Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Carl Sagan and the Bible

When it came time to write my final college paper, for a class in Christian theology, I proposed to write about Carl Sagan's ideas -- particularly his views on religion -- as he layed them out in Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, and Broca's Brain. I had recently devoured these books as well as his celebrated PBS series with great fascination, and I was eager to make an exploration of his ideas as they might impact religious truth. But my professor was not keen on the idea of any theology paper based on Carl Sagan's thought. He argued that Sagan was not a universally respected scientist (which was true enough due to Carl's reputation as a popularizer of science), and that he could even be regarded as a pseudoscientist. I quickly pointed out that an entire section of Cosmos was devoted to a critique of pseudoscience, and that I wasn't going be writing about Sagan's scientific work anyway; it was actually his views on religion and God that I found compelling. Still, my professor persuaded me to write instead about the Counter-Enlightenment views of Giambattista Vico. I did so. I gave exactly one paragraph to Vico, and devoted my paper after all to Sagan's books and to other popular discussions of science. It was one of the most wide-ranging and, perhaps, unfocused things that I ever wrote. It got a D+.

Sagan has always had my respect, and probably always will. I am reminded of him now after reading a transcript of the answers he gave in a Q&A session at the 1994 CSICOP conference in Seattle. The acronym stands for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He delivered the keynote address, "Wonder and Skepticism," and the Q&A session was transcribed but forgotten until this summer, when the Skeptical Inquirer published it (see the July/August issue).

Sagan answered some questions about pseudo-scientific claims, like the "Face on Mars", and claims of alien abduction. The evening's final questioner asked whether religion should not receive the same kind of scrutiny. Well up to now I was not aware of any in-depth comments from Sagan about the Bible, but that is exactly what he offered, and his response was so worthwhile that I've reproduced nearly all of it:

This is a really good question, and I know that Richard Dawkins talked about this a year or so ago, and drew the conclusion that many religious beliefs were not noticeably different from any of the parasciences or pseudosciences beliefs, and why one of them is the object of our attention and the other is off-limits, and he urged that we be, if I may use the expression, more ecumenical in our hostility. I will answer in the following way: first, that there is no human culture without religion. That being the case, that immediately says that religion provides some essential meat, and if that's the case shouldn't we be a little careful about condemning something that is desperately needed? For example, if I am with someone who has just lost a loved one, I do not think it is appropriate for me to say, "You know, there's no scientific evidence for life after death." If that person is gaining some degree of support, stability, from the thought that the loved one has gone to heaven and that they will be joined after the person I'm talking to, himself or herself, dies. That would be uncompassionate and foolish. Science provides a great deal, but there are some things that it doesn't provide. Religion is an attempt to provide, whether truly or falsely, some solutions to those problems. Human mortality is one of those where there isn't a smidgeon of help from science. Yes, it's a grand and glorious universe, yes it's amazing to be part of it, yes we weren't alive before we were born (not much before we were born) so we hope we're alive after we're dead. We won't know about it. It's a big deal. But that's not too reassuring, at least to many people.

Take the issue of the Bible. The Bible is in my view a magnificent work of poetry, has some good history in it, has some good ethical and moral scriptures -- but by no means everywhere, the book of Joshua is a horror, for example -- and on those grounds is well worth our respect. But on the other hand, the Book of Genesis was written in the sixth century B.C. during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The Babylonians were the chief scientists of the time. The Jews picked up the best science available and put it in the book of Genesis, but we have learned something in the intervening two and a half millenia, and to believe in the literal truth of the attempted science in the Bible, is to believe too much. I know there are Biblical literalists who believe that every jot and tittle in the Bible is the direct word of God, given to a scrupulous and flawless stenographer, and with no attempt to use the understanding of the time, or metaphor or allegory, but just straight-out truth. I know there are people who think that. That seems to me highly unlikely. I think the way to approach the Bible is with some critical wits about us, but not dismissing it out of hand. There's a lot of good stuff in the Bible. Case-by-case basis is what I'm saying. Where religion does not pretend to do science, I think we should be open within the boundaries of good sense. I think that you cannot extract an "ought" from an "is," and therefore science per se does not tell us how we should behave, although it can certainly shed considerable light on the consequences of alternative kinds of behavior. From that we can decide how to arrange our legal codes and what to do. So the idea of an all-out attack on religion I think on many grounds would be foolish, but the idea of treating Biblical literalism, for example, with some skeptical scrutiny is an excellent idea. But it is being done, has been done for the last century by Biblical scholars themselves. I don't think there's any particular expertise in this movement for a critical examination of the Bible. There are other people who are doing it just fine.

