The Big Questions: Does evidence undermine religion?

As mentioned previously, I attended the filming of The Big Questions on Sunday, January 11th. The topic for this episode was, ‘Does evidence undermine religion?’ I’ve done a pre-amble explaining the different degrees of evidence, now I’m going to illustrate how this differentiation impacts theistic claims. I’m going to pick on the theists, for the most part.

I’m going to follow the order of the programme, which you can view, here, and I’ll supply the time-stamps for each bit. Where I quote the panelists I will edit out irrelevancies … and I’ll resist the urge to point out faulty English, because at least one of the panelists has English as a second language.

Nicky Campbell says, “…you [Robert Feather] believe that you’ve actually discovered the mountain where the commandments were meant to have been handed down.”

Robert Feather replies, “Probably, yes. The exact mountain, in fact.”

So, we start off with equivocation. He started with the reasonable, “Probably, yes”, but immediately switched to the overblown “The exact mountain, in fact.” So we’re off to a bad start. The main thrust of Feather’s argument seems to be that because he found a mountain that conforms to some Biblical descriptions, that Moses was real, and by extension, the Bible is true. My response to that: I highly recommend a book called ‘The Historian’, which goes into great detail, both historical and more current, about Istanbul and Budapest, and therefore Dracula is real.

We then have a lesson in what a ‘degal’ is. What’s interesting here is that Feather claims that this number was mistranslated as 1000, when it is a much lower number. He plumps for around 50-60. According to Strong’s Concordance a ‘degal’ is a banner or a standard. Given that the Exodus is effectively an origin story, and given the numerous other instances of hyperbole when translating these stories (I recommend looking up how big Solomon’s temple actually was), would it not be easiest to suggest that each banner was a family with a man at it’s head? That makes any Exodus to be 605 families (of between two and six people, say) and that might explain a lack of archaeological evidence for any Exodus whatsoever. Alternatively, could this be a story about 605 families who were followers of Akhenaten (the first Egyptian to be a monotheist), who fled Egypt when Akhenaten died, to the relative safety of the outskirts of the Empire (i.e. Canaan)? I only mention this, because Feather has advocated for the Akhenaten thesis in the past (see his book The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran: The Essene Record of the Treasure of Akhenaten). Or, either of these could be the case, but involving 605 individual men who went on to start their own families… which is more plausible still. Or, and this seems even more likely, it’s just a story.

Is it now that I point to the recent study that found that children who are presented with Biblical stories as historical facts are less able to distinguish truth from fiction when presented with non-Biblical fairy stories?

Professor Stavrakopoulou (hereafter, Francesca) corrects a number of Feather’s overstatements (e.g. “the exact mountain”), and in response Feather goes on the offensive. Interestingly, he claims that Francesca has been “overtaken by a flood of archaeological and textual information.” He then proceeds to ask whether she is aware of Beno Rothenberg. This is an interesting question, and one that I would turn back on Feather. Beno Rothenberg died in 2012. Furthermore, aside from a couple of papers on metallurgy, the bulk of Rothenberg’s work is from last century. Is Feather suggesting that information that is more than a decade old can be characterized as current? Feather also makes a big deal about the Merneptah Stele. Is this part of his “flood of archaeological and textual information” by which Francesca has been overtaken? The Merneptah Stele was uncovered in 1896, and the translation, which questionably includes the key word, Israel, was from the following year (Petrie & Spiegelberg, 1897).

At this point the conversation shifted to a Jewish interpretation, courtesy of Rabbi Miriam Berger. There’s really not much to say, here. The Rabbi accepts that the story is likely metaphorical (though I would go further and say that Yahweh is, too), and that she would get shivers if some element of the story that was true could be rooted in a real world location, but that it’s not necessary for the identity that her faith provides. Great. Perfectly sensible.

Next up is Doctor Radica Antic. Now I am going to admit that I found this man intensely annoying, and this will likely come out in what I say. Indeed, I’ll get my complaint off my chest now. This man is a doctor? Of what? Errant nonsense and condescension?

