The Oral Tradition

Where did stories about Jesus originate?

Memory and the Oral Tradition, part 2

The passing on of stories from memory is the ‘oral tradition’ that some argue preserved the words of Jesus more or less accurately for forty years. We’re expected to believe that eye-witnesses recalled in precise detail what Jesus said and did; that they all largely agreed on what this was; that none of them embellished or altered their recollections in any way in the telling and that they were passed on to convert after convert after convert in precise and unaltered form. And then, that no-one in forty years amended or refined the stories in any substantial way, because if they did the originators of the tales would be quick to point out any inaccuracies.

We know this isn’t what happened. The stories evolved and were refined and embellished as they were passed along for forty years between numerous converts. The defence that ancient largely illiterate cultures were better at faithfully preserving stories orally than we are today is a myth. (See EhrmanHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation Of A Jewish Preacher from Galilee)

Even when some of the oral stories about Jesus were eventually written down, as in the gospels, they continued to evolve; Matthew and Luke both altered stories they took from Mark while John’s Jesus, in the latest of the canonical gospels, is a different creation altogether; either the source stories John knew had evolved quite differently from those Mark, Matthew and Luke had access to, or John created his Jesus out of whole cloth himself.

These stories once written down were changed again, both deliberately and accidentally, whenever the gospels were copied. We know this from the myriad of differences in the extant manuscripts. As Bart Ehrman puts it in Misquoting Jesus, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament’. The evolution continued. This is why the Jesus seminar concluded, controversially, that only 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels can be regarded as originating with him. I consider this to be over-generous. 

Even if the writers of Jesus stories took some of their material from the so-called oral tradition (aka, ‘stories that were being passed around’), we have no way of knowing which of it, if any, is an accurate representation of the things Jesus did and said. It’s unlikely much of it is, given how stories are misremembered, reshaped and altered over time. Their evolution makes them less reliable, not more.

By the way, you’ve not read the post I wrote on Cape Cod. Most of it was completed in Boston and I’ve edited and posted it from my home in the UK. In other words, it evolved in various locations. Kind of like the gospels.

 

The Evolution of Jesus II: from Life Giving Spirit to God the Son and beyond.

A couple of decades after the first visions of a risen Jesus, a Jewish zealot called Saul decided he’d seen him too. He came to imagine a vision he’d had in his head was this same Jesus, who then revealed to Saul – all entirely within his head as he admits – what his death and return from the dead really meant. Paul, as he renamed himself, announced that God had decided Jesus was a good man and returned him to life after his execution. In doing so, God made Jesus his Son (you can read all this poppycock in Romans 1:3-4). Jesus was now a life-giving spirit, the Saviour Christ: 1 Corinthians 15:45. (Maybe though Jesus always had been this; it’s kind of confusing, but in Philippians 2:6-8 Paul seems to think Jesus was some sort of quasi-divine being from the get-go. Take your pick. Whatever.)

Memetic selection ensured the survival and perpetuation of Paul’s bizarre idea, one that was, after all, not unfamiliar to the Hellenised people of the first century. The superstitious embraced and transmitted it without knowing a thing about any itinerant Jewish preacher. 

The next stage of Jesus’ evolution came twenty or so years later, when a believer we now know as Mark decided to write a back story for this Christ. He created his story using Jewish scripture, Paul’s ideas and the rules of the sect to which he belonged. Who knows if Mark believed Jesus had ever been a real person who trudged around Palestine preaching the good news about the end of everything, but in Mark’s story he had him do just that. He decided, crucially, that he wouldn’t have Jesus become God’s adopted son at the time of his spiritual resurrection. Instead, Mark had him become God’s son at his baptism (Mark 1.10-11).

This wasn’t quite good enough for the next two cultists who attempted a Jesus narrative. While they plagiarised much of Mark’s story, they changed details and made up more for Jesus to say and do. Importantly, where Mark had avoided suggesting Jesus’ resurrection appearances had occurred in the real world, Matthew and Luke showed no such reticence. Their Jesus(es) showed himself not in visions but in the flesh. It’s likely Matthew at least knew he was creating a symbolic, literary representation of others’ visions.

