Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Answer

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Everyone agrees that, sooner or later, preferably much later, children should be told about the facts of life. Nearly everyone agrees that school teachers should be the ones who tell them. It's too embarrassing for children to hear their own parents talking about the birds and the bees.

The job of telling children where babies come from tends to fall on biology teachers in particular. And as long as they are just explaining the mechanics, they are probably very well suited to the job. I have to admit that I couldn't give a remotely coherent account of what happens inside the mummy after she and the daddy have cuddled each other in a very special way. But even if I did have a clear and distinct idea of what a chromosome is and how spermatozoa is spelled, and even if I did have the knack of explaining it to kids without making them giggle, that wouldn't automatically make me the best person to advise them about how to obtain condoms or what steps to take if they think that they might be in certain condition. Neither would it necessarily privilege my opinion about whether the act of congress should happen only in the context of a committed and loving relationship or whether it is such a natural and beautiful thing that free love should be the order of the day. Or about whether homosexuality is a terrible perversion, a slightly tragic quirk, or rather an improvement.

These aren't scientific questions: you can't find the answer by dissecting a frog; drawing a family tree of dominant and recessive genes in pea-plants; or colouring in a diagram of the human eye-ball, useful social accomplishments though these are undoubtedly are. Sexual intercourse isn't only about reproduction. It isn't even, unless you happen to be an Elf or a Roman Catholic, mostly about reproduction. It raises social, pastoral, spiritual and ethical questions. But if you treat sex as a sub-category of science, it's the biology teacher who is going to have to answer them.


I think that this was Mr. Muir's problem. I think that he thought that the theory of evolution raised social, spiritual, pastoral and ethical questions. I think that he thought that as a science teacher he had no special authority to answer those questions. He therefore passed them over to a religious studies teacher who did claim such authority. (That's the charitable explanation. The uncharitable one was that if he had admitted that he thought the whole "God" thing was a load of rubbish, he would have looked an even bigger fool and hypocrite the next morning when - in obedience to laws laid down by the secular state that paid his wages - he led the school in prayers.)


I nevertheless think that his answer was a cop-out. I think that, as a science teacher, he did have the right, and possibly the duty, to say "Well, if Darwin's theory is right – and all the cleverest and wisest people think that it is – then it certainly looks as if the story of creation in the Bible can't be the literal truth. Some wise people have found that this means that they can't believe in any God at all; other equally wise people have found that they can believe in Darwin and also in God."

But what if some over-enthusiastic eight year old had persisted. But Sir, who is right? If you are right about Darwin, does that mean that I should stop going to Sunday School? If I want to carry on going to Sunday School, does that mean that I have to convince myself that you are wrong about Darwin?

Various answers have been proposed.

"I'm sorry. I am not permitted to talk about that. If I do, I shall be exiled to Siberia."

This is called "secularism".

It is much advocated by silly people. It is more or less the situation which prevails in the United States, except the part about Siberia: we can't talk about religion and we can't even talk about the fact that we can't talk about it. (*) People can do whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes (**) but the public sphere must be scrupulously neutral on all question of faith and faithlessness. It's an approach which makes the teaching of history particularly rewarding. Henry VIII had a disagreement with a person in Italy who I'm not allowed to talk about about a thing which I'm not allowed to talk about. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men sort of somehow came into being equal, and were endowed by, well at any rate, they sort of somehow acquired, certain inalienable rights.


"Yes; the theory of evolution absolutely proves that God did not create the world; and since he did not create the world, he does not exist, since creating the world is all that he's there for. So he's a sort of myth invented by wicked people to make you behave yourself, like Father Christmas and Harry Potter, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a kind of child molester, just like the gym teacher."

This called "secularism".

It is sometimes advocated by other silly people. It isn't satisfied with a complete absence of religion: it wants institutions like schools and busses to be actively opposed to religion. Private individuals will, for the time being at any rate, still be permitted to tell their own children about God but it's the job of The State to inform them that they are wrong. This version of secularism also holds that The State has the power to ban certain kinds of hats, certain kinds of jewelery or certain kinds of diets if it suspects that people are eating or wearing them for religious reasons. (***)

"Well, some people think so. Others, not so much. You'll have to decide for yourself. I may or may not have my own opinions about God, but they aren't more likely to be right than anyone else's. In your R.E lesson, you'll be starting to talk about what different clever people down the ages have thought about the subject."

This is called "secularism".

It is often advocated by sensible people. It's the belief that State Institutions like schools should, as far as possible, adopt a pluralist stance towards religion and towards the absence of religion. It isn't for the State to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Nor should the State pretend that the quarrel isn't happening. Rather, it should show children the argument, and allow them to make up their own minds.

Even as we speak, someone is typing a note pointing out to me that since it is physically impossible to put a stair lift into Big Ben, the whole idea of having disabled access to public buildings is absurd; and since a girls school might reasonably not want a male teacher to supervise the girls in the changing rooms, the whole idea of gender equality in employment is obviously crazy. Clearly, if you aren't going to give the creation myths of the Malaysian Frog Worshiping Community parity with Darwin, it's absurd even to admit the existence of the book of Genesis.

But that isn't what the argument is about. The question is not whether literary and mythological accounts of creation should be taught instead of scientific ones in science lessons. The question is about what moral, ethical, spiritual, philosophical and theological questions ought to be asked about that scientific account and whether science teachers should necessarily be the ones to answer them. When Mr. Muir said "All the evidence points to human beings having evolved through a process of natural selection", he was speaking as an expert. Had he added "...and it follows that the whole idea of religious is silly" then he would have been speaking as ill-informed amateur.


It has recently been discovered that as well as sex, evolution, football and the holocaust, all schoolchildren have got to "do" slavery.

A social and cultural history of "slavery" from Ancient Rome to Primark would be an interesting and valid field of study. So, indeed, would the history of washing-up or the history of trades unions or the history toilets: everything on earth is interesting. And those of us who are old fashioned enough to think that some kind of narrative history of the British Isles from, say, King Arthur to, say, Queen Victoria should probably form part of any coherent scheme of British education also agree that the question of slavery, and how it probably wasn't a terribly good thing, ought not be be excluded from any discussion of the age of Empire. But I rather fear that when we talk about compulsory Slavery Studies, we are not talking about an interesting and important branch of history, but some platitudes about how beastly we white people were to you black people in the olden days and how you ought to feel victimized and we ought to feel guilty. I am not quite sure how this helps.

I assume that, when they Do slavery children will be taught that William Wilberforce was an heroic English reformer and all round Good Thing. I wonder how they will deal with the fact that he was also a Creationist?


(*) Source: that movie about the mad kid and the rabbit.

(**) Apart from smoking, smacking, reading poetry about terrorism, letting your children taste your wine, playing kinky games if one of your ancestors was involved in right-wing politics, putting organic waste in wheelie bins, hunting foxes and having the wrong kind of light-bulb. Obviously.

(***) Silly people pretend that they can't see the difference between saying "We have specially invented a rule to prevent you wearing a particular, inoffensive kind of hat because we suspect that it might be religious hat" and "We refuse to waive the already existing anti-hat rule for the benefit of people whose hats are religious". Since everyone else can, it's not a point that we need waste any further time on.

61 comments:

Louise H said...

Secularism in schools is quite evidently a Good Thing, unless you are part of the Labour Party who thinks that Religions (of any flavour) make schoolchildren behave better and therefore be better Citizens. But leaving aside the fact that our schools are horribly unsecular at the moment, I am inclined to agree with your hands off approach, always provided that the school has a decent RE curriculum.

If you're going to let children make up their minds you have to let the children know what their options are. Which involves some actual teaching about the nature of the alternatives, not just their names and festival outfits. And if that involves telling children that Creationism isn't compatible with a modern scientific theory, or that stem cell research doesn't actually involve murdering tiny tiny babies, or that frequency of hurricanes hitting a city bears no correlation to the number of people living alternative lifestyles there, then it's the place of teachers (RE, science, whoever) to do that, and not to sidestep the issue as nothing to do with them.

Contrary to what Mr Dawkins believes, that leaves most of religion untouched and open to individual opinion.

And I would dispute the classification of the side of a bus as an institution. Privately funded messages of hope and joy aren't really the issue here, especially when they involve my private funds!

Gareth McCaughan said...

