Fun Facebook Discussion

I recently posted a link to this video on my Facebook wall.
The following is the discussion is what followed. I've found it fascinating. Thought others might, and didn't want it to get buried in my timeline. I'll keep adding to the blog entry as people comment on the Facbook comment thread.

Ron R: This looks interesting. I hope I can carve out some time to listen to it.

Tim K: I have never been a big fan of Sam Harris, I find his critiques of Christianity to be uninformed and without philosophical or historical sophistication. I was unaware that science and religion were diametrically opposed to one another...

Scott N: ‎Tim, I think that depends on your religion. If you make any testable claims, and those claims are tested and shown to be false, and then you keep believing, then yes, I would say they are opposed. If your religion does not make testable claims, ie something akin to deism, then religion and science probably are not. Most people resolve any conflict they have with science and their beliefs this way, people will choose belief over knowledge:
There are a few examples of people who are firm believers and well known scientists, Francis Collins being a good one. I would submit that Collins never applies his scientific training to his religious faith, which I think is fairly apparent in his book.
I agree that Harris has problems with some of his philosophy, and it's not my job to defend him, but imo mainstream Christianity is so dead in the water, I'm more interested in the other ideas.

Scott N: Oh, and I don't really like debates, but if you're interested, Harris was giving his talk right after this debate,
I have not watched it. Mainly because if you want uniformed, blanket stupidity, I find Dinesh D'Souza is your man. And I even listened to nothing but Timothy Keller sermons for an entire day last week, just to listen to some opposing viewpoints.

Tim K: Thanks Scott, and I generally agree with what you have written. Some of the difficulties come in when discussing what exactly constitutes "proof" without some form of subjectivity. At many points people like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens make claims that they believe constitute some form of "proof" against Christianity when they are either the ones lacking evidence or the ones placing disciplines such as science as sources of objectifiable truth. 

Ron R: Wow, I can see this is going to be a good thread. But I'm going to wait to listen to Harris' lecture before I comment. Just to whet your appetite: my observation is that most evangelical Christians hold to a position on free will that is both philosophically untenable as well as inconsistent with the Bible. But they have either never considered this or refuse to acknowledge their inconsistency. So I'm interested in Harris' interpretation of the current state of science and with what philosophical and theological primary sources he interacts, if any. 

Tim K: For example, at the beginning of his lecture, Harris states that Genesis and biological evolutionary theory are directly opposed to one another. This is not only an incorrect reading of Genesis it is also the application of scientific theory to a book whose primary objective is not science but faith. There are a number of people, Allister McGrath (he has his Ph. D. in biology from Oxford) and John Polkinghorne, to name two, who understand both the nature of the Genesis account of creation and the accounts of evolutionary theory and are able to hold them together without sacrificing one for the other. What exactly is "mainstream Christianity"? I imagine it would be difficult to define. 

Ryan Neufeld: I watched the shorter 12 minute video on free will lol. Cool stuff!
Scott Neufeld: ‎Ron, some views on free will that I think would probably most line up with my own, could be found via this podcast - http://doubtreligion.blogspot.ca/2009/01/episode-29-free-willy-vs-determinator.html I line up closer to the "meat puppet" side of things ;-)
Tim, you don't think science is a source of truth? While I don't think there is such a thing as objective truth, just what is most probable based on the data, and science is the best tool we have for figuring out what is most probable. My definition of a Christian is anyone who calls themselves one. The majority of people who call themselves Christians, at least in North America, don't read Genesis the way you are suggesting. If you read Genesis the same way you would read any other sort of ancient middle eastern mythology, then there's no problem. The fact is, most people don't, and for those people there is a direct conflict. If you are not claiming any sort of divine writing for the Bible, then we don't really have a problem. If you look at it as a collection of interesting ancient writings, with no scientific value, but historical and cultural value, then cool. That's not who Harris is talking to.  
PS - I have no desire, and don't care, about any topics that rely on faith. It's a horrible concept that needs to be discarded. If people want to read the Bible through the lens of faith that is totally fine, they just need to stop infecting that into the science classrooms around the world. I think your point would be much more valid if that's the way people treated Genesis, but they don't . Just to drive the point home, I really really have no use for something that is totally derived from faith.

Scott Neufeld: You probably don't like Hitch, but I think this a good example of the problem with believing in Christianity and what the science shows. Heaven did shit all for 98,000 years, then tried human sacrifice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gHOObarjAk
Tim, I am curious how your beliefs differ from the average Christian in western Canada. Are you more on the Thom Stark side of things? ( I am currently reading his book, interesting stuff. http://www.amazon.com/The-Human-Faces-God-Scripture/dp/160899323X )

Ron N: Tim, the reading of Genesis and science are in direct contradiction. Sure you can rationalize a reading in which they are not, but I am unable to see how the 'Faith card' helps at all. The fact that some Christians can hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time does not, itself, provide a good reason to suggest that these beliefs are compatible. Humans can do all sorts of things, like having a good statistical knowledge of probability while still buying lottery tickets; that is evidence for our human ability to engage in wishful thinking rather than anything else.

Ron N: I generally find the claims that Atheists et al fail to understand the 'real' religious argument or make too broad a generalization quite hollow. When I talk to a priest I find they can be very urbane, very understanding, I don't *actually* have to belief that Noah's flood is literally true. But as soon as they get the kids in Sunday school or they're talking to someone with less education they switch into a more literal position. The 'moving goalposts' is a consistent problem with Christian apologetics, which rarely deal with what actual Christians believe. Look at any debate on stem cell research, abortion, women's rights, and the vocal majority are poorly educated, show little interest in factual truths, and place their faith over that of objective truth.

Tim K: Hey Scott, sorry if the idea that I don't believe science conveys truth came across in what I wrote. I would understand that science conveys truth, as does philosophy and other non-religious disciplines. In this instance I believe that truth means that they are able to make accurate and beneficial observations about the world and the cosmos.
Science is a great tool for making objective observations, but is a far less capable tool in determining the subjective meaning of those observations.
Genesis is certainly a product of the ancient Near East and it necessarily reflects the cultural landscape of that period in time, but I would disagree that its historical relevance necessarily alters its aspirations as divinely inspiried. Even though I believe that the text is one of faith, I agree with you that it necessitates being read within the religious ethos of ancient Israel, their believes and their cultic structures. I think that most Christians understand that Genesis is not a scientific treatise on the origins of the world, it is quite clear from the text that God is not some cosmic magician.
Even if you remove the idea of religious context (which I think is what you mean by faith) it is still necessary to replace it with another belief structure, another "faith" if you will. Belief in God or believe in reason, both require assertions to be made based upon assumptions about the world and how it operates, both require some measure of faith and one is certainly no less superstitious than the other.

Tim K: The subtext of the title of Hitchens last book was: "How Religion Poisons Everything". If that is not a gross overgeneralization I am not sure what is. If you want to look for people who hold to beliefs without much thought to critical thinking I am sure we could find them in almost every discipline. The mistake, and what people like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other assume, is in taking incorrect application of Christian beliefs and making certain types of fanaticism normative. I believe this would apply to athiest fundamentalism as well.

Tim K: I do believe that Atheists, scientists and others offer valid and important criticisms of the Christian faith. Christianity is not, however, the baseless, superstitious, anti-science, anti-reason movement many people make it out to be.

Ron N: Tim, Genesis says an awful lot about the order of creation and sets up the process even if it doesn't give insight into the process itself. I would expect accuracy from a *divine* ancient text, although I of course wouldn't expect it from just some old thing invented by fallible humans. In the fallible human context, it makes perfect sense, as you allude. It merely fails to support Christianity as being divinely inspired.

I would say that Christianity is superstitious, anti-science, and anti-reason. What can you call anything else that has a supernatural foundation?

Tim K: Ron, I am not sure what your expectations would be regarding the scientific accuracy of a text written sometime around the dominance of Babylon in the ancient Near East. Genesis speaks to God bringing order out of chaos, and it is ordered and separate by "days" but it does not say much about process (at least nothing that disagrees in any respect with modern science). The primary interpretive thurst is 1. That God created; 2. That God's creation was orderly; and 3. That God's creation was good.

Tim K: Point #1 is clearly the assumption of Genesis (and not really the concern of science); point #2 seems to align itself with the possibility of scientific investigation; and point #3 is a subjective view of creation (it is not a scientific statement). It is near impossible to read Genesis as portending to offer a scientific account of the origins of the world. As far as I am able to see, there is nothing in Genesis that directly contravenes scientific inquiry. It would also be a mistake to assume that modern theorics of cosmological origins are without difficulty, or that science has succeeded where faith has failed. Christianity opens itself up to scientific investigation, philosophical reasoning and cultural understandings. If it were to line up with your assertions it would not lend itself to these types of investigations. That is not to say that certain aspects of Chritainity are not matters of faith, but it would be a mistake to think that this faith is uninformed, unreasonable and uncritical. Fatith is as much an accent to reason as it is to the belief in something beyond ourselves. I am not sure how it differs from the adherence to scientific theories (or sciences as religion for that matter) which are either a) without definitive proof and b) not possible to prove without leaving room for doubt. I find the language of superstition to be a rhetorical device used to make a persons particular beliefs sound baseless. 

Tim K: Scott, I don't mind Hitchens, I have a great deal of respect for him as a writer and a journalist. Unfortunately his views on religion are somewhat uniformed and his reasoning is at times strangely inadequate (at least in his book God is Not Great). As for the evaluation itself, is it not superficial? It is good rhetoric to be sure, but it doesn't really address any issues regarding Chrsitian faith or theology. I am not sure how I would describe or define myself. I would not have though myself outside of the general Christian population.

Ron N: Tim, my expectations of a *divine* text would be accuracy and precision. To dumb it down to "God created, it was orderly and it was good" is to generalize to the point irrelevancy. Many other religion could be generalized similarly - I have higher expectations for a 'true' religion. Accuracy and precision would support a religious case; its absence demonstrates the foundationlessness of Christianity. It is impossible to read Genesis *now* as a scientific account, as science has thoroughly debunked it. It is at odds with what we know about how the world and life began and directly contradicts scientific inquiry. If one can read Genesis and not see a contradiction I'm not sure how to respond. It's like saying "Earth, Air, Fire and Water" is perfectly compatible with the modern periodic table. If you're insisting that black is the same as white, then I suspect there is a rather large bias at work forcing the comparison. The cognitive dissonance should be large. Christianity has not, in my experience, opened itself up to scientific investigation. It specific rejects conclusions that run contrary to scripture, plays to its bias', and fails to subject itself to rational responses. Uninformed, unreasonable and uncritical is not a bad summary. Faith is deciding to either ignore evidence to belief something contrary, or to accept a belief in the absence of evidence; it is antithetical to rational thought and the scientific process. Any faith-based process is, by its very inclusion, non-rational.The language of superstition is indeed used as a rhetoric device, one that accurately depicts Christian beliefs as they are; supernatural and cultish. The euphemisms used by religion as rhetorical devices to give a false sense of rationality are baseless and dishonest. 

