Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do Religious Believers Have Any Respect For Artistic Expression?

Being a musician, as well as an artist in my earlier years, I like to think I understand the value of artistic expression. Even when I was a Christian, I recognized that everyone has a right to say what they feel, and they would get no complaint from me. If I didn't like what was being said, it was up to me to put my own view out there. This is what has motivated countless musicians, poets, authors, and artists to create over the centuries. You can't well hold someone accountable for speaking their mind instead of speaking yours for you.

Yet the absurd rejection of that fact is something I've run across a lot among religious believers. From controversial displays like the "Piss Christ" to practically harmless imagery in Lady Gaga videos, believers have criticized almost anything and everything that offends them. It doesn't matter that art and music were absolutely dominated by religious themes for much of the last millennium; what matters is that these believers not be offended. Bill Donohue and other professional whiners object to anti-Catholic messages being "crammed down our throats" by the media, but when The Passion of the Christ was being broadcast like it was the second coming, there was no outcry. Religious propaganda is fine and dandy, but anything challenging religion should be denounced.

What strikes me as particularly offensive is not that anyone might produce anti-atheist material or pro-religious material, but that they act as if the critics of religion should not even have a forum to begin with. It's one thing to dislike a song or painting because of its anti-religious tones, and it's another thing to take your dislike to news crews and television stations to encourage others to condemn it as well. It's essentially saying, 'This artist produced something that conflicts with my values. Therefore, their artistic expression is bad.' Artistic expression isn't about what the audience likes, it's about what the artist likes. It's ridiculous to expect an artist to conform to your tastes. If you don't like what the artist has to say, don't listen.

I have no problem doing this with pop music that delivers a Christian message. Though I think that Carrie Underwood's song, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," is god-awful garbage, I didn't start any campaign to boycott or bash the song when it was playing all over the radio and in numerous retail stores. I simply turned off the radio, left the store, or just put up with it. Why can't religious believers do the same? Perhaps it has to do with Paul's instruction to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corin. 10:5). No respect is accorded to artistic expression that is not "obedient to Christ." Book-burning was not something original to the Nazis, let's not forget.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that all religious believers are this narrow-minded, even if I have made generalizations to that effect. I know many of them are not. But at the same time, there is often a label of "bad" applied to anything that seems remotely un-Christian. This can be seen in the movements to Christianize various forms of artistic expression. The band ApologetiX does terrible Christianized covers of secular songs. Books have been written on the underlying 'Christian messages' in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars movies, and so forth. Why all the effort if believers are capable of respecting artistic expression?

I will admit, it's hard for me to relate to some of the Christian songs I used to listen to, now that I'm no longer Christian. But it's hard for me to relate to songs about a woman's love for a man too, since I'm not a woman, and it's hard for me to relate to blues songs about the struggles of blacks, since I'm not black. That doesn't mean I can't respect the artistic expression of those individuals or appreciate their creativity. We're not all going to like the same things, but that's the diversity that makes the world so interesting, I would argue.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dennis Nedry Defense

One of the especially irritating apologetic excuses I've seen offered by believers in books and in my conversations with them is what I call the 'Dennis Nedry Defense.' Any fan of the film Jurassic Park will remember that Nedry was the computer programmer who shut down the park to try and steal the dinosaur embryos, only to meet his end in the jaws of a Dilophosaurus. When the park administrators attempted to override Nedry's actions that shut down park security, they found themselves locked out by a password-protected defense that repeated, "Uh uh uh, you didn't say the magic word!" The Dennis Nedry Defense (DND for short) is when Christians argue that inconsistencies in the bible can be harmonized because 'it doesn't say the magic word.'

As a specific example, take the inconsistencies in the empty tomb appearances. Mark's gospel says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were at the tomb. Matthew's says that Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" were there. Luke's says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and "others" were present, and John just mentions Mary Magdalene. The DND of these passages often notes that none of the verses say that ONLY those women were there, so it could be that all of them were there. In this case, the magic word is "only."

Typically, I respond to such claims by commenting on the unique agendas of each gospel author and how harmonizing their stories disregards what they were each trying to say and creates a theoretical fifth gospel that is unlike the other gospels, as Bart Ehrman has remarked. While this is a good criticism, I think there are bigger problems with the DND. For starters, is it really reasonable to expect that the gospel authors would've written "only" even if they knew for a fact that no one else was there? Think about when you tell a story and describe who was present. Think about when an eyewitness gives testimony in court and describes who was present at the scene. Do we usually say, 'Johnny, Jim, and Jack were the only ones there,' or do we just say, 'Johnny, Jim, and Jack were there'?

