October 30, 2008

On the Implications of Consensus and Gospel Ubiquity

James has posted several responses to my article More on Faith over at Wordpress. I've broken my response into several parts. The first addresses, Is Your Religion True an older article by James.

General Arguments Against Faith

In "Is Your Religion True" James essentially makes two arguments against belief in God: (1) lack of consensus and (2) lack of ubiquity.

Lack of Consensus

Frankly, this is a poor argument in general.

  1. Especially during an election season, it is clear that people are not always guided purely by reason and in many cases may not even devote sufficient time and consideration to even some of the most important issues to make a well informed decision.

  2. If consensus is so important and inevitable, James should be wondering why only 2.32% of people in the world are atheists instead of why only 33.32% of people are Christians. [1]

That said, James advances two more specific arguments in this vein:

Religious Denominations vs. Scientific Consensus

James argues that major religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have splinter groups numbering in the hundreds and perhaps thousands whereas the scientific community has relative consensus. This more specific argument is in error because of the reason above, but is flawed in two other ways as well.

First, by focusing on the broad range of disagreements, ranging from major doctrines such as the Trinity to relatively minor disagreements over church government, and ignoring large areas of consensus, such as the existence of God, the existence of good and evil, etc., the argument presents a deeply divisive view of religious people. Conversely, by attempting to focus on the relatively narrow range of natural laws and focusing on large areas of consensus, such as General Relativity and Biological Evolution, and ignoring areas of disagreement ranging from possible unification theories and forces behind evolution (leaps, gradual, divinely directed), the argument presents a highly skewed comparison.

Second, to skew this comparison even more, it divides religious people according the general public, but focuses only on a highly focused group of people when considering views on science. Notice the words used. When speaking about religious people, the claim is that "the world should be moving towards some kind of consensus with regards to the true and proper religion" whereas the relevant people related to scient are "the scientific community".

Attempts to support this comparison by remarking that trained religious leaders share no such consensus are also misleading. Not only is the claimed consensus of scientists exaggerated, but unlike scientists who receive a more unified education, religious leaders are generally trained according to their particular sect.

Divine Persausion

The second argument James attempts to make to support the idea that any true religion would inexorably achieve universal consensus is that God is a much better communicator than we are and essentially should be able to convince us all that He is right. Basically, the claim is that God's problem is a presentation problem, that if He really existed and wanted us to believe, He could perform a sign or present the right reasons for us to believe. However, this assumes that everyone would approach God's presentation rationally and fairly. Not only do people frequently act irrationally, it seems clear that many people do not want to believe everything God might have to say. Acceptance of our own failings, moral pronouncements, thou shalts and shalt nots, the acknowledgement of a higher power who cares what we do, etc. As a result, it is unsurprising that many people disagree on the truth and would continue to do so even if God tried to convince them.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar outside his door both died. The rich man went to hell and Lazarus went to Paradise. Seeing Lazarus in Paradise with Abraham, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to bring the truth to his brothers. Abraham gave the following reply:

Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. - Luk 16:29-31


The second argument James presents is much more powerful. The argument is essentially that if there is a God who is not a respecter of persons and desires to reach out to mankind in general, He would not leave gaps in the availability of the truth. Two prominent examples of religions that readily claim such gaps are Mormonism and Islam, which basically claim that God's original revelations in the Bible were corrupted and that after hundreds of years, He finally decided to set the record straight.

This is a huge problem for these religions because it clearly implies that God simply abandoned the world to spiritual darkness, ignorance, and ultimately judgement for many generations at a time. This argument demonstrates a solid reason to reject any religion that does not at least claim historical ubiquity.

Clearly, James believes this critique extends to Christianity as well. However, it does not for two reasons:

Historical Ubiquity of Special Revelation

James claims that if Christianity is true, it implies that God's message was delivered "at an arbitrary time in human history and at an arbitrary location to a handful of people in just one language". Christianity does not teach that God finally revealed His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ in roughly AD 30. To the contrary, God revealed His plan as soon as it was necessary. That even though we had violated God's righteous standard, separating us from Him, He still loved us. To atone for our sins, Jesus Christ, the divine man, payed the penalty for our sin, allowing us to be reconciled with God for eternity future and that all who looked forward to it were saved, just as we look back and are saved.

Even before pronouncing judgement on Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, God tells them that a future descendent would defeat the serpent [Gen. 3:15]. It also seems clear that God communicated more than that to them. In Gen. 3:21, we see God making coats of skins for them and in Gen. 4 we see Cain and Abel apparently had at least a basic understanding of the sacrificial system and dealt directly with them. We also see God advising Cain and Cain disregarding God's advice.