Would it be terribly, terribly humourless and boring to suggest that in fact Richard Dawkins doesn't appear to want schools to teach atheism? Yes? Well, then I'll do it so that no one else has to.

Aside from that, I agree with you; except to add that there's another perhaps-plausible option that you haven't listed, which is for teachers to say things like "Some people think that and some don't; I happen to agree that the more science you understand the more implausible belief in God becomes" or "Some people think that, but plenty don't; I happen to think that evolution doesn't in the least conflict with belief in God, and neither does anything else in contemporary science". In other words, permit the airing of opinions provided they're clearly labelled as such. That is: what a teacher says and what The State says need not be the same thing, but teachers have a responsibility to make it clear when they are speaking only for themselves.

I suppose this, too, is called "secularism".

I think that if I were a science teacher faced with such a question, I'd say: good question, people disagree about the answer, this lesson probably isn't the right place to talk about it, come and see me afterwards if you want me to point you at some good books by people on both sides of the issue or if for some reason you think my opinion is worth anything. I hope this would be legal both here and in the US.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Quibble #1: As far as I know(*), states that ban religious symbols from schools do so in the name of Type One secularism(**) and not because of the malign influence of Richard Dawkins.

Quibble #2: When you say that Type One secularism makes it impossible to teach history you are, of course, pointing out that you can't put a stair lift in Big Ben(***). Or am I being too earnest and missing the irony?

Quibble #3: The problem with "[The State] should show children the argument, and allow them to make up their own minds." is that there are an awful lot of arguments and deciding which ones to show the children is a deeply political issue. This, for example, is why "teach the controversy" is a modern creationist slogan.

Quibble #4: Do all schoolchildren really have to "do" slavery, or is it just that a module on slavery has been added to the National Learning Framework Curriculum Thingy? It's a minor point in itself, but you do have a tendency to overstate how coercive the State actually is.

Quibble #5: Even though I'm a git like Richard Dawkins(****), I don't see why the fact the William Wilberforce was a creationist presents any kind of problem to anyone.



(*) France and the USA are the only examples that come to mind... I think Turkey does something similar, too?

(**) That is, the first on your list: the secularism that dare not speak its name.

(***) Actually, you probably could. Stair lifts are pretty sophisticated these days.

(****) I generally give you a pass on Dawkins because it's evident that he has the same effect on you that C. S. Lewis has on me, but I do find it quite hard not to take offence at this.

Site Owner said...

The evidence indicates that evolution is a fact, therefore religions that claimed hitherto to have direct revelations from God that *something else* happened are simply in that respect, wrong. This may not be fatal to the idea of God (it isn't) but its hard to see it as non-problematic for 'revelatory' religion.

Simon BJ

Andrew Rilstone said...

A person who is just as bad as one who sexually abuses children, and even worse than one who physically abuses children, writes

For "git" read "person who I find extremely irritating" throughout.

Political Scientist said...

Sam Dodsworth wrote:
‘Quibble #4: Do all schoolchildren really have to "do" slavery, or is it just that a module on slavery has been added to the National Learning Framework Curriculum Thingy? It's a minor point in itself, but you do have a tendency to overstate how coercive the State actually is.’

The study of slavery is dealt with in the National Curriculum twice: in History and Citizenship.

In history (Key Stage 3), it is is a statutory part of the curriculum, and taught explicitly:
3.(h) the development of trade, colonisation, industrialisation and technology, the British Empire and its impact on different people in Britain and overseas, pre-colonial civilisations, the nature and effects of the slave trade, and resistance and decolonisation
and implicitly
3.(f) the impact through time of the movement and settlement of diverse peoples to, from and within the British Isles
[source]
In Citizenship, it can be taught as part of the “Human Rights” or “Diversity” sections of the curriculum: although these sections are statutory, the use of slavery as a topic is not. There are number of organisations that put out lesson plans for these topics based on slavery, however. Abolition, along with Wilberforce, are mentioned explicitly.

[Mr. Rilstone, I do enjoy your blog: may I cheekily ask if the season 4 boxset review is in gestation? I am very much looking forward to it.]
Edmund@Political Scientist

Sylvia said...

It is more or less the situation which prevails in the United States, except the part about Siberia: we can't talk about religion and we can't even talk about the fact that we can't talk about it. (*) People can do whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes (**) but the public sphere must be scrupulously neutral on all question of faith and faithlessness.

...The bit about this being the situation in the United States is a joke, right?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mr. Rilstone, I do enjoy your blog: may I cheekily ask if the season 4 boxset review is in gestation?

I've reviewed the box set for Sci-Fi Now #23, although that's pretty much just a retrospective on the series. Wasn't planning to re-review it here, given I covered each episode in slightly too much depth before: although I did enjoy the footage of David Tennant being given a police escort to turn on the Blackpool illuminations. (I've also done "Survivors" for Sci Fi Now, which necessitated watching all 39 episodes. In one go. My brain turned to jelly. Don't you think it is rather tempting fate for the first episode of the re-maker to be going out on November 23rd?)

Andrew Rilstone said...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/feb/02/politics.britishidentity

Andrew Stevens said...

It's been a while since I've seen the film, but I'm pretty sure I remember that scene almost exactly the opposite of the way you do. I was fairly sure Donnie Darko attended a Catholic school and the science teacher is afraid to answer Donnie's theological questions because his answers (whatever they might be) might contradict Catholic doctrine.

But I could easily be misremembering.

Tom said...

Andrew (Stevens):
I happened to watch Donnie Darko yesterday, and the meaning* of scene is definitely the one that Andrew (Rilstone) made. The teacher says he is not allowed to have the conversation - regardless of his answer.

* (I originally wrote 'implication', but it's not implied, it's stated outright.)

Although there is the Graham Greene connection, and it was filmed at a Catholic school, it's not really indicated that the school is Catholic. Kitty is a very broad evangelical stereotype ("God is awesome"), at least, and she's on the PTA.

Sylvia said...

All righty then. Sorry to be That Guy.

(Of course, it will all change anyway under our new Sekrit Mooslim overlords...)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have roughly the same level of contempt for atheists putting advertisements on the sides of buses that I do for my co-religionists when they do so. I can see the point of running a campaign which says "Come to an Alpha Course, you might find it quite interesting" or "Lecture on Bertrand Russell at the village hall next Sunday" but I have no idea what posters saying "And Aaaron and his sons shall put his hands upon the head of the ram" or "God, it's all a load of rubbish, right?" are meant to achieve.

In the same way that some silly people believe in an evil liberal media that consistently puts out propaganda for the Labour party and the Democratic party, other silly people appear to believe in a an evil Christian media in which even the mildest criticisms of religion are impossible. In fact, one frequently sees posters on the London Underground promoting the sales of "The God Delusion", David Attenborugh's latest pro-evolution DVD, Dan Brown's latest novel, and (come to think of it) quite a large number which seem to be actively encouraging you to covet the nieghbour's ox. So half a dozen posters saying "There's probably no God" strike me as a little petty. If the objective is to annoy a few people, they'll probably achieve that: I suppose they have Got People Talking, which is more than the blood-of-the-lamb stuff does.

Some sort of positive campaign promoting the reading of Darwin, or explaining what Darwin actually said, might be a different matter: but [SATIRE] the person most qualified to write such a campaign seems likely to spend the rest of his career sitting on a park bench explaining to the pigeons that it's all the fault of J.K Rowling. [/SATIRE]

Andrew Stevens said...

Although there is the Graham Greene connection, and it was filmed at a Catholic school, it's not really indicated that the school is Catholic. Kitty is a very broad evangelical stereotype ("God is awesome"), at least, and she's on the PTA.

Tom, I'll take your word for it since you've seen it more recently. I also recalled that Grandma Death had been both a nun and a teacher at the school (though I believe she quit being a nun before becoming a teacher) so Catholicism is sure subtly implied throughout the movie. However, I note that Richard Kelly himself went to a public school before going to film school so you're probably right that it was meant to be a public school.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Political Scientist:

The study of slavery is dealt with in the National Curriculum twice: in History and Citizenship....

Thanks for that. I stand... corrected? Convicted of unjustified skepticism, anyway.


Andrew:

For "git" read "person who I find extremely irritating" throughout.

Fair enough. In fact, I wouldn't even object to "extremely irritating person".


Now... why do you say that the banning of religious symbols is a product of Type Two secularism and not Type One? And why is William Wilberforce's creationism any more a problem for a secular school than (say) Richard II's ignorance of the germ theory of disease?

