Castles of sand Part 2 Response to Victor Shlenkin

This post is the second part of my reply to Victor Shlenkins criticism of my journey. Also see the first part of my response. Victor has a doctorate in biblical studies and his original essays can be seen here in Russian (part a, part b).

1. On the perils of growing up an uneducated fundamentalist

I appreciate the importance of academic consensus and the amount of skepticism we should hold towards ideas that come from outside that consensus, especially from laypersons. Thus, if I were speaking about something radical or unusual, it would be wholly appropriate to discuss my academic qualifications as part of a comprehensive review of my claims. But even then it would be epistemically unjustified to simply reject the claims because the proponent lacks credentials. Ultimately, it is the arguments and evidence that provide a reliable means of securing warranted belief, not personal authority.

However, in my case, I am not proposing anything new or unusual. History is peppered with examples of similar criticisms dating as far back as Marcion of Syncope [1] and Pophyrys [2]. Likewise, Jewish and secular biblical scholars reject the theological idea that Jesus of the New Testament and Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible are the same being. This is strictly a confessional doctrine of just one religion, and various Christian scholars have produced a whole range of attempts to reconcile the violence of the Old Testament with the pacifism of the Gospels [3]. Some of these explanations go as far as to say the Old Testament violence is unhistorical, while others argue that it is both historical and morally justified. This is a real issue that many people wrestle with, not a fringe view that deserves to be cast aside with extreme prejudice. So while I respect Victor’s academic background, I think attempting to frame the conversation around my credentials is irrelevant. As for the claims that fundamentalism is the cause, I find there are a number of difficulties with such thinking.

a. Is a fundamentalist background the main factor in producing atheists?

It is argued that the reason people like Bart Ehrman or myself have deconverted is because of our extremely conservative form of Christianity. It’s certainly true that some biblical scholars who have left the faith were indeed raised as fundamentalists. For example, well known atheist scholar Hector Avalos was once a Pentecostal evangelist [4] and Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, was once a zealous street preacher [5]. Yet, many other secular biblical scholars deconverted from moderate or liberal Christianity. For example, Elaine Pagels [6] was a middle-of-the-road Evangelical, as was Robert Cargill [7]. Gerd Luddemann spent decades as a mainline Lutheran before his path into atheism [8]. Michael Goulder, one of the most prolific biblical scholars of the last century, was an Anglican priest before he became an atheist [9]. Don Cuppitt was an Anglican theologian for 40 years before deconverting [10]. Maurcie Casey was training to be an Anglican priest when he lost his faith and switched careers, becoming a secular biblical scholar [11]. F. Leron Shultz was a leading theologian of the progressive Christian movement when he became an atheist [12]. Michael Coogan, an atheist and one of the most reputable scholars of the Old Testament, was once a Catholic priest [13]. As was John Dominic Crossan, arguably the most cited living scholar of the Historical Jesus [14], before he became a “Christian atheist” (he identifies himself as Christian but believes God is a metaphorical projection of the human mind) [15]. These are just a few examples, but it’s more than enough to justify discarding the thesis that fundamentalism is the primary cause of Christians becoming secularized. Plenty of people from all walks of life leave the faith, including those who have a very strong and progressive understanding of biblical studies and theology.

b. Is it right to reject a position because of the author’s background?

Imagine if I had said, “The only reason Victor is a Christian is because he was raised in the Soviet Union, saw a fundamentalist version of atheism, and simply reacted against it, going into the opposite direction.” Would this have been a good reason for rejecting Victor’s current religious worldview? I don’t think so, and most people can quickly see there is something wrong with that kind of rhetoric. In philosophical terms, this is a mixture of two informal fallacies known as the genetic fallacy [16] and the ad hominem [17]. These maneuvers attempt to reject a propositional claim by (a) explaining the background from which the claim arises and (b) rejecting the person from whom it arises. Both are highly dubious means of reliably coming to the truth. I would not attempt to explain away Victor’s faith simply by claiming he was indoctrinated (for someone can accidently be indoctrinated with true beliefs) and Victor should not try to explain away my view by claiming it’s an ignorant reaction to fundamentalism (for someone can react to an idea and accidentally accept true beliefs).

