom and opportunity to consider Marxism, secular humanism, Islam, or Buddhism.

(3) "Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false."

Here Loftus takes his most blatantly fallacious step. Problems with this step are numerous:
(a) What does "highly likely" mean? The term is ambiguous for a quasi-deductive argument of this sort.

(b) Why is the conclusion supposed to follow from the premises?

(c) A hidden premise that might allow it to follow (and that Loftus defends later, see below) would be, "Culturally derived beliefs are unlikely to be true." But why would one assume that?

My culture has taught me many things that I might not believe in, say, ancient Rome, or among the Yali in Papua New Guinea. My belief that Earth circles the sun is "culturally dependent." I was taught this belief in school, and have never proven it scientifically for myself. I believe it by trust in my teachers. Does that mean it is "highly likely" to be wrong? If not, then (3) does not follow from (1) and (2).

(d) But, you say, someone HAS proven that the Earth revolves around the sun. (If not exactly "circles.") Yes, and are you assuming that no one has rationally demonstrated the truth of the religious belief system in which I was raised? I disagree. Maybe I am wrong, but the analogy derails us from the Outsider Test into conventional apologetics. If there is good reason to believe the Christian faith, then the Outsider Test is invalid as an argument against it. If there is no such reason, then the Outsider Test is unneeded.

(e) Since atheist belief systems are ALSO culturally dependent, does Loftus think it is "highly likely" that they are false, too?

(f) All in all, this is simply a non sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. (Even if the premises were clear and plausible.)

"4) So the best way to test one's adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF."

It seems there may be an even bigger problem with Loftus' argument than those mentioned above. This is a failure to understand how religions relate to one another.

This is a topic I've written a lot about. My first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and second, Jesus and the Religions of Man, both present a radically different perspective on how Christianity relates to non-Christian religions than the one Loftus seems to take for granted. I'm now finishing a doctorate on the same subject.

How to put this succinctly?

Religion, in the best Christian thinking, is not a zero-sum game.

The religions of the world are not like so many fruits in the market, from which (having only one dollar) you must choose a single item, and leave the rest.

Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolition, but to fulfill." (Mt. 5: 17) This applies, I have argued, not only to Judaism, but to the deepest truths in other spiritual traditions as well.

In other fields, too, the best test of a new theory is not whether it completely displaces prior theories, but whether it incorporates whatever truth is to be found in them. Kepler didn't refute the idea that the planets revolve around the sun. He built on the discovers of prior astronomers, and refined them. Einstein didn't render Newton's model of gravitation useless. He showed that it was a special case, still useful for everyday observation.

It is a singularly "fundamentalist" way of thinking, that one must choose one religion, and discard the rest. In some cases, one must make choices. Either God is one, many, or not at all. But one doesn't need to choose between Yahweh, Elohim, theos, Allah, and Shang Di: the one only-existing Creator God is recognizable under many aliases.

So much for theism. When it comes to specifically Christian doctrines, Loftus' argument seems to ring even more hollow.

Why should we deny that Jesus died for the sins of the world, because some people in Sichuan Province or Uttar Pradesh never heard about it, or don't immediately recognize its truth when they do? The West took hundreds of years to come around -- why not give the Chinese and Indians time to mull things over, like a mustard seed that grows into a tree and gives shelter to many birds, to which Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven?

Why should we doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, because we first heard about it in Sunday School? We may be told about planets in Monday school. If either belief is untrue, sure, discard it. But in the interum, why should the assumption that our teachers (any day of the week) were ignorant be the default position?

Summary: So is it wise to adopt an agnostic position as we evaluate the religious faith we belong to, and were perhaps raised in?

I admit for me this question is a little academic. Although I grew up in a Christian home, and have never left the faith, all my life I've been surrounded by the writings and ideas of (in particular) atheists, Buddhists, and Taoists. Like Joni Mitchell, I think I do see clouds from both sides, now -- reading atheist books, I often feel like the wrinkled old lady in the first pew who can sing all the hymns by heart.

My wife was raised Buddhist and converted to Christianity in her twenties.

On balance, the act of stepping outside oneself and reconsidering one's beliefs may be helpful at some stages of our journey. I think people of different beliefs will almost always learn a great deal by extending themselves in that way. But when we do, what should we look for?