“To make archaeology the measure of all truth is so wrong. And it simply, it does not stand…”

He says a lot more, but I want to get to grips with the above, because this underscores my complaint about definitions of evidence. First, Antic sets up a strawman by claiming that anyone has suggested that archaeology is the font of all knowledge. Indeed, that is more commonly a claim from theism. Richard Carrier, a well-known historian, places history (his own field), as a means to knowledge, behind reason, science, and experience, not least because establishing historical fact requires reason, science and experience. So Antic is right, archaeology is not the measure of all truth, but as he was the one making this claim, he’s begged his own question.

“…To impose atheistic interpretation on the Biblical text it would be like imposing Biblical or theistic understanding on some atheistic work.”

Antic, using “atheistic” to mean ‘scientific and/or materialist’, fails to note that the Bible IS making claims about the nature of reality. Claims that we know to be false. Whether you read the creation as seven actual days (despite the sun not being present until the fourth), or seven epochs, the story itself is still unequivocally wrong. The Noachian flood, as a genetic bottleneck, just makes it more wrong. Indeed, without the claims in Genesis there is no need for the New Testament. If there is no Adam and Eve, and no Fall, then there is no need for Atonement in the person of Jesus Christ, end of story (quite literally).

“First of all, I believe there is God. And IF there is God…”

It amuses me how often theists say ‘IF’, only to assume the conclusion in everything they go on to say. No, let’s stop at ‘If there is God’ and point out that you don’t know if there is, you can’t prove that there is, and your entire worldview (as shown above) is predicated on that IF. I hasten to remind Antic of Matthew 7:26 (And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand). “IF” is linguistic sand, whereas science’s ‘This is what we know, so far’ is, whilst maybe not rock, certainly the driving of piles down into the rock through the ‘IF’ sand.

“The atheistic community, they have no answer, how the universe-cosmos came into existence. Not at all, they are telling us that something comes from nothing. This is an offence to the common sense…”

By “atheistic community” Antic means the ‘scientific community’, so we have a conflation/red herring here, again, which now becomes the basis of a genetic fallacy. He prefers that which comes to us from common sense over careful observation. Common sense has an incredibly poor record for delivering truth (as Adam Rutherford says in response). Indeed most religious texts are written as common sense for that region, and then stray into global or universal concerns. But lets deal with this argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) on this specific topic…

First, God also comes from nothing, or has always existed, which is the same thing. So there is fundamentally no difference between the two. Of course, on a deeper reading, many scientists have a different definition of nothing (e.g. Lawrence Krauss). Second, an appeal to common sense doesn’t work, because most religions (including Christianity) agree with science that we only know of one universe for certain, the one we’re in. In order for something to be common sense we need to have been in a position to witness something repeatedly, and deduced the correct response accordingly, so common sense simply can’t provide us with an answer (Arif Ahmed makes much the same point, but with reference to statistical probability). Those who clapped to Antic’s comments, here, are applauding willful ignorance, and should be ashamed of themselves.

“…200 constants in the Universe… and if only one, if only one of these constants is changed, nothing would exist… then how did life started. Dawkins is telling us pure, sheer chance. …if there is God, then he speaks, and he speaks also in the Bible, then your questions about Noah’s Ark… because there are miracles all around us.”

As is the case with many theists, Antic makes discussion of biological evolution equivalent to cosmic evolution (an equivocation), presumably because the Bible considers these events in the same chapter and/or because they both use the word evolution. They are, of course, not alike, and have around seven billion years separating them (rather than seven days/epochs in which to occur).

That being said, Antic unwittingly provides exactly the same definition for miracle that I do: a lack of understanding of the underlying mechanics makes something seem ‘amazing and inexplicable’. Once you have even a slightly better understanding of what’s going on, then you lose the ‘inexplicable’ and are left with just ‘amazing’. Indeed, it is only through believing the creationist account, and the flood, that you can believe in miracles. Once you lose belief in these fairy stories everything becomes more explicable, and thus less miraculous.

This, by the way, is the main claim that I am making with my own research, that religion is self-perpetuating, in that it encourages belief in easy-to-believe stories, but that belief makes the world a scarier and more surprising place, and fear (or at least anxiety) is a fundamental driver of religious belief.