By making the first revelation to the parents of the rest of the human race, God not only provided the necessary truth to them, but ensured that at least all mankind had revelation from the beginning of time that could be passed on. This doctrine of ubiquitous revelation over history sets mainstream Christianity apart from some other religions, such as Mormonism and Islam.

Global, Ubiquitous General Revelation

However, as James points out, just having revelation available to some people at all points in time is not enough. It is necessary that some revelation be available to all people at all times. The Bible teaches there are 3 aspects of General Revelation to all men.

First, in Romans 1, Paul declears that the Creation is part of God's general revelation to all men, so that they are without excuse:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: - Rom. 1:18-20

Second, conscience is given to all men, that they may know there is a moral standard and they have fallen short:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another - Rom 2:14-15

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one...Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
- Rom.3:9-10,19-23

Third, the inner light. The exact function of this revelation is not entirely clear, but it is a clear reference to Christ as the light, which would imply a divine ministry to all people:

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. John 1:9

Judging the Ignorant

James anticipates the argument that only those who hear of Christ must accept Him. The rest are judged on relative merit. This is, as he concludes contemptible, for it would transform the good news of the gospel into a message of condemnation for those who hear the gospel and reject it, while giving those who don't hear it a relatively free pass.

Scripture clearly does not teach this position. Jesus is unequivocal on the ways to God:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. - John 14:6

Clearly, there is only one way. But the gospel is very simple:

(1) - There is a God
(2) - We have all sinned, justice demands punishment
(3) - Someone else must take our punishment, that someone, is Jesus Christ

It seems reasonable that most of that message is available to all through general revelation (Creation -> God, Conscience -> sin & judgement). Most people get the third leg from God's Special Revelation in the Bible, whether directly by reading or indirectly through others. However, as James points out there is a lot of time between the coming of Christ (and before that) during which the Americas in particular seem cut off from that source of revelation.

Fortunately, enough revelation was given to Adam and Eve to save them, enough of that may be passed on in cut off cultures to allow enough truth to be clear to those who seek it. Also, not all general revelation is thoroughly understood, particularly the ministry of Jesus Christ as the inner light to all people. The essential point is that if Christianity is true, God has provided sufficient revelation to any person that has ever lived that they can reject or accept and if they accept God can make sure they receive the truth they need in order to come to the Father through Christ.

[1] CIA World Factbook

October 9, 2008

More on Faith

James posted a comment on my Wordpress blog and Sharon responded on FriendFeeds regarding my recent article "Jesus et. al". My answers to them are below. Because James posted first, I responded to him first and then Sharon:


He claims that my alternative interpretation of similarities in regligion "doesn't accord well with the facts". However, he fails to back this up in any substantive way. Instead, he chooses to attack my conception of God and pontificate on my misunderstandings of Christian and Jewish tradition.

Inefficient communication

It also doesn’t speak well to your conception of God, as a being that uses an inefficient means to pass on and preserve this initial narrative. - James

I'm not sure what he is trying to say here. Is he saying that written communication is inefficient for God a clear communication recording once, but perverted in numerous other traditions is inefficient?

Effectiveness of the Written Word

There are, of course, other methods God could have used to spread His message. He could have pre-programmed us with the knowledge of His message, spoken to each of us from heaven in a booming voice individually, sent angels to tell and reminds us, etc. However, God chose to use (1) direct communication to certain individuals who (2) wrote down that revelation (3) which others can learn from and share. Knowing whether this was the best method would require knowing all of God's goals in such communication. If simply making a set of principles known to all human beings was the goal, the method does seem inefficient compared to other possible methods. However, if God's goals in communicating also including other purposes, such as, challenging us to be a part of the process of communicating truth to others, it would not be so inefficient.

For example, consider Jesus's ministry. He frequently spoke to the people in parables, which purposely obfuscated the message. When the disciples asked Jesus why He taught in parables, He replied that it was given to them to know, but not to others [Matt. 13:11]. Therefore, it is clear that simply having every person understand a set of principles is not God's only goal in giving His word and it is erroneous to claim His method is inefficient on that basis.

Perversions Throughout History

Given that many rejected the truth, it is unsurprising that many deviations and erroneous versions would crop up, especially if we consider the goals of Satan to deceive men into any world view other than God's truth. By distorting or removing essential parts that people don't like, he can ensnare them with half-truths, keeping them from the truth of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. As an added bonus, he can tell others that there are so many "truths" out there that determining the right one is too difficult, so why bother. That God allows this to occur is similar to His tolerance of evil in the world in order to respect our freewills.

Atoning Messiah

The Old Testament does include passages that suggest the Messiah would atone for sins. I have already mentioned two of them. In Daniel 9:26, speaking specifically of Messiah, Daniel declares that Messiah would be "cut off, but not for himself". In Isaiah 53, the righteous servant is clearly presented as suffering and dying for "the iniquity of us all". Even if one rejects that this is a reference to the Messiah, as modern Judaism does along with it's rejection of Christ, the Old Testament or Jewish scriptures clearly present the idea of one man atoning for the sins of "us all", making such connection much more than "retroactive" interpretations.