Look for, not one religion that is as right and rigid as crystal, and all the others totally wrong. Instead, look for something alive. Look for a map of reality that takes into account miracles (sorry, they do happen!) as well as mice. Look for a map that puts God in heaven (as we have known, for thousands of years), and follows a good guru, who loves the poor, feeds the hungry, and loves women in a holy manner. Try to incorporate primitive insights about sacrifice and redeem them.

Additional problems. Loftus makes some good points in the chapter as a whole, and his tone is generally reasonable. I gave the chapter three stars out of five in my Amazon review. While we're doing the debunking, though, let me offer constructive criticism of some other points later in the chapter:

"We swim in a Christian culture. It's hard to argue Christians out of their faith because they were never argued into it in the first place. Elsewhere, Eller has argued that 'nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions.'" (82)

This is doubtful on three counts. First, many Christians were "argued into" their faith, including many who grew up in Christian homes. (I doubted quite a bit. What important argument for atheism does not occur spontaneously to a thoughtful young person? C. S. Lewis and others in effect argued me into a faith I already held.)

Second, my impression is that those who convert from argument are usually harder rather than easier to deconvert.

Third, Eller is wrong in his sociology. In fact, India, likely the most religious country in the world, is also among its most diverse. Religions have vied with one another there for thousands of years. In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims are about evenly divided, with some animists -- and I am told almost everyone believes in God. In Singapore, large numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Free-Thinkers,and Muslims do not destroy religious faith, but create a "hot-house" atmosphere where a variety of religions thrive. The same seems true of Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I lived for some six years altogether.

In fact, Eller seems exactly wrong: as sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argues, the more competition there is in religion, the healthier for religion the market seems to become.

"When it comes to religious faith, an overwhelming number of believers adopt and defend what they were raised to believe by their parents in their respective cultures." (83)
True, usually, more or less. Religious belief is often tied to tribal identity, and sometimes conversion "out" is harshly punished. But tens of millions of Chinese have converted to new religions in recent years.

Looking at my experience, all four the siblings in my family now identify themselves as Christian. But two of us went through periods of doubt. It's true none of us would consider converting to, say, Islam -- for the obvious reasons. But I've met many western Buddhists who were born into Christian or skeptical households. I've also known hundreds of converts to Christianity -- including my wife, who grew up Buddhist.

And a lot of people convert within religions, from one sect to another. My Grandmother was a Pentacostal, my Dad was a Calvinist; I am neither, though appreciate some of both. So there is more changing of views that Loftus credits, especially in free societies.

"The other method Christians use is on much firmer ground. They use David Hume's evidentiary standards for examining miraculous claims to the faiths they reject. They also deconstruct these other religious texts by assuming human rather than divine authors. They adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to test these other extraordinary claims . . . " (86)
One should not "assume" that the Qu'ran or Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired: read them and find out! Loftus also seems to be assuming that a book must EITHER have a "human" OR a "divine" author. This may be his fundamental (ist) mistake. For alternative views, see The Truth Behind the New Atheism, chapter 6: "Is the Good Book Bad?," or (for an in-depth discussion) see Nicholas Wolterstorff's Divine Discourse.

"The Christian theist must now try to make sense of this claim, coming as it does from an ancient superstitious people who didn't have trouble believing Paul and Barnabas were 'gods in human form' (Acts 14:11, 28:6.)
Luke didn't believe Paul and Barnabas were "gods;" rural hicks in Lystra did. (Paul and Barnabas had cured a fellow townsman who had been lame since birth -- one can understand why this impressed the people who knew him!)

The ancient Greco-Roman world also contained many sophisticated, skeptical people, some of whom became Christians. See my recent "Dweeb" blog on the cagy Eusebius, for example.

"The 'many gods' objection to Pascal's Wager destroys the wager's force since we must first decide among the various gods which one to wager on." (87)

Problems:(a) Pascal had already given many reasons to believe in Jesus. The Wager was not made in a vacuum, as skeptics often assume.

(b) God is not comparable to polytheistic gods. Athena or even Zeus do not control one's destiny after death. Anyway, Greek intellectuals had already largely come to recognize that these deities were just masks for a single all-powerful Creator.