This is the bit that makes me think that Antic is a condescending fool: In response to Adam’s perfectly sensible and (importantly) circumspect comments, he said, “Of course you don’t know [how the universe began] [more cheering from the peanut gallery].” You don’t know either, Antic. You believe some ill-founded guesswork from 3000 years ago, which was immediately superseded, at about the same time, by the nascent science of the Greeks, which you choose to ignore. I suspect that Antic is, intentionally or otherwise, unaware of the sheer volume of work that has been done in science. Whilst science can’t discount the possibility of a god, it certainly will not the God of the Bible.

And now we get onto Hamza Tzortzis, another self-impressed apologist, but this time for Islam (I want to point out that I very much enjoyed listening to Maajid Nawaz on the previous episode, before anyone jumps up and accuses me of Islamophobia). Tzortzis turns to, I presume Adam Rutherford and, in a manner that you would adopt if speaking to a toddler (i.e. not humble), claims that we need to have, “epistemic humility.” I’m going to go ahead and guess that he recently discovered The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and read the bit about ‘Wisdom’.

“The point is, is that scientists are limited to the observations they have at hand, there can be a future observation that denies previous conclusions. It’s in flux. This is the beauty of science.”

This is actually an excellent point, at least on the surface (and before he goes on to ruin it with what else he has to say). The implication, in a deeper reading, is that the entirety of science can be overturned by a new observation. This is incorrect. Science, like the human mind, is a recursive process, as such it is hugely common to be garden-pathed by a particular line of enquiry or theorising. (An example being the geocentric model, and the heliocentric (Copernican) revolution.) However, once findings get to a certain point there is nothing that can overturn them, for example, Einstein’s theories of relativity refined Newton’s, they didn’t overturn them. Certainly there is no finding that will make any creationist account true (if anyone wants to challenge me on that I’ll happily explain why, but it’s beyond the scope of this writing). Likewise, no findings will suddenly find that the Qur’an’s discussion of embryology is true. Indeed, the Qur’an relied upon a subset of what was known from the work of Galen and others, and science has moved beyond that. Scientific knowledge has only improved, and most new findings refine existing theories rather than overturning them. Most of those that were overturned outright (like geocentrism and female sperm) were based in religious views… which is bad news for what Tzortzis is trying to achieve with his (faux) epistemic humility.

“Are you going to use science as a yardstick for absolute truth? No! No sincere scientist would say that because we’re bound to change. We’re limited human beings, one day we look at the horizon, we think it’s flat. Next minute learn about maths, and know it’s round. So the point is, let’s have epistemic humility.”

No scientist would lay claim to absolute truth, because that’s a religious claim. “Epistemic humility” is built into science, not least because science doesn’t lay claim to a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Note, also, how Tzortzis makes my point by talking about the flat horizon, the discovery of maths, and the knowledge that the earth is round. Does he honestly think THAT observation is going to be overturned?

“The issue is this, why are we imprisoned, from an epistemic perspective? Why is it only science? What about philosophy, reason, maths, logic, other forms to truth? Because what we’ve done we’re presuming a scientism here, and scientism is limited.”

Right. Hamza is sitting opposite two philosophers, Peter Cave and Arif Ahmed, both of whom adopt knowledge from science to inform their philosophizing. There are philosophers of various sciences who have a very active role in the science of which they are philosophers, and their input into that science is significant. Of course reason, maths, and logic actually form the very basis of science, so Tzortzis is begging the question for these to be used instead of science. Various theisms have attempted to employ these things to strengthen their arguments – that seldom works out well:

“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
― Martin Luther

“Credo quia absurdum” (paraphrase)

“I believe because it is absurd.”
– Tertullian.

Now we have Vince Vitale, jumping in after a direct question to Antic, by Ahmed.

“In terms of the explosive force of the Big Bang, if you just conceptualise it… it’s the slightest bit stronger, it literally disperses into thin air. …The slightest bit weaker and it all collapses back in on itself.”