Serpent of Genesis

The timing of the revelation of the connection between Satan and the serpent is peripheral to the point I was making. Furthermore, the description of hatred between the "seed of the woman" and the seed of the serpent, with the eventual crushing of the serpents head does not make sense in the context of a normal serpent. It is clear that God is referring to something or someone beyond the serpent.

Corrupted Narrative vs. Pure Invention

Yes. I believe the evidence strongly indicates a divine Creator. As such, it seems more likely that He would try to communicate with us. Given some divine communication, I would not be surprised if many misunderstood/distorted it over time, leading to many world views that shared some similarities, one of which is true and the rest being false by varying degrees.

As for determining the true narrative, I would look for the one that makes the most sense (reason). That is, the one that best explains all of reality as we know it. Obviously, that's a simple answer to a very complex problem. I would be interested in exploring it by degrees if any one else is interested.


The Judaic concept of God being one in essence and person, may be more monotheistic than the concept of a triune Godhead, three persons who are one in essence, but this designation does set Christianity apart from the other mythologies brought up in the original article, which is the point I was trying to make. Despite some similarities, all these views are not the indistinguishable. They all have unique views that set them apart from the others and can be used to differentiate between them and evaluate them for varying levels of veracity.

One over the other

You cannot offer any actual evidence to prefer one mythology of another. - James

I offered one argument which you completely ignored. I argued that a coherent moral system demands consistency, which would seem to favor monotheism over pantheism. Furthermore, most world views make clear claims about reality which can be examined. For example, the Greek gods were believed to live atop Mt. Olympus. This myth is demonstrably false.

Furthermore, it should be noted that we can't ignore or origins or our past. Even if one were incapable of differentiating between the true and the untrue, there is no view which would be true by default, such as the view that the natural world is all that exists.



So it's okay to choose a religious system because we *want* it to be consistent? That seems rather dangerous to me. Shouldn't we be choosing what we have evidence for? - Sharon

I'm not exactly sure what Sharon is contending. It seems to me that something which is internally consistent (that is, does not contradict itself) is much more likely to be true than something which contradicts itself (which, according to the law of non-contradiction, would be, by definition, false). In evaluating a world view, I would look for two major things in general: internal consistency (consistency with itself) and external consistency (consistent with our observations of reality).

I suspect this is the distinction Sharon is making when she appeals to "what we have evidence for". If so, we agree on this point. "42" might be internally consistent, but it really has no connection with the reality we experience, nor does it seem to offer any explanation for how the world works or where it came from.


That said, I do think it is reasonable to draw some conclusions or rule out some alternatives based on the end result. For example, take two views:

1 - A deep space asteroid will come flying through space and destroy the earth a week from now, killing us all.
2 - The world will last for many more years and so will we.

Both views dictate what actions we might take over the next week. One believing the asteroid was going to destroy the earth might conclude that saving money or working towards a better future is pointless. It's certainly possible. It might be true. However, I would argue that if it is true, everything, including truth, is pretty meaningless anyway. Therefore, it would be best to act as if 2 is true, even if the truth of it's claim is impossible to determine. The reason for this is that 2 is the only option that leaves any room for hope of meaning.

If you've ever seen House, a better example of what I'm talking about might be when his team can't determine if the patient has condition A or B, but House says to treat for B because if they have A, the patient is dead no matter what.

Morality is such an issue. Without it, nothing is wrong and nothing is right. Yet, we all have some sense of morality. Some belief in "good" and "fair" as opposed to that which is "wrong" or "evil". Furthermore, we believe that based on this sense, we can expect others not to "wrong" us. We expect that we can say to some one else "you ought not to murder children for fun, it is wrong". Such condemnation demands an absolute, consistent morality, which is inconsistent with world views lacking higher authorities than ourselves (atheism, naturalism, humanism, etc.) or divided/ineffective highest powers (pantheism). This isn't just an observation of desirability, it's an observation of our own innate sense of the world.

Good and Evil

The evidence in the world supports more strongly an inconsistent god(s) than a consistent one. (Not that I think it supports evidence for a god at all, but if I had to pick, quarreling gods who constantly overrule themselves would make way more sense.) Sure, it's nice to believe that "God" is always there and on our side, but it's not really consistent with the world we live in. Wars, genocide, suicide, divorce, murder, rape, etc. - Sharon

I disagree. I don't see how the things you list indicate an inconsistent God or set of gods as more likely than a single consistent God. It is clear that any belief in the divine must deal with the problem of evil. Conversely, any belief that the divine does not exist (or is mixed) must deal with the problem of good.