(c) Anthropology shows that awareness of the unique Supreme God is common in many cultures around the world. So it is not at all arbitrary which god you believe in.

On William Lane Craig:

"So would Bill have believed in the first place if he knew then what he knows now? . . . I dare say that if he knew what he does now and hadn't already chosen to adopt his faith, he would not have believed in the first place." (88)

Why, then, does Craig regularly defeat atheist opponents in debate? (As neutral, and even atheist, observers often admit?)

If the most learned atheists in the Western world can't convince a non-Christian audience Craig's arguments are wrong in public debate, why shouldn't Craig buy his own winning arguments?

"The one thing we can and should trust is the sciences. Science alone produces consistently excellent results that cannot be denied . . . We can personally do the experiments ourselves." (89)

Questions:(a) Doesn't mathematics produce "consistently excellent results?" Or must we define "science" to include "math?"

(b) Doesn't human testimony, when used carefully, produce good results? Most of what we know about the world comes from what reliable people, like teachers and authors of textbooks, tell us. In some cases, we risk our lives based on a single bit of testimony -- at an intersection, I sometimes ask my wife if a car is coming. On a runway, pilots may ask an air traffic controller if it is safe to land.

(c) Does vision count as science? Go to a football game, and would you rather have eyes, or a good science text in braille?

Science is based on logic, philosophy, mathematics, the sense, and peer interaction. Math and logic and even vision more immediate than biology or physics. Other ways of knowing things -- ask a travel agent, your most honest friend, the teacher -- are also consistently useful, especially when we make use of multiple sources of information, and test its reliability in various ways. Some forms of science are more reliable than some sources of testimony, but few are as reliable as math or simply logic. And there's a tradeoff -- what you gain in reliability, you often lose in breadth. One cannot live by science alone.

(d) What modern experiments can you do personally, as Loftus suggests? Do you have a particle excellerator in your den? Can you check the mass of extrasolar planets on your bathroom scale? In the real world, we are in practice forced to trust the claims scientists make for the same reasons we trust our teachers: they strike us as credible.

Faith Again: On pages 94 and 95, Loftus attempts to justify the bias his OTF seems to give in the direction of atheism, by rebutting the claim Timothy Keller (and others) make that atheist worldviews also require faith. Loftus claims in response to William Lane Craig that he "knows" that there is a material world, "and that I can reasonably trust my senses:"

"For example, when it comes to the possibility that I'm presently living in a virtual, Matrix world, rather than the real world, that scenario cannot be taken seriously by any intelligent person . . . I see no reason why there would be any knowledge of the Matrix by people living in it, since the Matrix determines all of their experiences . . . " (95)

I think Loftus is confusing a particular movie with the scenario it illustrates. It is certainly the case that some intelligent people DO take the scenario that the world is some sort of simulation seriously. One atheist philosopher, another told me, put the odds of the world being unreal at about one in five. (Don't ask me how he calculated this -- taking the rationality of his own brain for granted, still!)

I believe in the reality of the external world -- that's why I'm blogging. But Keller and Craig are right to say we can't prove it -- nor do Loftus' arguments manage the trick.

"The word faith must be reserved to apply in this context (ie, justification for religious beliefs -- DM) to beliefs that cannot be empirically tested and aren't needed to explain anything, like ghosts, angels, demons, and gods."
A Being more intelligent than humans would not be subject to the same empirical tests we use for rocks, rhubarb, and rabbits. "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." This does not mean there is no evidence -- it means that if we are in the driver's seat, we are not seeking God, we must be seeking something less than ourselves.

It does not follow that religious faith cannot be empirically tested, or that no such evidence is provided -- Christians have almost always maintained that there is plenty of such evidence. But in the end, we are the ones tested, not God.

"Finally, atheists do indeed take the OTF. That's why atheists are atheists in the first place." (97)

True, often atheists were raised in religious homes, and came to reject their early beliefs, not infrequently for rational reasons in part. But most atheists in the modern world have lived and been raised in communist countries, where denying religion is the default position.

Many westerners become atheists in their teens, when they were not really in a position to evaluate Christian claims at the highest level. And of course not all of them are in the mood to be fair, either. Judging by my experience, angry, Madeleine Murray O'Hare type atheists, while probably not the majority, are no small minority, either.