2. On the paradoxical status of the Bible as “God’s Word”

a. Why focus on Old Testament problems if the New Testament has plenty?

I agree, there are apparent problems in the New Testament. Victor points out issues like the Synoptic problem and that the well-known ending for Mark’s gospel is not likely original (though he doesn’t mention that we have not one, but a total of four different endings in the extant manuscripts). I think both Victor and I will agree that these are indeed issues for anyone who wants to believe the Bible is a perfect text without error. I will even go a step further and think they are more consistent with it being a wholly human book, rather than divinely inspired. That said, I’m not sure why the presence of New Testament problems should prevent me from taking issue with Old Testament violence. I am simply telling my story. For some students of the Bible, New Testament textual criticism was a rude awakening from their dogmatic slumber, but for me it was the Old Testament.

b. Is it bibliolatry to think the Bible is perfect and without error?

First, the biblical authors themselves appear to claim that the text is without error (Ps. 12:6, Mat. 5:18, 2 Tim. 3:16). Second, the Hebrews and the early Christian Church believed that their shared biblical texts perfectly contained God’s words. This is evidenced through the writings of church fathers like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and others, as well as through the fact that ancient Hebrews thought even the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was inspired and without error [18]. Third, almost all Christians throughout Church history believed the Bible was without error, even if the formal doctrine of inerrancy had not been articulated. This is why the Bible was treated as sacred in the Catholic Middle Ages. This is also why Luther and Calvin’s reformation was founded on “Scripture alone.” Ultimately, this fact poses a problem: if Victor is correct and believing the Bible to be without error is bibliolatry, then most Christians throughout history were idolaters and had a foundational error in their faith. This leads us to wonder why God would reveal things in such a confusing manner.

c. Would we expect the mentioned textual problems from a divine source?

I agree with Victor (and the vast majority of biblical scholars) that there are many discrepancies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Bible. We also agree that textual, source, form, and redaction criticism has posed difficult questions that Evangelicals may not like. Our difference lies in that I think these issues are not what we would expect to see in a book that claims to be divine revelation. And if you don’t start with deeply rooted Christian faith that can rationalize away all evidence, but rather openly consider what we would expect from a loving God, you will come to the same conclusion I have.

If there is a God, and it is the kind of God who wants to communicate clearly through a written text, we would expect a text that isn’t tainted by errors, discrepancies, and other confusing elements that are regularly found in human texts. Such textual problems make it more difficult to trust and understand a text and its authors, which seems to be the opposite of God’s soteriological intent as narrated by Christians. Clearly, the problem is not the impossibility of such a task, for plenty of human writings (some authored by multiple authors who all narrate different parts of the same story) still manage to have no errors or contradictions. Thus, I contend that if there existed an omnipotent God who intended to communicate clearly with a written text, he would have produced a text without errors.

d. Would we expect the required academic sophistication in a universal revelation?

It’s further said that the Bible requires careful training, nuance and sophistication to understand. I agree that comprehending any ancient text – including the Bible – is not easy. There are various difficulties stemming from the evolution of language to the many instances of hapax legomena. (A hapax legomena is a word that is only used one time in the extant literature of a dead language.) The biblical texts that we possess include many such difficulties that make interpretation very challenging and unreliable.

If our premise is that the Bible is divine revelation that is provided to equip Christians and maximally spread God’s message, then the required academic qualifications to properly understand it are counterproductive. Even more than that, they are evidence against this being a divine document meant to be understood universally. As I’ve noted before, this is not what we would expect from the kind of God who wanted to clearly communicate his message to everyone. If such a God existed, he would not produce the kind of revelation that requires a Master’s of Divinity to properly understand without risk of heresy, apostasy, or starting yet another denomination.

