This is a review of the book, Before You Say “I Don’t Believe” by Roger Carswell. I’m doing it in two parts to keep the chunks down a bit. Luckily, while I’m failing to make much progress on the difficult questions facing humanity, leaving my drafts folder in a mess, there are always easier questions, like the thirty-four on Christianity that follow.
I can deal with most of them relatively quickly, though one or two I have researched and given longer responses to. The questions are set out as chapter titles in the book, so I’ll just list them and answer them as concisely and fairly as I can. In most cases I have only read the chapter title, not through laziness or a reluctance to face any deeper challenges in the text, but because it seems good to approach my own answers from a fresh perspective. I have had to read them when the question is confusing.
The thirty-four questions are posed by Roger Carswell, an English evangelist. My partner bought the book at the annual Christian Festival she attends in Keswick.
The Questions 1-17
(1) Can you agree with Christians that questions about God are of the utmost importance?
Yes. Whether God exists or not, obviously that would affect every aspect of our lives. If God does not exist, or probably does not, or we have no reason to believe that he does, that is important, because most of the world believes in God, and they would be wrong to do so. Religious exceptionalism is one of the major causes of war and conflict. Learning is important.
(2) Whether or not you believe in God, what do you think Christians believe about Him?
I read the chapter to check, and found that I knew: Creator; triunal; omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; immutable; made humankind in his image; Love; Lord of all; revealed to us as Christ; unfathomable; not Santa Claus.
(3) Have you carefully considered the reasons why Christians believe in God?
Yes. It’s interesting Carswell doesn’t ask “Why do you think Christians believe in God?” Maybe he’s not interested. Should I answer that question instead? This will take a bit longer.
- They are born into a world that already has and teaches Christianity.
- They approach the question from an emotional point of view instead of trying to be hard-headed and objective.
- They are poor logicians, particularly employing the naturalistic and moralistic falacies, endlessly mixing up ises and oughts, (e.g. in arguing that objective morality exists, and would not without God, or that our desire for God would not exist without the means of its satisfaction).
- They appear to compartmentalise their arguments, thus avoiding the contradictions that more joined-up and systematic thinking would expose.
- They put effort into believing, and support each other in strengthening their faith, which exaggerates the natural tendency we have for confirmation bias.
- They tend to understand scientific theories shallowly and underestimate their complexity, and so make intuitive judgements contrary to expertise. For instance, many of them state that they “believe in evolution” but don’t (they insert miracles or an overall teleology into the evolutionary process, forgetting the word “natural” is part of the theory, or ignoring natural selection altogether to support their incredulity about speciation). The same kind of naive view of insanely complex maths and physics encourages them to dismiss natural cosmological theories.
- They interminably use the words of the Bible to support their belief in the Bible.
(4) Who do you trust?
I ultimately have to trust my own judgement, but I have to take input from others. I trust scientists, because their methods are based on doubt, transparency, repeated checking, and the production of objective, demonstrable facts, and because they are dedicated to finding answers irrespective of how pleasing those answers are. I don’t trust the propositions of religious people, because they argue from their pleasant notions to ontology, their own beliefs are deeply self-contradictory (as are their defences of them), and there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans suffer a lot of cognitive errors, including imagining supernatural entities (see bullet list above).
(5) How do you explain sheer human kindness?
It is an evolutionary adaptation that helped our species procreate. It operates alongside sheer human unkindness to the same end.
(6) Why do you think so many great scientists have been Christians?
Christianity was the main philosophy of the scientific culture. Most great anythings, as well as mediocre ones, were Christians, from well before the time of the Enlightenment. Education – indeed everything – was under the control of the Vatican. Christianity was irrelevant to the scientific success of the great scientists. What on earth is the question suggesting? I had to skim the chapter – a list of scientists who were Christian presumably proves a point of some kind. Oh, and Frank Jennings Tipler‘s conversion to Christianity (no further questions, M’lud).
(7) Do you really believe that everything that exists came about from nothing?
No. Scepticism, to which I aspire, means not professing beliefs, as far as possible, but holding propositions relativistically. When it comes to abstruse questions that challenge the limits of epistemology, I prefer to say I don’t know.
However, prominent cosmologists say that this is probably what happened in our universe, that the physics suggests that it is possible, that nothingness is “unstable” or inherently creative. Certainly, physical law, chemistry and biology explain the evolution of everything from almost-nothing at about the first picosecond after the Big Bang.
Besides, invoking God still involves everything coming about from nothing (or avoids the nothing, depending on semantics); it just adds a supernatural notion that conveniently appears to explain the change. Being an answer that could explain any question posed, it is worthy of serious doubt, like the medic’s cure-all.
(8) Do you rest easy with the thought that without God life is meaningless?
a) It isn’t. At the human level we can embrace meaning, share it, argue about it, create it. It is anthropomorphism to project meaning onto things generally.
b) Stop trying to rest easy.
