Monday, March 9, 2009

One of the problems with people who criticize religion...

... is while they often have a point in terms of the behavior of the religious, they are equally likely to base most of their opinions on a handful of sources that they consider to be definitive because the authors agree with them.

Case in point: the following comments elsewhere in the Delaware blogosphere on the issue of religion:

Quoth Dorian Gray:

One of the big intellectual problems religious people have is holy book interpretation. In this case it is Christians and the bible. Here we have an oversimplified, cherry-picked theme (golden rule) that really isn’t a main tenet of the N.T. For further analysis on N.T. criticism I’d recommend The Jesus Dynasty by Tabor, Who Wrote the Bible by Friedman or Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. All good primers.

All right: let's look at those three sources.

Here's a representative academic review of Tabor's book:

Some key conclusions of Tabor’s—ossuary evidence confirming Jesus’ familial names (including accepting the authenticity of the disputed “James Ossuary”); his assertion that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were children of Mary by a second marriage (likely to Clopas or Alphaeus, the brother of Joseph); the location of Jesus’ probable permanent burial [hence, Tabor’s denying any resurrection claims], along with that of James, somewhere near the Mount of Olives where he thinks Jesus was actually crucified—really push the boundaries of the evidence to its extremities. And his case is not helped by “what if” thinking that he reports from various historic locations he visits in ancient Palestine. But despite its radical ragged-edges and popularist speculations, this book makes a major contribution to a new picture of Jesus which takes into account very crucial and completely disregarded aspects of early Christianity.

This is not a primer but a complex, complicated, and even convoluted excursion into academic speculation that requires one to be versed in the historiography of the last fifty to one hundred years of the intersection of biblical scholarship, philology, and archaelogy. Anybody who offers this is an introductory work clearly doesn't have a clue about the status of academic study of early Christianity.

Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? is not even New Testament scholarship, but a popularization of the documentary hypothesis for the composition of the Pentateuch (that's the first five books of the Old Testament). Friedman is one of the leading proponents of this hypothesis, but fails to mention in his books that there are at least three other major, legitimate, and respected academic schools of thought on OT orgins that poke rather large holes in his theory on historical, linguistic, and archaeological grounds.

Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is also the popularization of an earlier academic work that received--at best--a mixed reception. Even textual critics who trained with Ehrman suggest (with friendly diffidence) that he very often overstates his case and misanalyzes linguistic and textual evidence. Moreover, as reviewer (and fellow textual critic) Dan Wallace notes:

The book’s very title is a bit too provocative and misleading though: Almost none of the variants that Ehrman discusses involve sayings by Jesus! The book simply doesn’t deliver what the title promises.

Again: hardly primer material unless you're not looking to find out what biblical scholarship is actually saying, but are reading to reinforce your pre-existing beliefs. And if you're doing that, you are a fundamentalist of a different sort.

Quoth Unstable Isotope:

I have to say the Book of Job really disturbs me, although others have told me they find it inspiring. God destroys a man’s family on a bet? The almost-sacrifice of Jacob I also find disturbing, not to mention Abraham/Sarah/Hagar.

This one's interesting, in that only literal fundamentalism understands Job to be presented as history. More likely, suggest the Biblical minimalists of the Copenhagen School, the Book of Job (and other major parts of the OT) was intended to function as theological fiction, and to be read and understood in mythic and not literal terms. See, in particular, Thomas Thompson's The Mythic Past.

As for Genesis 22 (the Agedah of Abraham's near-sacrifice or sacrifice of his son), this is simply one of the more studied, theorized about, and mishandled passages at the base of three different religions. It's a wonderful foil for atheist fundamentalists like Stephen Pinker or Richard Dawkins, who write about it in disdainful terms, and without ever engaging more than two thousand years of thoughtful scholarship on what it means. Instead, they just come to the conclusion that religious people will murder their children any time the voices in their heads tell them to do so.

If you actually want to encounter and begin to understand this difficult piece of Biblical and religious history, try reading Bruce Chilton's Abraham's Curse.