We may qualify that those were the only people there when we're pressed on the issue by someone, like a lawyer, but I think most of us can recognize that we don't always do this even when we know that only those people were present. We may not initially see a reason to clarify that detail or it may just slip our mind. Yet we also tend to presume that, when describing such things in certain contexts, our audience will rightly assume that we mean 'only,' though we may not actually say it. When someone asks who was in the car with you, most people will simply say, 'Dave and Donna,' presuming that it will be understood that they were the only ones present. What apologists are asking us to believe is that you are omitting another person who Dave might mention, and you both expect the audience to harmonize your testimonies to get to the truth. Is that not a little absurd?

On that same note, a second problem with the DND is that it relies on the silence of the text to speculate about possibility. I've pointed out before that the overwhelming majority of apologetic arguments revolve around possibility rather than probability (Pascal's Wager is the best example). Yet anything is possible to an extent, excluding logical contradictions like square-circles. Postulating arguments for possibility in the case of supernatural claims is worthless, though, like suggesting that Santa Claus is able to visit every house on Christmas because his sled travels at the speed of light; it's possible, but still no more probable than the whole Santa Claus story being a myth. This is why historians concern themselves with what is probable and why scientists conduct experiments to determine the likelihood of an hypothesis. Probability matters far more than possibility.

I already commented on why the silence of the text doesn't have to mean what Christians want it to mean. The absence of the word "only" does not imply that the gospel authors all wanted their separate accounts to be smashed together into one big mess in order for the truth to be understood. What a convoluted way for a supreme being to reveal its message too! I always try to be cautious in building an argument on the silence of a text, but I believe there is ample reason for recognizing inconsistencies as inconsistencies in the bible, and it seems to me that Christians are more likely the ones in error for using the silence of the text to twist variations into a comfortable, non-conflicting 'solution.' Inconsistencies are most often due to mistakes, especially among different authors, and it's only faith that guides a believer to harmonize things.

The Dennis Nedry Defense is something that Christians don't seem to accept from any other religion either. Islam has the doctrine of abrogation, or the supplanting of an earlier revelation by a later one that contradicts it. Muslims believe this is consistent with Sura 6:115 ("And the Word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice. None can change His Words."), because it doesn't say verbal revelation, and perhaps abrogation doesn't necessarily mean god's words are changed. Christians see through this nitpicking attempt to maintain the Qur'an's inerrancy and so they reject the DND in this case. Yet the bible's inconsistencies are no less inconsistencies and the DND is still built on no less of a weak foundation. That apologists must resort to word games and deny the same games when played by other religions is another nail in the coffin of the inerrancy doctrine.

Friday, June 10, 2011

You Don't Speak for Christianity, I Do!

What's more annoying than an atheist mistaking one brand of Christianity for the standard beliefs of the entire religion? A Christian that accuses you of said mistake while presuming his own beliefs to be the standard. This was the bizarre interaction I faced in a recent exchange with someone, and of all places to level these accusations against me, this person made them in comments on my deconversion series! As I explained, my story of leaving Christianity is, in part, a story of leaving one particular brand of Christianity. Thus, there are arguments against literalism and inerrancy, which are not doctrines held by all Christian denominations. But what's astounding to me is that I give no indication in the series of presuming that my Evangelical faith was/is the sum total of Christianity. In fact, I mention meeting other Christians who helped challenge some of my fundamentalist views, so I'm not sure where this individual acquired the idea that I was ignoring the other various branches of Christianity. A deconversion story is not intended to be a thorough refutation of a position, either, but simply a telling of the person's progress or journey towards a loss of faith.

However, instead of illustrating the differences between various denominations as a way of making his point, this Christian took a far less successful but much more ironic route. "[T]he problem with most atheists (especially deconverts)," he said, "is that they view/viewed the bible to be something supernatural. You have to understand that christianity does not deny that the bible was written by men of different times."