(9) Are you bothered that your life seems devoid of motivation?
a) It isn’t. It would take several of me to complete everything I want to in my lifetime. I want to learn so much it’s hard to go to bed at night.
b) Again, the moralistic fallacy. Assuming my life did lack motivation, and assuming that I was bothered by it, and assuming that both were because I was an atheist, those conditions would not support the notion of God. Clearly, someone putting this forward as a reason to believe is worried that without that belief they would be bothered by their lack of motivation, which again reinforces my thesis of their need for self-delusion and increases my conviction in atheism.
(10) Don’t you sometimes think that there might be life after death?
(11) Have you considered Jesus’ question, ‘What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their own soul’?
I didn’t understant the relevance of this, so read the chapter. I’m not the only one struggling with it, apparently, since he begins,
This really is an unanswerable question. And that is the point.
Well, I don’t see it. The chapter essentially argues that gains in life are fragile and often disappointing, it says there’s nothing wrong with pleasure and money and fulfilling ambitions, but not “to set your heart on them as if they are yours for ever.” All these are reasonable from a secular perspective. I would be a little more concerned, however, if someone advised that we give all our money away and have no care for the morrow because God is about to come and rule over the Earth. 😉
But this question also assumes, in case you missed it, that we have a soul.
(12) Does your conscience trouble you?
Of course. This is part of the biological process of socialization.
(13) Other than through Jesus, do you have an answer to death?
Keep breathing. Mind the gap. Don’t join the armed forces.
(14) If you were asked to summarise the main theme of the Bible, how would you answer?
I haven’t read it, but it’s probably the bit about how the next life depends on whether you follow Jesus or not, i.e. going to Heaven and being with God forever or being in eternal torment. (I read the chapter, and Carswell appears to concur.)
(15) Can you explain how the Bible’s prophecies could be so accurately fulfilled?
In researching an earlier answer, I was reminded that Jesus (allegedly) prophesied that God was coming to Earth in his lifetime or very shortly after, ending the Roman occupation and reestablishing the Davidic kingdom. Jesus was supposed to be the King of the Jews, (hence his supposed birth in Bethlehem and his interrogation about that identity at his trial). This – his main prophecy – did not happen (in case you hadn’t noticed). Carswell ignores this failure regarding what is perhaps the other best contender for “main theme of the Bible”.
Instead, he focuses on two main sets of prophecies. The first concerns the Old-Testament prophecy that Babylon would be destroyed and never reinhabited, Arabs would not pitch their tents there again, no sheepfolds would be there, only wild animals, the stones would not be taken away to use for other buildings, and people would not pass by the ruins.
Carswell says, “Babylon was conquered in 583BC,” and then re-states all these prophecies as facts that came to pass. It is hard to imagine why someone writing this could not just check first. I’m not sure where the 583BC date comes from, but Wikipedia says that at the time, 604–561 BC, “Nebuchadnezzar II ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including the Etemenanki ziggurat, and the construction of the Ishtar Gate—the most prominent of eight gates around Babylon”.
Then “in 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, with a military engagement known as the Battle of Opis.” … “Under Cyrus and the subsequent Persian king Darius I, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrap (Babylonia in the south and Athura in the north), as well as a center of learning and scientific advancement. In Achaemenid Persia, the ancient Babylonian arts of astronomy and mathematics were revitalized, and Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations. The city became the administrative capital of the Persian Empire and remained prominent for over two centuries.”
Not bad for an unihabited pile of stones. A little suggestion of gradual decline replaces Carswell’s cartoon: “by the reign of Darius III, over-taxation and the strain of numerous wars led to a deterioration of Babylon’s main shrines and canals, and the destabilization of the surrounding region. There were numerous attempts at rebellion [but] Babylon remained under Persian rule for two centuries, until Alexander the Great’s entry in 331 BC.” … “Under Alexander, Babylon again flourished as a center of learning and commerce. However, following Alexander’s death in 323 BC in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, his empire was divided amongst his generals, the Diadochi, and decades of fighting soon began. The constant turmoil virtually emptied the city of Babylon. A tablet dated 275 BC states that the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to Seleucia, where a palace and a temple (Esagila) were built. With this deportation, Babylon became insignificant as a city, although more than a century later, sacrifices were still performed in its old sanctuary.”
Furthermore, “Christianity was introduced to Mesopotamia in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and Babylon was the seat of a Bishop of the Church of the East until well after the Arab/Islamic conquest.”
No tents, no sheep, just wild animals and a Christian Bishop. Babylon limped on even into the 7th Century AD, when it was invaded by the expanding Muslim empire. As for nobody taking bricks away, “Babylon is mentioned in medieval Arabic writings as a source of bricks, said to have been used in cities from Baghdad to Basra.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon, my emphasis)
The second set of prophecies concerns what the Old Testament says about Jesus: that he would be born of a virgin in Bethlehem, heralded by a messenger; children would be killed at his birth; he would come out of Egypt, perform miracles and be sold for thirty pieces of silver; he would be forsaken by his disciples, accused by false witnesses and silent before his accusers; he would be smitten and spat upon, rejected by his people, his hands and feet pierced, his side pierced; he would be crucified between thieves, hated without a cause and his garments gambled for; not a bone of his body would be broken, and he would die a criminal’s death but be buried in a rich man’s tomb; he would rise from the dead. Carswell gives references from Isaiah, Micah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Numbers, Zechariah and Psalms.