Ron N: tl;dr - It appears from my perspective that you are ignoring the conflicts to rationalize the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflicts. 

Ben R: Hey, just saw this thread on my wall. Interesting discussion. Scott, I'm surprised you spent a whole day listening to Tim Keller. Can I suggest Lesslie Newbigin if you want an opposing view that you might find more interesting? His book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, has an interesting treatment of worldview (what he calls plausibility structures) and the roles of faith and reason therein. He is quite critical of aspects of what I think you are calling mainstream Christianity, but also calls into question much of what is inherent to the prevailing western secular worldview. 
Ron, I hesitate to jump in on your discussion with Tim, but I think I have something to contribute. First, I'd like to comment that if you read the Genesis creation account through the lens of modern scientific rationalism then you are pretty certain to misunderstand it's meaning and intent. The claim to divine inspiration shouldn't be confused with dictation, and this passage was written by an ancient Hebrew mind within an ancient Hebrew context, for an ancient Hebrew audience. Is scientific accuracy and precision relevant to the time and place in which it was written? I don't think so. I don't think they would have found any use for, nor were interested in, the knowledge of precisely how the universe came to be. If this passage was inspired by a wise and loving creator (as is the Christian claim) who wanted to convey to his people an understanding of their human condition as it relates to love versus desire for power, communion with Him versus separation, good and evil, pride and humility, alienation and reconciliation, life and death, would he wish to address their hearts or give them facts about how long it took to accomplish the creation of the world and the particular method he used to create humans? When viewed in this way, the story still has relevance today, but when viewed through the eyes of scientific rationalism it never had any relevance, not to them or us. 

Ben R: Interestingly, as far back as AD 415, Augustine rejected the notion that the six days of creation should be understood as a statement of the order and timing in which the creation took place, believing instead that they were intended as a literary device, and this obviously has nothing to do with modern scientific discovery. So it can be argued quite forcefully that the modern young-earth creationist interpretation flies in the face of historical and orthodox Christian belief, and in this instance modern science comes down in favour of historical Christian thought. Augustine himself was a firm believer that any proper understanding of scripture as it relates to the natural world and philosophy should be consistent with what can be learned with reason and experience. Here's a quote from him that you might like: "Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion". I would argue that orthodox Christian belief from it's earliest days has always made room for rational discussion and inquiry, and that faith has always been a motivator for science. The belief that the universe is rational is the starting point and basic assumption of modern science, and this faith in rationality is affirmed with each new hypothesis that is proven trustworthy through scientific inquiry. When we encounter something that contradicts what we thought we knew, we don't claim that rationality is a delusion, but bring both beliefs under careful scrutiny and hopefully go forward with something that makes more sense of reality. I think it's impossible to be a thinking, discerning Christian without allowing science to challenge your assumptions and perhaps change your understanding of things. But there are times when science challenges atheism too, and atheists need to revise their beliefs. For instance, the big bang theory provides quite a striking affirmation of the biblical understanding of time and matter, yet many atheists who held that time and matter were eternal had to adapt their thinking.

Tim K: Thanks for your comments Ben. Alister McGrath makes a similar point regarding Augustine in his book "A Fine Tuned Universe" and the concept that Genesis should be read in its original context is not only appropriate but necessary. Now that you have posted I probably don't need to, but I wrote it so I will fire it up here anyway.

Ron N: Ben, that sounds like a wonderful rationalization why the text doesn't make any sense in a modern context. It certainly doesn't read like it was made to "address their hearts" in any modern ethical sense, it reads like a iron-age tribe is trying to impress themselves and other iron-age tribes with how powerful their particular God is. What would be amazing is if it *did* contain accurate truths that an ancient tribe wouldn't have access to. It doesn't, hence it's merely a work of fiction. One could claim it's good fiction or bad fiction, but from Macbeth to the Bible to Twilight, they're all still fiction. The story has very little relevance today, other than a historical perspective on our darker and less tolerant past. From its use to justify slavery to providing a moral foundation for misogyny Genesis is an ugly book. Facts would have been better. 

Tim K: Ron,What exactly would constitute accuracy and precision in the text of Genesis? This is an interesting assertion since it assumes that Genesis was intended as a scientific account of creation. The Early Church Fathers never read Genesis this way, neither did Augustine (and many others for that matter), and this was well before modern science “debunked it”. I am not ignoring what you perceive to be a conflict; what I am stating is that Genesis 1-3 is a distinctly theological text and does not make any pretentions to answer modern scientific questions. The world that we live in is far different than the world of the Old Testament. In Genesis function is more important than physical existence and if the author of Genesis is communicating to his audience about God’s creation of the functional cosmos, we might expect to get little information concerning the structural cosmos (ie. matter per se). Or, as John Walton puts it: It is fruitless to ask what things God created on day one, for the text is not concerned about things and therefore will not address itself to that question.This demonstrates the radical contrast (or as you have put it “cognitive dissonance”) between the terms in which the Israelites thought about cosmic origins and our modern way of conceptualizing them. It was always impossible to read Genesis as a structural account of creation and that has not changed regardless of the advances of our scientific knowledge. There are many instances where scientific advancements were made by Christians and it would run counter to history to suggest that Christianity itself is opposed to scientific advancement. Christianity in a grass roots sense may not engage with all of the complex philosophic and scientific arguments, but in general it is not opposed to them, and from an academic perspective it welcomes critique. We accept many things by faith regardless of their origins, and the scientific method definitely has its investigative limits. I would disagree with you regarding the ability to evaluate personal beliefs as I do feel that it is possible for a person to look rationally and critically at their beliefs (regardless of origin) and come to a reasonable conclusion. If we do not share that conclusion that is fine, but it would be a mistake to think that one of us was more reasonable or critical, or capable of reason or critique, than the other.

Ron N:  Tim, what would constitute accuracy and precision would be not getting basic facts wrong. I'm perfectly happy with examining it from a cultural anthropological perspective - as one of many stories invented by our species when relative ignorant. It can be appreciated or ignored like any other work of fiction.

If, however, it is somehow different than other creation myths I would expect it to show. Some accuracy and precision would have helped that case, but sadly it does not. All we do have is a history of apologetics trying to take a rather ugly book and rationalize into something more meaningful. I also presume that the approximately one third of Americans that believe the Genesis account is literally true seem to belie your assumption that it does not address a structural account of creation. Apparently, it does, and apparently God told them to read it that way.

There are, of course, many instances of Christians making scientific advances. Of course there were - most scientists are (and were) Christians. That doesn't mean that Christianity supports free inquiry. The degree of religiosity is inversely correlated with free inquiry - I doubt it's an accident that the higher one climbs in terms of educational achievement the more liberal one's religious beliefs, and the higher proportion of atheists one finds. Christianity makes laughably silly statements if taken literally, from talking snakes to rising from the dead, and seriously ethically warped statements if taken metaphorically. To suggest that Christianity "welcomes critique" is disingenuous at best. Christianity is leading the charge against human rights, from gay marriage to abortion, actively suppresses scientific inquiry from global warming to stem cell research, and this is in a time when we've tried our best to uncouple religion from political power. We should never forget the abuses religion rained down on humanity when it both though it had God's warrant and political power in its side. If god does exist, she'd better have a damn good excuse.

We do not accept anything based on faith, or at least one shouldn't. Accepting things without evidence as true is generally a poor choice as a method of inquiry. While of course the scientific method has limits, it also actually has reach; something no other method has yet been shown to have. Certainly faith has been shown to be particularly myopic, and downright dangerous. No more martyrs, please.

I do not think it is easy to look at one's own beliefs rationally and critically and come to a reasonable conclusion. Sure it's possible, just as running a double marathon is 'possible', but it's rare and unexpected. We know enough about human psychology to know that any religionist is going to be unable to examine their own beliefs critically, will unconciously favor confirming information, will rationalize rebuttals into strawmen and will be generally ill-equipped to think rationally. That's what religion does to the human mind. It's not a unique phenomenon, you'll find it in adherents to political ideologies and brand loyality, but religion contains some very useful memes for making it stronger and more pronounced. Only religion would make a sin of blasphemy. If someone tells me 2+2=5 I certainly do not assume they are just as reasonable or rational, and I certainly think them incapable of doing math. They may be perfectly fine in other areas, but I would know their blind spots. For the Faithists it's critical examination of ideas; the very nature of 'faith' forbids it.

Ron N: Of course I could take every reference to Christianity out of the above post and substitute "Islam", and every reference to the Bible, and substitute the Koran. Or any number of other religions. That a 'critical self-examination' always seems to confirm one's own bias, but always manages to reject other religions seems to suggest that it's not working properly. Talk about trying to remove a beam from one's own eye... 

Scott N: Seems like things moved along without me. Your recent comments Tim, make me wonder. Who cares if the writers of Genesis intended it as a theological document? Outside of it's literary/historical merits, that makes it no different than any other religious document from any other religion. I contend that 'Doctor Who' contains theological truths, therefore I can choose to use it in the same way. (The Doctor is my Time Lord and Savior). Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory uses Star Trek as a guidance for his life. I don't see why the Bible has any credibility over these things, except importance that our culture puts on it, and that it is old. And at least no hero in Star Trek commands rape, genocide, or other such horrendous acts. The god of the Bible is a moral monster, and though it may be fruitless to ask for scientific knowledge from the Bible, why should we ask anything from it? I really would be much more comfortable with people using Star Trek for moral guidance than using the Bible. Forgive me for linking this, but the relevant bit starts around 0:45 
I would also argue that Christianity as a whole IS opposed to scientific progress. Yes, the early scientists of the enlightenment were Christians. It was the dominant religion of Europe. I would contend their science was not fueled by their Christianity. One of the single greatest discoveries ever, the evolution of life, has been opposed by Christians ever since it was put forth. (Funny how it is never even hinted at in the Bible. Maybe god didn't know life evolved either.) The hatred of scientific knowledge fostered by priests as Rome fell was fueled by the Christian faith, and the perception that learning was partly to blame. There is a reason mathematical treatise were written over/destroyed in favour of hymns. As soon as one invokes god, one squashes the quest for knowledge. 'God did it' gets one no where. Just because scientific greats believed something, does not give it credence, Newton was a genius, but he believed a lot of crazy things, that doesn't mean there is truth to them. Christianity likes to whitewash its history. Just look at the claim that Christians were integral to the abolitionist movement. Some were, most were not. In 50 years, Christians will probably be claiming that they were integral in the gay rights movement too. Again, I except nothing on faith, so please don't say "we" in that regard. To quote Richard Feynman,
"You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me."
I personally have no use for the Christian faith. Based on my own personal experience, and what you have said, my intellectual journey was maybe similar to yours. Mine ended with atheism, maybe yours will too, maybe not. But to quote again, "Atheism is just the beginning; now it's time to solve the harder questions."
Sorry I did not respond to you directly Ben, but there is a lot of comments since this morning. I appreciate what you wrote though. I will listen to Lesslie Newbigin. I don't listen to Christian stuff much, but I do it every now and then, figure it's good to hear differing viewpoints.