It would be highly naive, then, to assume that atheists convert away from faith for purely rational, objective reasons.

"Therefore, anyone, and I mean anyone including myself, who leaves the default agnostic position and affirms and answer, any answer, has the practical burden of proof." (98)

This seems fair enough. Let me translate into the short, clear words like those George Orwell recommended: "If I say I do not know, then I do not need to say why. If I say I know, then I should say why."

The Bible, too, tells us to be "prepared to give a reason" for the hope that is within us. When John Loftus and the Bible agree, it could be one has found truth.

"I'm arguing that the source of most people's religious faith is an unreliable one, coming as it does from the geological accidents of birth. It produces many different and irreconcilable religious faiths that cannot all be true." (99)

And I have argued that Loftus' argument does not work. First, much in different religions can in fact be reconciled. (There is almost nothing n the Analects of Confucius or the Dao Dejing or Epictetus that a Christian has to argue with.) Second, the fact that God transcends cultures is at least weak evidence that He is real. Third, just because people in Muslim countries are not allowed to believe in Jesus as Savior, and most Hindus and Chinese have lacked the opportunity to believe in him, in no way makes the Gospel story unlikely to be true. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises.

"At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones . . . " (99)

As C. S. Lewis pointed out, that is the position an atheist is forced to adopt, but not a Christian. Much about each of the world's great religions can be considered true, in some cases even divinely inspired, by dedicated Christians, as I argue in some of my works. If you're an atheist, though, you have to write off almost all of what the rest of humanity has always believed as one big blunder.

"But I know of no skeptical person in today's world who would ever want to morally justify rape. Believes like the acceptibility of rape (and honour killings) are based on religious faiths and ancient texts . . . " (100)

Rape is, of course, a common activity in the animal kingdom, and is based on biology. The present strictures against rape are the result of a series of cultural influences that were by no means pre-ordained, and that can dissolve. The Yanomamo, after all, do quite a bit of raping without "ancient texts." Might it have something to do with sex?

"Most Christian thinkers from Tertullian to Luther to William Lane Craig have all disparaged reason in favor of faith." (102)

Faith, by my definition (inspired by what Christian thinkers have actually said about the subject for thousands of years, rather than silly modern myths), means "Holding to and acting on what you have good reason to believe is true." By that definition, reason is an intrinsic part of faith.

In any case, it is suspicious that two of Loftus' three examples are the same that Dawkins gives -- Luther and Tertullian. Alister McGrath has shown that the famous Tertullian quote that purports to prove he did this is taken out of context. (Dawkins' God, 99-101)

But perhaps John can cite the exact words William Lane Craig, his old teacher, used to "disparage reason." It would be good to have this claim in context.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Contra Celsus: Were the first Christians Gullible Dweebs?

Did anyone ever warn you, "Point a finger at someone else, and four fingers point back at you?"

There is a subclass of skeptics who delight in pointing fingers at early Christians and calling them fools, knaves, and liars. My book, Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, is in part a response to skeptics who scoff at early Christians in somewhat more sophisticated terms. I also posted an informal rebuttal of Richard Carrier, along with Landon Hedrick and Robert Price, after Carrier portrayed the early Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles as gullible. (See "Were early Christians gullible dweebs?" )

In both cases, I argued, the charges tend to reverse themselves, revealing early Christians as more reasonable than some modern critics.

A character who calls himself Celsus often posts on, and makes perhaps the most shameless (and ultimately counter-productive) accusations along these lines I have seen. The original Celsus was a critic of Christianity, to whom the brilliant 2nd Century philosopher Origen replied in his book, Contra Celsus.
Our modern Celsus is the faithful heir of his namesake. His greatest passion is to post quotes from ancient Christians and call them "liars." It usually turns out he has not read his sources carefully (if at all), but his citations are obscure enough, and his claims fit their worldview well enough, that he seems to fool even some well-educated skeptics by this technique.

In this post I will explore Celsus' most recent attack on ancient Christians, and show how it makes one of them, the historian Eusebius, come out looking good -- especially compared to ancient and modern opponents.