Anthony said...

Andrew, I enjoy reading your blog, it is often funny and thoughtful. for once I have a few idle minutes to defend the witty comments made by our favourite scientist in your post dated Wednesday, November 12, 2008 (for some reason, I can't seem to comment on that post).

To try to make Dick look a little less foolish in comparing religious belief to child-abuse, it might be useful to point out that all of the people of our past who were raised as religious helped to concoct all kinds of wars and atrocities - in that sense they were acting like victims of abuse who had become abusers.

The religious wars and outrages of history can compare to child-abuse in terms of abhorrence. Without religious belief, there would have been no religious outrages (just as with no child-abuse there is no cycle of abuse and trauma). Perhaps this is what Dick is getting at?

culfy said...

To try to make Dick look a little less foolish in comparing religious belief to child-abuse, it might be useful to point out that all of the people of our past who were raised as religious helped to concoct all kinds of wars and atrocities - in that sense they were acting like victims of abuse who had become abusers.

The religious wars and outrages of history can compare to child-abuse in terms of abhorrence. Without religious belief, there would have been no religious outrages (just as with no child-abuse there is no cycle of abuse and trauma). Perhaps this is what Dick is getting at?


Except the trouble is that just as many outrages and wars have been caused for non-religious reasons or by affirmed atheists (Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Stalin etc.).

Anthony said...

Sure "culfy", but that isn't what Dick is saying, and what Dick is saying is what I'm trying to make sense of.

Speaking for myself, I understand that any kind of belief can lead to acts of aggression. So I would say - 'belief amounts to child-abuse'. Only a confirmed nihilist can lead the good-life. (I'm joking of course, we all know nihilists are pure evil, which means everyone is evil - thank god for the redeeming bodily fluids of Christ.)

Andrew Stevens said...

What Dawkins was actually getting at, and he's been pretty clear about it on occasion, is that he believes frightening children with hellfire and damnation is tantamount to child abuse. E.g. "Innocent children are being saddled with demonstrable falsehoods. It's time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation. Isn't it weird the way we automatically label a tiny child with its parents' religion?" or this.

Andrew Stevens said...

Of course, the quote about labeling children with a religion being child abuse is just Dawkins shooting his mouth off randomly, as he is prone to do.

Kurt said...

Anthony, really: "all of the people"? When it wouldn't even be true to say "most"? Even hyperbole should be at least roughly on the mark.

... all of the people of our past who were raised as religious helped to concoct all kinds of wars and atrocities ...

usul_miller said...

As a (cognitively dissonant) Creationist myself, I'd like to approach this discussion from a different angle.

Andrew, I hesitate to put words in your mouth, but you seem to believe that evolution (and Darwinism) can coexist with Christianity. I have a much harder time reconciling the two views, for two reasons:

1. Evolution contradicts Scripture. You can deal with this by either re-interpreting scripture (e.g. 'Moses was just being metaphorical, he knew it was a story'), or rejecting its inerrancy. To do the first is intellectually dishonest. To do the second is interfering with a huge foundation of the religion, and I fear a slippery slope. If the Bible is wrong about creation, is it wrong about the flood? Babel? Cain and Abel? Balaam's talking ass? The parting of the Red Sea? Jericho? Jonah and the whale? Passover? That bear mauling two dozen kids? Daniel in the Lion's Den? The Israelites in the fiery furnace? The virgin birth? The resurrections of Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, and Jesus Christ? Maybe you can pick and choose which parts are solid and which aren't, but I have a hard time with it. What criteria do you use to decide?

2. Evolution conflicts with more than just Biblical inerrancy and creation- it takes away the reason for having a religion in the first place. The consequence of our sin is death, we are told. But Jesus came and died for us, that we might never die. However, if death has happened for 4 billion years before humans even existed, what exactly did Jesus die for? If it's just a metaphorical or spiritual death he was saving us from, it seems very flimsy to me. Why go to all the trouble to have an emphasis on a bodily resurrection if it's spiritual, anyway?

Anthony said...

yes, all of them Kurt, down to the last god-fearing baby. ;)

Andrew Rilstone said...

As a (cognitively dissonant) Creationist myself, I'd like to approach this discussion from a different angle.

Andrew, I hesitate to put words in your mouth, but you seem to believe that evolution (and Darwinism) can coexist with Christianity.


Correct.

I have a much harder time reconciling the two views, for two reasons:

1. Evolution contradicts Scripture.


Agreed.


You can deal with this by either re-interpreting scripture (e.g. 'Moses was just being metaphorical, he knew it was a story')

Agreed, although I have a problem with "just" and with "re-interpret". (I don't think stories are trivial, and I don't regard "treating Genesis as a story" is a particularly revisionist approach.)

or rejecting its inerrancy.

Agreed, if by "rejecting its inerrancy" you mean "denying that it is a work of historical fact."


To do the first is intellectually dishonest.

Why? It seems rather natural to think that a story about a man called "Man" and a woman called "Woman" (and a talking snake) as just that: a story.


To do the second is interfering with a huge foundation of the religion, and I fear a slippery slope.

If you think that the "inerrancy" of the Bible (i.e the belief that it is factually accurate history) is one of the foundations of the religion, then I don't agree with you.

If the Bible is wrong about creation

"Wrong" is a loaded term. I think that if you are trying to get factual information about what happened in 4004 BC from Genesis 1, then you are reading it in the wrong way, just like the fellow who reads "Hamlet" and asks how we know that the medieval Danes spoke in rhyming couplets. I think that Genesis is "right" in saying that human misery is the result of rebelliousness against God (and in particular, a wish to supplant him), for example.

is it wrong about the flood?

The story of the flood is manifestly not factually accurate history, no. For one thing, it appear to presuppose a flat earth.

Babel?

Plainly mythical.

Cain and Abel?

Plainly mythical.

Balaam's talking ass? The parting of the Red Sea? Jericho?

I don't have a problem with accounts of miracles.

Jonah and the whale?

Does anyone suppose that that's anything other than a work of literature?

Passover?

The story of the origin of the Jews is plainly very important, and it's the story the Jews told of their own origin from a very early point in their history.

That bear mauling two dozen kids?

I'd be inclined to regard the stories of Elijah and Elisha as historical; the problem with that one is its ethics, not it's intrinsic plausibility.

Daniel in the Lion's Den? The Israelites in the fiery furnace?

I thought that Daniel was a literary work, at any rate written much later than the events it describes?

The virgin birth? The resurrections of Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, and Jesus Christ?

The Gospels are very mysterious documents. They are plainly not straightforward journalism, recording the facts of what happened. I think that they give an accurate picture of the theological significance of the life and death of Jesus: whether that's the same as being "inerrant", I couldn't say. If I didn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus, I wouldn't call myself a Christian.

I could play this game with you in reverse, by the way. Do you think that the only intellectually honest approach is to say that there were no rainbows before 3,500 BC or that one third of the population of the world is cursed because Ham accidentally caught a glimpse of his father's private parts?

Maybe you can pick and choose which parts are solid and which aren't, but I have a hard time with it. Again, "solid" is a very loaded word. What criteria do you use to decide?

"Solid" is a very loaded word. "Not historical" and "not solid" are not the same thing. My "criteria" is to read a given book of the Bible closely, asking myself what kind of literature it appears to be, and taking account of the kinds of things that people who are much cleverer than me have said about it

2. Evolution conflicts with more than just Biblical inerrancy and creation- it takes away the reason for having a religion in the first place. The consequence of our sin is death, we are told.

But Jesus came and died for us, that we might never die. However, if death has happened for 4 billion years before humans even existed, what exactly did Jesus die for? If it's just a metaphorical or spiritual death he was saving us from, it seems very flimsy to me. Why go to all the trouble to have an emphasis on a bodily resurrection if it's spiritual, anyway?


Well, as a matter of fact the earth is more than 6,000 years old, and creatures were dying before there were human beings. And as a matter of fact the sky is not a gigantic bowl, and the earth is not flat, and there were different languages long before there was a city called "Babylon." If we are going to carry on reading the Bible at all, we have to interpret it in the light of these matters of fact.

It seems to me that you and Richard Dawkins are both saying "The Bible is factually accurate or it is nothing". If I accepted this premise, then I would side with Dawkins: I don't, so I don't. Or is there some third way that I'm missing?