At the other end of the story, Matthew and Luke invented largely incompatible birth stories for their hero. For Matthew, Jesus was the Messiah from the time he was born, fulfilling all the prophecies Matthew borrowed to create his nativity story (he doesn’t: the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew manipulates is not divine but a human warrior).

Luke, on the other hand, is determined to push Jesus’ divinity even back further. For Luke, Jesus became divine when God magically made Mary pregnant; Luke’s Jesus is quite literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Unfortunately, Mary forgot all about being impregnated by the Holy Semen Spirit later on in Luke’s ridiculous story. Nevertheless, Jesus’ status had evolved again; he’d become God’s son from the very moment of conception.

Even this was not good enough for the next version of the Jesus’ story. The writers of the fourth gospel decide to make him eternal and part of God himself. Plundering Greek philosophy and Paul’s ruminations from Philippians, they declare Jesus the ‘Logos’; the Word or aspect of God responsible for the creation of everything (John 1:1-5). And despite this being as far from an itinerant peasant preacher as it’s possible to be, even more gullible folk came to believe it.

Jesus’ evolution was still not complete, however. The council of Nicaea in 325 decided that Jesus was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – but couldn’t quite decide whether being the Logos and the Son of God actually made Jesus God Incarnate. It wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople in 381 that a collection of bishops decided Jesus was, after all, officially part of the Godhead. The apocalyptic preacher from the backwoods finally became God the Son, a mere 350 years after he lived (if indeed he did).

Jesus has continued to evolve ever since, becoming all things to all people; a God pliable enough to be whatever his followers want him to be: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Evangelical, Mormon, fringe cult. He’s evolved into a schizophrenic deity capable of being both meek and mild and bellicose; best buddy and chief executioner; Christian Nationalist, socialist and capitalist, gay and anti-gay, pro-family and anti-family; anti-abortion and pro-gun; environmentalist and iconoclast; the one who promotes a prosperity gospel and the ‘One True God’ known (only) to a select few. Every contradictory manifestation is supported by the Bible, the Church or tradition. Every one is non-existent and ultimately pointless.

That’s some evolution.

The Evolution of Jesus I: from Itinerant Preacher to Death-Defying Vision

Image by Doppler, from YouTube video The Evolution of Jesus Christ.


Everything evolves. Not just Life, but the Mind, Personality, Morality and Culture. This is the thesis of Matt Ridley’s book, The Evolution of Everything: How Small Changes Transform Our World, in which he demonstrates that everything, from the Economy and Technology to Government and Education, were originally, and to some extent remain, bottom up phenomenon. Each emerged because of the developments that had preceded them; for this reason, they couldn’t arrive before they did, but their arrival, when it came, was inevitable. The time was right. Once each did arrive, it embarked on an inexorable process of change. It evolved.

‘Everything’, of course, includes Religion. As Ridley says (p259):

Further evidence for the man-made nature of gods comes from their evolutionary history. It is a little-known fact, but gods evolve. There is a steady and gradual transformation through human history not only from polytheism to monotheism, but from gods who are touchy, foolish, randy and greedy people, who just happen to be immortal, to disembodied and virtuous spirits living in an entirely different realm and concerned mainly with virtue. Contrast the vengeful and irritable Jehovah of the Old Testament with the loving Christian God of today.’

This is undoubtedly the case (Ridley presents his evidence); religion is an entirely human enterprise that developed from the bottom up. It too evolved. As Ridley shows, there is no other way.

While Ridley doesn’t discuss it, this evolutionary process applies to Jesus too. This seems to me apparent, rather than a little-known fact. He didn’t spring from nowhere; the time was right for him. By the start of what is now the first century, an apocalyptic brand of Judaism had emerged, inspired in part by the book of Daniel and other late Old Testament prophecy. It was whipped to fever pitch during the Roman occupation. People were anticipating that the Messiah would soon rescue them by force; the time was right for him to appear. And appear he did, in multiple forms, all of them eliminated by the Romans. Jesus was one of these.