I hope that sort of middle ground is not too different from what you were asking about, but I certainly don't think that religion should be off-limits. I don't think anything should be off limits. We should feel free to discuss and debate everything. That's what the Bill of Rights is about. And in that sense, and many other senses, the constitution of the United States, particularly the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, and the scientific method are very mutually supportive approaches to knowledge. Both of them recognize the extreme dangers of having to pay attention to and do whatever the authority says.

I run across contempt and dismissal of religion so often in arguments by skeptics that it's gratifying to find Sagan saying that science knows nothing about death, that there's good history in the Bible, and that the Bible deserves our respect. His way of defining the Bible by distinguishing its genres is very nearly what I would say if I had to define the Bible. His description of the creation story as attempted science, cutting edge for its time -- rather than describing it with the word that everyone uses, myth -- is a real compliment from a scientist. Overall, as a non-literalist, I can see eye-to-eye with Sagan's prescription of taking everything in the Bible case-by-case and with neither uncritical reverence nor eager dismissal.

But particularly I'm pleased to hear Sagan arguing that Biblical scholars themselves have been doing the necessary work, and that secular skeptics have no cause to think of themselves as better able to do critical studies of the Bible than those who are already doing it. All of this hits home especially when I think of Jesus mythicists, who run against the consensus of most Biblical experts and would therefore certainly agree with the general statement, taken out of context, that there is no particular expertise in critical studies of the Bible. But I think they would find themselves disagreeing with the context, namely Sagan's ensuing claim. I would paraphrase that claim as such: skeptics who lack training in the Bible and wonder how best to disprove its historicity need not look any farther than those "other people" who are fully trained in Biblical studies. Jesus mythicists usually try to account for the existence of a consensus that runs counter to their thesis by speculating that biblical scholars are too emotionally tied to the Bible, and to their careers within the church or the ivory tower, to dare shake the boat on the controversial question of whether Jesus existed -- a speculation which implies that most of these scholars secretly believe or would like to believe something else, and which imputes cowardice to them. Mythicism, per this speculation, is more courageous -- a claim that is plainly stated before long.

Of course, such claims fail to account for atheist historians and for Biblical scholars outside the chuch and the ivory tower who all disagree with mythicism. But all that aside it should still be said that Biblical scholars are no less capable of examining their subject than anyone else; their thought is not homogenous, and their ranks include many agnostics and even atheists. Jesus mythicists use the work of the latter, and even much of the work of traditionalist scholars, to ply their theory -- which they should not do if their speculation about weak-minded scholarship is correct. If Sagan is wrong, and Biblical scholars are not doing the necessary work, then Jesus mythicists should stop citing the certified scholars, and simply proceed on their own. Some of the worst mythicists, like Acharya, do exactly this, and are rejected even by a great many mythicists. Those with the best standing have earned it by basing their work to a greater degree on the Biblical text and on some of the work done by trained scholars -- but this calls into question the whole idea that Biblical scholars are muddling along in political correctness. If scholars are less than courageous, or they're lazy, or complicit, then their work cannot be trusted on any score. Yes, a mythicist may assume that it's safe to use the most skeptical layers of a scholar who believes in a historical Jesus, but that assumption is unwarranted, if that scholar is wrong about what is surely the chief underlying assumption of their work. If Jesus did not exist, that changes everything in New Testament scholarship. (Whether it discredits everything, including for instance the ethical teachings, is a distinct question and should not be confused here). All specific claims would then have to be re-evaluated. If a specific claim is made within the model of a historical Jesus, no mythicist should trust or use it -- particularly if the scholar is deemed to be less courageous than yourself. Why trust the work of someone you look upon that way? If their work is trusted as sound, then the question returns: why do these trustworthy models always point to a historical Jesus?