Thanks for an interesting and temperately worded letter, by the way.

Kurt said...

AR: I understand your answer to usul_miller's first question, but I don't discern an answer to the second one. If the Bible teaches anything (factual, theological, whatever), it teaches that the world in its current state is not what God intended. Death was not part of the plan. Conflict between living creatures was not part of the plan. Whereas if the evolutionary process was and continues to be God's way of bringing the world into being, all of that was exactly the plan. Did you speak to that issue, or are you in effect admitting you don't at present know what to say about it?

Porlock Hussein Junior said...

William Wilberforce the anti-slavery crusader was a Creationist? News to me. This sounds like a talking point that's curently going the Creationist rounds: Galileo and Newton and all were Creationsists, so there!!

They, of course, were Creationists the way they (Well, at least the Papist one) were against embryonic stem cell research: firmly taking the side of their Christian faith in a debate that didn't exist. Similarly William Wilberforce, who was safely dead before 1859.

I think we have a confusion here with Wilberforce's famous son, the man who ordained Lewis Carroll, Bishop Soapy Sam Wilberforce.

@sam dodsworth: France and the USA ban religious symbols (e.g., in schools)? Tell me more. In France, it's the law. In the USA, you try to do that (as some people have) and the ACLU has your ass in court the day after tomorrow. We may pay worship to our Amendments by putting their names in capital letters and then taking the names in vain, but the First Amendment actually does exist and can smite you.

There may be a confusion here between what teachers may do using the State's money and power and what students may do using their own. It's very important, though, in this country, which does not have a state church and is populated by religious fanatics, unlike Britain, which does have and is not, respectively.

dagonet said...

louise h said;
"Secularism in schools is quite evidently a Good Thing, unless you are part of the Labour Party who thinks that Religions (of any flavour) make schoolchildren behave better and therefore be better Citizens."

Can but agree about the awefullness of this; why dont they just skip the in - between bits, and instute the public cultus of Sol Invictus right away?

On a side note:
I am currently attending a religious education (do not fear; its for adults). At one point, our teacher brought up the subject of science vs. religion: or, to be more precise, he asked our class if "science had ever been troublesome to our religious beliefs".
There is a pregnant pause. People look slightly confused.
Teacher: "None of you have had ANY trouble?"
Another pause. Finally, a student raises his hand.
Student: "Well, yes, I find it very annoying when people say they believe in the Big Bang, because then I am obliged to explain everything about Bible Inerrancy to them"
Another pregnant pause.
Teacher: "er, thats all cleared up then. Moving foreward to Second Temple Purity Rites..."
Of course, that was in a non - english speaking country.

dagonet said...

Kurt wrote:
"If the Bible teaches anything (factual, theological, whatever), it teaches that the world in its current state is not what God intended. Death was not part of the plan. Conflict between living creatures was not part of the plan. Whereas if the evolutionary process was and continues to be God's way of bringing the world into being, all of that was exactly the plan."

That last "exactly" may require a bit of explaining on its own part.
So: why should evolution be less appropriate to the God of the Bible than, say, the Death by which He saved a fallen world?

Theres a passage in Dantes Inferno where he praises Fortuna:
"'Her mutability admits no rest.
Necessity compels her to be swift,
and frequent are the changes in men's state.
'She is reviled by the very ones
who most should praise her,
blaming and defaming her unjustly.
'But she is blessed and does not hear them.
Happy with the other primal creatures,
she turns her sphere, rejoicing in her bliss. "

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think we have a confusion here with Wilberforce's famous son, the man who ordained Lewis Carroll, Bishop Soapy Sam Wilberforce.

I really wish I'd been clever enough to make that mistake. All I really had in mind was "Once we have banished religion from the classroom, and taught that everything pre-Darwin was a primitive and pernicious superstition, how are we going to deal with good people who did good things in the name of and because of their believe in and infection with the malignant mind-virus." Or something.


If the Bible teaches anything (factual, theological, whatever), it teaches that the world in its current state is not what God intended. Death was not part of the plan. Conflict between living creatures was not part of the plan. Whereas if the evolutionary process was and continues to be God's way of bringing the world into being, all of that was exactly the plan. Did you speak to that issue, or are you in effect admitting you don't at present know what to say about it?

The facts of the case are that the world is round and the sky is not a gigantic bowl: therefore, when the Bible speaks of a flat earth enclosed by a giant bowl with water above it, it must be speaking metaphorically, spiritually.

The facts of the case are that death existed before 4004 BC. Therefore, when the Bible speaks of "death" coming into the world through Adam's rebellion, it must be speaking metaphorically or spiritually. I take Genesis 3 to be a narrative description of the state which human beings are, as a matter of fact, in: alienated from the world, from their own bodies, and from each other as a result of rebellion against God and the wish to supplant God. In the same way that I take the parable of the Prodigal Son to be a narrative description of the state which human beings are, as a matter of fact, in rather than a bit of gossip about a particular middle-eastern family.

(I believe that many theologians, before Darwin was an issue, took the view that, had Adam not sinned, he would still have been mortal, but that death would have been easy and joyful for him and he would have proceeded straight to heaven.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Secularism in schools is quite evidently a Good Thing, unless you are part of the Labour Party who thinks that Religions (of any flavour) make schoolchildren behave better and therefore be better Citizens."

Can but agree about the awefullness of this; why dont they just skip the in - between bits, and instute the public cultus of Sol Invictus right away?


It's all a complete lie, in any case: "faith" schools get to pick and choose which kids attend them, and any school which gets to pick the nice, bright kids and turn down the nasty, stupid ones is going to have better exam results and less discipline problems than one which has to take everybody.

A secular state could perfectly well accommodate religious schools, in the sense of "schools where the food is Kosher, where Hebrew is taught as an additional subject, and where Jewish, rather than Christian or secular, holidays are observed." Being a pluralist, I'm inclined to think that it should. But this is a question about cultural pluralism (we aren't allowed to say "multiculturalism" any more, are we?) not about education per se.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Those Dawkins quotes... I was going to post something yesterday but I was too busy.

Number one seems uncontroversial to me. It's a standard objection to "teach the controversy" arguments for adding creationism to science lessons. Or if you take a more general view, it's an argument for teaching comparative religion in place of divinity - which I think a lot of schools do these days?

Numbers two and three are primarily about teaching children to be afraid of hell, as Andrew Stevens has already said. I'm not sure I'd call it child abuse myself, but to someone who doesn't believe in hell it's the ethical equivalent of telling a child that there's a monster under the bed that will eat them if they make a noise in the night.

Turning specifically to number two... If I thought that most children raised to believe in hell were as afraid of damnation as they rationally ought to be then I'd at least be prepared to argue that Catholic teaching was more damaging than being raped by a priest. Luckily, none of us are that rational. And these days, of course, stuff like the sermon on hell in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is quite rare. (I might take a different view of psychological damage in the aggregate, though. A lot more children have grown up LGBT, for example, than have ever been molested.)

The stuff in number three about labeling is a bit odd. I think the idea is that labeling is a kind of imposition on child who's not able to make their own informed decision - the intellectual equivalent of strapping them to a board to correct their posture. If that's what he means then I don't agree. Labeling is not the same thing as indoctrination; the most it can be is a warning sign.

Number four, of course, is just silly: it's the inability to tell fantasy from reality that affects madmen, magistrates, and people who write about computer games in the popular press. The best you can say is that he's at least being clear that he's only speculating.

dagonet said...

Rilestone wrote:
"(I believe that many theologians, before Darwin was an issue, took the view that, had Adam not sinned, he would still have been mortal, but that death would have been easy and joyful for him and he would have proceeded straight to heaven.)"

St. Augustine, amongst others, wrote that physical death - the bodys final rejection of life & mind - was merely a sympton of spiritual death, minds rejection of God; much as are hiccups, Torchwood, & Scandinavian weather.

Of course, imperfection is also present right from the start of Genesis; hence also the possibillity of development: just as in the evolutionary version. The issue, as I see it, is rather that relating evolution to Genesis requires reflection, & acceptance of external intellectual authorities, rather than a personal & immidiate relationship with Scripture.

It is a matter of church politics, not Christian Science.

sam Dodsworth wrote:
"Turning specifically to number two... If I thought that most children raised to believe in hell were as afraid of damnation as they rationally ought to be then I'd at least be prepared to argue that Catholic teaching was more damaging than being raped by a priest. Luckily, none of us are that rational."