3. On the necessity of Christian theism for grounding ethics

a. Since atheism does not offer meaning or purpose, should it be rejected?

This line of reasoning is called an appeal to consequences, and it tells us nothing about what is actually the truth. It’s equivalent to saying, “If there is no Santa Claus, then there would be no presents! And since we don’t want a world without presents, Santa has to be real!”  The undesirable consequences of a proposition have nothing to do with the truth of that proposition. What if it was factual that our life had no meaning (though I think it does), would simply pointing to the unpleasantness of such a fact make it any less true? No, truth remains truth, regardless of its consequences. That said, it is correct that atheism doesn’t offer meaning, it doesn’t even attempt to, just like the argument that “there are no tooth fairies” doesn’t teach us about proper dentistry. But theism doesn’t offer meaning either. It’s possible to accept theism and still think there is no meaning in life. Perhaps God made people simply as fodder for a fire and nothing more? So it’s not theism, but additional theological views that offer purpose. In the same way, for an atheist to discover meaning, we must read existentialist philosophers and ground our meaning in additional facts about us and our reality, not in facts about Gods or Goddesses.

b. Is there really no ground for objective ethical values without God?

Showing solidarity with every single Christian layperson, and most (though not all) Christian philosophers, Victor dogmatically states that God is necessary for objective moral values. As a Christian, I too echoed this sentiment, and even spent hours debating it. Is it true? No. I don’t believe that facts about God could ever serve as grounds for moral values, but rather that facts about us serve as this foundation. For example, it is an objective fact that stabbing a human being with a sharp object produces pain and harm to that human being. This is not a subjective opinion; this is a completely objective moral assessment of the consequences. As far as our motivation to not stab someone, allow me to present a simplified version of the alternatives. In a Christian worldview, it is “because God said so and he will punish you if you don’t listen.” In a secular worldview, it is “because it is an evil act and doing evil to others will produce a more evil world that is detrimental to your own health and happiness.” I’ve written more about this in the second part of the original interview, and a lengthier essay can be found on my personal blog [19].

What is important to note is that, even though some Christians may vehemently disagree that it’s possible to obtain moral realism without God, most experts on ethics disagree. The world’s largest survey of over 3,000 philosophers shows that 85.4% of philosophers do not believe in God, and yet only 27.7% accept moral anti-realism (the absence of objective moral values) [20]. This means the vast majority of PhD level philosophers are neither (a) theists nor (b) ethical relativists. Of course, I am not claiming naturalistic moral realism is true just because the experts say so, but rather that Christians who make dogmatic claims about its impossibility ought to read some of these experts and think deeper.

Finally, I will note that this is another appeal to the consequences, which makes this argument faulty. Even if the consequences were factual, we should not reject a truth simply because we don’t like it.

There is, however, one way that Victor can use this argument without committing a logical fallacy. If it’s a fact that objective moral values exist, and atheism has to deny this fact, then we could deduce that atheism is false. However, if we prove the existence of objective moral values to be a fact (for example, by using a logical argument like Kant’s categorical imperative), then we also prove that moral values exist because of logical necessity, not because of God. Thus, for this argument to build its first premise (that moral facts certainly exist), it has to deny its second premise (that only God can ground moral values). Otherwise, if moral values are to be grounded in God, since we can’t prove his existence, we can’t prove facts about him which produce moral values.

c. Did the Bible influence modern ethics? Would we be primitive barbarians otherwise?