Religious Equality

And this among Christians as frequently as any other religion. - Sharon

What is your basis for this claim of equal evil?

On Desireable Outcomes

We can want there to be a consistent moral understanding based on a monotheistic system all we want. It'd be great. But it's important to recognize that merely wanting something does not usually grant it - Sharon

Agreed. The question is definitely much more difficult and complex than "what do we want". However, that doesn't mean we are doomed to meaningless disappointment and after that oblivion.

October 2, 2008

Jesus et. al

Cameron shared this article on Google Reader and I felt compelled to comment on it.

Philosophical Approaches

The view presented in this article is essentially "higher criticism". The foundation of this view is that religions, including the Bible are a human narrative of evolving ideas about religion. As a result, similarities are considered to be proof of external ideas being appropriated into the doctrines of a specific religion, changing them as people's ideas evolve.

Another way of understanding similarities is that initially, there was one divine narrative which over time was perverted into a multitude of different religions, whose common origin yielded some similar ideas.

1 - The Scapegoat

The author clearly doesn't understand what the Scape Goat is. The scape goat was part of an OT religious ritual performed on the day of atonement involving two goats. A lot was cast on the goats. The one upon whom the lot fell was offered as a sin offering and the other was led out of the camp symbolically carrying the sins of the people [Leviticus 16]. It was not a ritual in which sins were symbolically placed on a goat which was then killed to placate a demon. The purpose, as with the much of the rest of the OT rituals was to picture the future sacrifice of the Messiah for the purpose of atoning for the sins of humanity.

The author attempts to relate this to Greek practices of using human "scapegoats" to appease the gods during times of calamity and Roman legal practices of allowing innocent people to take upon them the penalty of the guilty. Both practices probably postdate the Jewish practice by centuries. Therefore, it can not be said that they influenced the Jewish tradition. Rather, it is more likely that Jewish tradition influenced them. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that Christianity builds on Jewish tradtion. Christianity sees itself as the fullfilment and extension of pre-Christ revelation to the Jews. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment [Matthew 5:17].

2 - The Essenes

It is also not surprising that a Jewish splinter groupd held views similar to those contained in the Old Testament and shared by the New Testament.

For example:
A - Love thy neighbor: When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He declared:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:37-40]

This was not Jesus drawing on relatively recent tradition, but rather citing two passages in the Law as it was given by God through Moses:

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. [Deuteronomy 6:5]
...thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. [Leviticus 19:18]

B - Criticism of Conventional Jewish Society

The Jewish religious leaders had fallen into a deeply legalistic system which perverted mans laws over God's laws. As such, criticism was deserved, not simply a tradition borrowed from a relatively contemporary group.

C - Coming of a Messiah

As Christianity looks back to the central figure of Christ, Judaism looks forward to the future coming of the Messiah and has done so from the beginning. Immediately after the fall, God promised to send that a descendent of Eve would defeat the serpant (Satan) [Genesis 3:15]. More recently, Daniel the prophet foretold of a coming Messiah, who would be "cut off, but not for himself" [Daniel 9:25]. Isaiah the prophet foretold a suffering savior, bearing the penalty of the sins of others [Isaiah 53].

3 - Similar figures

Most of the rest of the article is devoted to a listing of figures, mostly mythical whose stories share some similarities with the narrative of Jesus. Many supposedly died and rose again, offered rewards to their followers, etc. Again, this is suggested to be indicative of a lack of divine revelation as merely human ideas evolved and cross-polinated ways of thinking. However, one would expect similar results if God had revealed a coherant narrative which was corrupted over time in various false religions.

4 - Why Jesus?

It seems to me that the most substantive point raised by the author is the question of why Christ and not one of these mythical figures.

First, the author claims that via the criteria of precedence, the Bible must be rejected many times over. However, within the list included in the article, the only tradition that might clearly be said to pre-date Judaism even from a critical perspective is Egyptian mythology.

Second, the primary distinction between Christ and the other mentioned figures is that only Jesus represents a monotheistic divinity. All the rest connected to pantheistic religions, often involving quarreling gods and goddesses. While a lot of discussion could be devoted to each of these separate pantheons, it seems to me that the problem of a consistent moral understanding is a good reason to reject them. As Socrates observed in one of the Platonic dialogues, it is virtually impossible to determine right from wrong in the presence of so many conflicting deities. Without a coherent moral system, good often boils down to picking a god and hoping some other god doesn't destroy you for it.

In closing, the author tries to argue that us relgious folk foolishly ignore the similarities between these figures and try to pretend they are very different. I would suggest that he tries to ignore the differences to take the lazy way out of answering his own question: which one, if any, is true?