Perhaps because hell is only one of a multitude of complementary catholic doctrines? Granted, Luther was "rational" about it before he became lutherean, but that was because he could not make himself believe in the special salvationary powers of the Catholic Church.

Someone who obsessivly taught children that death was complete oblivion; hence life is equally meaningless; would also be putting rather a lot of pressure on them: personal experience tells me that eventually, they simply get used to the idea.

Of course, Dawkins would teach them that they had an afterlife through memes: some of his more eager disciples would teach that, eventually, memes will ascend to Heaven in shining immortal robot bodies.

Considering that Dawkins considers memes to be above rational distinctions, the fantasy meme is something he really ought to worry more about.

Kurt said...

The facts of the case are that the world is round and the sky is not a gigantic bowl….

Enough about the round Earth and the non-bowlish sky! We get it! By now my dog, who reads over my shoulder, gets it, too!

Damn, there goes my chance at kudos for temperate language.

usul_miller's point was that it is not easy to see where all this ends up. It’s not just a matter of being suitably non-literal about certain Biblical stories, but of figuring out what essence of the Biblical message to hang onto in the end. The answer seems to be some mumbo-jumbo about our being alienated from our own bodies, which I guess translates as wishing I had the discipline to exercise more and eat less; and something about wishing to supplant God, which does seem to be a Biblical theme but which I comprehend only as through a glass, darkly. Is it about me getting mad when my wife tells me to put the sandwich down and go for a jog? Not being bossed by my wife is about the extent of my ambition; I’ve never even wanted to be a branch manager, let alone rule the cosmos.

Sarcasm aside. There may be a plausible way to understand Adam and Eve’s vegetarian habits, and Isaiah’s talk about the lion and the lamb, and everything Jesus Christ says about how we should treat one another, and everything Paul says about sin and death and the work of Jesus, and John’s vision of the final banishing of pain and death, that does not depend on seeing death and conflict as departures from God’s original design for the world, and Jesus’ death and resurrection as historical, revolutionary events that began the process of putting things back on track. But this will I think be a significant departure from historically orthodox Christianity, and in any case a much bigger and more difficult move than admitting the Earth to be round (since this apparently needs saying).

That last point, about how big a move it is, is really the only point I want to insist on. My claim about what constitutes historical orthodoxy is subject to review, so I have taken a quick look at a few notables. Aquinas seems to hold that Adam and Eve were created as beings with corruptible bodies but souls which, while in proper submission to God’s authority, kept the bodies from actually corrupting. Had there been no fall, Adam would have been capable of death in his bodily nature but would have been protected from death by his spiritual nature (Summa Contra Gent. IV.52). Calvin seems to take it as given that mortality, at least in the sense of people actually dying, entered the world through Adam’s rebellion against God (Institutes II.i.6). Augustine and Luther are apparently much on the same page, although I can’t now check the relevant texts to really nail this down. The one interesting wrinkle I turned up is that Augustine reportedly does believe the actual mortality of animals, though not that of human beings, to be natural and not caused by the fall. Anyone who can improve on what I just said about these four or can cite another important theologian whose views on mortality deserve attention in this context is welcome to do so.

I swear: it seems like half the time I hear how ignorant and superstitious past generations were, and the other half of the time I’m being told how wise they all were and how our follies are of recent origin.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Enough about the round Earth and the non-bowlish sky! We get it! By now my dog, who reads over my shoulder, gets it, too!

Damn, there goes my chance at kudos for temperate language.


When I type responses into the comment box, I type first drafts, although I sometimes go back and check for spilling errors. So they aren't always as thought out and polished as the main articles, which have been through a number of revisions.

I actually think that the the cosmology of the Old Testament is very important indeed for the understanding of its symbolism; otherwise you won't see why "dividing the waters" keeps coming up as a symbol, or why the sea disappears in the book of Revelation.

usul_miller's point was that it is not easy to see where all this ends up. It’s not just a matter of being suitably non-literal about certain Biblical stories, but of figuring out what essence of the Biblical message to hang onto in the end. The answer seems to be some mumbo-jumbo about our being alienated from our own bodies, which I guess translates as wishing I had the discipline to exercise more and eat less; and something about wishing to supplant God, which does seem to be a Biblical theme but which I comprehend only as through a glass, darkly. Is it about me getting mad when my wife tells me to put the sandwich down and go for a jog? Not being bossed by my wife is about the extent of my ambition; I’ve never even wanted to be a branch manager, let alone rule the cosmos.

It pains me to be accused of mumbo jumbo. Next, you will accuse me of gobbledegook, and I will be forced to become archbishop of canterbury.

I believe that God intended and intends us to be happy and healthy and to live in peace and happiness, and to go and be with him forever when we die. I believe that we have all turned away from him; disobeyed his instruction; believed the metaphorical serpent who has told us that we can be as gods, knowing good and evil. I believe that as a result, we are shut out from the happy peaceful state that God wants us to live in, and, will not go and be with him when we die. I believe that God came and lived and died with us as a human being so that we can get back to that happy state, and so that we can go and be with him and we die. I just think that the story of Adam and Eve is -- blindingly obviously -- a picture of what the "turning away from God" is like, not an historical account of an event which happened four thousand years ago. In the same way that I think that the parable of the prodigal son is a picture of what the "going back to God" is like, and not a bit of gossip about a real middle-eastern family.

I really can't be much less gobbledegooky than that. I think that what I have just said would be regarded as mainstream -- in fact, as rather theologically conservative -- by most people outside of the Bible belt.

I absolutely regard Jesus death and resurrection as revolutionary historical events which put the human race back on God's original tracks. I merely observe that we aren't in the possession of a first hand, factual, journalistic account of how those events happened, but four disparate re-tellings of the events by four different story tellers with four different theological points of view.

I'm really surprised that anyone finds any of this stuff controversial. Can't we do something difficult, like Cain's wife, or the number of the beast?

Kurt said...

AR: Being a relatively new reader, I don't know if you've plainly stated your views on these issues before, but I appreciate your doing so. Your latest statement seems to me clearer, and I think more substantial, than the earlier remarks about which I was kicking you in the shins.

I don't find any of it controversial, except that I would quibble with a few phrasings in the last two-thirds of the penultimate paragraph.

I just don't see how what you said in your last post fits easily, effortlessly, with Darwinian theory. It either fits only with considerable work or it doesn't fit at all. A happy state we were once in, God’s issuing instructions, our turning away from God, … where do these notions take up residence in an evolutionary narrative? Perhaps one can construe it all as taking place within each person (the innocence of infancy, etc.), but to do that would be to go against the grain of what I believe is the best current wisdom in Biblical scholarship, namely that Biblical authors thought far more in corporate terms and far less in individualistic ones than we do today. So as I say I think this is all quite difficult.

Stating "the facts of the case" about the Earth being really old., etc., only eases the difficulty if we are equally certain about the core Christian doctrines, such as the physical Resurrection. One can relax about tension in a cable only when one is sure both ends are secure.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Rilstone said:
I take Genesis 3 to be a narrative description of the state which human beings are, as a matter of fact, in: alienated from the world, from their own bodies, and from each other as a result of rebellion against God and the wish to supplant God....

...then said later...

I absolutely regard Jesus death and resurrection as revolutionary historical events which put the human race back on God's original tracks. I merely observe that we aren't in the possession of a first hand, factual, journalistic account of how those events happened.

Apologies if this is me being slow, but not quite with you here.

The crucifixion was a genuine historical event which had genuine historical ramifications, even if the only accounts of it we have are merely second-hand. Okay, get what you’re saying. But the Fall wasn’t a historical event, Genesis is simply parcelling up something we have all done individually into quasi-historical symbolism which we might ingest? Or was there a genuine Fall, but so long ago that we don’t even have the second-hand accounts so must rely on symbolist supposition?

Also, if it’s the second, why the long gap in time between the Fall and being put back on track? Could not the crucifixion (or something similar) have been made to happen more or less instantly?

Again, apologies if this is just clamour from the cheap seats...

usul_miller said...

Andrew wrote:

"I believe that God intended and intends us to be happy and healthy and to live in peace and happiness, and to go and be with him forever when we die. I believe that we have all turned away from him; disobeyed his instruction; believed the metaphorical serpent who has told us that we can be as gods, knowing good and evil. I believe that as a result, we are shut out from the happy peaceful state that God wants us to live in, and, will not go and be with him when we die. I believe that God came and lived and died with us as a human being so that we can get back to that happy state, and so that we can go and be with him and we die."