One of the most common claims I’ve heard from Christians is that the Bible has the best ethical model in the world – one that was unheard of beforehand – and this makes it unlike any other religion in the world. Such bold claims come from an ignorance of history, nothing more. If we look at the Old Testament, we find its laws are perfectly synchronized with many other ancient laws, like the Code of Hammurabi or the Code of Shulgi. Biblical scholars have long noted that there are dozens of discrete Ancient Near Eastern texts that each have innumerable ethical and legal parallels to the Old Testament [21]. The New Testament, as well, is not that different. For example, what is arguably one of the pinnacles of New Testament ethics – the Golden Rule – was found in many cultures centuries before the time of Jesus. Ancient philosophers and religious leaders like Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Thales, Isocrates and others introduced “the Golden Rule” at least five hundred years before Jesus [22].

How then can we seriously entertain the notion that such ethics only arose from a Christian culture? What about the Mohism movement [23] in ancient China (500 BC) that promoted “universal love” towards all people? What about the Jain religion [24], which has now for at least 3,000 years taught three main tenets: pacifism, humility, and generosity? What about the Moriori people of New Zealand [25], who had never experienced war, and were wiped out in the 19th century because they didn’t even know how to harm others? To me, it seems that claiming that the virtues we value today are derived strictly from Christianity comes from a very egoistical view of history. Wherever there were humans, there have been moral systems that promote good values (peace, charity, fairness, etc.) and those that promote bad values (violence, hatred, injustice, etc.).

Works cited

[1] “Marcion of Sinope – Teachings.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope#Teachings>

[2] Porphyry, and R. Joseph. Hoffmann. Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994. Print.

[3] “The Bible and Violence: A Bibliography.” Randal Rauser. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://randalrauser.com/2014/04/the-bible-and-violence-a-bibliography/>.

[4] “Hector Avalos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hector_Avalos>.

[5] “Robert W. Funk.” Westar Institute. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://www.westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/fellows-directory/robert-w-funk/>.

[6] “Elaine Pagels.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Pagels>.

[7] “About Dr. Robert R. Cargill.” Robert R. Cargill. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://www.bobcargill.com/my-story.html >.

[8] “About Dr. Gerd Ludemann.” Gerd Lüdemann’s Home Page. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://wwwuser.gwdg.de/~gluedem/eng>

[9] “Michael Goulder.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Goulder>.

[10] “Don Cupitt.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Cupitt>.

[11] “Maurice Casey, My Friend: A Remembrance.” The Bible and Interpretation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://bibleinterp.com/opeds/2014/05/wes388023.shtml>.

[12] “Curriculum Vitae.” ‘LeRon Shults’ Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://www.leronshults.com/my_weblog/curriculum-vitae.html>.

[13] “Michael Coogan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Coogan>.

[14] “John Dominic Crossan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dominic_Crossan>.

[15] Craig, William Lane. “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar.” Faith and Mission 15 (1998): 3-15. <http://apollos.ws/jesus-seminar/Presuppositions%20and%20Pretensions%20of%20the%20Jesus%20Seminar.pdf>

[16] “Genetic Fallacy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#Genetic>.

[17] “Ad Hominem.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 01 Feb. 2016. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHominem>.

[18] Sawyer, M. J. “The History of the Doctrine of Inspiration From the Ancient Church Through the Reformation.” Bible.org. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://bible.org/article/history-doctrine-inspiration-ancient-church-through-reformation>.

[19] Stasyuk, Yuriy. “How Do Atheists Ground Morals?” The Reluctant Skeptic. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2016. <http://yuriystasyuk.com/life-after-faith-how-do-atheists-ground-morals/>.

[20] “Survey Results” PhilPapers. Centre for Digital Philosophy at University of Western Ontario. Web. 04 Feb. 2016. <http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl>.

[21] Matthews, Victor Harold., and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. New York: Paulist, 1991. Print.

[22] Stasyuk, Yuriy. “The ‘Golden Rule’ Has Been around for Hundreds of Years before Jesus.” Facts about Religion. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://factsaboutreligion.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/the-golden-rule-has-been-around-for-hundreds-of-years-before-jesus/>.

[23] “Mohism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohism>.

[24] “Jainism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism>.

[25] “Moriori People.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moriori_people>.