I have never assumed that Christianity rejects the human authorship of the bible, but many Christians believe those human authors wrote under divine inspiration. Evangelicals believe this, as do Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Presbyterians, and many Catholics. There are variations among these groups on how much of the bible is supernatural in origin, but for the most part, they believe it has been handed down to us relatively uncorrupted. It is also important to remember that there are always people who identify as a specific denomination, yet hold views contrary to the majority of the group. But to insinuate that Christians don't believe the bible is at least somewhat supernatural in nature is an assumption just as mistaken as insinuating that they all believe it to be supernatural. There are Christians like John Shelby Spong who reject pretty much every supernatural claim in Christianity, but this view is not the sum total of the Christian religion either. It's not even a majority view, as most denominations accept the resurrection of Christ as a real event.

Amusingly, this Christian then went into debating the inconsistencies in the gospels. If the bible is not at all supernatural, why jump to exonerate its errors? Discussing the different birth dates given for Jesus between Matthew and Luke, as well as the two deaths of Judas, he asserted that they are "exactly rational reasons of explanation." While it may be possible that there was a census taken by a Quirinius in the time of Herod the Great, what is unlikely is the notion that Matthew and Luke each relied on their readers having access to the other text and figuring out the truth by combining them together. This itself seems to require a supernatural basis of sorts. But never to be outdone by his own gross generalizations, the believer then told me that "all scholars believe Luke (who was also a historian/physician) used Matt and Mark as a source" and suggested that I would know these things if I'd really taken theology classes.

First of all, I never said I went to theology classes. I did study up on theology, but it was mostly on my own time, and the theology I learned in church and bible study courses was very basic. Secondly, it doesn't take years of theology classes to know that all scholars don't believe Luke used Matthew as a source. As a matter of fact, that view is a minority theory in biblical scholarship, known as the Farrer hypothesis. As Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace, and countless others have noted, the theory on gospel origins that is most widely accepted by scholars is the two-source hypothesis, which considers Matthew and Luke to be independent of each other, aside from their common use of Mark and Q. What this means is that Luke would not have presumed his readers to be familiar with Matthew. All this aside, if someone wants to debate these two hypotheses, I'm all ears, but let's refrain from making factually inaccurate statements about what the scholarly position is, especially when evidence means so much more than consensus.

My favorite part of the correspondence, though, was when I asked this person how he or she knows the bible to be divinely-inspired:

now you've just showed your misunderstanding by asking that. We know the bible is divinely inspired because of the subject. The existing God, to us christians. It was their beliefs in God that inspired them to write a book about the existing God. Therefore we christians classify it as divine inspired because we believe the inspiration is of the real divine deity.

My, if this isn't a horribly simplistic concept of divine inspiration. 'It's divinely-inspired because the authors believed in god.' This makes every religious text divinely-inspired, but more importantly, it doesn't draw any real difference between any piece of literature and the bible. As inclined as I am to agree that the bible is hardly different from The Iliad, I don't think most Christians understand divine inspiration in this way. If they did, then Christian apologetics wouldn't exist, since it is an attempt to defend faith in divine inspiration by providing evidence for the bible's claims - even the miraculous, supernatural ones. There's also the problem of how inadequate such a simple definition of divine inspiration is, since it eliminates the ability to differentiate between a claim of divine inspiration and the actuality or falsity of it.

To make one final note, I feel the need to point out that belonging to a group does not give one the automatic authority to speak for every other person in the group. I am an atheist, but I can't speak for all atheists. I'm white, but I can't speak for all white people. I have never felt that my time as a Christian gave me the freedom to speak for all Christians, yet apparently this believer thinks that he has that ability. Of course, he also presumes to speak for all biblical scholars, even though I'm willing to bet he holds no relevant academic credentials. I unfortunately see these types of 'criticisms' of atheist arguments all the time. Dawkins was accused of misunderstanding Christianity because he didn't address the beliefs of theologians like Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. As prominent as they may be in theological history, the views of such men are not universally accepted by all Christians.

For as much criticism as atheists receive over their 'mistaken' ideas about Christianity, believers themselves rarely seem to appreciate the diversity of their own religion. Those professing believers who disagree may be painted as not being 'real Christians,' as some Protestants are known to say of Catholics. But behind all of this is another problem. Who, or what, does speak for Christianity? As the world has changed, Christianity has changed with it in order to survive, and perhaps in another thousand years we won't even recognize the cult of the risen Jesus as Christian anymore.