Other than the death part (that is, God never intended for us to die), this IS very good theology and (I hope) it's very popular. It sounds as if you got all the good exegesis out of the text, even if you deal with the text differently than I do. I still think its historicity is really important, and not just in the same way that Kurt Gibson's homerun in the 1988 World Series is more important than Roy Hobbs's in the The Natural.

There's still the problem of original sin, and Paul's writing in Romans which explains it and the mechanism of salvation. But I'm more concerned with whether or not my British Cousins understand baseball metaphors.

Political Scientist said...

Andrew Rilstone wrote:
“I've reviewed the box set for Sci-Fi Now #23, although that's pretty much just a retrospective on the series.”

Excellent - in that case, I shall treat myself to a copy.

Sam Dodsworth wrote:
“Thanks for that. I stand... corrected? Convicted of unjustified skepticism, anyway. “

My pleasure: I think slavery and Abolition are very important topics that certainly should be taught at school. The problem I have is the lack of historical context is which they are presented. I don’t know if you are familiar with a book by Sellar and Yeatman called “1066 and all that”? It’s a parody of history education, by treating history as a series of half-remembered facts relentlessly forced into a Whiggish narrative. [It’s a lot funnier than I’ve made it sound]. All events in history are classified as Good Things, or Bad Things. All kings are either Good Kings, or Bad Kings. This wonderfully reductive approach still appears in teaching about the British Empire [Bad Thing]. This means it’s possible to miss just how revolutionary Abolition was: an institution that predated the Code of Hammurabi, and featured on the Ten Tables of Roman Law, was dealt such a blow that two hundred years later, we cannot imagine how people can ever have supported it. Abolition could not have been achieved without the Royal Navy (slave ships were treated as priate ships, and crews could be hanged) and the Empire[1]. However, you could be forgiven for reading some text books and believing the British invented it...

Regarding the Dawkins quotes:

“... the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth.”

is a dogmatic claim that might not survive contact with reality[2].

I think the best way to interpret the “child abuse” references is that it’s a lot easier to brand something you dislike “child abuse” than to make a plausible case against it. This is why in the future, everything will be child abuse for 15 minutes.


On “Flat earth”: Apologies to Kurt for pressing on with this, but it isn’t at all clear to me that the OT requires a flat earth. Apart from anything else, Ancient Near East peoples
were familiar with sea travel, and anyone who’s ever watched a ship go over the horizon must make the leap to a non-flat earth.
There are references to Job to the constellations, and as they have names presuambly they were objects of study. Aristotle noted in De Caelo that stars can disappear as you go north, and others may have made similar observations. Moreover, the Hellenistic influence that so perturbed the Maccabees - and survived their revolt - would have lead to at least Jewish scholars having familiarity with Greek thought.

I’m not commited to this belief (although as these are beliefs we hold about beliefs that other people held, it may be difficult to imagine evidence that that might make us change our beliefs), but I think the case that the ANE Jews believed in a flat earth cosmology is far from made.[3]


Re: evolution, that the Genesis narrative is a story encapsulating truths rather than being a plonkingly litteral scientific account of creation has a long history in Christian thought. Augustine, writing over a thousand years before Darwin was thought of, says:

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.” [The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1:19].
For that matter, James Orr - the Fundementalist’s Fundementalist - clearly had no problem with an old earth, nor even with the evolution of animals (I suspect, but do not know, that he still would have regarded humans as necessarily the product of an act of Special Creation). Fundementalism was a reaction against the depredations of German Higher Critism, but now it tends to be thought of an anti-science phenomenon.

[1] This is not to say the Empire was a Good Thing (it certainly wasn’t), but it is to say a state of affairs that existed for hundreds of years is probably too complicated to be summed up in an adjective and an abstract noun. An aim of education, moreover, should be teaching children that most things are too complicated to be summed up in two words.

[2] Amoung other shortcomings, my copy of the AV fails to include Damkina’s residence in the palace built by Ea the All Wise atop his slaughtered great-great-grandfather Apsu, nor even the mighty Marduk’s triumph over Tiamat’s champion Kingu, his reclaimation of the Tablet of Destinies from Kingu’s chest, his formation of man from Kingu’s blood, and his promotion by his grandfather Anu to Chief of the Gods.

I think Dawkins must have a different version of the Bible.

[3] It would be interesting, from this point of view, to know what a historian of the 41st century would write about what 21st century humans “believed” about the universe: is it bounded or unbounded? I suspect the vast majority of people have no beliefs about the matter, simply because they’ve never thought about it. Was it CS Lewis who coined the term “chronological snobbery”?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am very willing to be shouted down here, but my reading of Genesis 1 is that

a: Before Jehovah got to work, the universe was a huge chaotic cosmic ocean: sea is what there was before there was anything else.

b: The first thing Jehovah did was get a great big, er, bowl and plonk it over the sea, trapping some water underneath it, and some water above it.

c: Then, he caused some of the water that had been trapped under the bowl to divide, leaving a dry space in between.

d: Then he got to work creating animals and plants on the dry bit.

e: A few hundred years later, when everything went pear shaped, he "opened the floodgates" and let all the water above the bowl pour back in, effectively scrubbing out the creation and starting over (preserving one human family and specimens of the animals.)

f: That is why "dividing waters" features quite a lot in the symbolism of the Old Testament -- when Jehovah splits the Red Sea in two for the Israelites to pass through, he's recalling the creation of the universe.

g: That is why "the sea disappears" in the book of Revelation.

h: The story of Jesus walking on the water is "Jesus doing a Jehovah type thang", not merely "An interesting display of levitation".

i: It probably has some bearing on the Jonah story, too, come to thing of it.

I seem to recall reading somewhere (and it was probably "The Monster Manual", so don't pay too much attention to me) that in some Babylonian stories, the Creator slays a primal dragon, and cuts it in half; and this primal dragon may be identified with the sea: so YHWH dividing the waters to create the earth may be a partial recollection of that. (When the God of Job claims to be able to draw out lethiathon with a hook, it's possible that he's saying "I'm the one who killed the primeval chaos sea monster" as opposed to merely "I'm good at hunting crocodiles.") It may be that the Dawk had read something of this kind in Wikipedia and become infected with the "The Genesis creation story is the same as that of ancient Babylon" meme.

JWH said...

Hi Andrew,

The problem with this blog is that in it you and so many people say so many intelligent things that it can be quite hard to keep up! Thanks very much for your continuing fascinating articles...

I do have a small question about this one - and sincere apologies if you have answered it already and it hasn't registered with me. The biblical accounts of the fall contradict science/fact/observation in so many ways that it very naturally falls into a 'mythic', but not necessarily 'untrue', register for reading, as a story about 'why the world exists' and 'why the state of Man and the world is not as it should be'. There is no corresponding central fact about the resurrection - it is a specific historical event, yes? What is there about the resurrection story (as opposed to the crucifixion story) that would make one understand it as referring to an historical event rather than a figurative one? Or is this a matter of faith?

And thanks again for the maintenance of this excellent blog.

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, if it’s the second, why the long gap in time between the Fall and being put back on track? Could not the crucifixion (or something similar) have been made to happen more or less instantly?

I'm an atheist myself, but I could take a crack at this one. If we assume that it is meaningful that people know about the death and resurrection of Christ, then God has a difficult time of it. If he does it back in prehistory, then it would have lapsed into myth and legend by the time civilization got started. Nobody would remember Christ at all. So, imagining that we are a God outside of time experiencing it all simultaneously, where should Christ be put so the event has maximum impact on all of humanity? It does seem to me that having him killed by the Roman Empire is quite possibly the best idea available. Roman culture would eventually reach all the corners of the earth in a way that no prior civilization ever would. It is, of course, a pity that generations before Christ don't get the benefit and that it would take centuries for other civilizations to get the Gospel (or even thousands of years in the case of, say, Australian aborigines), but any choice is going to leave out masses of humanity. The specific time and place where Christ was killed probably leaves out the fewest number of people.

I don't, by the by, regard this as particular evidence for the truth of Christianity (though some might). But, of course, that is why Christianity is the most influential religion in world history. Because the man who founded it was killed specifically by the Romans. Something like this reasoning could be used to account for why the Jews, particularly, were selected as God's favored people.

dagonet said...

