Friday, September 7, 2012

What is a Divinely Inspired Text, Anyway?

As some of you may know, I'm in the process of writing a book, and one of the issues I want to tackle in it is the question of divinely inspired texts. We often hear people assert their beliefs in the divine inspiration of a text like the bible or Qur'an, and we also hear many apologists defending these beliefs by appealing to things like scientific and historical accuracy, as well as prophetic fulfillment. Consequently, a great number of atheists (myself included) have critiqued these 'holy' books on very similar terms. However, this all seems to me like putting the cart way ahead of the horse. Perhaps we ought to reach a conclusion on what it means for a document to be divinely inspired before we go defending or criticizing anything. What are the criteria a text must meet in order to be considered as a product of divine inspiration?

With this question in mind, I listened today to an episode of the wonderful podcast Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, where this very subject was discussed by the atheist host Luke Muehlhauser and his guest, Christian philosopher Thomas Crisp. Professor Crisp has published an article in Analytic Theology, "On Believing that the Bible is Divinely Inspired." In the podcast, Luke interviews Crisp about his article, wherein he argues that it is rationally justifiable to believe in the divine inspiration of the bible. What is his argument? You are justified in believing the bible is divinely inspired - or in believing any text is, for that matter - because the experts say it is.

Yes, you read that right, and no, it's not a misrepresentation of Crisp's view. As he states numerous times in the interview, he believes that because we cannot research every nuance of a claim in our lifetimes, and because we take the word of scientists and historians on matters involving their disciplines, we are justified to believe that the bible is the word of god because the theologians and scholars tell us it is. Well, not all theologians and scholars. There are more than a few experts on Christianity who don't accept the bible as a holy book. How does Crisp navigate this objection?

Counter-claims do not change one's justification for believing in a divinely inspired text, he says. It's all about the authority you consult. Crisp even disagrees with Luke on the value of majority consensus. In other words, if you're raised in an Evangelical Christian environment and the 'experts' around you tell you that the bible is the literal and inerrant word of god, you are justified in believing it, according to Tom. On the other hand, if you're raised in an environment where authorities recognize the Qur'an, or some other text, as divinely inspired, then you are justified to believe that. You're even justified to accept the word of experts about the bible being nothing special.

I could hardly believe my ears when I heard Professor Crisp offer this as a serious justification for faith in the bible. His contrast of religious authority with scientific or historical authority is also extremely dubious. An appeal to authority is not fallacious in all cases, but it always depends on the claim, the expert, and other factors like probability. We are justified in believing the earth is round even if we don't verify it for ourselves, because scientists have verified it for us. In disciplines like science and history, there is actual content that can be verified and examined, and which takes many years of intense study to acquire. Appealing to people with demonstrable expertise is what is important to make an appeal to authority non-fallacious.

In the case of religious authority, only certain subjects can boast of having experts with demonstrable expertise. Biblical archaeologists, textual critics, and religious historians have a lot of factual knowledge that can be relied upon, to a good extent. Yet the idea that a counter-claim would not undermine their authority is sheer nonsense. When you cast serious doubt on the expertise of the expert on a given subject, then they can no longer be accepted as an expert - at least not in the area concerned. If a biochemist like Michael Behe asserts that evolution cannot happen, and the vast majority of his colleagues contradict him to show that it can and does happen, then his credibility as an expert is undermined until he is able to rationally defend his position and refute the arguments of his detractors.

And that's really what rational justification should be about: arguments, based on reason and evidence. In fact, an appeal to authority, when correctly used, is an argument based on reason, and perhaps evidence, too. Suppose you find statistical evidence saying that 99% of plumbers know how to fix a leaky toilet. Your friend Joe is a plumber. You infer that Joe, being a plumber, is highly likely to know how to fix your leaky toilet. Thus, we see there's an underlying, unstated premise missing from Professor Crisp's reliance on expert testimony. His argument would only justify our belief to the extent that our inference about the skills and knowledge of the expert is reliable. So who has the demonstrable expertise to responsibly declare that the bible is the inspired word of god?

Sure, thousands of apologists and theologians have made arguments for the bible's inspiration, but are they actually capable of proving what they assert? Liberal and moderate Christians see no problem with accepting historical inaccuracies and scientific errors in their bible, and there really doesn't seem to be any logical inconsistency with the notion of a divine being inspiring a text that has some mistakes in it. The idea of a perfect being is not quite the same as a divine being, but even then one might appeal to metaphor as explanation for mistakes. Was only the original text divinely inspired, and then it was corrupted by humans? Did the divine being only inspire the central message? How to identify divinely inspired documents without starting on an assumption is, in my view, one of the most troubling problems that faces believers in any textual revelation.

Crisp comes close to touching on this significant flaw in his argument when he brings up epistemology. Religious claims are not on the same epistemological footing as scientific or historical claims. Many religious believers recognize this, and most scientists and historians do. There is a point at which faith comes into the equation, and this is vigorously discouraged by the methods employed in science and history. We don't accept "because I said so" or "because they said so" in either of those disciplines. Even in the case of a historical source like Josephus, scholars still dispute some of Josephus' reports, finding them lacking in evidence or contradicted by evidence.

Theologians, ministers, and apologists are not experts on determining divine inspiration. Neither are biblical archaeologists, textual critics, or religious historians, for that matter. And let me state, unequivocally: atheists cannot be experts on it, either. No one is, because we still lack a conclusive definition of divine inspiration and do not have useful criteria for identifying a divinely inspired document. The knowledge has to exist and has to be demonstrable before anyone can be claimed as an expert. I say this not to downplay the knowledge of any of these educated scholars, who often can serve as very helpful sources on a number of issues. They just can't be considered experts on the question Crisp is addressing.