Scott N: I was writing my response as Ron was writing his, seems we hit upon some of the same points.

Scott N: Ben, quick note, all that atheism is, is a lack of belief in god(s). That's it. So saying, "yet many atheists who held that time and matter were eternal had to adapt their thinking" is sort of odd. New data emerged and scientists had to change theories based upon Hubbles discoverers does not really apply to atheists specifically. Outside of no belief in god(s), one can't really generalize atheism.
I find the claim that Christianity fosters scientific inquiry laughable. The Romans had basic steam engines, batteries were discovered in Egypt, funny how when Christianity held complete and utter dominance, life expectancy plummeted, and humanity in Europe suffered. The rise of the enlightenment, critical examination of religion, humanism, and such, were not b/c of Christianity, but in spite of it. People were tired of ignorance and wanted to be free of it.

Ron N: Hi Scott :). A world that took Star Trek and Doctor Who for moral guidance would be a lot better than one that used Christianity. While still simplistic, it's a lot more nuanced and deals with far more complex issues while giving some quite useful positive principles.
I dub this "Doctor Trek"! http://www.blogcdn.com/www.comicsalliance.com/media/2012/02/doctor-who-star-trek-comic.jpeg

Ben R: Scott, what I meant was that it's not just the religious who find it difficult to critically examine beliefs which they depend on to bolster their worldview. For many atheists it meant the abandonment of one of the strongest arguments supporting their point of view, and there was resistance to this. Having a predisposition towards evidence which supports your current understanding of reality is human nature, not religious nature, and I expect it from atheists as well as theists. I'm aware of the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in gods, but I don't think it's as simple as that. A person does not care passionately about something in which they simply have a lack of belief, yet many atheists do in fact care very passionately about it, have spent much time thinking about it, are personally invested in it, and define themselves by their stance on it. If someone had truly never given critical thought to the existence of God and didn't believe in one simply because it never occurred to them, or if their position was honestly "maybe so, maybe not, I don't have an opinion", I would grant them that definition. In most cases I think it is more self-aware to define themselves as having a belief in a lack of gods, as a conscious position that they have chosen on an issue which is important to them. It doesn't mean that they claim to know for certain, or have it all figured out, but neither does being a Christian. It's not always simply a matter of bowing to the facts either, because the facts don't give us a clear answer in either direction, and atheists are as subject to complex motives as theists. That's a wonderful quote from Richard Feynman by the way, I love the "which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell -- possibly". Also, sorry if I mislead you into thinking that Lesslie Newbigin has material that you can listen to. He died in 98, and if any recordings of him exist they're probably hard to track down.

Ron, I would suggest that if the old testament contained precise scientific facts that we don't think an ancient tribe would've had access to, the modern secularist wouldn't say "God must have given them this knowledge", but rather "they must have been more advanced than we thought". Precise facts don't contribute in this case, just as the fact that the universe appears to be incredibly fine-tuned to support the existence of life doesn't convince many atheists that there may be an intelligent mind behind it. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that I doubt any of us is really expecting to convince the others. I will say, though, in answer to the critiques that both you and Scott raised against Christianity's influence on history, that yes there has been harm perpetrated in the name of Christianity, and the bible has been used to justify injustice, but this is more a critique of human nature than it is of religion, more specifically a critique of those who have used religious power to their advantage, and especially a critique of Christianity as a system of power -- which I believe Jesus was diametrically opposed to both in his actions and teachings, and which Paul explicitly wrote against in his letters. I'm sure you realize that criticizing how an idea or claim about reality has been used or misused is not a valid criticism of the claim itself, but when you examine many of the situations that you've raised it also becomes clear that there are many other factors involved. It's not simply a matter of Christianity poisoning the minds of those beholden to it. I will make one blanket statement in return though, and I wouldn't have the temerity to suggest this had I not heard it first from a very astute philosophy phd from UVic whom I know and respect (Scott, it's Rob Fitterer, I don't remember if you knew him or not from Victoria days): the single most influential person on the development of western thought and society as we know it today is Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a. the apostle Paul. I'm sure you'll disagree, but the reasons for this statement are worth thinking about.

Ron N: Ben, you don't think evidence matters? If the Bible mentioned the structure of DNA, perhaps the wavelength of hydrogen, an accurate value for pi (you know, the kinds of things different intelligent species could use to establish their bonafides) that would help support the case. Even if it wasn't technical knowledge but merely superior ethical knowledge, such as letting us know that genocide, slaughtering children, slavery were wrong, and gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research are A-OK it would help. What we get is a a poorly articulated set of ethical standards that are substandard when compared to other ancient civilizations. Your hand-waving towards the fine-tuning argument fails as an analogy as that isn't an argument. The fact that Christians are amazed that chemistry supports life is like the amoeba being amazed its little pond exactly fits the shape of the ground. It's funny how fine-tuning fails to convince those with knowledge and degrees in the subject, but works well on the uneducated masses that has forgotten high-school science.

If there was evidence, I would be convinced. And I entirely expect to convince others; rational arguments are rational arguments and if I can convince a theist to see rationality within a religious sphere it's certainly possible to have them chagne their minds. It worked for me, and it's worked for many others.

If you're going to claim that the abuses are simply human nature that is far too much of an easy way out. The Bible clearly supports slavery; it's an instruction book. It's misogynistic, and anyone reading it would find support for humanities most heinous crimes if their cause was Just enough. It's not like someone took an incomprehensible poem and then made up crazy things; it's possible to read text from the Bible, in context, and justify committing heinous acts. Of course it's human nature (what isn't?), but the Bible encourages the worst, rather than the best, in us. Sure you can use selective morality to ignore what you don't like, but that's hardly following Biblical morality.

And yes, demonstrating how a claim has been used/abused may not be a good argument for factual claims, it is perfectly satisfactory for ethical analysis. What do people who accept these ethical precepts, end up doing? Whether one accepts deontological, teleological or biblical ethical theories, it is certainly allowable to examine how those claims have been used and what the end products of those uses were. And for Biblical morality it has (and continues to be) pretty ugly. Christianity poisons minds is not a bad summary actually.

I do not doubt that the Bible, and the characters in it, were influential, much to our detriment. I'm not going to be impressed by the misogynist and homophobic Paul by any means, and given that vicarious salvation is itself an immoral doctrine this is not a a particularly convincing point. I'm sure the Black Death had a very important role in the development of western civilization as well, but that doesn't I would consider it 'good'.

Scott N: Ben, I would like to clarify, I think everyone is an agnostic. That's the most we can be, but then, we take that "I don't know" stance and apply it to our life. I can't know if there is not some sort of deistic god, but overall, based of the available data, I am fairly certain that every aspect of god(s) that has been presented do not exist. Hence, I would classify myself as agnostic/atheist. I am guessing you are agnostic/christian. Good science always says, "based on the available data, X is most probable". Based on the available data, life evolved, the earth rotates around the sun, E=MC2, etc. I'm always open to new data, new information, and then an update. The Feynman quote puts it very well, which is why he was he was such a great physicist :-)
Knowing we are really bad at critically thinking is the start, then we need to learn how to contend with our own bias', and go from there. It's why we have to do double blinds and peer review. I totally agree that humans are very bad at discerning truth, especially when emotionally invested! Our brains are very easily fooled. That's why I'm attracted to skepticism, critical thinking, and science. We need tools to counteract the default setting of our brain, which is credulity! I think we really can say, facts are, the Christian god does not exist. Logic, reason, and science show this. That is not to say there could not be some sort of god like being, I can't know that. But based on how people describe the god they believe, the attributes they give it, the claims about it, none of it holds up to inspection. It's why I moved from agnostic/christian to agnostic/atheist. I was very, very, very, very, very, (add a few more very) emotionally and intellectually invested in Christianity. It didn't hold up, so I switched. Now I try, as much as I can, to investigate my own reasoning and be skeptical. Again though, I agree we can't really know if there is a god(s) or not, but we can know things that would disqualify types of god(s). There is no more reason to believe in the Christian god than there is to believe in Xenu. Unless you have a some information I don't know about, then I am open to an update. It's annoying that people constantly move the goalposts on the attributes of god though. Starts out as a tribal war deity a few thousand years ago, then bam, all omni, all the time.
For me, a good example of why the Christian god falls apart would be that there is no good theodicy that gives belief in an all-omni god credence. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal sums this up in a nicely humorous way :-)
I agree that Paul was very influential, I would place him above Jesus in importance to the Christian religion. Without Paul, Christianity would probably have stayed an apocalyptic cult of Judaism. I very much remember Dr. Rob Fitterer, he helped start me on the road to disbelief. I don't know if that's what he intended, but I've always appreciated him for it.

Ben R: Hi Ron, of course I believe that evidence is very important, and you'll be relieved to know that I do and have changed the way I view the world based on evidence received from scientific research. I just don't believe that this one piece of evidence, if it existed, would be enough to close the debate once and for all. There would be other available explanations which some would find more plausible. Nor do I believe that this conversation is going to be the tipping point that overturns everything that one of us believes or doesn't believe in. There may be some things that are said on either side that cause us to consider and do more research which will result in a shift in perspective, but it will most likely be a step along the way rather than a final conclusion.