Quoth Anonone:

You should read Dawkins book before you call him a “fundamentalist.” And why is not one of the most brilliant biologists and evolution experts alive not an authority? Unlike true fundamentalists who can’t accept any facts that contradict their belief system, Dawkins would be more than happy to see incontrovertible proof of god....

Sorry, but Jesus showed no new way. I really recommend that you study the Jesus seminars and the history of the gospels before you ascribe such moral nobility to this stuff.

For example, “love thy neighbor” in its time was meant only for your Jewish neighbors.

And the whole “turn your other cheek” is simply a message to oppressed people not to fight your oppressors and enslavers. What is moral about that? Of course, since the gospel Jesus never spoke a single word against slavery, a fundamental evil of his day, it is not surprising that the gospels have him mouthing the wishes of the Romans and slave owners.

OK, A1 (you knew I'd get to you, didn't you?): I have read almost everything Dawkins has ever written on the subject of religion, and most of what he's written for the popular press on evolution. The fact that he is an expert on evolution does not make him an expert on religion, as The God Delusion amply proves. Of it, the New York Times said:

Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience.

More importantly, this is what fellow evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson said of Dawkins' intellectual integrity:

When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues.

There is absolutely nothing new in Dawkins' critique of religion and even the concept of God that has not been said before, said with more erudition, and with better evidence by other people.

As for your reliance on the Jesus Seminars, which is essentially the cottage industry of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and a few others, that's another caution against cherry-picking scholars who will simply reinforce what you already want to believe. Borg is something on an intellectual lightweight, but a great showman, and he ran the Jesus Seminar to draw maximum public attention to some rather trendy (but unfortunately, flimsy) Biblical scholarship. Crossan is a brilliant writer, postmodernist and deconstructionist scholar, whose dating and interpretations of biblical and extra-canonical materials is accepted by almost no one else in the field, including Helmut Koester, probably the most important scholar of the 20th Century century in the arena of dating such materials. Crossan essentially invents supposedly embedded documents throughout the New Testament, and then applies them as if they were legitimately accepted by other scholars in his field. They aren't. The Jesus Seminar is one particular outcropping of popularized biblical scholarship that has already been passed by in the field, even though it is sensationalist enough to keep selling well at Borders.

As for your rather blithe assertion that you know exactly how turn the other cheek was being used to have folks remain subservient to Roman rule, what you apparently don't know is that there is a whole literature that runs the gamut of interpretation of what that meant in historical terms, all the way out to Hyam Maccoby's Revolution in Judea and The Myth-Maker, both of which use almost exactly the same evidence to portray Jesus as a violent political revolutionary and Paul as the creator of Christianity from whole cloth.

The reality: based on the original documentary evidence from the 1st Century, supported by archaeology and the interdisciplinary offerings of the social sciences, there are about five or six major historical models competing to explain the Historical Jesus and the birth of early Christianity, and no one of them has yet established itself as a consensus.

My (considerably belabored) point: studying religion, like studying evolutionary biology, cosmology, economics, quantum physics, or the history of the Middle East is something one ought to do with an open mind, a great deal of intellectual humility, and a willingness to engage a significant portion of scholarship from all perspectives, rather than pick up one or two books that make you comfortable and decide you've suddenly discovered the answer that those two thousand years of ignorant believers all missed.

I reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post: if you want to rant about the idiocies of today's believers, I'm with you. If you want to challenge the religious on their hypocrisy of not living up to their stated ideals, I'm there.

But if you're going to try to pass yourself off as having even a reasonably literate perspective on a whole field of serious academic endeavor without doing more than opening up one or two popularized books, then I'm going to call you on it.


Anonymous said...

Dear Steve,

You might know I'd respond to this.

I recommended "The Five Gospels: The Jesus Seminars" in a short blog comment as a place for some person to begin to critically examine the history and authenticity of the sayings and parables of Jesus in the 5 Gospels. You may pan it because it doesn't reflect what you want to believe, but it represents an intense and impressive work of a wide range of Biblical scholars, and has been widely praised by many many others religious and academic scholars, both believers and skeptics. It is a good place to start.