He began either as an itinerant preacher with delusions of grandeur or he was an imaginary being whom a few people thought miraculously appeared to them. It doesn’t matter which; even if he existed, he very quickly evolved into a supernatural being. As an itinerant preacher he would have wandered around a small part of Palestine with a handful of followers, mouthing platitudes and predicting that God’s Kingdom would soon be arriving, and that he would be its king. Instead, he was executed for insurgency. Shortly afterwards, a couple of his followers swore they’d seen him alive again. With this claim Jesus made an evolutionary leap, from troublesome Jewish preacher to death-defying vision.

His evolution was underway.

To be continued…

Responding to a Christian

I responded to comments by our resident cultist, Don Camp, who replied with the following (and more: see comments). I want to pick up (in blue) on some of the points he makes:

I originally asked Don: why is it that whenever anyone asks you to provide evidence for your beliefs, or to confirm what those beliefs actually are, you invariably side-step the issue.

Don: That seems to be the procedure (your procedure, Don?) here and on most atheist blogs, I might add. I really think that I have answered that question clearly enough to be understood (you’ve responded to some questions but have provided evidence for very little of what you’ve claimed. Bible quotes are not evidence.) If not, there is my blog post. But I would ask the same and have of all of you. What do you believe to be true about life and reality? And why or what evidence do you have to support that belief?

Don, there’s ten years’ worth of blog posts on Rejectingjesus, many of which are about what I believe and the evidence I have for those beliefs. I’m not going to reiterate all of them here for your benefit. If you’re interested you could read the posts here, here, here, here and here. I suspect you’re not though; this is just another tactic to deflect the question away from yourself. Don’t you think it reasonable when you launch your sermonettes on other people’s blogs that they ask you to supply evidence for the beliefs you’re promoting? 

Don: I usually get what, I believe, Ark said when I asked about his evidence for Materialism: Everything we know has natural causes, so to presume that the whole universe has a natural cause reasonably follows. (My paraphrase) That is honest and clear. But that is the very same kind of evidence I’ve provided for my worldview. You, Neil, have not provided even that much. Usually I get something like: Atheism, is about what we don’t believe, and we don’t believe there is evidence for God. The trouble is that is negative that conveniently sidesteps the question.

So you do get answers to your questions (so what you moaning about?) I concur with Ark. However, you do not provide the same sort of evidence. You generally rely on the argument from incredulity: I can’t see how something so amazing as the universe could have come into existence on its own, therefore God must’ve done it.’ This is not evidence. You then make the further unfounded claim that this God must be your God who magically created everything via the agency of his Son. Whatever this means, it is not evidence. (Before you say you don’t do this, just check out your further comment below.)

Neil: How about answering my question: do you subscribe to Paul’s first century view that ‘the world’ is governed by wicked powers and principalities that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem…

Don: No and Yes. No, I don’t think that people are governed by those powers, but they are influenced by them. Yes, I believe there are powers that influence people. And I believe that people can so give themselves to that influence that I would say they are governed by them. (my emphasis). So no prevarication here then! Now how about answering mine. Do you believe that reality is purely material? See above and the posts I directed you to. There is no evidence for the supernatural.

Neil:  Could only a blood sacrifice, in God’s eyes ameliorate (the effects of these demons)?

Don: No. Those powers do not cause sin. We do. (And that I believe is really Paul’s view.) Right. So you know what was really Paul’s view, which, it turns out, is not the one expressed in Ephesians 2:1-3 & 6.11-13. (Addendum: it’s widely acknowledged that Paul didn’t actually write Ephesians. It’s a later forgery based on Colossians.)

Don: No. I believe that only forgiveness can ameliorate sin. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is the act of forgiveness made visible. Does your believing make it so? Where does the bible actually say this?

Neil: where is your evidence that this (Paul’s worldview) is reality?

Don: I am not sure what “this” means. There are too many possible referents. If you replace that with a specific, I’ll answer.

It’s clear and specific, Don. We were discussing Paul’s worldview. I asked if you believed it and if so, what evidence you had that ‘this’, Paul’s demon-infested world, was real. You’re side stepping again. 

Me: Or how about answering Ark’s question about whether you believe Jesus was the creator of the universe and what evidence there is for such a belief?

Don: I don’t recall that question exactly (!) But the answer is I believe that God created the universe through the agency of his Son and the earth within it. (And I think that is the crux of our differences). You’re not kidding. 