Political Scientist wrote:
"an institution that predated the Code of Hammurabi, and featured on the Ten Tables of Roman Law, was dealt such a blow that two hundred years later, we cannot imagine how people can ever have supported it."

Well, it was critizised since Old Testament times (though mostly when it came to the enslavement of co-religionists), and domestic slaves as an entire class in society in the West was phased out during the Dark Ages, & did not return untill the nazis (areas bordering up to slave-holding cultures, such as many of the Native American ones, or the Vatican, obviously are another matter)

Ibid:

"Aristotle noted in De Caelo that stars can disappear as you go north, and others may have made similar observations. Moreover, the Hellenistic influence that so perturbed the Maccabees - and survived their revolt - would have lead to at least Jewish scholars having familiarity with Greek thought"

Indeed, Aristotle went into some detail on the subject of earthly rotundity: however, it was still a matter of debate right up till the end of the Patrician period, where the matter was settled by all the flat earthers being stomped on by big blond people.
So, yes, it is difficult to disprove at least SOME Jewish people have belived in a flat (and very propably square) earth; especially considering most Chinese people, in spite of being quite brilliant astronomers, thought the earth was flat (& square) until those spoilsport Jesuits told them otherwise, or that there was a flat (& round, for some reason) earth socity at least up till 2002 AD (one of those great Victorian inventions, though it pales compared to Koreshanity:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koreshanity

Ibid:
" Fundementalism was a reaction against the depredations of German Higher Critism, but now it tends to be thought of an anti-science phenomenon. "

Yes: quite.

Ibid:
"I think Dawkins must have a different version of the Bible."

In case anyone is interested, Danish schools put at least as much effort into teaching the pagan Norse creation myth as described by (catholic) Snorri Sturlausson as that of genesis: but as far as I can tell, all the aesir-worshipping neo-pagans up here have been converted by Americans: & the only person I have ever seen try to defend it as science was from the US.

"It would be interesting, from this point of view, to know what a historian of the 41st century would write about what 21st century humans “believed” about the universe: is it bounded or unbounded? I suspect the vast majority of people have no beliefs about the matter, simply because they’ve never thought about it."

My experience is that it influences people even when they do not think of it, implicitly. Consider, for example, how many people assume that that EITHER Genesis OR "evolution" are right, &, if the latter, that it must do exactly the same things for "Darwinists" that Genesis does for Fundementalists.
Obviously, this is no longer merely a matter of biology.

Or to be more precise, 41 - century people would be completely correct in assuming large numbers of 21 - century people believe in anti-science, memes, & witchcraft.
http://www.somethingawful.com/d/weekend-web/jumptheshark-owls-orgonite.php?page=7

Sam Dodsworth said...

andrew stevens:

It does seem to me that having him killed by the Roman Empire is quite possibly the best idea available.

I like your reasoning but I'm not sure about this. If Rome is good then wouldn't Ancient Greece have been even better? If you got in before Alexander then the Gospel would spread as far as India well before the rise of Rome - and India would give you a link to China. If you were lucky, you could even convert barbarians along the Chinese border and get Christianity into the Central Asian steppes. Once the Goths, Vandals, and Huns started sending missionaries along with the invading hordes then I don't see much room for other religions anywhere.

Getting Jesus executed in a suitable way might be a bit more of a problem in Ancient Greece, I suppose. I'd suggest Syracuse under the Tyrants: influential, not as conservative as Sparta, and authoritarian enough to see a popular figure as a threat and have him executed on charges of "impiety".

Andrew Stevens said...

Not a bad thought, Sam. I agree that there are other relatively close times and spaces which would probably have served as well.

Keep in mind that God won't interfere with free will. Alexander is his only chance in the scenario you're suggesting, since his Empire doesn't survive him (and I am not at all convinced that Alexander made any lasting cultural contributions to either India or China, due to the very short time they were present, so I'm not sure it is a better choice). With Rome, there are multiple Emperors to convince (with Constantine being the one who converted). Moreover, since Greece eventually succumbed to Rome, do we have any guarantee that Rome would have adopted Greek Christianity rather than just exterminating it?

Of course, if Christianity was a major mover in Greco-Roman culture spreading throughout the world, then my argument collapses. Obviously, one could have started it in China (which was much more sophisticated than Europe if you pick the right epoch) and simply had China spread it rather than remaining insular as they historically did.

Gavin Burrows said...

andrew stevens said...
Obviously, one could have started it in China (which was much more sophisticated than Europe if you pick the right epoch) and simply had China spread it rather than remaining insular as they historically did.

China would presumably have involved exposing the greatest initial numbers as well. And if you could also somehow spread it from China to Japan, they were a major naval force...

Moreover, since Greece eventually succumbed to Rome, do we have any guarantee that Rome would have adopted Greek Christianity rather than just exterminating it?

Well yes, but it starts with a subject group anyway, the Jews, then spreads to the rulers. And the Romans took up more Greek culture than Jewish. Perhaps the main difference is that Greek culture was less monolithic than Roman.

Then again, IIRR, early Christianity was more the religion of traders and merchants so perhaps it makes more sense to look at trade routes than empires.

Perhaps like Sam, I’m torn between the desire to nitpick and the desire to respond more metaphorically (if not mythopoetically). It’s surely the ‘killer app’ of Christianity that it was an open religion rather than belonging to an ethnic group. If there was a major Western religion that did that before Christianity, I don’t think I know of it. As mentioned earlier, I wonder if the parable form of Bible stories was a way to ‘de-specificise’ the teachings. (From “our temple has always been right here, it’s a holy spot” to “there was a farmer who sowed seeds in a field.”) The crucifixion tends to be important as a story, even to those who believe it literally happened. It didn’t matter that you didn’t see the event, or have connections to anyone who did, it mattered that you heard about it.

(Incidentally, back at Question I did finally get the chance to add a few more comments about the Marxist theory of light bulbs. Everyone’s favourite subject, I’m sure...)

Kurt said...

Then again, IIRR, early Christianity was more the religion of traders and merchants so perhaps it makes more sense to look at trade routes than empires

I gather that Galilee was a good place to incubate a revolutionary movement: enough of a backwater so that one could stay somewhat out of the way of both Roman and Jewish authorities, but yes, a major trade route passed through there.

Re. the parables don't forget also that the content of the parables often includes a challenge to the notion that God favors a certain ethnic group. E.g. the story of the Good Samaritan.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Moreover, since Greece eventually succumbed to Rome, do we have any guarantee that Rome would have adopted Greek Christianity rather than just exterminating it?

On our timeline, Roman religion was basically Greek religion patched over an earlier animist tradition, so I think there's a reasonable chance. And the same argument applies to the Goths who took over from Rome, of course.

More generally, I think you're overestimating the influence of the Roman Emperors and underestimating the effects of cultural diffusion. Christianity got as far as Ethiopia before the rise of Islam hit the Middle East, even with the Sassanids in the way. I'd expect things to go even better with Christians in Ptolomaic Egypt and Selucid Persia.

Of course, I'm also assuming that it's more important to expose as many people as possible to the Gospels (so they can exercise their Free Will) than it is to win immediate converts. Otherwise, you can certainly argue that the establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion was a more important outcome.

Andrew Stevens said...

China would presumably have involved exposing the greatest initial numbers as well. And if you could also somehow spread it from China to Japan, they were a major naval force...

The best guesstimate that I can find is that about 60 million people lived under the Han Dynasty and about 56 million under Roman rule.

Well yes, but it starts with a subject group anyway, the Jews, then spreads to the rulers. And the Romans took up more Greek culture than Jewish. Perhaps the main difference is that Greek culture was less monolithic than Roman.

and

On our timeline, Roman religion was basically Greek religion patched over an earlier animist tradition, so I think there's a reasonable chance. And the same argument applies to the Goths who took over from Rome, of course.

The Romans were famously tolerant of other religions. They were happy to allow temples to subject peoples' gods in Rome. This was usually accomplished by identifying another religion's gods with their own or, more rarely, importing a god into the Roman pantheon. Roman religion was not simply Greek religion. There are definite differences between Diana and Artemis or Ares and Mars. The Romans did wholly import some Greek gods (like Dionysus who became Bacchus) as well as gods from other sources like Isis from Egypt and Mithras from Persia or the great cult of Magna Mater (originally Phrygian Cybele). Judeo-Christianity, on the other hand, could not adapt to this process and YHWH was never brought into the Roman pantheon. However, the increase in anthropomorphic religion and the decline of the old religion after the Second Punic War could, conceivably, have been paralleled by the old religion being replaced with a Greek Christianity instead, I suppose.