I find it amusing that this guy encourages us to conceptualise it, and then fails to conceptualise it himself. For starters, the contents of the Big Bang will NOT “disperse into thin air”, because there is no “thin air” for it to disperse into (and ‘void’ has the benefit of being only one word, not two). This illustrates the anthropocentric nature of theism. A devout theist seems only able to conceptualize things from a human perspective (and hence an anthropomorphic God, in shape of body and/or shape of thought). It is outside the grasp of their imagination to remove the human element from the imagination and to act purely as a passive observer. What’s even more absurd is that Vitale thinks he’s delivered a knock–out argument as to why the universe must be finely tuned, but instead he’s delivered a knock-out argument as to why neither of the universes that he’s described is the one we live in. There may well have been prior iterations of this universe (or other regions of spacetime), whether due to a Big Bounce, or Smolin Selection Theory that fit his description… but if there were, neither we, nor anything like us, would live in it.

Then Antic rejoins the conversation:

“If ever, if ever there are enough evidences [to prove evolution true]… I would lose my faith in God, yes. If there is enough evidences, but there are no evidences.”

Antic is incorrect, for two reason:

  1. there are mountains of evidence, he has just systematically avoided being presented with it, or paying attention when presented with it, or, and this seems most likely, doesn’t understand it.
  2. the evidence merely supports the theory of evolution, evolution itself is a fact, for which the theory is our best explanation.

So Antic is ignoring the fact, the theory, AND the evidence for that theory. I think it safe to call that ignorance. And in this forum he is, arguing that his ignorance is better than someone else’s hard-won knowledge. Of course, because that knowledge doesn’t come from personal experience (of evolution itself), or from hearing a story about someone else’s personal experience, it does not count as evidence. Recall the three definitions of ‘evident’ I gave previously, and notice how Antic is relying solely on the weakest one.

Antic then goes on to show how truly, gob-smackingly hypocritical he is in his response to Adam Rutherford:

“More humbleness would help you… what we know is very, very little.”

Humility

Is this the face of a humble man?

The lack of humility in this demand for humility is astonishing. His lack of self-awareness about his lack of humility is saddening (and this is a common problem with fervent and fundamentalist theists). There can be nothing more humble than asking the universe for the answer, and actually listening to the reply, and Antic would do well to remember this. Instead, all of his knowledge, or rather, beliefs, have been gained from listening to other people, and believing them. This might make him a half-decent friend, but a lousy scientist or philosopher.

Here, Vince Vitale scores an excellent own goal, and doesn’t realize it.

“His [audience member’s] point is that… if evolution is the sole guiding principle of human development, that is aimed at survival, not at truth. And if that’s the case, it sounds a bit like we get on the scale and think it should tell us the time. Why should we believe that our thoughts, our beliefs…”

And the audience member clarifies:

“I think my point was missed out. Um, look, you can believe in evolution, and believe in a creator, there’s not contradiction between the two. That wasn’t my point. My point was purely from an atheistic paradigm, right, there is no God, there is no intelligence behind this universe… assuming Darwinian evolution is true (even though science is based on induction – it can be wrong)… assuming it’s true, how can you trust your mind, when your mind is a product of a blind evolutionary process, which doesn’t have an end goal. If the end goal is pure rationality, then we should have the same rationality as…”

I suppose we should be grateful that Vince characterizes evolution somewhat accurately. Although that scale/clock metaphor is just bizarre. What he, and the audience member in question, fails to observe, is that we are getting better at detecting actual truth because truth is ultimately better for our survival (as Ahmed says). The human species has established itself as flexible survivalists with a pragmatic understanding of our surroundings. We assume, for example, that the thing we half see from the corner of our eye is dangerous, and we turn to confirm or disconfirm that. As such, our basest urges and reflexes are indeed pragmatic and survival-oriented. But our meta-cognitive functions evolved to enable us to break deadlocks of two pragmatically equivalent drives.

We often hear of the fight/flight/freeze response. There are incredibly few cases where, when in danger, freezing is appropriate. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the two options are just fight or flight. Freezing occurs when the two options are deadlocked. Thanks to our evolved capacity for breaking this deadlock we now know (or at least we would, had we read the appropriate survival handbook) when it is appropriate to freeze, run, shin up a tree, make lots of noise and flap our hands around, and when it is appropriate to attack. Notice that I just listed five reactions to what would previously have been the three of fight, flight or freeze, and that’s before we get to brandish a flaming brand, flinging a spear at it, or shooting it between the eyes. That is what our intelligence is for, and that is, very roughly, how it works.