Don: Evidence “succinctly” is, to use a metaphor, his fingerprints are all over it. Is a metaphor evidence? I don’t think so. It’s a literary device. In any case, every other religion that claims a creator God says the same thing. 

HOW DO YOU THINK THE UNIVERSE CAME TO BE, AND WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE FOR SUCH A BELIEF? AND HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE DYSFUNCTION OF HUMANITY THAT CAUSES ALL THE CHAOS AND DESTRUCTION MORALLY AND SOCIALLY? AND FINALLY, WHAT IS THE REMEDY?

My God. You’re gone all caps lock. In answer to your very important questions, see my response above. To summarise:

It is largely irrelevant what I THINK about the origin of the universe. It’s possible, however, that the universe has always existed in some form. You claim this for your God when there’s no evidence he exists; assuming those same qualities for something that does is a more realistic prospect. It is indeed what a number of scientists think. (I expect you’ll know better).

The ‘dysfunction of humanity.’ Is it dysfunctional? Many of us are kind and decent. Humanity is what it is, and it is what it is because we’re evolved primates.

The remedy for what, Don; for what we are? It’s quite likely there isn’t one. Jesus certainly isn’t it. History teaches us that Christianity has only provided some of us with an excuse to behave even more reprehensibly (Putin claims to be a Christian albeit a Catholic; he says one of the reasons he’s invaded Ukraine is to impose traditional Christian values on the country.)  If anything is going to improve us, it’s education; it has civilised us to a significant extent but still has a lot to overcome. 

That’s it. Now go and read those old posts before writing your next sermonette. 

The Trouble With Atheists: A Christian Sets Us Straight

My friend Bruce Gerencser was good enough to repost my previous post on his blog. It prompted a comment from someone calling himself James Thompson, who Bruce says used a fake email address and quite possibly a false name. (These Christians; so fearless and honest in all their doings!) Here’s what ‘James’ had to say:

It’s because that’s what you live to do argue the truth. You’re not “atheists”. Antitheists yes. Agnosticism yes. A true atheist would not give a rip about the discussion on this blasphemous blog.

And atheists don’t go out seeking to remove Mickey Mouse from everything.

Or Buddha or Mohammed.

But they do Jesus Christ because Satan knows he is the only one who can bring salvation

I did respond to James on Bruce’s blog but wanted to address his garbled points, such as they are, more fully here. They’re typical of the low level thinking Christians and others use to defend their beliefs.

It’s because that’s what you live to do argue the truth.

Amazingly James has an uncanny insight into the minds of atheists; we live only to argue the truth, by which he means, presumably, critiquing his pet deity and magical saviour. Most of the time, most atheists barely give these two mythical beings a second thought; neither do I when I’m not blogging. I live for entirely different things.

You’re not “atheists”. Antitheists yes. Agnosticism yes.

But wait! People who don’t believe in his God aren’t, according to the omniscient James, atheists; they’re anti-theists. Okay, I concede; I am opposed to the notion that there’s a loving God somewhere out there who is interested in us and has made it possible for us to know him by, according to James and other deluded souls, making his only son a blood sacrifice. I dispute this silly idea, which has no evidence to support it, and is, as Jesus is made to say in Matthew 11.25, irrational and illogical. So yes, I’m an anti-theist. I’m also anti-theist because of what believers in the one true God (in his various guises) do terrible things to each other and to non-believers. And when they’re not doing that, they’re parading their ignorance, propagating their book of myths and spells, denying evolution, dumbing down children’s education, suppressing LGBT+ people and threatening everyone who doesn’t subscribe to their superstition with eternal damnation. I mean, what’s not to like?

 A true atheist would not give a rip about the discussion on this blasphemous blog.

And then James returns to his mind reading act. How does he know what a ‘true atheist’ might think of Bruce’s blog? There are plenty of atheists who comment there; whether they are ‘true’ atheists apparently only James knows.

And atheists don’t go out seeking to remove Mickey Mouse from everything.

It is true atheists (which we’re not, according to James) don’t seek to remove Mickey Mouse from everything, whatever this means. But then Mickey Mouse doesn’t start wars, condemn everyone as wicked sinners or try to control their sex lives. Disneyworld would quickly go out of business if he did. (That Donald Duck is a different kettle of fish however.)