The underlying issue here, though, is the historical credibility of the Gospels. What our modern Celsus, his allies, and their ancient forebears, are desperately trying to do, is find some parallel to the Gospels, so they can dismiss them as incredible. Like many other modern skeptics, Celsus tries to use an ancient text called Apollonius of Tyana for this purpose. It is an act of great desperation, that not only fails, as we will see, but helps show why the Gospels remain a byword for truthfullness.

The Challenge

Not long ago, Celsus opened a forum on Amazon entitled "Superstition, gullibility, and Christianity." He wrote, in part, as follows:

"It appears that superstition and gullibility were rampant at the time when Christianity arose, and this may be one of the primary causes of its success. For example, the Bible describe how the inhabitants of Malta thought Paul was a god just because he survived a snake bite (Acts 28:6). Furthermore, Paul and Barnabas had difficulty convincing the inhabitants of Lystra that they were not gods simply because a man with bad feet stood up (14:8-18).

"Miraculous healings were apparently commonplace at that time. Aslepius was a god / man (worshipped before and after Christ) who was reputed to have accomplished a myriad of miraculous healings . . .

"Appolonius of Tyana was a contemporary of Christ who miracles rivaled those of Christ (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana). His ability to perform miracles was not questioned by early Christians such as Eusebius, but was already attributed to the work of demons (Treatise Against Appolonius) . . . "

Celsus ended his post by citing two leaders of the ancient Alexandrian school: Clement for gullibly believing in the phoenix, a bird that lives 500 years and then regenerates itself, and then his student Origen citing the first Celsus, upbraiding fellow Christians for appealing to the "foolish, dishonorable and the stupid."

Some initial problems

Celsus' post was applauded by several skeptics, itself quite a testimony to gullibility. As I pointed out, even these short comments are riddled with dubious historical claims. Let us warm up with a few tangential examples:

* The inhabitants of Malta didn't suggest Paul was divine "just because" he "survived a snake bite," rather because a viper, probably known to be poisonous, bit him and caused no harm, and also because he had just survived shipwreck in a remarkable way.

* The "man with bad feet" had never walked in his life: he stood up in response to Paul's command. Having probably known the man since childhood, why wouldn't they find this impressive?

*But no doubt this mob was gullible, which is Luke's point, and does not need Celsus to tell us.

* Aslepius was the Greek god of healing. There seems to be little evidence that he lived as an historical figure. Of course people in the era before modern medicine were desperate for healing.
* Origen answered Celsus' charge that ancient Christians were ill-educated and gullible well. Let me recommend chapters 9-12 of Contra Celsus, which should take about ten minutes to read. His perspective on faith and reason is balanced, sensible, and still of value.

* It is misleading to call Apollonius a "contemporary" of Jesus. He appears to have died (records are vague) some sixty years after Jesus. The biography Celsus cites was written hundreds of years later, under the sponsorship of an opponent of Christianity. So it is possible that the author, Philostratus, copied some ideas from what he had heard about Jesus, which were widely in circulation by that time.

* No serious person who reads Apollonius of Tyana and the Gospels can however think Apollonius and Jesus were much alike, or that the stories of Apollonius are as credible as those about Jesus. I compare the two in chapter 16 of Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. Analyzing a variety of ancient writings, I found that Apollonius of Tyana was far less like the Gospels than such historical works as Tacitus' Agricola. I concluded, in part:

"Philostratus would seem to have all the advantages over Mark. He received the best education, and rose into the best society by wit and talent. Yet his story comes off as an entertaining yarn, with weak characters, no moral power, and no link to real-world geography, let alone zoology."

* To support his claim that Apollonius worked miracles like Jesus, Celsus claims later in the forum that Apollonius raised people from the dead. But not even Philostratus believes that story, as we will see.

* Clement used the phoenix as a symbol for the resurrection. He is not claiming to be a biologist. He is just borrowing a popular story about a creature in remote parts to make a theological point.
But for the rest of this post, I will focus on Celsus' criticism of Eusebius. This is especially interesting, because Eusebius is participating in an ancient debate over the same subject -- whether Christians are guilty of "reckless and facile credulity," as he puts it. Also, to do so, Eusebius responds to an ancient writer, one Hierocles, who, like many modern skeptics, cited Apollonius of Tyana to try to debunk Christianity.