I think the fine-tuning argument is more than just hand-waving, and it actually constitutes some pretty strong suggestive evidence in favour of the existence of a transcendent being, but again there are alternative explanations (m theory, multiverse...), which are not without their problems and requisite assumptions either, but still worth considering. Many physicists and academics in other fields give this topic and it's implications a lot of weight, which is one reason why the attempt to explain why our universe is manifested in this particular way is such a heated discussion. Perhaps one day we will have a more conclusive answer to it that all can agree on. Here is something written by NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel, who is an atheist who yet expresses some of the problems inherent in a purely physical explanation of human existence. It's a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I'm not trying to comment on, as I haven't read it yet:

In my view, your strongest objections to the God of the Old Testament are on moral grounds, and I admit they certainly pack an emotional punch. There's a lot that can be said historically and contextually in response, but I don't consider myself well-studied enough in biblical context and history to give a reply that doesn't also rely on philosophical speculation of reality from a "God's-eye-view" that accomplishes the greatest possible good for all involved as the final outcome of history. This is a view that I think is consistent with Christian theology, but probably isn't something that you would find satisfactory. One thing that I am prepared to say, not as an exhaustive answer, but as an example of what a deeper reading into context and history can reveal, is that all of the potentially capitol crimes of the Old Testament except murder could be commuted to a lighter sentence, usually monetary in nature. This is from Paul Copan's book, Is God A Moral Monster, which I haven't read yet, but it's on my reading list along with the one by Thom Stark that Scott mentioned earlier. I'm sure they will both be worth reading, and there will be much more to consider within their pages.

Scott, I do classify myself as an agnostic/Christian, and I think everyone could do with a reminder now and then that all religion is agnostic. I think it's a healthy way to stimulate openness to discussion. I agree very much with your commitment to self-critical analysis and examination of data, but I also recognize that faith is intrinsic to how I navigate this world. I put faith in friends and loved ones to be consistent with what I have come to know about them, I trust them. I have faith enough in our legal system and government to feel reasonably secure living where I am, based on past experience. I put faith in my current worldview because it makes the most sense of reality as I see it, and I include scientific rationalism within this worldview as a very useful tool. My worldview has changed over the years, and will continue to change as my understanding increases. I think this is natural and not something to be afraid of.

The theodicy problem really starts to get interesting to me when you introduce the concept of an all-omni God who willingly self-limits for the sake of creating other selves. I think this is the only way to understand Christian theology, and if this really is the ultimate state of reality (which of course I don't know) then the audacity, risk, and passion of the endeavor is something that I find blows my mind. I think it might be the only way to create a reality where love has intrinsic meaning, choices ultimately matter, and the worth of each self is inherent, but there is apparently great cost to it, as the death of God on the cross signifies. But I'm just an amateur venturing into a deep ocean of speculation, and this is all mystery to me.

Ron N: Hi Ben. No one piece of evidence would close any debate, but of course true statements (particularly multiple statements) would have multiple lines of evidence. That there does not exist lines of evidence supporting Christian (or Islamic, or Norse, or, or, or...) mythos does tend to confirm them as mythos. I also wouldn't assume that you don't accept any evidence of any kind; only that it's more difficult in specific areas. I tend to assume that people that believe in crop circles (for example) probably think normally in other areas. And no, this conversation may not be the tipping point. At the same time, who knows? Obviously there was a conversation or a thought that eventually tipped me, one that tipped Scott, and one that tipped half the trolls on r/atheism.

The fine-tuning argument isn't suggestive evidence, because it isn't evidence. It's a fallacy based on an emotional appeal and a misunderstanding of statistics and physics. Even if, somehow, someone managed to prove that the mere existence of life in this universe proves the universe was created it could prove that we live in the matrix/video game, it evolved from a previous universe, or time-traveling future humans did it. Any of those have more plausibility than something as incoherent as a 'transcendent being'. I found the article by Nagel an exercise in wishful thinking - he'd make a great theist. I don't find the label 'atheist author' particularly compelling since atheism does not suggest a similar set of beliefs. I've met a number of atheists that believe in aura's, alternative medicine or 'the singularity' and I find their beliefs just as cognitively blind in their areas as theists are when it comes to religion. Nagel seems uncomfortable with purely physical explanations; that's too bad for him given the evidence. I'm not against other explanations per se, but I'm not going to waste any time on them in the same way I wouldn't waste time trying to bridle a unicorn. The questions and wonders of the universe are amazing; inventing cheap glitter to sprinkle on top seems unnecessary.

Speculation is certainly correct when it comes from 'greatest possible good' excuse for God, but within that articulation you've stated an objective moral standard external to God. As 'Greatest good for greatest number' defense goes it's not the best varient - it doesn't appear to support an ideal good, and puts things in purely materialistic terms to support the rape/pillage/murder of others based on a supposed greater good somewhere else. That seems somewhat odd for a religion I'm often told is based on love. As moral theories go, it's not one any moral philosopher would espouse, not even a utilitarian. How could anyone possibly justify the death of children in such a manner? It is this that I find makes Christianity so abhorent - its adherents seem blithely blind to the callousness of their beliefs (and I certainly would include my previous self in that group). It's very troubling. I also find it interesting you wouldn't assume God was a deontologist; greatest good/greatest number of the type you attribute to God to justify His actions would fit in with any cartoon villain that was killing people 'for the good of the planet'. Modern objective utilitarian ethical theories tend to use ideals such as compassion and autonomy to define good, as would never advocate killing a few to save many. It's morally reprehensible. I would think about that rationalization a little more.

I'm not entirely sure how you can commute the capitol crimes to lighter sentences. What the parties of God did, with God's full approval, are heinous. What God himself was purported to have done was heinous beyond measure. There is no lighter sentence possible; the most depraved human criminal cannot match the crimes committed by God. Truly, how can one read the account of Noah, even if it is metaphorical, and not feel like vomiting when seeing the gayly coloured 'boats with animals' for sale in toy stores or in picture books? I would like to say I find it impossible to understand how any parent could be a Christian if they've read the Bible, but human nature being what it is I understand only too well. I have heard Christians tell their *children* that they would willingly sacrifice them if God commanded them to do so. These are not extremists or fundamentalists; these are nice, normal parents whose world-view has been warped by religion.
For all the comfort you may think it gives, I would strongly encourage anyone to spend a week as an atheist, or consider an outsider test of their faith. Why try to justify its immorality, when there are better options? When the only moral alternative is to walk away?
Tim K: Thanks for your contributions here Ben. I agree with much of what you are saying and you are saving me the time of having to write it myself.

Ron, I have no idea why you would think that an ancient text that included an accurate value for “pi” or perhaps the theory of evolution, or Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been “proof” that the text was of divine origins. This logic is fraught with difficulties including the manner in which knowledge is transmitted. How would ancient Hebrew have communicated E=mc2? Would a culture that had no need of such knowledge (why would they in an abstract sense) even preserve this information? Knowledge progresses along a continuum, you cannot vault over the cultural and societal shifts that allowed us to develop the natural sciences and expect that to somehow be a superior form of transmission.
Scott, I agree with you regarding the manner in which texts are used, and for the argument that I am putting forth here I am certainly not suggesting that we need to believe that Genesis was inspired. What bothers me is the incorrect assertion that Harris made: “that evolution proves the Genesis account of creation false”. Clearly Genesis is not a scientific text (none of the bible would be classified as such so we should not be surprised, as you seemed to be, that there is no mention of evolutionary process in the text) and it has no pretensions to be scientific. To borrow from your examples of various mediums, suggesting that the book Animal Farm is false (or misleading) because it is not a historical account of the power struggles within socialism would be to ignore the genre of the text. Since we accept the genre as allegory, we are able to arrive at conclusions and interpretations based on that context. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (one of my favorites) is not a news program, it is a commentary given through the medium of comedy on the social and political climate in the US. If we were to argue that Jon Stewart has not given us all the facts so therefore his program has no value, we would miss entirely the purpose and intent of the show. Sorry that that was a bit long, but what we should avoid is trying to make Genesis or any other biblical passages for that matter, something that they were never intended to be. I think that caution issues for Christians as well as those who oppose Christian faith.
As for your assertion that Christianity opposes scientific progress, I would have to ask for some more specific examples to get a better feel for you intentions here. David Bentley Hart wrote an excellent book detailing some of these types of blanket assertions that do not find attestation in history – I find statements to the effect that Christianity opposes progress or science to be myopic caricatures of the religion and culture that existed in previous centuries and have simply been carried forward into the present. I should mention too that we can always assume that there are a number of Christians whose views of science and religion are uncritical, while the same must be said of Atheists/agnostics alike.
Ron, just a quick comment on the idea that God has done “heinous things beyond measure” – to what exactly are you referring? It would be useful to provide a specific verse or a specific incident in order that I could better understand what your referents are. I only ask because that is a fairly broad and sweeping statement that I have a feeling leans heavily on specific OT passages and then generalizes them without regard for ancient Near Eastern history. It would help if you could provide specific examples as opposed to simple generalizations and overstatements to prove your point.

Tim K: Yikes, that is long. All I really wanted to say was that Genesis is not false based on scientific investigation, as Sam Harris suggests. It may be false under other circumstances, but it does not really lend itself to scientific investigation any more than the Psalms lend themselves to prose.

Scott N: Tim, so you don't have any belief about the divine inspiration in Genesis? I don't really see why we need to disagree then. I don't think Sam Harris is speaking to you, but to the vast majority of Christians in America who DO read it as a blueprint for how things got started. If it is similar to other creation myths, it is useful if we want to know about how people of that region explained the universe and their culture, but nothing really beyond that. If you are making no claims about the Bible saying anything factual, and that's it's all on similar grounds to say the Iliad, then what exactly are you defending? Again, I would much rather get examples on how to live my life and the human experience from Star Trek than I would Genesis. I would suggest that most of the Bible is probably a poor place to go for moral guidance. ( If you don't think the majority of American Christians read Genesis in this way, I advise looking into all the work NCSE has to do defending science in American classrooms.) I think people like Sam Harris and Dawkins need to be out there explaining the science, and how the Bible can't be a scientific document, because that's how the majority of theists read it. Maybe not in more educated circles, but that's not filtering down to the pews.
Oh, and one really quick example of one of gods lovely commands, child sacrifice, as explained by Ezekiel.
http://tinyurl.com/6qygmq9 I'm in the middle of Stark's book, so that's why that specific example at the ready.
Stark also has this essay which you might enjoy. While it is a rebuttal to a book defending against the claim that god is a moral monster, some of it is relevant.
A quick google got this blog entry by historian Richard Carrier on Christianity and science.
It's a good read.