Or Buddha or Mohammed.

James then scrapes the bottom of the cliché barrel: ‘You wouldn’t dare criticise the revered characters of other religions’. Yes, we would. As I said in my post, which evidently James didn’t read, there is no supernatural. All gods, ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, heaven and hells, from whichever religion or superstition they emanate, are figments of the imagination.

But they do Jesus Christ because Satan knows he is the only one who can bring salvation

These two as well. The Christ and his evil doppelganger, Satan, are human inventions. As fantasy figures they are open to as much ridicule and ‘removal’ as any other imaginary being. Perhaps more, given the damage they’ve caused and continue to cause.

James has been sold salvation snake-oil and thinks that because he’s been duped, everyone else should be too. Or at the very least should respect his delusion. Ain’t gonna happen, Jimmy boy. You need to grow up a little. And maybe also learn some grammar.

All Along The Watchtower

One post in and already a diversion from my planned ’12 Rules’ series. This is because I was fortunate enough to receive a letter in the post recently from my ‘neighbours’, Jim and Sandra. You can see it above. I’ve no idea who Jim and Sandra are – I’ve changed their names here to protect the guilty – but they tell me they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. They want to convince me of their God, first by pointing out that we are, everyone of us, created by him. They then proceed to demonstrate their God’s existence with rather weak versions of the weak ‘argument from design’, with a spot of the so-called ‘argument from incredulity’ thrown in. Having ‘proved’ God, they conclude with a lovely non-sequitur, that God = purpose.

As they had gone to a lot of trouble to do this, I felt Jim and Sandra deserved a reply, specially as they were kind enough to include their email address. So here it is.  

Hi Jim and Sandra,

I was interested to get your letter recently. I notice you ask the question, ‘was life created?’ Of course it was! You’ll get no argument from me there. Nature and the processes of natural selection and evolution created life as we know it today. You of course want to draw God into these processes, but actually he’s not needed to explain them. 

Your ‘argument from design’ doesn’t work at all, because if God created all the wonderful, intricate things you talk about, he also created viruses, including covid-19, cancer and parasites. You can’t say he created everything and then discount all the nasty things as the product of natural processes or man’s sin or whatever. Either everything was made by God or everything is the result of natural processes – you don’t get to pick and choose. 

You say that only (your) God could make all the complexities of life, as complexity necessitates a creator. But that creator must, by definition, be more complex than his creation – yet you don’t think he had a creator, do you. But he must have done – because according to you, complexity has to have a creator. This principle doesn’t grind to a halt with God just because you or your church or holy book says it does. 

The intricacies and complexity of life that we see are the result of organisms, including ourselves and all other life & non-life, like viruses, adapting to their environments over billions of years. That’s it – no need to add another layer of complication, like a god, to this explanation (you may have heard of Occam’s razor, which is what I’m applying here). If something complex has existed for eons it is far more likely that it is something we know for sure exists – nature – rather than something we don’t. 

Life has in fact many purposes; one doesn’t need a God who doesn’t exist to discover them. I’d be happy to share some of these with you, though I imagine you are already quite set in your beliefs. That’s a shame.

Best wishes,

Neil 

God: Probably not

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As God-botherers everywhere are fond of telling us, we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. Of course, no negative can ever be proven. My own conviction that there isn’t a God does not rely on ‘proof’, but on the probability that he doesn’t. Perhaps this is the same as Christians’ own dismissal of Zeus and Krishna as real beings; if they think about such things, that is. So what is the probability that God does not exist? My next couple of posts will look at my reasons for concluding that the likelihood of the Christian God existing is ridiculously low. Some of these reasons have developed from my reading of the last thirty odd years, others from my own thinking about the subject. Both are now so intertwined I don’t know exactly which is which. You’ll have encountered some of what I’ve got to say in other posts on this blog but it seems worthwhile put all my arguments in one place.