That's just one of the questions Sagan prompts me to ask.


Anonymous Ryan said...

Speaking of questions being prompted, I have a few for you. I am curious as to why you focus so much of your mental energy on the issue of Jesus denial. What is the point? What difference does it make if some people deny the historical Jesus?

The philosopher George Berkeley once said that nothing would change (either practically or theoretically) upon acceptance of his philosophy. Your focus on this issue reminds me of what David Hume said in response. He said that if nothing changes upon acceptance of Berkeley’s ideas, ‘so what, let us accept and move on.’ Now, accepting or denying the historical Jesus probably changes one’s religious views, but, again, what’s the big deal? What difference does it make if people have different views on religion?

Is it that you enjoy writing and revel in debate, and the issue offers an occasion for both? But there are many other topics to which you can turn your pen and many other subjects open to debate. Obviously, you are interested in theology and the Bible. And people tend to write about subjects that interest them. But what is it about this one that commands so much of your attention? Are you driven by a quest for truth? Again, many other areas of human inquiry offer an opportunity for its pursuit. Why the fascination?

August 30, 2005 9:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin Rosero said...

Well the simple answer is that I’ve gotten into a debate over this recently, and I sometimes use this journal to let off steam, or to cut loose in a way that’s not possible when you’re trying to participate in a responsible, civil debate. But I have noticed that few things get me going quite like this one. The only real comparison is with how riled up I became in college when I first started hearing the idea that non-Christians wouldn’t go to heaven. My ideas about salvation haven’t change (though my ideas about heaven have), but I became “unhooked” from that debate after some years, and perhaps with time I’ll be unhooked from Jesus mythicism too.

It makes practically no difference if only a few people ever deny the historicity of Jesus. The question of his existence, however, does matter. It impacts the fields of Christian history and world history. Practically everything about early Christianity would have to be re-evaluated or abandoned, and that should be enough reason for someone to be interested.

As a Christian, the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ mean much to me – no need to restate it here. It matters deeply to Christians whether he lived. It seems to matter deeply to some people that traditional Christianity, based on an incarnation, crucifixion and vindication, cease to be; they believe it to be intolerant. And Ryan you’re not indifferent to what people’s religious beliefs are, though you implied it in your comment. People’s religious beliefs will always lead to certain actions – until they are no longer held.

The debate itself fascinates me as a crucible for certain questions: how we know that anything happened in the past; how we come to general knowledge, and come to defend, revise and overthrow it; why people disagree, and the various ways in which they do. The polemical and hostile arguments of some mythicists do anger me, when they come to their arguments driven by anti-Christianity. I identify as a Christian; I feel these attacks.

The problem is that I also identify myself as a good thinker, sometimes even as a skeptic -- not as part of the cultural movement that generally disputes religion, but simply as someone who asks for evidence when presented with an idea. I value logic as well as imagination, and Jesus mythicism seems to me to disdain both.

"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.... If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you.... On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones" - Carl Sagan, 1987.

That is why I find Holocaust denial and the Moon Hoax to be fascinating topics in themselves; perhaps my interest in them is strengthened because I have seen links between them and Jesus mythicism, but they do fascinate me; and they anger and upset me. Phil Plait relates how he used to lose sleep over the Moon Hoax business, until he found some way to view the whole dispute peacefully (he meant his internal sense of peace). I have yet to come to that with Jesus mythicism; and it should be stated that the two phenomena are not the same thing. But all these things, and the denial that non-Christians have a chance at equality in the realm of salvation, have angered and fascinated me, without attracting me. All these things have offended my emotions over things that have moved me (the Holocaust, the moon missions, the universal forgiveness won on the cross), and they’ve offended my sense that people should not embrace their own ideas either in contempt of well-founded ideas or at the expense of logic.