More generally, I think you're overestimating the influence of the Roman Emperors and underestimating the effects of cultural diffusion. Christianity got as far as Ethiopia before the rise of Islam hit the Middle East, even with the Sassanids in the way. I'd expect things to go even better with Christians in Ptolomaic Egypt and Selucid Persia.

Ethiopia isn't exactly a textbook example of cultural diffusion. For those who aren't familiar with the story, Saint Frumentius and his brother Edesius were young boys whose ship was seized off Ethiopia (then the Aksumite Empire). Their uncle was killed and the two boys were brought before the King and the King was quite taken with them, raised them to positions of responsibility, and freed them from slavery before his death. His widow begged Saint Frumentius to assist her in educating young King Ezana and this crucial event aided in converting most of the Aksumite Empire. This strikes me as a strange chance event and not cultural diffusion as such. This isn't to deny, of course, that cultural diffusion occurs. And if Aksum hadn't been ready for a new religion, Saint Frumentius would have failed just as Akhenaten failed to convert Egypt to monotheism.

I am not in general a big fan of the Great Man theory of history, but Tolstoy plainly went too far in the other direction.

Of course, I'm also assuming that it's more important to expose as many people as possible to the Gospels (so they can exercise their Free Will) than it is to win immediate converts. Otherwise, you can certainly argue that the establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion was a more important outcome.

I do very much agree with this, but the Gospel doesn't spread without converts.

Gavin Burrows said...

Kurt said...
Re. the parables don't forget also that the content of the parables often includes a challenge to the notion that God favors a certain ethnic group. E.g. the story of the Good Samaritan.

The hilarious thing is that we now put the words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ together so automatically, Family Fortunes style. For the original context try the Honest Asylum Seeker, the Helpful Hoodie or the Good Chav.

sam dodsworth said...
Of course, I'm also assuming that it's more important to expose as many people as possible to the Gospels (so they can exercise their Free Will) than it is to win immediate converts.

It’s always interested me how much evangelists go for the ‘exposure’ thing. By any set of stats, you’re much more likely to get a convert from a rival sect than from a non-believer, but still they do the doorstepping.

Andrew Stevens said:
The best guesstimate that I can find is that about 60 million people lived under the Han Dynasty and about 56 million under Roman rule.

Much closer than I thought! I’d imagined once China got unified, it would beat anywhere else for numbers. I've no idea how you'd measure who was impacted by a civilization, rather than just who lived under it.

Kurt said...

The hilarious thing is that we now put the words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ together so automatically, Family Fortunes style. For the original context try the Honest Asylum Seeker, the Helpful Hoodie or the Good Chav.

I've heard preachers note that today Jesus would probably talk to a Jewish audience about the Good Palestinian.

I had to Google the term "chav"!

James Kabala said...

It's worth noting that while the Bible does seem to imply a flat Earth at times, this was never (in extreme contrast to the idea of the Earth as center of the universe) something that the Catholic Church or any other church insisted on. Well before Columbus, Magellan, or Galileo, medieval people knew the world was round. Look at Dante, for example, where Purgatory is a mountain in the Southern Hemisphere. Aquinas also refers to a round Earth, if I recall correctly.

Kurt said...

Speaking of Dante, note that the center of the Universe is not necessarily a place of honor.

dagonet said...

Burrows wrote:
"(Incidentally, back at Question I did finally get the chance to add a few more comments about the Marxist theory of light bulbs. Everyone’s favourite subject, I’m sure...)"

I do believe that Mr. Rilstone did a piece on conspiracy theory a while ago;)

Stevens wrote:
"The Romans were famously tolerant of other religions."

Would propably use the term "imperialistic towards" rather than "tolerant of", as regards both the pagan & christian Romans.

The fascinatingly-named Kabala wrote:
"It's worth noting that while the Bible does seem to imply a flat Earth at times, this was never (in extreme contrast to the idea of the Earth as center of the universe) something that the Catholic Church or any other church insisted on."

At the time of Galileo, most catholic astromomers (not including Galileo, of course) supported the, well, catholic Tychean model.
&:
The Christian Catholic Apostolic Church did insist on a flat earth.

But apart from that, you are entirely correct.

As for medieval terramorphology, the current consensus (wikipedia) on the matter is, I at least think, instructive.

Secularist: "Religion is anti-science. Why, in the Dark Ages, the Church people burnt people at the stake for saying the Earth was round!"
Fundementalist:>looks at evidence< AHA! You are blatantly (very blatantly: the High Medival scholastics went out of their way to use Round Earth theory as an illustration of the Proper Order of Things, including the supremacy of the catholic church)WRONG!! for onceANYWAY that proves that the medieval Catholic Church was not anti-science, which logically means that modern protestants are allowed to be anti-science!
Secularist: "You actually looked at the evidence?! Er, not really used to you doing that. How can anyone be sure NOBODY in the Dark Ages believed the Earth was flat, there might have been some peasants who thought so, and in a Very Real Democratic Sense that is what Really Matters"
Fundementalist: "Come on. Chaucers 10-year old son knew the Earth was round. Obviously, you are part of an evil, anti-christian conspiracy, one that sacrficices BABIES to SATAN!"
Secularist: "That is not true!. Well, the last bit isnt... not if you have a non-insane view of abortion, that is... anyway, define evil!"
Fundementalist: "YOU! AHahahaaa!"
Dawkins: "Another Victory for Memeology!"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_earth

dagonet said...

Not that Dawkins is all bad.
http://richarddawkins.net/articleComments,824,Postmodernism-Disrobed,Richard-Dawkins-Nature,page2
(you may want to scroll down a bit)
then again, books such as "Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science" may have some agendas of their own (I assume it is not my left, well, slightly-left-off-centre, they are talking about: but still)

Gavin Burrows said...

Kurt said...
I had to Google the term "chav"!

Apologies for my perpetual Anglocentrisms! (I thought maybe I should stop to explain Family Fortunes, but not 'chav'...)

Kurt said...

Apologies for my perpetual Anglocentrisms!

Actually you should go keep right on with those. How else will we colonials ever learn anything? I didn't even get AR's "Life and Opinions..." reference until I happened to Google Tristram Shandy one day. Lord knows what else has been going over my head, but one can only keep trying.

Andrew Stevens said...

Apologies for my perpetual Anglocentrisms! (I thought maybe I should stop to explain Family Fortunes, but not 'chav'...)

Family Fortunes was based on the U.S. game show Family Feud. However, your show didn't star Richard Dawson (who was married to Diana Dors), so I'm betting it was inferior.

Gavin Burrows said...

Kurt said...
I didn't even get AR's "Life and Opinions..." reference until I happened to Google Tristram Shandy one day.

Honestly, Kurt! Why, I have known that ever since... for as long as...

...anyway, how are you today?

Stephen said...

I'm really surprised that anyone finds any of this stuff controversial.

I think if the School of Dawkins (to speak loosely) too often assumes that anyone religious must be a biblical literal fundamentalist, it is conversely true that a lot of religious rationalists (à la A. Rilstone, esq.), too often radically underestimate how many religious people take the (to him) self-evidently allegorical, parable sections of scripture literally.

Granted, as an American, my perspective on this is probably skewed. But over here it ain't just the bible belt. To take an example from my own tribe, there was a big controversy in Orthodox Jewish circles recently about a (Orthodox) rabbi who wrote books seeking to understand the early chapters of Genesis metaphorically being excommunicated for not believing in (what among Christians would be called) Young Earth Creationism. It wasn't unanimous on the ignore science side... but it wasn't unanimous against it either.

I think that those atheists who are fairly called anti-religious (rather than the majority who are just non-religious) would do well to remember how many of the faithful take scientific evidence (of things like the age of the earth) seriously. But those believers who are fairly described as taking science seriously would do equally well to remember how many believers are not among their number.

Porlock Hussein Junior said...

Well, I'm glad that "chav" appeared here, forcing me to Google it and find
"...baseball caps, frequently in Burberry check, a favourite style."
The American mind boggles.