As I will show, Celsus' argument is indeed a remarkable testimony to gullibility -- his own, and other modern skeptics who think Apollonius can serve as a useful weapon against Christ.

Eusebius, the Gullible?

What first strikes one, reading Eusebius, is not his naivite, but his tone of urbane and skeptical sarcasm. That sarcasm is directed precisely at supernatural claims made about Apollonius:

Well, we will not grudge him his natural and self-taught gift of understanding all languages. But if he possessed it, why was he taken to a school-master . . . (and) by the dint of close study and application, he acquired the Attic dialect?

Thus he, who just before, according to Philostratus, had an understanding of all languages, now on the contrary, according to the same witness, is in need of an interpreter.

Eusebius takes sardonic delight in the title of Hierocles' book, Lover of Truth:

Here then at the bidding of one of these sages an elm-tree, we are told, spoke to Apollonius in an articulate but feminine voice, and this is the sort of thing which the Lover of Truth expects us to believe.

In fact, Eusebius thought Philostratus' tales so self-evidently ridiculous -- you find apes that run pepper farms, dragons throwing sparks from their heads, Brahmans levitating two cubits off the ground, a four-footed animal with the head of a man shooting thorns from his tails -- that all he needs to do to make his (supposedly gullible) readers scoff is to repeat them.

Eusebius notes sarcastically:

Such are the stories which Hierocles, who has been entrusted to administer the supreme courts of justice all over the province, finds true and reliable after due enquiry . . . he proceeds to brag about himself and says (I quote his very words): 'Let us anyhow observe how much better and cautiously we accept such things . . . '

In sum, Eusebius makes it plain, to anyone with eyes to read, that he does not in the slightest believe Philostratus' miracle claims:

According to (Hierocles), they were most highly educated, yet never by actual sifting of the facts, established them with any accuracy in the case of Apollonius.

Overleap the bounds of humanity and transcend philosophy . . . in that case his reputation for us as a philosopher will be gone, and we shall have an ass instead concealed in a lion's skin . . . 

True, Eusebius often admits claims about Apollonius for the sake of the argument. But to careful readers, this only makes it clear he does not believe them at all:

But admitting, though it is against all probability, that he is not lying, but telling the truth, we are still at a loss to know, how he can pretend to have acquired this lore from (Pythagoras) . . . inasmuch as the latter deceased some thousand years before him.

So is it true that Eusebius does "not question" Philostratus' ability to work miracles, as our Celsus claims?  Baloney, he questions it endlessly.  Apparently Celsus has either not read Eusebius, or does not recognize such rhetorical devices as sarcasm and admitting claims for the sake of an argument. Eusebius makes it perfectly clear he does not believe any of Philostratus' supernatural claims:

The tales of Thule, and any other miraculous legends ever invented by any story-tellers, turn out to be by comparison with these quite reliable and perfectly true.

His very insistence on the truth of his earlier tales, I refer to those of lightening and wind kept in jars (etc) . . . fully betrays and exposes the mythical character of everything else which he has to tell us.

Eusebius also tells the story of how Apollonius supposedly saved the city of Ephesus from the plaque by having the people of the city stone a beggar to death. This is a fascinating tale, cited by Rene Girard in one of his works to illustrate scapegoating in the ancient world. I have cited it myself to show how different Jesus, who saved a woman from being stoned, was from his alleged rival.

More to our present point, Eusebius did not buy it:

For if anybody feels the shadow of doubt about the matter, the very manner in which the story is told will convince him that fraud and make-believe was in this case everything . . . For he pretends that the plague was seen in the form of an aged man, a beggard and dressed in rags; who, when Apollonius ordered the mob to stone him, began by shooting fire from his eyes, but afterwards . . . appeared as a dog all crushed and vomitting foam, as mad dogs do . . . Who, I would ask, after reading this would not laugh heartily at the miracle-mongering of this thaumaturge?

Indeed! And who cannot laugh heartily at "scholarship" that reads Eusebius as a gullible naif who accepted Philostratus' stories uncritically?