Tim K: Thanks Scott, I will definitely check out those links. I would believe that Genesis is an inspired text, but I do not believe that it is relevant to the argument against Harris' presumption. 
Scott N: What do you mean by inspired? How would you falsify that claim? 
Scott N: Ben, appreciate what you wrote. I would just suggest that the we don't have free will in the traditional sense of an uncaused causer, and that might have significant bearing upon the last paragraph you wrote. I think determinism plays havoc there, but I could be wrong.
I think we use the word faith in slightly different ways, I would probably put trust in the spots you used faith. As in, "I trust my friends and loved ones based upon their past actions, my experiences with them, my knowledge of their personalities, and my own biological makeup/temperament". I see trust as something that can be strengthened or weakened, where faith is just a blind acceptance. Though I think you are more like Kierkegaard in your faith, where you acknowledge it might not have any empiricism to back it up, but you find it useful, and just decide to leap to itl. I respect Kierkegaard style faith much more than what I usually encounter. I could be wrong, but that's how I am reading you.

Scott N: Tim, another quick question. Does the likelihood that Exodus is completely fabricated fall under the same category as the Genesis creation account? It was fabricated for a reason, but still, just a myth. Do you read it the same way you read Genesis?
A friend gave me an this example once. The story with David when the prophet came to him and told him about the rich man who stole the sheep from the poor man for a feast. ( Part of the whole Bathsheba bit, I'm sure you are familiar). He said, people usually read this as a true story, but the story the prophet told was allegory. My friend said it was better to read the whole thing as allegory, that it was all fiction, but as you alluded, fiction can serve other purposes. I'm just wondering if you go that far, or if you only apply it to Genesis?

Tim K: I would like to know more about Thom Stark, I have a feeling that his book would be an interesting read. I do not want to seem as though I think everything in the OT can be rationalized away or even glossed over, that is not my intent. I do, however think that there are some things that may be said about the Ezekiel passage that Stark does not mention:

Based on the Hebrew construction of the passage it does not appear to be a command but a recitation of events, here is how it seems to read: “I defiled them through their gifts when they offered up every firstborn of the womb, so I might devastate them, that they might know that I am Yahweh.”
This is apparently a pretty radical notion since nowhere in the OT (at least that I am aware of) does Yahweh appear as the subject of the verb “to defile”. His intended defiling aim is achieved through the gifts of the people, that is through their offering of their firstborn children. The form of the latter statement is influenced by the traditional rite of redemption of the firstborn. In this instance, the Hebrew reads more literally (to transfer every first issue that open the womb) and I believe it refers to the Molech child sacrifices by which children were passed through fire. The verb used here, “to transfer”, is a shorthand version of the idiom “to pass through fire”, a terminus technicus for child sacrifice. I don’t think that Stark has it right here regarding an injunction by God to child sacrifice; it seems clear that the desecration of the Sabbath and the temple, the failure to care for the widows, orphans and the poor and the blatant ignorance of God’s commands led him to hand them over to their practices, and what they thought was pleasing was in the end their condemnation.

Tim K: Hey Scott, At this moment I would suggest that each section of the Bible should be read according to its genre. Where it is the poetry that we find in the Psalms, the polemic we find in Genesis or the wisdom literature of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. Regardless of whether or not a person believes that the text is true or inspired should not preclude the desire to read the text with the intention of understanding both its means and its methods.

That being said, I would suggest that anceient Near Eastern history (regardless of origin) and our ideas of modern history are quite different. I would disagree with you that the accounts of the Exodus are false, that is purely fictitious, as I believe there are sufficient grounds to believe that some sort of exodus trulely took place. How exactly it took place and under what conditions I don't think any historian could be completely certain. It might be easy to play the skeptic in this case but I would not go so far as to call the story false.

Tim K: Kenneth Kitchen has done some good work regarding some of the details of the Exodus that there is evidence for. I am not as familiar with this particular case, but I am more familiar with the Kings narratives and the evidence for the existence of the nation of Isael. I wonder, however, if we need to be careful not to completely discount ancient historical documents simply because we do not have a much to go on in reconstructing their occurence. Much of the evidence that we do have is contained in religious or imperial texts that present certain biases etc. which is normative for the literature of the time (it is actually quite normative for more modern accounts as well). Many events in history are known only be the records that were kept regarding their occurence, whether that is a single document, or a reference in another piece of literature. I am certainly aware that Isarel's own history is subject to their faith in God and must be read as such. I wonder though if much of ancient history should be read in such a light.
Tim K: Is it necessary that "inspiration" be a testable hypothesis? I am fairly certain that we may trust what the texts say based on a variety of factors, even if they are not scientifically verifiable on way or the other.
Tim K: I may be persuaded that a text is inspired based in part on the testimony of others and my own experience in relation to Scripture itself. It is similar to being persuaded that democracy is better than totalitarianism - this cannot be settled by scientific means but this does not prevent people from reaching their own conclusions on the matter. 
Ron N: Hi Tim. No worried about long posts - how else can one communicate? :)

I wouldn't think a non-divine text would have very much accuracy or precision at all; that's pretty much the point. A divine text, of course, could. If you don't think it's possible to transmit knowledge through words written on paper through time to communicate accurately, I'm not sure what you're doing posting on Facebook. The length of time would pose difficulties, but not insurmountable ones. Not even insurmountable ones for humans, let alone something as advanced as the gods. To suggest such knowledge would be useless seems disingenuous. There are multiple ways to 'hide' information in text that would be immediate apparent to modern writers, not to mention a plethora of modern information that would be of immediate use to a desert tribe. Sadly, we only get what is easily attributed to what a desert tribe could know.

However, if you don't believe Genesis was inspired, then we agree. Gods had nothing to do with it. Asking Christians to omit it from the Bible would be, I assume, the next logical step. I await your results.

You state that the Bible is not an scientific text; given the recent invention of science that goes without saying. To suggest, however, that it is not an *explanatory* text that tried (badly) to explain how things are and how they came to be is at odds with how the text has been used in the past, and how it is used today by approximately 30%-40% of Americans. Forgive me if it appears to me that your protestations are a rationalization of its thorough defeat intellectually as an explanatory text once science came along. The Bible was not written like "Animal Farm", it does not contain a disclaimer that it is a work of Fiction; to suggest otherwise is more than disengenuos, it would appear from my perspective to border on outright lying. That may be your singular perspective, but it is not (by any means) the view espoused popularly. The bible is not "The Daily Show", which speaks while admitting it's biased and possibly false, but resembles very closely "Fox News", which is also biased and possibly false but pretends that it is not. Like Fox News, the Bible's value lies in its ability to be a vessel for propaganda.

And you do not think Christianity opposes scientific progress? That religious terms such as blasphemy, infidel and apostate even exist, and the idea that questioning can be sinful, speaks to religion's long history of suppression. Science is built on the exchange and free criticism of ideas; by its very language this is antithetical to religious thought. From the war on evolution to stem cell research (along with forays into Global warming) religion acts as a powerful brake on progress. Simply considering its support of mysogeny and suppression of women's rights which delayed the entry of women into the scientific field hindered science enormously; direct suppression is not the only factor at work. One could even argue that religion's constant and active interference with human rights (from slavery to women's rights to gay marriage) has had a far larger impact on society and the sciences than any direct suppression. While there are today brave Christian men and women who are actively support the rights of all people, regardless of gender orientation, they are brave individuals who go against the commandments of their church leaders. As the movement grows, and churches face declining memberships, and finally cannot escape the shame of being so awfully wrong, they will point back to these brave men and women and claim that the church supported homosexuals all along. Just as they did with slavery, and the rights of women. The church wins because it changes and then lies about it, not because it possesses a superior set of ethics.

At a fundamental level, however, religion damages science like belief in any superstition damages sciences. It teachers people to be content with magical explanations. You wish an immedieate example? In a middle school I was told, almost in chorus, by a group of children I was teaching that they would never learn science because their parents *and their pastor* told them it was wrong. The topic was Evolution; the pastor evidently was keeping track of what was being taught and took steps to protect the literal reading of Genesis. This is the face of religion today; these "uncritical" Christians are the forces that shape our laws and politics. If you've risen above that, that's great. How about going the rest of the way to rationality and discard the iron-age ethics completely. And it's funny - while both Atheists and Theists have their share of non-critical thinkers, acceptance of basic scientific concepts is proportionally much much higher amongst those that call themselves non-religious.

I find it difficult to believe you are not familiar enough with the OT not to be aware of God's actions contained within, from the near sacrifice of Isaac, old Baldy, or the genocide of populations, excepting of the virgin women for rape. If you've read it, and haven't seen it, I'm not sure how to respond. Pick any one you'd like if you think you can justify it - I'm easy. Personally I like the story of Isaac and his near-sacrifice one of the best, but really anything will do. Old Baldy and the bears is nice as well. I find heinous things heinous regardless of ancient Near Eastern history. If we're again talking about a non-divine, non-inspired book that should not be taken as the foundation of a truthful religious text ... then fair enough. If not, then ancient practices are irrelevant. I expect the gods to know better.

Scott N: To quote Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". As soon as you claim divine "inspiration", I expect a little more than insights into things that might have occurred.

Are you familiar with The Bible Unearthed?
We totally can settle whether totalitarianism or democracy was better. Just pick a criteria. Standard of living, life expectancy, infant mortality rates, rights of women, and I could go on. As soon as you make a claim about the natural world, it falls into the realm of science. Period. Some things are more difficult than others to test. We can even look at the effects of religion on society, and see that it has a negative effect. http://www.amazon.com/Society-without-God-Religious-Contentment/dp/0814797148
I thought we already established personal experience and testimony were very lousy criteria for truth claims? I highly suggest digging into neuroscience on that subject, never ever trust your personal experience. If personal experience were valid, Penn and Teller are gods. If it really was valid, then UFO claimants actually have much much much better evidence than Christians. So many more eyewitness accounts. Or maybe, maybe, something else is going on in the brain. "How We Believe" by Michael Shermer is a good start on this subject. So is Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted Word", which does not take on religion, but more a primer on critical thinking and why you can't use testimony and personal experience.
If inspiration is not testable, but rather opinion, then discussion is useless. Then we are talking opinion. IE Chocolate vs Vanilla. I feel we are veering into the realm of Micheal Behe, who acknowledged that using his standard of evidence, astrology could be considered science.
If what you are saying is not provable, or even hypothetically testable, but just opinion based on experience and testimony, then I see no difference between what you are claiming and the claims of the Qur'an or Ron L Hubbard
.PS - I take all ancient documents in the same way, with a lot of skepticism. Without archeological evidence, or if they contradict physics, biology, chemistry, geology, then with a large large grain of salt. I certainly won't base any beliefs about the world on them. Except maybe the Stoics. I think those guys were on to something :-)

Ron N: Hey the Stoics. I always forget about them, and then they pop up. And they were suppressed along with other 'pagan' beliefs by the Christians, and the Christian Emperor. But Christianity doesn't impede progress - not at all.
We could've had working a working TARDIS by now if it wasn't for the Christians. Or at least a Holo deck. Sigh.
Ron N: Whoa, I just noticed the later posts with respect to things like democracy or totalitarianism, but Scott N's reply was spot on, so I'll leave it at that. 
Ben R: Hi Ron, I agree Thomas Nagel would make a great theist, maybe eventually he will be! You have a different way of looking at this than I. I would say that, given his recognition of the philosophical problems inherent in a purely physical explanation for everything, he seems uncomfortable with theistic explanations. Surely, he must be a torn individual.