…and it’s at this point, about half way through the episode, that I admit defeat, both on the basis of available time, and sheer mental exhaustion. The devout theists in this episode held the floor for longer than any of the pragmatic theists or atheists did (I apologise to Rabbi Miriam Berger and Professor Joan Taylor for making the distinction in that way, but it really was the only one I could think of). Whilst the theists held the floor they said a great deal, whilst also saying very little. And the atheists (in the main) spent more time correcting them than making their own points. As illustrated above, the theists consistently presented opinion as fact, denied any opposing facts that were presented to them by people who were in the right field of study to be able to contradict them, and then demanded humility, whilst displaying none.

What this episode illustrates is that people who are fundamentalist or fervent in a given religion are blind to their own shortcomings and deaf to contrary evidence. Those that are a little more open-minded, are only so in a sophist fashion; they continue to argue the theistic point, but with a veneer of plausible-sounding philosophy and quasi-scientific language, and usually in a rehearsed fashion. Only the theists that treat their religion as metaphorical, or as an organizing framework for more esoteric thought, sound sensible. This seems to be because they also use science to organize their lives, a fact which allows them the luxury of considering their esoteric thoughts in the first instance.

My research suggests that the monotheistic God is a construct derived from human social thought, as a reaction to the overwhelming number of people in our social world. This overwhelms the minds of some, and makes it impossible to view the world in anything but human terms. The switching off of the social module is no longer possible in this overwhelmed state. This process is reinforced by stories and mythologies from religion, not because of the stories themselves, but because in believing those stories, much more about the world comes as a surprise. Surprise leads to fear, or at least anxiety, and both reduce cognitive abilities. Anxiety is the equivalent of running on three out of four cylinders, semi-permanently, and fear is the equivalent of running on one or two cylinders, over short periods of time (this fact giving birth to the absurd trope that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’).

Watching this episode, it was easy to see whose ability to use social thinking to monitor their own behaviour was impaired. It was also easy to see who, when made anxious about the veridicality of their beliefs, lost the ability to string a sentence together without self-contradiction or fallacious reasoning. Others had the defence mechanism of only listening for keywords, and reacting to what they though they heard, often with a rehearsed spiel. None of these behaviours was evident from the atheists or pragmatic theists who responded to the question asked, or position stated, with a considered reply…

This is our modern world, in microcosm.

The Big Questions: Evidence

On Sunday, January 11th, I had the great good fortune to be in the audience for a filming of The Big Questions. The topic for this episode was, ‘Does evidence undermine religion?’ A great deal arose from the comments of the various panelists for this, and I will address those in part 2 of this blog (after the episode has aired, January 18th). In this installment, though, I’m going to take a look at the concept of evidence with a particular emphasis on how it relates to religious claims.

For a discussion on whether evidence undermines religion it was unfortunate that the definition of ‘evidence’ was not discussed. Then again, that would make a much less interesting hour-long show. So, in a show such as The Big Questions, it is to be expected that the focus be on the big AND interesting questions. This being said, a working definition of ‘evidence’ (such as the one below), provided to the panelists ahead of time, might have produced quite different results (or lead to the less interesting episode I just mentioned).

There is a vast difference between folk theories (or so-called common-sense) about what constitutes evidence, and scientifically and philosophically literate theories of such things. In the context of a discussion, panelists can only start to get an understanding of what the other panelists’ positions are on that underlying question. Whilst one is assessing that position, and until one has accurately deduced it, one is necessarily talking past the other. Over the course of this essay I will explain why, by referencing what different individuals tend to consider appropriate as regards evidence, and the impact of interpretation on evidence, after the fact. The best place to start is with a (Chambers) dictionary definition, but, rather than evidence, let’s start with what it means to be ‘evident’:

