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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

This was published in my newspaper yesterday, but it was from 2007. I almost spit out my oatmeal when I read it.

Click here to read.

While I expect the people who have bought into the arguments like the Jesus Tomb won't find it amusing, those of you who have analyzed the arguments and found them wanting will find this quite amusing.

Skeptics and atheists often compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus, the main element of the analogy being that there is insufficient evidence to believe either of them exists, although we cannot conclusively disprove that they do not. Another element is that both (presumably) are childish beliefs that we grow out of as adults. Finally, belief in both persons is said to be the result of wishful thinking, and leads to manifest absurdities (how does Santa manage to visit all the little boys and girls between midnight and morning on Christmas Day?).

Atheists never tire of this rhetorical zinger, which leads me to doubt their basic intelligence. None of the elements of this analogy are even remotely plausible. The biggest dis-analogy, which I am amazed no one seems to have noticed, is that Santa Claus has never been anything other than a fictional character (I am talking here of the popular version involving red-nosed reindeer, the base at the North Pole, etc. not of the various historical personages associated with him, such as Basil of Caesarea-to Greeks Santa Claus is known as 'Agios Vasilis'-or St. Nicholas). There may be a period of disillusionment after a child has been fed with stories of Santa's list and what will be sitting under the Christmas tree, but with it comes the recognition that the story was never meant to be taken seriously as a description of a really existing being (in most cases; there are a few exceptions). It is the highest of absurdities to look for evidence of Santa Claus's existence, or to try to disprove his existence, not because it is somehow beyond the realm of empirical science or because it is a 'matter of faith', but because from start to finish it is a fable, a harmless piece of fiction parents use to entertain their children, never intending them to cling to it as truth when they are older.

The case with God is very different. Far from being a fiction that everyone recognizes as such, the idea of God features prominently in the vast majority of humans' most fundamental orientation to the world, and is taken seriously as an explanation for very real features of human experience. Claims to encounters with God are made by sane, serious, intellectually adept grown-ups, and the coherence of the idea has been defended by some of the greatest minds in human history. Furthermore, unlike Santa whose existence and nature (did Santa get that belly like a bowl full of jelly from downing too many Budweisers or is Mrs. Santa just a really good cook?) are utterly inconsequential to the story and fundamentally incompatible with the way the world is, there are many reasonable proposals for how God relates to and acts in the world. Though God and Santa might both be said to violate the laws of physics when they perform their marvelous acts, we can coherently imagine God doing so on account of Who He is-the creator and sustainer of the whole Universe, the laws of which are expressions of His will-whereas there is no way to account for flying reindeer or an inexhaustible toy bag. Santa, like the lesser gods of polytheism, is presumably part of the furniture of the world and as such is either biologically plausible or not.

But again, the above discussion is completely superfluous because God and Santa Claus are nowhere near in the same class; to compare them is really to compare apples and oranges. One might as well compare God to Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand. Nobody in their right mind, least of all King himself, ever had any inkling that Flagg is a real demon who roams the highways of history in stylish cowboy boots spreading mayhem and chaos throughout the world. The character is fictional from start to finish and appeared for the first time in King's novel (though he would make subsequent appearances in other books, for example the Dark Tower cycle) as such. Even though some people might believe (with little evidence) that God was first made up by some devious shaman as a fiction to gain power and influence, this is not something that is recognized as obviously true by all reasonable people, as is the case with Santa or Flagg.

There are supernatural creatures which might better serve the atheists' intended analogy of a being in whom many people believe but for whose existence we lack sufficient evidence, such as fairies or djinns, but none of them remotely compare to the concept of God as a metaphysical postulate. The real reason atheists like to compare God and Santa so much is because they are hoping the obvious absurdity of believing in Santa Claus somehow rubs off on people's understanding of belief in God; but critically thinking people with even a hint of common sense won't buy it for a second.

In his short essay entitled "On the Reading of Old Books", C.S. Lewis says that it is important to read old books in order to be less suseptible to the prejudices and outlook of one's own age. Lewis notes:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.

Lewis recommends the reading of one old book for every three new ones -- a habit I highly endorse. And while reading the old books help point out the characteristic mistakes of our own period, they also point out when a particular attitude that is thought to be new to our own period is actually much older. These attitudes, moreover, are not only reflected in the non-fiction work, but the fiction work may sometimes illustrate an attitude or outlook with much more grace and eloquence than can be found in the non-fiction arena. Thus, I read old fiction as well as non-fiction books.