You have some points worth considering regarding some of my theological comments. I'm not sure if I am correct to phrase "the greatest possible good for all involved" as the goal, or if it makes sense to speak of it in this way. My theodicy isn't fully formed yet, and perhaps a more studied theologian/philosopher would have similar criticisms. I don't think the actions recorded in the Old Testament, nor any occurrence of pain for that matter, preclude the possibility of a final just, merciful, and good outcome for all sufferers. This is something that I hope very much for, and, as I understand it, this is the claim that the bible makes, but it is not why I am a Christian. I don't think it makes me callous, but as callous as this sounds, scope and perspective do matter when making judgements. This is why I can question, but cannot judge. It might make me more hopeful (you might say deluded) than most, but it doesn't strip me of love. One of the major historical failings of the Evangelical Church, in North America especially, has been to focus on this final outcome to the exclusion of the obligations that love places on us. I don't think an honest reading of scripture allows us this luxury.

Ben R: Scott, I haven't read Kierkegaard, but based on what you said I think I would probably agree with him. I would add, though, that knowledge can make that leap easier, and even rational. I am certainly opposed to blind faith, as I think it's an incorrect understanding of what faith actually is. Faith must stand on reason, even if it's as simple as "I don't understand what you mean by X, but based on experience I believe you to be trustworthy, and therefore I will do X". It does open oneself up to risk, but I don't think you can live a functional life without doing this to some degree. Similarly, reason must stand on faith, reason itself is built on the faith that reality is reasonable.

In regards to determinism, I think it has some problems of it's own, given it's implications for comprehension and consciousness--and the ability to even argue for determinism. I sometimes wonder if everything that Sam Harris says and does is filled with irony, and if he ever feels irony at the fact that he is feeling irony, and if he ever feels....etc. It would be quite a strange way to live.
Ron N:Hi Ben. It makes complete sense to phrase an outcome as "the greatest possible good"; we're just left with defining 'good'. The problem is the statement "preclude the possibility of a final just, merciful, and good outcome for all sufferers." Setting aside the problem of just general evil, it simply doesn't work. Imagine someone using a "but they're in heaven now" as a defense if they murdered someone. Even if true it does not excuse the act of murder itself. It also fails as the people God either killed or gave permission to be killed in the OT are dead. Where is the chance for a good outcome?

Set the stage in your mind. A young male child, brown eyes and dark hair, is bound and captured by God's army. After receiving God's orders, a soldier walks over. The child presses into his mum, scared and frightened, she tries to sooth him. The soldier slices first his mum's throat in front of him, and then the boy's. He dies in terror, after having first watched his parents die.

If the Bible is to believed this actually happened, but even if it is merely intended to teach some sort of lesson it is held up as proper ethical behaviour. How can anyone read the Bible and not say outright that this is wrong, that if this is what God advocates that this part of God is wrong? A better description of evil would be difficult to find.

I do think this is what strips Christians of love. Or, more precisely, makes the love a perversion. Many many religious followers are very nice people. They demonstrate kindness, a altruism, etc. But you know, deep down in their theology, you can get them to cheerfully agree that this brutal murder was a good thing. There's love, and then there's the creepy kind of love that allows people to drink the poison kool-aid and smile when they talk of genocide. The problem with the idea of Christianity being a religion of love, is that the love includes this really creepy evil god-thing. Why bother with it? Why not keep the love, and chuck the Bible (or at least the parts you don't like) out the window? Jesus doesn't need to be a real character to inspire, and if it's an inspirational source you're free to cut out the ugly bits without trying to rationalize how they're really good, deep down or in the future. There's lots of Christians who would seem to be just the nicest people, and this just seems to cause all sorts of problems. Why not acknowledge that the Bible can be wrong, and just use it as an inspirational text when it makes sense to do so?
Ben R: Believe me Ron, I have no difficulty setting that stage in my mind, and have done so with similar scenarios many times. It moves me deeply. But as long as this stage really is set, and it really is the Christian God giving these orders, then you have to finish the story: with God dying on a cross a couple thousand years later, accomplishing who knows what (substitutionary justice may be part of it, but I don't believe it begins to cover it) to conquer death and bring the human family to himself, this boy alive once more on a renewed earth, all who have twisted the "but they're in heaven now" line to justify their own murders and lack of compassion given justice (and perhaps mercy as well if they will receive it--because in this story God loves all), and all who question and judge given a chance to bring their case before God to receive full satisfaction. If this is not actually the story then there is no point in judging it, one can move on without giving it a second thought, but if it actually is, then judgement must wait until full knowledge is received. Meanwhile, life is difficult, questions do not have easy answers, understanding is tenuous, and choosing to ignore what may have happened as part of this story to make it easier to deal with is an easy out. This is why I don't cut and paste the parts of the bible that I like in order to craft my own self-approved religion. Do I know that it is divinely inspired? No. Do I have sufficient reason to put faith in it? I think so. Is this wishful thinking? Possibly. Do I have all of it right? Certainly not. Do I understand all of it? No. Do I wish parts of the bible did not read as they do? Yup. Some Christians would disagree with me here, but I believe I stand on solid ground when I say that, although the bible does contain moral guidelines and sources of inspiration, its purpose is not to provide an inspirational source or a roadmap for how to live. It is God's account of his work in the world to bring about the reality that he desires: the redeemed and rescued human family living in free communion with each other and Him, having freely chosen this destiny without being coerced by an impossible to reject divine manifestation and thus override of their autonomy. The message of the New Testament is that in Christ this new reality has already begun to take place, and with his help we can and should start this new way of living--what he calls the Kingdom of God--now. Or it is merely a collection of historical texts depicting the turbulent history, stories, strivings, passions and beliefs of a people that has no real relevance to me. Whatever it is, it is complex and messy, and I don't have a right to change it. Is it a tripe answer to the problem of pain? No, it's far too complex for that. There is real loss involved, real pain, and--I believe--real hope, even for the apparently hopeless.
Ron N: Ben, that's precisely the problem; there is no moral accountant that says that you can 'make up' for a past wrong with a future right. Even if one accepts that vicarious redemption is a 'good' (and frankly it's a bizarre and unethical construct on its own), how does make up for the cruelty? This boy was not an Israelite, is not alive again, and if Christian theology is to be believed, is now burning in hell. How was this good again?

To suggest we must simply wait and it will all come out better sounds simply a justification for evil. Here we have an evil act. But wait! It's not really evil, because something we can't prove in the past will make a difference in the future after everyone is dead. While I certainly would agree that life is complicated, this simplistic answer to justify evil does not appear to help. It is the easy out. (Vicarious redemption, even if true, itself is the easiest of all outs - I'd much rather people took responsibility for their own sins.)

If, as you say, it does not provide a guide to living in the world, however, then we agree. And, like you, I judge God (or at least the concept) based on His behaviour in said book. However, I don't see how you rescue that family. They were killed by God's army for opposing Him, they were foreigners, and one must assume they never accepted God. Are we to assume God's going to be nice to them just because it makes a more Hollywood-style story ending?

The message of the New Testament isn't any better. It made it, in fact, much worse - Hell was invented in the NT. When looking at modern problems, even the idea of Heaven isn't helpful; I shudder to think of someone who truly believes in Heaven getting a hold of WMDs. As our tools and ability become more powerful, the problems created by this theology are becoming more serious.

No one is going to deny that there are rewards of real estate in the Bible, in response to a divine covenant. No one is going to deny It is inscribed in the text itself. No one can deny that the text makes specific promises of salvation that, if taken seriously, reduce one's responsibility while living. These are not reflections of a complex and messy existence, but the attempt for simple and easy answers, and they are not solved by any later events. Until we can divorce such beliefs from public life, we will continue to have even more complex, and even more messy existence.
Tim K: Hey Scott I can only suggest that any study of inspiration is done from the context of a worldview that allows for the existence of God. A philosophical naturalist/materialist would not be comfortable with explanations that concern things beyond the scope of empirical measurement. There are good arguments for a doctrine of inspiration, but those arguments entail a belief in God. It is a theological/philosophical argument and its claims to viability lie within those two referents and outside the realm of science.

I am familiar with the Bible unearthed and I agree with a number of their conclusions. Here is a quote from the NY Times review that I think sums up the manner in which history was written in the ancient Near East: “What actually happened and what a people thought happened belong to a single historical process.” And from the book itself: “"By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the entire Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time there were too many contradictions between archaeological finds and the Biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred (pp.19-21).” This was one of my textbooks in a first year OT class: http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Of-Biblical-Narrative/dp/046500427X#_
The ideas expressed in The Bible Unearthed are not new ones and OT scholars have been looking at the nature of OT narrative for a long time.
I think thatTotalitarianism and Democracy are philosophical/political concepts. You may be able to measure some of the results of these political systems, but it would be impossible to replicate all of the social and cultural values that influence these systems. To take some of your criteria, if we measure life expectancy the US and Cuba come out tied at 36th, while China far exceeds Russia in the overall rankings. If we incorporate infant mortality rates Cuba is tied with Canada in the top 30, while China again beats out democratic countries such as Russia and Ukraine. These results appear rather inconclusive and it would be a mistake to assume that the wealth of Canada and the United States was due to their reliance on democracy and not their exploitation of third world countries and resources through corporations, or in the case of the US, military superiority. Nor do I think that the abuses of some of the wealthier countries are indicative of conceptual democracy, they are only some of the observable results. I wonder about the negative reactions to Socialism in the US and whether or not they are making the mistake of equating the philosophical ideals of Socialism with some of the more disastrous political experiments. Does this make sense? I feel that these are value based and subjective philosophical concepts.
Do we not rely on personal experience to make the vast majority of our judgements? Is not science the result of our observations of the natural world and the observation of experimental results? I agree that there is, of course, a certain amount of subjectivity in our personal experiences, but that does not make them false a priori. As Thomas Nagel points out “We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics. Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related.
I would not say that inspiration is “un-provable” but that it properly belongs to the realms of philosophy and theology that don’t necessarily lend themselves to scientific verification.

