Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Eagerness to Believe

In the last four or five years of being an atheist and engaging Christians in discussion and debate, one thing has become startlingly clear to me. Among many believers, there is a very real and potent eagerness for affirming things of faith. I'm not just talking about a hope or desire for affirmation in the sense of, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice...", but a willingness to believe that is seemingly defiant of facts known even to the believer.

The easiest way to notice this eagerness is to look at the Shroud of Turin or the claims of prophecy in the Book of Daniel. What troubles me about these two things is that they are often touted as examples of the truth of Christianity. The shroud is called a miracle because of the impression on the cloth, which believers say was caused by radiation that emanated from Jesus' body during the resurrection. [1] The seventy weeks prophecy in Daniel 9:22-27 predicted the birth and death of Jesus, according to a number of Christians. There are many people who accept one or both of these claims, and great effort has been spent on trying to prove them.

However, without even getting into the plethora of details for either one, there is an initial big problem that is rarely considered. We don't know the actual date of Jesus' death. Numerous scholars have estimated it to somewhere between 30 and 36 CE. Six years may not seem all that significant, but consider what this means for the shroud and Daniel's prophecy. Even if we could pinpoint the shroud to a specific year, and even if the Christian interpretation of Daniel were to point to a specific year - say 32 CE - it's still extremely inconsequential. Devout believers will assume the date is correct only because they want it to be, but in a range of six years, there is too much uncertainty to be so careless. If Jesus were actually crucified a year later or a year earlier, then your shroud and prophecy are moot.

Of course, they likely wouldn't see it that way. If we found some incontrovertible evidence for Jesus' date of death, the "evidence" from the shroud and Daniel would be reinterpreted to make it fit. But it's a lot more than just the date of death that exposes the blind eagerness to believe. Were we to find out that the shroud does in fact come from ancient Judea, circa 32 CE, and were we to discover that the stains on it are blood from a crucified man, this would still not narrow it down enough. Even the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along two others. Imagine if the Shroud of Turin that believers have been worshiping for centuries was actually the shroud of the robber who mocked Jesus!

In the case of Daniel 9, Christians have invented a whole other portion of the prophecy that is nowhere in scripture. The passage mentions that an anointed one will be cut off or put to death, after which war and destruction will break out, culminating in the "abomination of desolation" in the temple. Historians and many biblical scholars connect this last reference to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish temple around 167 BCE. Obviously this is far removed from 30-36 CE, so Christians who favor a "Christocentric" interpretation do a little creative renovation of the passage. If Jesus is the anointed one who is cut off, then the events following afterwards in the narrative must be yet to come. Thus, instead of Antiochus Epiphanes, the abomination of desolation is imagined to be a future action of the Antichrist. This means that the 70th week in the prophecy is detached from the preceding weeks by an unknown length of time (currently at nearly 2,000 years), something for which there is absolutely zero support in the Daniel passage.

What boggles my mind about these sorts of things is that they're not necessary at all to being a Christian. There are many believers who regard the shroud as a fake and Daniel 9 as having nothing to do with Jesus. So why do some of these other ones fight tooth and nail to defend such lofty claims? Part of it is probably due to the weight they give these things as justification for their faith. But again, plenty of Christians get by without the shroud or the seventy weeks prophecy. Perhaps these willing believers aren't really seeing them as justification then, but as a little bit of magic.

I can remember the temptation I felt when I was a Christian to believe in fantastic claims that would affirm my faith. In addition to conversion stories, there are many miracle stories among the faithful, many stories of "that-couldn't-have-been-coincidence", and so forth. I think stuff like the shroud and Christocentric interpretations of prophecy can be classed among these faith-affirming things, because they all express a desire for something magical to believe in. In the day to day life of the average person, there is nothing on par with the memorable elements of the bible. I've often wondered if this desire for a little bit of magic may be most prevalent among those with a more literalist view of the bible. If you believe things like the parting of the Red Sea, the visitation of Mary by an angel, and other fantastic bible stories actually happened, your own life will seem quite dull by comparison, and it will be only natural to ponder why you don't seem to be in that same world of miracles and wonders.

Certainly, magic is an exciting idea. If it were real, it would open up a new dimension of untold possibilities. With Christianity and other religions, there is a pre-existing framework that already confirms the reality of some magic - though few believers would be fond of calling it that. However, we start to notice disparities in our experiences and our beliefs, when the two differ too much. Perhaps some of us latch on to these "moments of magic" in a more subconscious way of affirming our beliefs. When something occurs that we don't understand, we look for an explanation. At first, it starts as simple superstition, growing over time into a more nuanced perspective. Once the groundwork is laid, occasional reinforcement may be needed, and so moments of magic fill the need.

We might find this even with belief in the paranormal. I have known a few people who almost certainly concocted their own "experiences" with ghosts. The eagerness to believe can be there even without religion, but it does seem to require a foundation of extraordinary beliefs. Someone who has been brought up to believe in a spirit world and who feels a deep longing for a deceased friend or relative will probably have a lot more of a willingness to believe than someone who has no such experiences. Of course, it's not easy to say what a total absence of these influences would be like, because the majority of world cultures are mired in supernatural claims of some sort or another.

I don't believe Christians or other eager believers are aware that they embrace those little bits of magic to affirm their faith. Consciously, they are not racked with doubt, as it might be unfairly presumed. I think that as the rational mind seeks confirmation of its beliefs in reason and evidence, the mind that relies on faith seeks confirmation of its beliefs in further articles of faith. Maybe this is because faith is what the believer's mind prioritizes. Or maybe it's because some believers are fooled into thinking that faith is rational in itself. Either way, the mind operates according to how it's trained, and if belief is made the focal point, reason and evidence will take a back seat.

Thinking of how I was raised, there was a great emphasis on belief when I was young. My parents told me of their belief in Jesus, and any questions I had were answered with further statements of belief. Although they did later teach me some critical thinking, my childhood revolved around belief, and because this probably seems the easiest route to take for most parents (who need their children to believe them, after all, so that they will listen), I'd bet that I'm not alone in this. In our world, most people use belief synonymously with faith, and when there are certain beliefs that are almost universal to us - like the belief in love - faith becomes as high a priority as belief. Thus, we develop a sort of "belief in belief", as it's been called before.

For a mind that relies on faith or belief, reason and evidence likely will not be persuasive. Then a strange cloth of dubious origins and an inexplicably suspended 70th week in a prophecy from an ancient book may actually be more appealing. This in turn is difficult for a rational mind to understand, because while we may be putting the truth right in front of another person's face, it will not often seem to make a difference. But the wonderful thing about being an atheist now is that I don't have to invest my hope in magic to get through to the other person. Reason and evidence are far more effective than faith and blind belief, and there are so many ways to show it.

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