It was in the reading of an old fiction book that I came across a short story entitled "Fullcircle" by John Buchan (copyright 1928). The story is not specifically about religion, but at the beginning of the story the protagonist is introduced to a couple of people, Mr. and Mrs. Giffen, who are living in an old house known as Fullcircle. The description of the people is one that some might think is an attitude of people in the 21st Century. Yet, Buchan's description suggests that their outlook may have been old even in 1928.

They are the rootless stuff in the world today -- in revolt against everything and everybody with any anscestry. A kind of innocent self-righteousness -- wanting to be the people with whom wisdom begins and ends. They are mostly sensitve and tender-hearted, but they wear themselves out in an eternal dissidence. Can't build, you know, for they object to all tools, but very ready to crab. They scorn any form of Christianity, but they'll walk miles to patronize some wrteched sect that has the merit of being brand-new. "Pioneers" they call themselves-- funny little unclad people adventuring into the cold desert with no maps. Giffen once described himself and his friends to me as "forward-looking", but that, of course, is just what they are not. To tackle the future you must have a firm grip of the past, and for them the past is only a pathological curiosity. They're up to their necks in the mud of the present....

I know I have encountered hundreds of people like them on the Internet. They now call themselves "Spiritual" but not bound to any religion. And, apparently, they've been around since at least the 1920s (but I suspect that their type has been around much, much longer).

This is a bit of a cheap shot, as I'll explain later. But I thought it might be an interesting way of opening a discussion on the philosophical merits of the third edition of the Humanist Manifesto--which returns to the optimistic outlook of the first version, without the numerous specific 'doctrinal points' of the first (1933) and second (1973) versions. Most notably, the third version eliminates language intending to thus start a new secular "religion" (which probably wouldn't fly well with the common secular critique of the bloody abuses of 20th century atheistic regimes on the ground that they had become secular "religions"); and the promotion of this new "religion" through classroom indoctrination of children.

(A quick resource for links to SecHum documents and their history, can be found here on Wikipedia.)


The new edition, released in 2003 by the American Humanist Association, is admirably brief; and will be printed below--with an unstated parenthetical qualification explicitly added on occasion, for clarity.

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Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life (subject to change) that, without supernaturalism (not subject to change), affirms our ability and responsibility (subject to change) to lead ethical lives (subject to change) of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity (subject to change).

The lifestance of Humanism--guided by reason (subject to change), inspired by compassion (subject to change), and informed by experience (subject to change)--encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop (subject to change) through the efforts of thoughtful people (subject to change) who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance (subject to change).

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms (subject to change) the conceptual boundaries of Humanism (subject to change), not what we must believe (subject to change) but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense (subject to change) that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis (subject to change). Humanists find that science is the best method (subject to change) for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies (subject to change). We also recognize (subject to change) the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience--each subject to analysis by critical intelligence (subject to change).

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough (subject to change), distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be (subject to change). We welcome the challenges of the future (subject to change), and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known (subject to change).

Ethical values are derived from human need (subject to change) and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare (subject to change) shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond (subject to change). We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity (subject to change), and to making informed choices (subject to change) in a context of freedom (subject to change) consonant with responsibility (subject to change).

Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals (subject to change). We aim for our fullest possible development (subject to change) and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose (subject to change), finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence (subject to change), its challenges and tragedies (subject to change), and even in the inevitability and finality of death (subject to change). Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture (subject to change) and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want (subject to change) and encouragement in times of plenty (subject to change).

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships (subject to change). Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern (subject to change), free of cruelty and its consequences (subject to change), where differences are resolved cooperatively (subject to change) without resorting to violence (subject to change). The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives (subject to change), encourages us to enrich the lives of others (subject to change), and inspires hope of attaining peace (subject to change), justice (subject to change), and opportunity for all (subject to change).

Working to benefit society (subject to change) maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have (subject to change) worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability (subject to change), and we support a just distribution of nature's resources (subject to change) and the fruits of human effort (subject to change) so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life (subject to change).

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all (subject to change), are committed to diversity (subject to change), and respect those of differing yet humane views (subject to change). We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights (subject to change) and civil liberties (subject to change) in an open (subject to change), secular society (probably not subject to change) and [we] maintain it is a civic duty (subject to change) to participate in the democratic process (subject to change) and a planetary duty (subject to change) to protect nature's integrity, diversity, and beauty (subject to change) in a secure, sustainable manner (subject to change).

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision (subject to change) with the informed conviction (subject to change) that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals (subject to change). The responsibility for our lives (subject to change) and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone (probably not subject to change, but maybe so, depending on other changes).