Tim K: Hey Ron, Thanks for your comments here. I am not sure that the criteria for evaluating a divine text are that it contains modern scientific truths. Perhaps if the Bible were making truth claims regarding string theory or evolutionary theory there would be a reason to expect this type of data. As it stands I am not convinced that the criterion of an inspired document is the presence of modern scientific data. Unless you have some evidence that this is the case and not just your own personal expectations?

If you agree with me that Genesis is not a scientific text (and it never was) then that is fine, but why would that exclude it from being an explanatory text? Certainly it is trying to explain something, and that something is not scientific, so what is it? In the class that I teach on introductory theology I have yet to meet a student that uses the Genesis text as the overriding scientific grid for their scientific claims regarding the origins of the universe.
Does Animal Farm contain a disclaimer? Does the Daily Show? We understand their intentions because we are familiar with their genre. Making ourselves familiar with the genres present in the OT will help us in understanding its intention and its meaning. Animal Farm is a good example of the influence of genre on our understanding of a text – how is this a disingenuous analysis?
I don’t believe that you can separate slavery and women’s rights from the influence of society and culture and suggest that Christianity is in some sense responsible. I can point to secular/atheistic governments that have abused these rights and were responsible for reprehensible ideas. I meet people all the time who are racists, bigots and homophobes who have absolutely no religious affiliation.
Christians were involved in overcoming slavery in the US, unless Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln were non-influential figures. Pagan Rome was a terrible place to be a woman and they certainly had no value for slaves. Yet, as Christianity gained in popularity, a number of Roman philosophers suggested that it was the religion of women and slaves – due to its popularity among the most vulnerable in society. I do not deny that many things were done in the name of Christianity that have nothing to do with Christian values/morals, but this is true of all belief systems and it is just as true of secularism/atheism. Even Darwinism can become an abusive belief system, and there are scientists who actively believe in the “purification” of our species.
If you are going to engage in general assumptions and then apply these specifically to religion, that is being disingenuous. I would suggest you read “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” by David Bentley Hart. He engages with the questions of people who assume (quite falsely) that Christians oppose science or that they are responsible for (apparently) all of the ills of society

Tim K: Scott, how did the first mutation take place? Given that your answer should be scientifically testable, I am interested in your answer. 
Tim K: Ron, Have you read Dawkins desciption of the beginning of life in "The Blind Watchmaker"? It reads very much like a fictitious account, and yet Dawkins does not believe it is fiction (or to be more kind, complete speculation). 
Ben R: Hi Ron, what I meant by the "human family" was not the specific family represented by the boy and his parents, but humanity, which is a term I try not to use as to me it has a sterilizing effect - we can forget that "humanity" is people. I use "human family" as an attempt to recognize our inter-dependence and inter-relatedness, and perhaps be a little more understanding of the way we are seen by God. But as for the boy being in hell and beyond hope, I believe that view of Christian theology needs to be challenged. We cannot know for certain how God's justice and mercy plays out for each person, and it seems to me that each individual has a very large say on his or her own final outcome. The attack by the Israelite army was seen as God's judgement on that nation and society after a long period of forbearance, but I don't believe it means we can conclude that each individual within that society is damned, especially in the case of children, and especially as it is also a biblical doctrine that all are judged according to the light they have received. The existence of Melchizedek alone should challenge any notion that salvation is restricted to the nation of Israel (or strictly to "born again Christians" for that matter), and the repeated references throughout the Old Testament of the nations being blessed is further evidence that the plan has always been larger and more expansive than we have often given God credit for, although it is also clear that not all will be saved. Israel had a special status because they had a special role to play in history, not because they were the only ones set aside for salvation: they were the vehicle through which salvation was to come. Clark Pinnock has some interesting things to say about this in A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions.

The notion of "burning in hell" also needs to be challenged. Tim probably has a lot more knowledge on this, but I believe many of the common beliefs about hell are due to a medieval confusion of the strong language and imagery that Jesus used (again, not to be taken literally) to convey the severity of the fate of being eternally loathed by God with ideas taken from the underworld of Greek mythology (heaven has been similarly confused). Again, it is to be understood that God extends his mercy to all, and those who are in the state of hell are there because they don't want the alternative.

I agree with you that people should take responsibility for their own sins. The biblical concept of repentance doesn't give us any other option. Christians who forget this do so at their own peril. Grace, in this respect, isn't a wink and a license to do wrong. It is the profound power of love and mercy to influence a person to a true change of heart, in which they can willingly and sorrowfully own their own evils. I think Les Miserables (Liam Neeson version) depicts this beautifully.

I should also clarify my perspective on how the bible is to be used. My understanding of the world as influenced by my understanding of scripture and the story of God's redemptive work that it tells has a profound influence on how I live. I strive to live in a manner that pleases God. I start with the two greatest commandments, and read everything else through the lens that they provide. So in that sense, yes, the bible does guide my life. But those who use it merely as a manual will be sadly confused and (hopefully) disappointed, and will miss the point entirely. This can lead to horrible wrongs, and I agree with you that as our tools and ability increase the problem becomes more serious. I freely confess that American Fundamentalism scares me. A lot. I agree with you that this (and other harmful misuses) needs to be combated, but how I go about combating it is very different from how you do. I think we both strive to educate.
Ron N: Hi Tim,

There are no criteria for a divine document. One can, however, suggest criteria that would be evidence of its divinity. I would, at least, expect it to be consistent with the truth. If something contains communication from a being that knows the truths contained within the entire universe, I expect a little more than getting the value of 'pi' wrong, or getting getting the entire creation story wrong (twice). It's always interesting to observe how parts of the Bible become metaphorical *after* science ends up contradiction them. (And in the case of Genesis, it does not appear that a sizeable majority even thinks it metaphorical). Of course a divine document may not correspond to any of my expectations, but it should have multiple lines of evidence making its divine nature unquestionable. It certainly doesn't have anything that even would lend credibility to an intelligently written human document, let alone a divine one. Accuracy and precision would have been a useful marker, but with those eliminated and no other indicators we can justify treating the bible as non-divine.

You seem to have mistaken my statement about an 'explanatory text' - just because it's explanatory doesn't mean it isn't taken as factual. Certainly the Bible used to be taken as a text that explained the universe, factually, much as science does now far more accurately. To brush that aside and to claim it makes *different* explanations about other things seems a bit hasty. I'm sure it did both. It hasn't got anything else right, why should anyone accept it as being anything beyond its very human origins. Nobody is holding up 'Animal Farm' and suggesting the events of that book have actually happened. A sizeable number, possibly even a majority, suggest the events of Genesis are to be taken literally. It is disingenuous to ignore how the Bible is actually used by priests and preachers representing Christianity actually use the text is more than just ignorance. It's an active 'pretending' that must actively ignore the stated purpose of the Bible. If you feel otherwise, don't tell me - tell your local church and Sunday school teachers.

As for combining Christianity and culture to excuse slavery, misogyny (and I assume child abuse, and a thousand other things), I can only echo the frustrated sentiments of Stephen Fry and ask "Then what are you for!?" It contains no scientific accuracy you say. It also appears to then contains no moral accuracy, merely reflecting the cultural mores of the time. So we can throw the Bible out, by your own admission.When the Bible itself is an instruction book for slavery, pointing out Christians that fought against it ring relatively hollow. Ignoring the supposedly divine text to recognize changing ethical understanding is the same as ignoring it as a factual text when better scientific explanations come along. That people can ignore their religious texts when necessary demonstrates that people are better than the ethics in their holy texts, not that the holy text contains better ethics. Since you yourself seem to have lumped it in with all other 'belief systems', it seems you agree it can't be any better.

Your last points seem bizarre. Evolution isn't a "belief system", any more than germ theory or relativity is a belief system. Despite your stating that Genesis is a poor document to take factually, are you an evolution-denier? The only major group I know that is for letting some sort of 'survival of the fittest' social theory are (ironically enough) American conservative Christians, most of whom don't believe in evolution. I know of no scientists who do so, which seems appropriate as most scientists would be well aware of the difference between ethical philosophy and a scientific theory.

I'm not particularly interested in a book that purports to pretend that religion doesn't oppose science. It's a bit like recommending a book to tell me that Communism is perfectly happy with Capitolism - I prefer the facts on the ground. From stem cell research, to evolution, to global warming there has been clear pressure from Christians to hinder scientific progress, not to mention the factual reading of the Bible has supported the suppression of human rights from condoning slavery to putting women in their place. No amount of apologetic literature (in both senses of the word) could make up for that.