So, reason one: God explains nothing. He isn’t required to explain the Big Bang, evolution, human psychology, germ theory, viral pandemics or anything else that science explains with far greater proficiency and conviction. At best, the god concept has atrophied into a god-of-the-gaps desperation. Science doesn’t know how life began, goes the ‘reasoning’, therefore it can only have been God. This explains nothing, merely adding an unnecessary element into the equation; Occam’s Razor demands we remove any such elements from our arguments and attributing life to an unknown supernatural agent is just such a redundancy. I’m confident that science will one day answer the question of how life started, but even if it that were never to happen, the answer would not be, as if by magical default, God.

Two: the more characteristics we attribute to God, the less likely it is that he exists. Let’s say, by way of analogy, that I’ve put myself on a dating app to look for a new partner. To start with I specify that all this partner needs is a good sense of humour. Then I wonder if this is enough. Wouldn’t they also have to be within my preferred age group? Of course. I’ve already narrowed my chances of finding my ideal person. So I think I may as well go for it: I want some who’s good looking too, with a place of their own, within travelling distance of where I live and with interests similar to my own, including a passion for the ukulele. The likelihood of my finding this person is pretty remote. The probability they actually exist, with all the attributes I want, is equally unlikely.

So it is with God. If he were only the creator of the universe he would be unlikely enough (because of reason 1 above) but that’s not all that is required of him. He has to be also a God that is interested in his creation, and not only interested but intimately involved with certain aspects of it, humans particularly. He is now beginning to recede from the possible into the margins of the improbable. But then it’s claimed that in addition to being the creator of everything and a micromanager to boot, he’s also ephemeral and unknowable. He’s simultaneously loving and a severe judge. He’s both omniscient and omnipotent (this last doesn’t follow from his being the creator; it’s a separate attribute). He’s a god of reason and yet only satisfied by blood sacrifice. And on and on, well beyond the bounds of probability and into the realms of the impossible, like my hypothetical ideal mate. God as envisaged by Christians (and others) is an impossibility.

To be continued.

Bathwater

Blog392

While putting together the ‘Can You Be a Christian and…’ series, I encountered on more than one occasion the line of reasoning (I use the term lightly) used by moderate Christians that, essentially, certain parts of the Bible are no longer relevant. So you can, they said, be both a free thinker and a Christian; you can be gay, so long as you disregard what the bible says about homosexuality; you can be a Christian woman if you dismiss Paul’s denigration of women; you can acknowledge evolution provided you reinterpret what the bible says about creation; you can be a realist if you ignore the bible’s supernaturalism.

But if you’re going to disregard anything the bible teaches that appears incompatible with what we know about psychology, sexuality, biology and reality, then how does the Bible’s central objective truth, as one commenter on here calls it, survive? What makes its core message (that, in some way, Jesus’ death and resurrection is capable of saving humankind) an immutable, eternal truth, while almost everything else can be compromised, deemed to be ‘culture-bound’ and metaphorical, to the point of irrelevance?

I recognise, of course, that fundamentalist Christians don’t do this. For them the bible is inspired, infallible and immutable. They’re prepared to compromise themselves, science and reality in order to honour and preserve what the book says. For them evolution, feminism, homosexuality and independent thinking will always be wrong. The alternative is to acknowledge that the bible doesn’t get everything right and to take the approach of the liberal progressive Christian who is prepared to adjust and adapt what it says; to emasculate it.

Which brings us back to asking where this process stops. If progressive Christians are prepared to dilute to the point of meaninglessness what the bible has to say about creation, women, sexuality and reality itself then why not what it teaches about Jesus and salvation?

It’s a fact that almost all varieties of the Faith, including fundamentalism, are happy to ignore completely Paul and Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God was due to arrive, in all its glory, in their own time. It’s the same with Jesus’ moral extremism (giving to all who ask, loving enemies, turning the other cheek.) So why not the rest of it?

Why are Paul’s muddled theology and selected bits of the Jesus stories considered to be the baby while the rest of the bible is the disposable bathwater? On what basis do progressive Christians decide what is inessential and what is crucial, critical, indispensable? Ideas about angry deities, blood sacrifice, the sins of the people and the resurrection of god-men are every bit as culture-bound as the bible’s perspective on all those other issues.  

Because really, in the end, it’s all bathwater.

 

Can you be a Christian and… accept Evolution?