Yet there are times when I wonder about the amount of energy I give this topic. When my spirit suffers from rancor or from an exclusively mental exertion over something (my faith) which should command not just my thoughts but also my heart, body, actions, and soul, then I wonder if I’m really cut out for this business. And no one ever accomplishes anything in isolation, which is unfortunately not far from a description of my work.

I don’t understand what Berkeley and Hume are saying. Perhaps a very poor idea will have no impact on a theoretical framework or a practical condition, but any idea worth talking about will change theories and conditions if more people accept it. The theoretical importance of Jesus mythicism is clear (upon historical studies); the practical significance is a bone of contention, but clearly it would change what people believe; and from thought stems action.

And the last point I wish to bring up is that you may have an idea and not know the significance it may have in the future. You may think it of no consequence to accept (or reject) it, but I say that would be a risk.

I have a post, still in draft form, about Hiroshima. And let me know what you’ve been able to write on the War Between the States.

August 31, 2005 3:06 PM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

I understand that the existence of the historical Jesus matters much to Christians in general and to you in particular. I also understand that, if his non-existence were established, a good deal of early Christianity would have to be re-evaluated or abandoned. But my questions were based on the current state of the evidence. Thus, for example, even if Biblical scholars overwhelmingly decide that that passage from Josephus was a later interpolation, it does not disprove the historicity of Christ. It merely undercuts the evidence affirmatively establishing his existence. Indeed, no evidence can establish non-existence. Sure, if you knock out enough pillars the roof eventually falls, but in this case, as it currently stands, many are so firmly placed that a little chiseling around their edges will not even come close to impairing their integrity. It would take an earth-shattering discovery to do that, something much larger than finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s doubtful that such a discovery, or a series of such discoveries, will ever be made. Christians can therefore rest assured that Jesus did in fact exist.

Actually, I can say that I am indifferent to the religious beliefs of other people. It matters not one iota to me. I also have no issue with any religious practices so long as they don’t violate the rights of others. When a religious practice does such a thing or when a religious belief leads to such action, I oppose the practice or the act, not the thought behind it. If the belief and the act are so closely connected as to be inextricable, then of course both must be opposed. The militant aspects of religion ought to be eradicated. There is sometimes a fine line between belief and action, but there is a line, and I choose to recognize it.

It is undoubtedly true, as you say, that from thought stems action. I do not underestimate the power of ideas. You can kill a person with an idea but you cannot kill an idea. Ideas must be refuted. But some are harmful, whereas others are not. I stand staunchly against the former only. The silliness of scientology does not bother me. I can close the door on a Jehovah's Witness. I am safe and sound if someone believes in the moon hoax.

Now, I must admit that I too at times attempt to show people the error of their thinking. A few years ago my father’s girlfriend saw the special on Fox about the moon hoax. She believed it. It bothered me in an intellectual sense and I provided her with some material to disabuse her of that ridiculous idea. I want people to think clearly and logically. I think it would lead to fewer problems in the world.

Perhaps my example involving Berkeley and Hume was inapt. I definitively didn’t provide enough background information to show its relevance. I will refrain from doing so here. I will add, however, that, in the sense Berkeley intended and as you acknowledge, the existence of a few adherents of Jesus mythicism will have no practical effect on your life.

I have very little actually written about the War. I do have an outline and I’m working on filling it in and making it more complete. I will say again that I’m going to make this very thorough and it will therefore take me a long time.

I took forward to the post on Hiroshima and it’s likely that I’ll have something to say about it.

September 01, 2005 12:24 PM  

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