Ron N: Re: Dawkins and "The Blind Watchmaker"
Sure I've read it. Loved it. It's a very good summary of the concepts in evolution. I'm not sure what your point is. Do you mean the preface on complex design? Or the first chapter summarizing what it is evolution explains? This is beginning to suggest some sort of anti-evolution stance; is that true? And why are you bringing Dawkins and evolutionary theory into it?
Ron N: Ben, It would then seem we agree more than we disagree. If you think that version of Christianity should be challenged, then I'm all for it. I merely challenge it by rejecting it, and using an objective ethical theory in its place. In fact, I would argue that you appear to do much the same; re-interpreting everything in light of specific principles. I would suggest that the choice of principles (and which are the 'greatest') comes from your own intellect and rationality. I would probably have an irritating observation that the good you do isn't due to Christianity, but in spite of it, as it allows you to bypass many of the inevitable negative outcomes and conclusions. My apologies in advance - that's probably as annoying for you as people who tell me I have 'Christian Values' despite being an atheist is for me. :) 
Scott N: I had a good weekend with Niki, so I didn't have too much chance to comment on here. I must say I have enjoyed this.
 Ben, I think if the majority of Christianity morphed into your belief system, that would probably be a good thing. Christianity seems to constantly reinvent itself, so hopefully your way of living it wins out, as I don't think it is going anywhere. While we fundamentally disagree on the nature of the natural, and I would rather get guidance from Stoic thinking and Doctor Who. (I'm not being facetious about Doctor Who, watched a bunch of the Matt Smith episodes yesterday. I really do find it inspiring and encouraging, and to me, a better moral guide than the Bible.) Obviously you disagree, but at least you have acknowledged the cognitive dissonance that much of Christian teaching can lead to and have rectified the situation in your own way. I took a different way when the same happened to me, as I did not see the value of trying to make it work, but you did. I think Ron makes a good point in that telling your local churches and Sunday school teachers would be a good thing. I think you might acknowledge that you are not in the majority, so you have some work cut out for you.
Tim, I don't know how the first mutation took place. I would refer to the quote from Feynman I used last week. I'm sure someone will figure it out one day, if humanity can keep going. To quote comedian Dara O'Briain, "Science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it'd stop."
I agree with you here, "We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics." But things like neuro-science informs our philosophy, just like all science does. At the same time, if you hold that a good criteria for belief are personal testimonies and experiences, you are going to end up believing in a lot of crazy.
The fact that the Bible contains historically accurate accounts, mixed with mythology does not give it any credence beyond something similar to any other ancient stories or religious text. I would never claim it was just made up by a bunch of priest, but there is some of that. The book of Daniel would be a good example. We know around the time it was written because of the inaccuracies in the "prophecy". The prophecies in Daniel went something like this, accurate, accurate, accurate, completely wrong. The most probable interpretation is that the author was writing history as prophecy, then made his own prediction about his current day, and it didn't work out. So there's some history, some other stuff, all very interesting.
The Bible seems to like to argue with itself, bits contradict other bits, the concept of god changes throughout it, the idea for the need for a messiah arose after exile, and so on. It's interesting, and I think worthwhile studying, just not something I think needs to be used as a filter for discovering of truth or the nature of reality.
Yes, we can use metaphor and fiction to get truth and ideas across, unfortunately the Bible doesn't even do that very well. So that's probably not the best use for it. Learning about human culture, thought, and how religious practice changes, that's much more worthwhile use of the Bible.
I don't really understand what point you were making about political systems. My only point was that you could pick criteria(s), and compare them. I never said it wouldn't be complicated. I don't think America has a liberal democracy. I think democracy can be a lousy system. The Germans elected their government in the 30's, most people forget that. That's why I put the word liberal before the word democracy. This is a whole other discussion though, and I feel like it's a bit of a red herring. I'm just going to list what I think are my main points, just to keep on point.
1 - Bible not divine. In any way. No evidence for this beyond circular reasoning. The book you linked does seem to point out that it is a great literary text, to which I would agree. The rhythm of the KJV is Shakespearean and amazing. Doesn't give it divinity though, or give us any insight into nature and the cosmos.
2- The gods described in said Bible do not exist. (as god changes, and that there is more than one, I think is commonly understood. I could be wrong. Either way, one god, or many, the ones in Bible probably don't exist.)
3 - The universe exists, we can learn things about it, and science is the best tool we have invented for doing that.
4 - A deistic type god could exist, but that doesn't really bother me, which is why I'm atheist in life, agnostic in religious philosophy.
There's lots of more stuff, but I feel like those are the main things that I am trying to point out in this thread.

I don't know if you'll read it, or find it relevant, but I think you might enjoy exploring this blog. Luke has moved on from it, but there is a lot in the archives, and based on your responses, I feel like you might find it worthwhile.
I remember when he wrote this entry,
I had never heard of the Solomonoff induction, but it seem pretty fascinating. I was fine with the reasons he gave for not believing before he mentioned it :-)
Scott N: I think Ron's responses are spot on btw. To Add some humour, here is the comedian I quoted.
The quote is at the 2:30 mark. Proven fact, Irish accents make things funnier.

Tim K: Hey Scott,

I am glad that you had a good weekend. I mention the scientific theories surrounding the idea of the first mutation only to hopefully illustrate that science takes its inevitable progress and explanatory capabilities as a matter of faith. If Darwinian evolutionists failed to discover exactly what caused the first mutation it would not make the theory itself false or Christianity somehow true. Even so, I wonder if we accept our beliefs based on our views of the world, rather than simply on the evidence available. The “God of the gaps” theory simply confines God only to the spaces that science has not been able to conclusively explore. I prefer instead the idea that the intelligibility of the universe itself requires explanation. It is not entirely for pragmatic reasons either but it is rooted in the belief that belief in God is possessed of explanatory vitality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in conclusion to his essay “Is theology poetry?”: I believe in Christianity, as I believe that the sun has risen, not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”. Sometimes we are obliged to accept the presuppositions of our conclusions.
With respect to the nature of the biblical narrative, rather than engage in specifics which would occupy a great deal of space it is perhaps best to suggest that the Bible is a particular type of narrative that unfolds over a vast period of time. It is comprised both of ancient sources and those from later periods of time. Some of the difficulties that people highlight in the text reflect the manner in which sources or material was compiled, sometimes they reflect the inability of the scribe, and sometimes they reflect on our own ability to reflect on and understand ancient Near Eastern culture. The history of biblical interpretation has encompassed a broad range of scholarship, from Greek philosophy to secular humanism and postmodernism. Scholars actively seek to answer these questions even if they are not always answered in the pews. Many of your objections have been demonstrated, articulated and understood to various degrees by OT scholars and this contributes to our current understanding of the text, which of course is always open to revision and insight. What bothers me is that insight often comes in the form of ridicule, or debasement which is seemingly unaware of the history of scholarship that precedes it.
When I speak with Ron about understanding the genre of Genesis it is with the understanding that any interpretation is part of a long history of textual criticism by which we come to understand and reflect on things such as genre and history. Christianity is just as susceptible to cultural movements as any other belief system, biblical interpretation has been effected by the enlightenment and by modernism as very well it should have been. The sort of claims put forth by philosophers such as Carl Sagan – that the tradition of Greek science to which the rise of Christianity supposedly put an end was progressing inexorably toward modern physics, modern technology, and space travel – are false. As David Lindberg notes, “it is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A. D. 200. Science had never been pursued by very many people; it now attracted even fewer. And its character shifted away from original thought toward commentary and abridgment. Creative natural science was particularly scarce in the Roman world, where scholarly interests leaned in the direction of ethics and metaphysics; such natural science as Rome possessed was largely confined to fragments preserved in handbooks and encyclopaedias.” And, as Lindberg notes, there is no historical warrant for the belief “that the advent of Christianity did anything to diminish the support given to scientific activity or the number of people involved in it.”
The only point that I was making regarding political systems was that evaluating them was value based and subjective. I imagine that they are theoretical ideas, not so much scientific hypothesis.
I completely agree with points 3 and 4 that you make Scott and I would add things like neuroscience etc. to the growing list of scientific advancements that Christians should be aware of. I would only alter 1 and 2:
1. I believe in the existence of God – from this I would find support for the idea of inspiration, it is not really a prerequisite.
2. The Bible is the form through which God chose to communicate with us. This communication is made most clearly in the person of Christ Jesus.
Christian Fundamentalism is not the normative method of interpretation and it really is unfortunate that they are so vocal, yet woefully unprepared to deal with well-argued critiques of Christianity. There are, however, numerous scholars and believers who are equipped to answer difficult challenges and accept new scientific advancements as relevant to faith. “All reasoning presumes premises or intuitions or ultimate convictions that cannot be proved by any foundations or facts more basic than themselves, and hence there are irreducible convictions present wherever one attempts to apply logic to experience.”
I have a feeling that our ideas regarding politics would be quite similar – it is too bad that rational arguments are not allowed and that partisan politics are the norm. It is a good thing the Republican’s filibustered Obama care or we would be calling it the Socialist States of America.

Tim K: I enjoyed the comedian and everything does sound better with an Irish accent. 
Tim K: Hey Ron, I tried to answer some of what you addressed to me in my reply to Scott. David Lindberg is a credible historian from the University of Chicago who demonstrates fairly clearly that Christianity was not opposed to science. I am not sure where the opposition that you discuss emanates from, I wonder if science was presented in a more objective manner rather than a critique of religion, if more people would listen. 
Tim K: You are aware, I am sure, that slavery and the suppression of women's rights seems to extend beyond culture, society and religion. Secularism (which has been the dominating force for some time now) has not seen fit to erase these injustices either. As for Christianity being used as a justification for slavery, I would point to Gregory Nazianzus' sermon against slavery around 300 A. D. and the word of the apostle Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." 
Ben R: I too have enjoyed this conversation. Respect to you all. Ron, I recognize that given your worldview you've given me a compliment, but of course I disagree as to the role that Christianity has played in my life. Scott, maybe I am in a minority, but if so, then I'm in good company. There's a lot being written and spoken about these issues, and a lot of people are paying attention. The popularity of N.T. Wright in particular shows that there are many who are more or less on the same path. I also think that Fundamentalism isn't the majority, even if it is very powerful within the States, and I agree with Tim that it certainly isn't normative. Tim, I've been really appreciating your responses. I would add that Paul's letter to Philemon is a delicious example of his subtlety in dealing with matters of equality, and his awareness that gentle persuasion can accomplish more than an ultimatum, especially when law is on the side of the oppressor. Your earlier point on the Roman critique of Christianity as the religion of women and slaves speaks powerfully to the reality of how early Christian community challenged the norms of Roman social position.

Scott N: Hey guys, been wanting to comment, been doing other stuff though. Ben, the early Christians did challenge the people in power and give status to women. So did the early Islamic movement. I don't think it lasted long in Christianity or Islam. The persecutions of Christians by the Romans was spotty, and very rarely Empire wide. I think the Christian violent persecution of the pagans as soon as they were the ones in power indicates they were just another social movement. Some good, some bad, nothing divine. I think Pauls popularity among current atheistic Marxist philosophers indicates that he had some ideas that resonated with people. Paul borrowed from the Stoics and his Jewish heritage and helped create a religion. Now people are borrowing from him.
Tim, the fact that secularism doesn't fix everything right away, to me, isn't an argument against it. "Secularism" isn't claiming backing from any god. The fact that Christianity does, and is just as bad, if not worse, is just proof that it is another human construct.
I am going to put this comment thread on my blog. Don't want to lose it. As we comment, I'll keep the blog updated, just an FYI. I've removed last names too. http://noophy.blogspot.ca/2012/04/fun-facebook-discussion.html
Oh, and Tim, I missed your responses to Thom Starks book. I'm still reading the book. Fascinating stuff, be interested in your responses to it. At the moment, he is destroying the claim that the Jews were always monotheistic, giving a good show on why Yahweh started out as a war god among a pantheon of gods. I think he's Christian though, so I'm curious where he takes me with his book. Here is his web page. http://thomstark.net/
I would lend you the book when I'm done, but you are in CR.