Nor, pace Celsus, does Eusebius believe the story of resurrection supposedly told about Apollonius:

The fifth and sixth miracles however in this book do not stand in need of much argument and discussion, so thoroughly do they prove our writer's easy credulity . . . As for the damsel whom he is said subsequently to have brought back again to life in Rome after she had died, the story clearly impressed Philostratus himself as being extremely incredible, and we may safely reject it.

Nor does Eusebius credit stories about Apollonius' own supposed apotheosis. In chapter 40, he points out that no one even knows where Apollonius died: some say Ephesus, others Crete, though Philostratus suggests (based largely on a hymn) that he was raised into heaven bodily.

Did Eusebius buy any of Apollonius' miracles?

Celsus thinks he did. He gives two quotes from Eusebius to prove this. To bring this post towards a conclusion (the truth of the matter being clear by now, I think), I'll examine the shorter of the two:

From chapter 25: 'And why, too, was he not able to do this by daytime, instead of doing it in the dead of night and alone? . . . I cannot think but that evil demons would have found such and hour seasonable and appropriate for their devilish interviews, rather than the soul of a hero which, having been freed from the crass matter of the body, must necessarily be good and unsullied. In any case the demon conjured up on this occasion is represented as of a malignant and envious disposition, both rancorous and mean in humor.

Celsus takes this with utter literalness, and challenges me to explain it away.

Sober readers should by now recognize Eusebius' sarcasm, and his tendency to make concessions for the sake of an argument.

Eusebius has just told the story of Apollonius and the demon-beggar of Ephesus in the previous paragraphs, and "laughed heartily." He then tells Philostratus' story of how the soul of Achilles appeared to the sage, five cubits high, in response to prayers he learned in India.

Afterwards Eusebius relates the "fifth and sixth miracles," and heaps equal scorn on them, "so thoroughly do they prove our writer's easy credulity."

Easy credulity, indeed.


For two thousand years, skeptics have tried to find some parallel to the life of Jesus, so as to render it less unique, and, if possible, dismiss it as "just another tall tale."

Apollonius of Tyana is a dreadful choice for this role. It is about somehow whose career mostly occurred after the life of Jesus, was written up hundreds of years later, perhaps purposely in order to compete with or undermine Christianity. As I show in my Jesus Seminar book, no comparison could be more incongruous. (I compare Apollonius of Tyana to old Saturday Night Live skits, from the classic era of my own youth!) Something obviously much deeper and more remarkable is going on in the Gospels.

This Eusebius also sees. In his introduction, he ticks off several points of contrast between Jesus and Apollonius. Mostly these have to do with a priori probability -- reasons why you might credit the Gospels outside the text itself: that "Hebrew sages" fortold the coming of Jesus, that he founded "a school of sober and chaste living that has survived him," that people of all races rally to him by the tens of thousands, including enemies, that miracles are still worked in his name.

But it says something about the Gospels that a man like Eusebius, while deftly scewering the follies of Apollonius of Tyana, came to believe the canonical stories of Jesus. In Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, I analyze the differences between the texts.
It also says something about the Gospels that so many skeptics have spent so much time looking for parallels, yet the best they can come up with is something like Apollonius of Tyana.  This includes not only an amateur like Celsus (update: now doing an MA in classical history, I understand!), but also two of my debate partners during our debates, Robert Price and Richard Carrier!  (And some of the Jesus Seminar crowd.)
Celsus, and some scholars with better credentials, delight in trying to hoodwink the gullible by citing obscure texts that they know few people have read, and making dramatic claims. One should be careful one should be about buying arguments at second hand, especially in this day, when it is so easy to read the originals.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Obama: read Moses, wise up, and put it in reverse!

Deuteronomy vs. the National Debt

The names of the last books of the Torah -- Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy -- seem coined to induce somnolescence. For centuries, skeptics have quoted the harsher statutes in these books as evidence that God either did not inspire the Bible, or that He is a "vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogenistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully," to quote Richard Dawkin's anti-encomomium.

I admit I don't always enjoy reading these books, partly because they do indeed not always seem to reflect well on God. What's the point of punishing a nation for sometimes killing children, by killing all their children? Did the list of capital offenses really have to include picking up sticks on Saturday?