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Obviously, most of these notions aren't really supposed to be considered 'subject to change' in any sense other than to advance progressively in the directions indicated--although this is not directly derivable from the qualification "as our knowledge and understandings advance", since someone might (for example) consider it an "advance in understanding" when they realize that most of the values and ideals promoted in the Manifesto run directly opposite in quality (as well as often in practice), to the non-rational, non-moral biological evolutionary behaviors (and the non-rational, non-moral chemical and physical behaviors underlying biological evolution) which the Manifesto proposes as the only and ultimate basis of human behavior (including human 'rationality' and 'ethics').

But that leads to the question of why the "values and ideals" promoted by the Manifesto should not be subject to a change in actual direction (only subject to improvement of efficiency in accomplishment). The standard clearly isn't impersonal (and depersonalizing) natural behavior; and while the Manifesto may state that humanists accept their lives "as all and enough", obviously humans are dependent on "self-existing" Nature instead of on themselves (optimistic illusions to the contrary notwithstanding).

A standard of behavior that runs counter to the proposed foundational ground of all existence and behavior, while asserting (as a corollary) that there is nothing more foundational upon which the standard can be based?

At best, that isn't very amenable to rational analysis.

(But then, maybe the ideal of knowledge as being best derived from rational analysis of critical intelligence, is one of those ideals that, however carefully wrought, are subject to change.)


More later, perhaps, time and energy permitting...

Have you ever gone to the kitchen to get a banana or some other healthy snack and found yourself staring smack dab at a big chocolate chip cookie? It is a decadent pleasure -- one that we ought to feel guilty about enjoying, but one that we can't help but sample because it is simply so enjoyable.

That's the way I feel about the Shroud of Turin.

We are, after all, a serious blog for Christian apologists. We discuss the veracity of scriptures and the meaning of rather in-depth phrases in response to the challenges that we encounter on our trip around the Internet.

But then, I see the Shroud. The Shroud of Turin - it is like the chocolate chip cookie. It isn't something that should side-track our effort to establish the truth of the Gospels and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but it is a fun little side attraction on the way.

Over the past few years, I have blogged on several occasions about the Shroud. Let me make this clear: I don't know if the Shroud is the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ -- in fact, I tend to doubt it. But what if it is? I mean, as I said previously, " There are good reasons to think that it is real, but there are also good reasons to think that it is an extremely good fake. I personally haven't made up my mind one way or another about the Shroud, for while it is truly a fascinating artifact, if it is ever demonstrated conclusively not to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus it will have absolutely no impact on my faith. Still, the possibility that it is genuine is one of the things that make the Shroud so fascinating."

The thing that makes the Shroud such a mystery is that it is an incredible piece of work -- it seems that no one has an explanation as to how the shroud could have been produced -- at least, not until now. According to an article from Reuters entitled Italian scientist reproduces Shroud of Turin, Luigi Garlaschelli, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, has managed to reproduce the Shroud using materials that were avaiable in the Middle Ages -- the time period in which detractors of the Shroud claim that the Shroud was produced. According to the article:

Garlaschelli reproduced the full-sized shroud using materials and techniques that were available in the middle ages.

They placed a linen sheet flat over a volunteer and then rubbed it with a pigment containing traces of acid. A mask was used for the face.

The pigment was then artificially aged by heating the cloth in an oven and washing it, a process which removed it from the surface but left a fuzzy, half-tone image similar to that on the Shroud. He believes the pigment on the original Shroud faded naturally over the centuries.

They then added blood stains, burn holes, scorches and water stains to achieve the final effect.

Professor Garlaschelli, who received funding from atheist and agnostic groups, did not produce his duplicate for examination by the press or other scientists (yet), but has merely produced photos and his paper purporting to demonstrate that his work has disproved the genuiness of the Shroud.

Excuse me if I am not yet impressed.

I believe that (as skeptics would certainly agree) it is best to allow Professor Garlaschelli's shroud to be examined by people who have spent their life examining the Shroud and the intricacy of the design. I believe that several other people have attempted to make replicas in the past, and all of the others have failed to produce a copy that compares to the original upon closer examination.

Also, while Professor Garlaschelli says that his funding made no difference in his result, I am not quite ready to accept him at his word. This is especially true when the article reveals a certain cockiness on his part that is inconsistent with what I believe a non-partisan scientists might say. Specifically, the professor comments:

"If they don't want to believe carbon dating done by some of the world's best laboratories they certainly won't believe me," he said.