Evident: that can be seen; clear to the mind; obvious…*

Dictionaries generally order their definitions such that the most common usage is first, and subsequent definitions can add clarity, whether by comparison or contrast. This is well illustrated with the above. Firstly, “that can be seen” has a modern, scientific, empiricist slant. By comparison, “clear to the mind” is an older, but still relevant, philosophically rationalistic view (indeed it calls to mind Descartes’ extended discussion of “vivid and clear” mental imagery from ‘Discourse 2’). Finally, “obvious,” which is problematic. What is obvious to one person may not be obvious to another, and for a whole host of reasons. I think it fair to say that, in a discussion about science and religion, the more scientific, and those (like me) with a passing understanding of the history of philosophy, are working with the first definition, and sometimes the second. The more religious tend to use the last two. Some religious people might take umbrage at my saying this, so let me be clear, I used the word ‘tend’ for a reason, and I would point to the ‘evidence’ for God using testimony and ‘the witness of the holy spirit’. (See Christian apologist, William Lane Craig’s defense of the Christian God “by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” and arguments against that.) The use of the word “witness” is itself problematic, as it is a witnessing that seldom involves senses – there is no earwitnessing or eyewitnessing – indeed one might suggest that miracles are the provision of corroborating external sense data. Unlike miracles, witnessing is an emotional (and internal) experience. As such, something that is “clear to the mind” certainly is obvious – to you – but not necessarily obvious to anyone else. So you’ll need some other kind of evidence:

Evidence: that which makes things evident; means of proving an unknown or disputed fact; support (e.g. for a belief); indication; information in a law case; testimony; a witness or witnesses collectively…*

Evidence is that which makes something evident, but as discussed, what is evident to one is by no means evident to another. As such, witnessing and testimony, as employed in religious circumstances (and indeed in legal ones), is not proof of the claim, but proof of the witness’s belief in that claim (assuming that they’re not lying, but we’ll touch on intentional falsehood later). Does belief prove an unknown or disputed fact?

Psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus has shown us that a witness’s testimony can be affected by something as simple as the way in which a question is asked about an event. For example, in a famous experiment (Loftus & Palmer, 1974), participants were shown footage of an automobile accident. After being shown the footage, participants were assigned to answer one version of the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”. The resulting estimates varied between ‘contact’ (the lowest estimate, at around 32mph) and ‘smash’ (the highest estimate, at around 41mph). The participants’ responses were biased by the version of the question they saw, such that their estimates varied by around 25% (which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite a lot considering they viewed the exact same footage, not merely the same event). This serves to make the point about memory and, without being diverted by too much further detail, human cognition is riddled with similar flaws of receiving, processing, understanding, and recalling, of information, as highlighted in the work of Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman (1974), and many, many other psychologists.

It’s likely that the fact of these flaws in cognition is exactly why science has been so very successful in describing the natural world, as compared to other methods that rely on human cognitive faculties. Instead of developing folk theories about a phenomenon, or asking someone else about their folk theories, we have sufficient humility to ask the universe itself. We attempt to re-enact the scenario in which the relevant phenomenon occurs (or predict its occurrence and observe it more closely), and measure the outcome. That measurement, as objective as we can make it, is evidence.

The fact of evidence, even where it is agreed upon, does not mean that differences of interpretation can’t occur, even between incredibly smart people. The Einstein-Bohr debates at the birth of quantum mechanics make that evident. But, just as the way in which a question is asked can alter the answer given (and without the respondent being aware), so too, can exposure to ideas change the way in which you receive subsequent information. The Bible, for example, has variously been used to support slavery, mostly in the past, as well as condemn slavery, more recently. As such, if one considers the Bible to be evidence (rather than the claim), what has changed is the set of extra-Biblical facts (or at least beliefs) that the Bible-believing populace hold to be true. This is, in effect, hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), and it is instructive that hermeneutics was born out of Biblical textual analysis. It was subsequently recognised (first in philosophy, and then in Biblical criticism) that hermeneutics had to include an understanding of the “social, historical, and psychological world”* of the time in which the original text was written (I’m sure Professor Stavrakopoulou – one of the panelists – would correct me if she happened to read this, and I happened to be wrong on that latter point).