On balance, however, reading the Torah and the Chinese Book of History the past month, I think the Hebrew statutes were more just and useful in creating a free, prosperous society, than any other set of laws from antiquity I know of. While I don't advocate any form of "Christian shariah" -- this is really not I think the point of the Sermon on the Mount -- I also think Dawkins is wrong. There is more good here than bad. The New Atheists (here I especially include one of my sparing partners, Hector Avalos, along with Dawkins) are, among other things, dead wrong when they suggest the Torah only told Jews to care for Jews. Furthermore, I find rules in the Torah that would make modern America a better place, were we to listen.

Consider the "Grand Canyon" of debt we have been amassing for our children and grandchildren over the past few decades, and with increasing, frenzied speed lately. (Now over $13 trillion! Now there are some scary "Numbers!" Watch the "Exodus" of dollars from your children's wallets!)

Here's what Moses said about national debt:

"When the Lord your God blesses you as He promised to you, then you shall lend to many nations, but not borrow; you shall rule many nations, but they shall not rule over you." (Deuteronomy 15:6)

Where has the balance of power in the relationship between the US and China gone in the past few years? See this from Saturday Night Live on who is now in a position to tell whom how to act!

Or again:

"The Lord will open for you His rich treasury, the heavens to give rain upon your soil in its season, blessings to rest on all your enterprises. You shall lend to many nations while you yourselves borrow from none." (Deut. 28:12)

It is a remarkable thing. A Bronze Age confederacy of tribes somehow hoped to prosper 3000 years ago without borrowing a dime from neighbors. But the United States of America, which invented cars, airplanes and computers and explored the solar system, now thinks we need to borrow $40,000 per head to pay our government tab -- largely from countries like China and Saudi Arabia, who are not our friends.
This is not only a disgrace, it is a sin against our children.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alpine Lakes Wilderness
The stated goal of this blog is to "map the universe from a Christian perspective, one blog at a time." I hope to touch on such topics in the coming months as cosmic and biological origins, how the Gospel fits in with world religions and ancient traditions, and the influence of Christianity. (The first three blogs were on this latter subject, and I do plan to get back to my clash over slavery with Dr. Avalos before too long.)

But if we're mapping the universe, why leave out the Alpine Lakes Wilderness?

Most famous Cascades woods stand in the shadow of tall, glacier-covered volcanoes: Mount Rainier, the North Cascades, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic monument, Crater Lake, the lesser-known but brilliant Glacier Peak Wilderness. Closer to home, though, chains of hundreds of lakes high in the Central Cascades beckon. This year I've mostly stayed home and pounded keys -- a yet-unpublished book on origins, and two chapters of my dissertation -- escaping however to the wilderness whenever possible, alone while the family was in Japan, with my brother Peter to Surprise Lake, sometimes with my boys. The dog often tags along.
The pond in Arctic pose is Silver Lake, up a steep mile and a half from the old Monte Cristo mining area, where gold, silver, and copper were among the extractions. This picture was actually taken in July; hard to believe that was last month.

Here John, James & Jake pose by a waterfall in late spring, making our way towards Melakwa Lake. We also hiked to Talapus and Ollalie lakes a bit in towards Seattle.
Our overnight hike for the summer this week was to the Rampart Lakes. This is a series of ponds scoured out by some ancient glacier at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. Within two hundred yards of the campsite to right, four different lakes, cool and clear, waited for us to swim, jump off the rounded rocks, and catch hungry rainbow trout. The little creek above flowed from a lake by our campsite to one just below, where we jumped off a little cliff into a deep chasm, and emerged from the baptism restored.

Here's the view of one of these little lakes from a hill behind it. The moon was bright, and we didn't see more than 7 dozen stars or so, including the Big Dipper shining into the front entry of the tent. The dog frightened about midnight and barked at some animal behind us. All I could find in the morning were human, dog, deer or elk, and mule or horse prints. (Hard so see how a horse could get up the steep trails to this little paradise.)
James caught a couple trout, and fried one in blueberries that were coming ripe, for want of other seasoning.

Next time, we'll have to bring some salt and pepper, if not barbecue sauce. No doubt the fish Jesus prepared for the disciples was seasoned: if his wine was the best (John 2:10), why not his barbecue (John 6:12, 21:13)?