Yeah. Never mind that there is some question about the accuracy of radio carbon dating of recent objects. Consider, just as an example, the following from essortment (in a short essay that makes no reference at all to the Shroud or other problems that pop up in the Skeptic/Christian debate):

Although the theory of radiocarbon dating is interesting, there are several inherent problems with the process. The first of these problems is the fact that the original ratio of carbon and radioactive carbon is unknown. The second problem is that the possibility of contamination of the sample over time is quite high. The older the sample the higher the probability of contamination, in fact! What this means is that using carbon dating to date very old samples is really quite impractical given our current level of knowledge and technological capabilities.

While carbon dating continues to be considered by many as a viable way of obtaining authoritative dates for a wide range of artifacts and remains, there is much room for error in the process. Even the use of accelerator mass spectrometry to analyze the relative levels of carbon and radioactive carbon has resulted in flawed determinations. It is not uncommon for different laboratories to determine quite different ages for the same artifact! While some of this deviation could possibly be explained by contamination or erred methodology in the labs themselves, it is apparent that the problems with carbon dating are much more complex than that.

Very simply put, too many things are unknown to allow the carbon dating process to be as accurate as many proclaim it to be. Factors as diverse as changes in the earth’s magnetic field and changes in the amount of carbon available to organisms in times past could translate into perceivable differences in the carbon ratios in artifacts and remains from ancient times. Even changes in the atmosphere itself could impact this carbon ratio. We know that changes such as these have occurred over time. They are still occurring today in fact.

It is the hutzpa of his response that makes me wonder about his work. Why not simply say something like, "I believe that my method has produced an exact replica of the Shroud, but I will anxiously await further examination to confirm my preliminary observations"? That would make me believe that he was less of a shill for his funders.

Let me repeat what I have said before: faith doesn't hinge on the authenticity of the Shroud as the actual burial cloth of Jesus. The New Testament doesn't say, "believe in Jesus because we have his burial shroud." It contends that we should believe in Jesus because of the testimony of the witnesses to the fact that he has risen. The Shroud, if it is the burial cloth of Jesus, adds weight to those claims because the image implanted in the Shroud has yet to be explained.

However, if Professor Garlaschelli has, in fact, produced a replica of the Shroud which passes examination, then it will have no more impact on my faith than if he had proven that cats can't eat grapes -- it is irrelevant.

In St. Augustine's Confessions, he explains that for a period of time he became a follower of the Manichean teaching. As explained by the New Advent Encyclopedia,

Manichæism is a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It purported to be the true synthesis of all the religious systems then known, and actually consisted of Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some small and superficial, additions of Christian elements. As the theory of two eternal principles, good and evil, is predominant in this fusion of ideas and gives color to the whole, Manichæism is classified as a form of religious Dualism.

While the religion has died out sometime after 1000 A.D., the religion is important because it was one of the many religions which competed with Christianity while Christianity was still growing. Certainly, it is in contrast with his early experience with Manicheanism that St. Augustine's understanding of Christian theology was formed.

Apparently, not all of the writings of Mani survived. In fact, according to the New Advent Encyclopedia, none of the seven books written by Mani survived through this day.

Manichæism, in consequence, was literary and refined, its founder was a fruitful writer, and so were many of his followers. Of all this literary output only fragments are at present extant. No Manichæan treatise has come down to us in its entirety.

However, it appears that some of Mani's work have now been recovered. The recovery isn't new -- they were discovered prior to the Second World War. But the papyrus manuscripts ended up in Nazi hands. Following World War II, they were captured by the Soviets and removed to some unknown place in the Soviet Union.

Now, however, they have finally become available in a loan to Dublin. According to Secrets of lost religion unveiled for first time published in the Belfast Times, the lost books of Manichaen are presently on display at the Dublin Castle.

The new exhibition in Dublin Castle opened yesterday and tells the story of the discovery of the lost books of Manichaean. It's a long tale, dating back to third-century Persia and focussing initially on the prophet Mani and his religion.

Manichaean, which combined the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and others, is believed to have almost replaced Christianity in some regions, and spread across much of the world. But Mani was executed and his followers widely persecuted before the religion died out around 1200AD.

Its sacred books, however, survived, buried in the Nile Valley for more than 1,500 years before they were discovered during the early part of the last century.

"At first it didn't look like much -- the 4,000 or so pages were a fibrous mass of papyrus that had been bonded together over the years to resemble a sod of turf," Charles Horton, the collection's curator, told the Irish Independent.

Because the pages are so fragile, they have never been put on public display before despite forming the largest Manichean collection in the world. The script is Coptic -- the language of Christian Egyptians -- but it has taken 30 years to translate just 25pc of the collection.

I hope that our Eurpoean readers will take advantage of visiting this exhibit and reporting back in the comments section. I would love to see those translated books to see exactly what they say.

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