In regards to my own religious scholarship, it is just one of many books I have read on both sides of the issues, using the Oxford Annotated Bible as my primary translation. The five gospels are, in my opinion, little more than pieces of fiction and this is well known by the Church's own theologians (though they won't admit it). To argue otherwise is to go against the last century of intense historical biblical scholarship going well beyond the "Jesus Seminars."

As you note there are "five or six major historical models", but they are all based on conjecture." You failed to note that there are historians on equal footing that argue that a historical Jesus never even existed. After all, none of the gospels were written by eyewitness and the earliest (ascribed to Mark) was written in 67 at the earliest (and likely later). As Willaim Wrede wrote, "Exact knowledge of the life of of Jesus suffers from psychological conjecture and this is a kind of historical guess work."

I have not read, nor do I have any intention to read, the other authors and books mentioned in your post. But in regards to your comment about Dawkin's book, I would add that while it is quite easy to find negative reviews of any controversial book, The God Delusion has a 4 out of 5 star rating on Amazon based on 1,348 reviews. Clearly, David Sloan Wilson's critque is in a very small minority.

You are more than welcome to have your own interpretation of the "turn your own cheek" story and whatever other twists and spins that you want to put on the other bizarre parables of Jesus. Everybody else does it. You are also free to believe in leprechauns and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow, and you can debate the fine points of the colors of their hats, if you so choose. I believe, as somebody once said, that arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin makes pinheads of us all.

I would only add that the fact that people would spend decades, nay centuries, arguing over what a statement like "turn the other cheek" means shows how ludicrous and ultimately interpretive this translation of a translation of a translation called the Bible is. But if you think that "turning the other cheek" is so noble, would you have advised the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to "not walk, but run to the boxcars" or a slave in a southern plantation to "ask for another lash"?

So we could discuss and debate the merits of various Biblical scholars, books, the meaning of parables, etc., but that would be tedious and ultimately meaningless. And one need not study religion at all to realize that there is no evidence of gods, souls, or "life after death". As Dawkins put it so elegantly:

"Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?"

But where I take great issue with your post is when you write:

My (considerably belabored) point: studying religion, like studying evolutionary biology, cosmology, economics, quantum physics, or the history of the Middle East is something one ought to do with an open mind, a great deal of intellectual humility…"

Comparing the study of the sciences with studying religion or theology is absurd, unless you're going to test the god hypothesis as a scientific hypothesis. Science is based on empirical observations, theories supported by evidence, and physical laws that can be tested. The most elegant scientific theories are discarded immediately when a single fact is discovered that contradicts or nullifies it. As Huxley humorously wrote:

The greatest tragedy of science is the saying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Religion and theology and other supernatural dogma are based on beliefs that are not logical, empirical, or even scientifically theoretical. Believers believe regardless of the total lack of evidence or the multiplicity of evidence to the contrary. If one chooses to believe in infallible books, virgin births, dead people coming back to life, Noah's ark, Adam and Eve, a fig tree miraculously killed for not bearing figs, gay people should be stoned, etc., that is one's choice.

But if you to apply science to supernatural beliefs such as god, you will quickly find that there is no evidence or scientific justification for those beliefs.

As far as morality goes, I will quote Dawkins again:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

But, you say, that is not MY God. Well, it was undoubtedly Jesus' God. And you might read again the first of the Ten Commandments. Or, as a believer, do you pick and choose among them, too?


Anonymous said...

The Huxley quote above should read "slaying" not "saying":

The greatest tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.


Steve Newton said...

Of course I expected you to comment--wouldn't be any fun otherwise, would it?

I will try to answer you in the next 24 hours or so. Life its own self is currently interfering, but I know that you know that I'm not ducking you.

And thanks for the second post that put the "l" back into "slaying" because I was totally confused at that point.

Anonymous said...

"Our belief in any particular natural law cannot have a safer basis than our unsuccessful critical attempts to refute it."

Sir Karl Raymond Popper.