It is easier to see how someone could look at this long list and, with a crude analysis, come to the conclusion that genuine prophecy was the best explanation. The Old Testament preceded the life of Jesus and the New Testament describes things that correspond with its prophecies, but this does not make the prophecies genuine or supernatural. In the construction of the New Testament, we must remember, there are several directions in which causation can flow.
There are three main ones. Most likely, Jesus considered himself to be the fulfillment of the prophecies that had existed for centuries: this is essentially how he presented himself, as the Messiah. We are told that he was well versed in the Jewish religion and referred to as Rabbi, so it is perfectly plausible that he tried to make the details of his life correspond to the expectation, especially since his mother declared her pregnancy virginal in the first place. If he assumed the role of King of the Jews, he would not leave gaping holes between reality, where he could influence it, and what had been foretold.
Given that the prophecies had existed for centuries, it is possible that many had taken on the identity of Messiah, but failed to be noticed, perhaps by not being born in the right place, or by not enduring the insult of having no identified father, or by all manner of other circumstances not being conducive. Or perhaps none did, given the prophesied martyrdom they’d have to enact.
The second causal direction is from prophecy directly to the New Testament. It is likely that the evangelical writers of the Gospels would accommodate into their text what was supposed to have happened had Jesus been the real deal, even if details were askew. This would be mediated by all manner of accidental errors, blind-spots and fabrications. Those who believed Jesus up to the point of his death would not be able to bear it if he did not resurrect, creating great incentive to imagine or invent accounts of his reappearance. These traits are well attested in psychological experiments.
For example, we have the nice detail in Luke’s Gospel of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem to register under a Roman census. This is almost certainly apocryphal, designed to make Bethlehem the birthplace of Jesus to match the prophecy in Micah 5:2 (Bethlehem being where King David was born). A census would not be likely to have required anyone to move to their place of origin when they could just state where it was, Joseph wasn’t in the relevant jurisdiction to start with and, as a woman, Mary would not have been required to go anywhere at all, let alone 90 miles, nine months pregant, on a donkey.
The same creative interpretation and embellishment can explain most of the prophecies’ appearance as Gospel elements. I submit that virgin births and resurrections are much less plausible than human foibles, and they are part of many religions: Christianity and Judeism borrowed from earlier mythology. Just a stone’s throw away, but millennia earlier, both Horus and Ra were supposed to have been born of virgins. A spit in the other direction, Greek and Roman gods were born of virgins, even the mortal Plato was said to be. Chinese ones were, Krishna and the mortal Buddha in India. The idea is pagan and predates Christianity probably by thousands of years.
(16) In view of all the fulfilled prophecies, have you considered what the Bible says about how the world will end?
The lesson should be that believing in prophecy is an easy mistake, and dangerous. Much of the threat to the world comes from three major religions, obsessed with their stories and sure of their absolute righteousness, circling Jerusalem in a dance of death. United States’ presidents and the odd British Prime Minister glibly cite their hotline to God as they send in the troops against the enemy who declares a different divine solution. The world will not end because God says so in a book, but it very well might because people believe that. Why do we imagine the West is helping Israel to occupy Palestine, and do we imagine that has nothing at all to do with nuclear proliferation, arms sales and global destabilization? Be careful what you believe, it is hard to distinguish from what you wish for, and from what you foster.
(17) Why do you think Jesus is so unforgettable?
Coincidence. He was born in a time and place when historic records were important. He followed from John the Baptist, already famous in the area. His chosen persona fitted an ancient set of religious prophecies, held to be true by the Jews who lived under Roman occupancy. He would have been less memorable as a mere political revolutionary, but his claim to fulfill the religious prophecy of his people made him an icon, especially, obviously, through his martyrdom.
In order to do this, and to create sufficient belief in his miracles, he must have had extraordinary self-confidence in his identity, and his audience must have had powerful motives to believe. I understand that some take this as evidence of his genuine Christhood, but it seems much more plausible that he suffered some kind of delusional disorder, as we would diagnose someone today without batting an eyelid who made similar claims. Investment of belief by others would increase his self-belief, through which he would be more convincing to them and himself. The expectation of end times, as was common belief, will do that to people.
One of the biggest blind spots of the religious relates to coincidence. Had some other religion come to ascendancy in the world, they would cite its extraordinary uniqueness, its inexplicable memorability, as evidence for its validity just the same, a sort of “survivorship bias“.
That brings us to the end of Part 1, but here’s a little taster of where we begin next time:
(18) Have you ever wondered why, unlike other leaders, Jesus’ name is used as a swear word?
I’ll leave you to contemplate that.