Hoax

People of faith have a problem with evolution. Some of them can’t seem to see it, but the Theory of Evolution is a significant encumbrance to faith, as it has been since Darwin first proposed it in 1859.

There are essentially four ways Christians (and those from other religions) deal with evolution.

1) There are those who recognise that evolution and faith are incompatible and consequently compartmentalise them both to avoid thinking about the problem: ‘Yes, evolution probably happened but my faith is important to me so I’m going to pretend it didn’t.’

It’s impossible to argue with this head-in-the-sand position, so let’s not bother.

2) Others insist that evolution is ‘just a theory’ and as such is in conflict with what the Bible teaches about the creation of life. But this is a double misunderstanding: of what ‘theory’ means in science, and of what the Theory of Evolution proposes. It has nothing to tell us about how life began, but how it developed. Nonetheless, it contradicts the order of creation found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.

Some believers are content to dismiss evolution on these grounds: a theory, in the popular sense, that is trumped at every turn by the Bible’s accounts of creation. Ken Ham and the laughable Answers in Genesis hold to this position:

The real issue is one of authority—is God’s Word the authority, or is man’s word the authority? So, couldn’t God have used evolution to create? The answer is No. A belief in millions of years of evolution not only contradicts the clear teaching of Genesis and the rest of Scripture but also impugns the character of God. He told us in the book of Genesis that He created the whole universe and everything in it in six days by His word: “Then God said … .” His Word is the evidence of how and when God created, and His Word is incredibly clear.

Hammy and his acolytes do accept what they call micro-evolution, the small incremental stages made within a species over time. Macro-evolution, as they like to call it, when one species gives rise to another over significant amounts of time apparently never happens. Why? Because the Bible says so (but good luck finding where.)

3) Still others extend this dismissal on the basis of ignorance: they are positively hostile to the idea of evolution. Street preachers who set up shop in my home town from time to time are always accompanied by a sign that says ‘Evolution is a Hoax’ (see above.) These kind of believers are not content simply to dismiss evolution as ‘theory’, nor do they accept that it occurs within species. They rail against evolution and disparage the vast amounts of evidence that exist for it. Evolution they declare over their megaphones, is not only a hoax, it is of the devil, who uses it to deceive people and lead them away from God. This is ignorance of a more wilful sort.

Christians in both these last two camps would themselves say that one can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. Actually, they’d say one can’t ‘believe’ in evolution, a word I’ve avoided. Evolution can no more be ‘believed in’ than gravity (itself a theory in the scientific sense.)

4) The fourth way Christians have of dealing with evolution is to attempt to marry the theory with their faith. They acknowledge that evolution has occurred, that life on earth has developed much as Darwin proposed and that the evidence from paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology fully substantiates this explanation.

Where then to fit God when he is superfluous to the explanation of life’s development, in much the same way the tooth fairy is superfluous to dentistry? This doesn’t stop these believers finding a place for him. They regard the apparent randomness (their term) of evolution impossible to accept and see a place for God in countering it. As Greg Allison puts it on Desiring God, without a hint of irony, the ‘entire process (of evolution) was undirected and purposeless, without God.’

Consequently, Christians who accept evolution have come up with a couple of ways of injecting God into the process, regardless of the fact he is not needed and there is no place for him. So-called Theistic Evolution, in both its forms, is the belief – and it’s nothing more than a belief – that God set evolution in motion and then let it take its course. One school proposes he occasionally gave it a nudge so that it went in the right direction, the other that he just sat back to see what would happen, though presumably he knew this from the start, being omniscient and all that.

This a hopeless compromise; the prevalence of suffering, death and extinction as drivers of evolution discount any involvement of a benign creator. Such a being’s disinterest in the constant struggle for survival of his created pets, every one of which perishes once past reproductive age (if they reach it in the first place) does not point to a loving God. Paul, who of course had no understanding whatsoever of evolution, believed that death entered creation only when Adam first ‘sinned’. Yet death and suffering existed eons before human beings first appeared. The ‘Evolutionary Creationists’ at BioLogos have a hard time trying to explain this one away. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.)

And let’s not even mention sex; sexual reproduction is a massive problem for the creationist.