The Bible, very generally, is a collection of testimonies about events, claims about the nature of reality in light of those events, and claims about the impact of that reality on the social world, and so on. As such, within the Bible, there is a great deal of interpretation of prior work that is also within the Bible – there is no clear distinction between older and newer writing. My understanding is that the Qur’an contains a great many of the stories that are contained in the Bible, and this seems likely to be due, at least in part, to the impact of the Jewish and Christian knowledge of Muhammad’s cousin-in-law, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, and others, in interpreting and writing down Muhammad’s revelations (themselves the product of the social and religious environment of the time).

In the case of the Qur’an it is often said that it must be read in the original Arabic, and no translation is a true Qur’an. Much the same was said of the Bible, when it was still in Latin, and attempts to translate the Bible into English were met with death threats. This is no longer the case, and as such there are now hundreds of versions of the Bible… and all of them are at least subtly different.

The Bible and Qur’an are, at some level, claims made by people about events. In the case of the Bible, those claims are voiced either by the authors themselves, or by the protagonists in the Bible story in question – as such there is at least one or two levels of interpretation involved. The Qur’an, by contrast, is a claim by one person, Muhammad, about the nature of a set of revelatory experiences, which may or may not have been recontextualised by the input of various scribes, family members, and followers, depending on their own knowledge of the Torah, Tanakh, and Christian Biblical writing, and other socially relevant historical matters. Needless to say, depending on the impact of the knowledge of Jewish and Christian scripture on the Qur’an, the layers of interpretation may move from one layer deep, to three, four, five, or more layers deep. These interpretations of interpretations of interpretations are presented with a human voice (as opposed to a divine one), and they are about very human concerns, such as life, love, death, and meaning… and this fact leads me to my final point.

Most people take other people at their word, unless they have reason not to. The reason not to may be because the individual has been found to be a false witness in the past, but bearing false witness is different from being mistaken. I am often surprised by how readily people who claim deep religious faith will call someone that makes an opposing claim a liar – calling someone a liar is very different from saying ‘I disagree with you.’ Likewise, saying someone may be mistaken in their interpretation is not the same as calling someone a liar.

As discussed above, religious texts have very strong human themes, and as such it is unsurprising that some people will engage with these in a very human way, especially if they have been raised to do so. If you’ve been raised to not contradict your elders and, by extension, to accept religious authority, with little or no question, then the issue is the way in which you are engaging with the evidence. If your continued exposure is to a limited subset of religious claims, delivered emphatically by a priest or imam, then your engagement with the claims will continue to be social and emotional, not rational.

“As Loftus puts it, ‘just because someone says something confidently doesn’t mean it’s true.’ Jurors can’t help but find an eyewitness’s confidence compelling, even though experiments have shown that a person’s confidence in their own memory is sometimes undiminished even in the face of evidence that their memory of an event is false.”

In this modern scientific age, even the most ardent believer will have been affected by their exposure to both science and technology – not least the democratisation of information on the internet. With this exposure, and access to both good and bad information, skepticism is a necessary skill. The realization that a modern teenager knows far more about how the world works than the authors of any ancient holy book did, should give believers pause for thought, whether they believe humans were conduits for, or interpreters of, the divine word.

Nice people treat people they meet with respect until given cause to do otherwise. Extending this courtesy to long-dead people who were short on good, evidenced information does not make one nice, it makes one gullible (which is nice, if you’re a sociopath looking for people to use). Where individuals use their belief in the words of the long since deceased as the basis for being rude to someone that is right in front of them rather makes a mockery of the religious claim to humility. Assuming that your assessment of the claims of the long-since deceased is correct, and that someone else’s assessment of other, contradicting evidence is therefore wrong, is arrogant. Of course, most religions suggest humility in the face of evidence. Unfortunately for many believers, what constituted evidence at the time those words were written has changed because we now know how fallible we humans really are… then again, doesn’t your omniscient being of choice know that, too?

*Definitions of both ‘evident’ and ‘evidence’: The Chambers Dictionary (13th Ed.)

*Definition of ‘hermeneutics’ and related quote (“social, historical, and psychological world”): Blackburn, S. (2008). Hermeneutics. In Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Second Edition (Revised), p. 165).