As Greg Allison concedes, one cannot be a Christian and subscribe to a theistic model of evolution. Having considered the possibilities, Greg concludes that neither form of theistic evolution is compatible with faith. In this he is right. He comes back to the scriptural accounts of creation as the best explanation of life’s development. In this he is wrong.

No doubt there are commenters out there who think that some form of compromised Christianity and a diluted evolutionary theory are somehow compatible. They have no doubt discovered a way to put God at the heart of evolution or have a misunderstanding of the theory that somehow leaves room for him. Such arguments are unconvincing. Evolution and God are incompatible. One is true (as in observable, supported by evidence and predictive), the other imaginary. There’s no need to pollute the former with the latter.

Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

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This is the first in a series of posts that pose the question, ‘Can you be a Christian and..?’ It seems to me that certain ways of being are incompatible with religious belief. Any religious belief, that is, though here I’ll limit myself to the Christian faith as that’s the belief system I know best and the one on which I wasted a great deal of my life.

Conversion is, I’ve become convinced, an emotional response to being told God loves you (who doesn’t want to be loved?) and that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you – yes, you – can enter into a full and meaningful relationship with God. It’s an intuitive, gut-reaction to the ‘promise’ that once you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, he will  be with you always, guiding you through life and guaranting you’ll survive death.

What is rational about this? Nothing; it’s muddled supernaturalism, magic based on others’ dreams and visions, that appeals to your need to be wanted, to matter and your hope that your life means something and will go on beyond death.

The rationalisation comes after you’ve made this response and after your commitment. It’s rather like buying something incredibly expensive you’re not sure you actually need but which makes you feel good momentarily as you hand over your cash. On the way home, as doubts start to assail you, you start trying convince yourself that you were right to buy it, on the basis you deserve it, so that by the time you’re home you feel completely justified. Psychologists tell us we do this often: act first and then come up with the rationalisation for why we’ve behaved the way we have.

So it is that once you’ve made the emotional response to what Christianity purports to offer, you start justifying your decision to yourself. You know there’s really no evidence for what you’ve started to believe. All there is is the bible and other people’s enthusiasm for what it teaches, but still, there must be some sort of justification for it; all those others, including the guys who wrote the bible, can’t all be wrong. You’re helped in your rationalisation of the irrational by sermons in which a respected pastor explains what certain teachings mean, the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from fellowship with other Christians and from reading the bible with the aid of a study guide that smooths out its many inconsistencies and contradictions. You start reading too those devotional books that have been recommended to you, which give your new-found faith a respectable gloss. All after the event.

And before you know it you are fully invested in an entirely new belief system. Not only have you accepted the central mystery (magic) of salvation but you find yourself entertaining the notion that there exist all manner of supernatural beings; angels, demons, devils, spirits all engaged in spiritual warfare in higher places. You convince yourself, even when your intellect is telling you to exercise caution, of the existence of Heaven and Hell. You become persuaded that talking to yourself inside your head is communicating with the God of the Universe and that your very thoughts can change his mind. You assume what you are told is biblical morality and alter your world view so that it conforms to the bible’s: sin everywhere, yet miracles happen; God creating humans and not just (or even) evolution; Jesus returning at any time soon to change the word so it is more to your liking.

Yet there is no evidence for any of this. A book written by Iron Age tribesmen and first century religious zealots is not evidence. Nor is any of it rational. You know this, but you hold fast to your belief that God’s ways are not our ways. He likes, it says somewhere in the bible, to conceal his plans from the worldly wise. Like many other believers you are not stupid but you’ve happily sublimated your intellect to assume irrational, unsupported beliefs. You’ve subjugated your capacity for rationalisation in deference to these beliefs. If and when a rational objection forms itself in your mind, you dismiss it as a doubt, or worse still, a Satanic attempt to snatch you away from your salvation.

How do I know? Because I did so myself.

So, can you be a Christian and rational thinker? No. Because once you’ve tethered your intellect to ancient superstition you’ve denied yourself the possibility of independent thought. Rational thinking can go then in only one direction, towards the conclusions already established by the Faith. It isn’t possible to be an independent thinker and to adopt a worldview based on others’ emotions, dreams and visions. It isn’t possible to believe irrational things and be a rational thinker.