For an excellent read about human memory I recommend Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light: The new science of memory

Non-believers and American politics…

It is hard to ignore two psychosocial features of religious observance: First, that with increased material wealth (or, to put it less hedonistically: with increased protection from privation), religiosity reduces (Paul, 2009). This is not just personal wealth, or societal wealth, but an interaction of the two. Secondly, with increased learning (both at the personal level, as well as the societal), comes decreased religiousness. More correctly this seems to be an interaction between intelligence (e.g. Zuckerman, Silberman & Hall, 2013), and education (Martinez, 2014). These facts interact; as such the highly educated and most wealthy are the least likely to be religious (Paul, 2009). This can be seen in the reduced religiousness of wealthy but equitable nations (such as the Scandinavian states, and Japan), and in the hyper-religiosity of the US (as a wealthy but inequitable nation), and the religious zeal of the poor and uneducated nation states of the third world. Such tendencies, at the population level, must have some degree of expression in individuals. As such, a significant number of US politicians (and their primary donors), who are undeniably wealthy and well educated, must also be non-religious, despite the wealth disparity in the US, and despite their claims of religiosity.

“The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years; and of Senators, 62.2 years. The overwhelming majority of Members have a college education. The dominant professions of Members are public service/politics, business, and law. Protestants collectively constitute the majority religious affiliation of Members. Roman Catholics account for the largest single religious denomination, and numerous other affiliations are represented.” – Manning, 2011

Given the unavoidable fact that some of these politically motivated individuals MUST be non-religious (despite there being no professing unbelievers in the houses at this time), the question then arises: Are they claiming religion for personal gain, or are they claiming religion for personal gain? Clearly this is a non-question, but under the surface a genuine question lurks: Does this belief inure the individual from the fundamental injustice of their wealth at the expense of their fellow Americans, or do they adopt an outwardly religious pose to assure the masses that they are merely there by the grace of God? I would suggest that this dichotomy is no dichotomy at all – both are hypocritical. Try as I might, I see no third option; at most, I see variants of these two.

It is interesting to note that the two political parties have, in general terms, qualitatively different approaches to the issue of wealth. Liberals don’t really have a coherent narrative regarding wealth, aside from occasional attempts to enact progressive taxation and wealth redistribution. There is also a notable propensity amongst Democratic donors to be known for their humanitarian giving (e.g. Warren Buffett and George Soros). Republicans, on the other hand, have rationalised wealth as indicative of moral worth (Lakoff, 2002), conflating merit with money. Of course, it’s hard to maintain this position of moral authority when the majority of members of Congress (of both parties) are from very well paid professions that seem to attract those high in psychopathic tendencies (CEO and Lawyer are listed at first and second, respectively, and Civil Servant is listed at tenth).

“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.”

On the matter of religiosity, the parties also have different approaches. The Republicans claim religiousness at every turn, appealing directly to the religious right (obviously), and lying about their statistically likely lack of religiousness. Liberals, by comparison, avoid mentioning religion wherever possible, except where politically expedient. This a difference of degree, not type, and the reason is simple. The populace generally treat sins of commission more harshly than sins of omission (Harris, 2010), but where that sin of commission is a claim of religiosity, it is more readily overlooked, particularly by the religious right:

“On September 20, 2006 an independent Congressional-watch organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its second annual “Most Corrupt Members of Congress Report.” Three senators and seventeen members of the House were named, most of them hold-overs from the first annual report (although the news release noted with some glee that two of the previous winners were already on their way to jail).

In other words, corruption, and overtly irreligious (one might say sinful) behaviour are not sufficient to impact on a politician’s chances, but proof of atheism will. The highly religious will put up with an incredible amount of widely reported “unChristian” behaviour (although that term seems to have lost all meaning in US politics), but they will not countenance an atheist in office (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011). So, let’s find (and out) atheist Republicans, as this will have one of two effects – it will either improve the stock of atheists with the highly religious (and atheists are less trusted than rapists (ibid.)), or it will remove the atheists of low integrity from the political landscape… I see both as positive outcomes.

Late addition: here are the religiosity stats for the current Congress.