Thursday, May 11, 2006

Straining at a gnat


Christian Foes of 'Da Vinci Code' Mull Tactics - New York Times

In "The Da Vinci Code," two sleuths uncover a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to conceal that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that the myth of his divinity was written into the Bible at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. by the Roman emperor Constantine. "The Da Vinci Code" was marketed as fiction, but Mr. Brown said in a preface page that his descriptions of artwork, documents and rituals "are accurate." To be sure, there are many Christians who do not regard the book or the movie as a threat. But the outrage is widespread

There are innumerable reasons to doubt the truth of Christian, and more generally, theistic claims--and the hypothesis flown in The Da Vinci Code is among the least of them.

To me, as a recovering logical positivist, the Verificationist Challenge is the most personally compelling. As far as I can see, the world is exactly as it would be if there were no God. There is no compelling evidence for the occurrence of miracles or the power of petitionary prayer. Science is chugging along quite nicely, explaining more and more of what goes on, and it seems highly likely that everything that goes on and will go on is explicable in purely naturalistic terms. We don't need the God hypothesis--it has no implications for experience and is, therefore, neither verifiable nor falsifiable in experience.

Even if we stop short of concluding that theological claims are therefore meaningless, this effectively blocks theistic arguments that purport to be inferences to the best explanation. And that is devastating: short of arcane a priori arguments spinning off of the Ontological Argument, there is no reason to believe that God, or any supernatural entities, forces or states of affairs, exist.

Speculation about Jesus' sex life, the Church's concoction of Christological doctrines and the alleged cover-up are of negligible importance. Fantasies about Jesus dating from as early as the second century in gospels that didn't make it into the canon have always been flying around. Every undergraduate who takes a course in New Testament for general education credit--and passes--has learnt about them. Why are people surprised by the Da Vinci code? Every educated person knows, or should know, that doctrine developed over centuries: there is no high Christology in the Bible. Even in the Fourth Gospel it is simply not clear what kind of claims, if any, are being made about Christ's divinity. Anyone who reads the New Testament with reasonable care can make this out. And conspiracy theories about the Church's power politics and role in suppressing dissent are as old as the Church.

So why the surprise--and where's the beef? This is just more of the same, recycled for popular consumption. Jesus was an obscure figure of no interest to most of his contemporaries, so from the historical point of view we know very little about him. But the idea that he got to France and became the progenitor of the Mergovingian dynasty is almost as bizarre as the theory that he went to Tibet to found an esoteric tradition of Ascended Masters. You would think that fundamentalists would be more worried about the plausible story than by these implausible ones, viz. that Jesus was an obscure Palestinian Jew who became the hook for a Hellenistic mystery cult which, for a variety of mostly arbitrary reasons, beat out the competition.

What disturbs me most about this bruhaha is the extent to which any interesting story, however implausible, even if it is explicitly claimed to be a fiction, will fly. People apparently believe things just because they're there. When stories compete, they believe whichever one they find more interesting: beyond dull facts about middle-sized pieces of dry goods, truth is not at issue and it's all a crap-shoot--you buy what you like. Of course this is how religious seekers in the Hellenistic world made their doxastic decisions too: Jesus, Isis or the Elusinian Mysteries--what's more interesting? Why not try them all? Lots of people did. Constantine certainly did--with Christ and Sol Invictus as the leading contenders, until he became convinced that, for political purposes, it would be desirable to promote exclusive allegiance to the Jesus cult--suitably modified to encompass most of the attractive features of others that were operating at the time.

In once respect, the fundamentalists have done themselves in. By ignoring the theological controversies and the whole body of serious Biblical criticism, and by putting it out that the standard Jesus story is uncontroversial and so obvious that anyone who doubts is perverse, they've set themselves up for a situation where any competing hypothesis, however implausible or bizarre, knocks the socks off of people. You can certainly be orthodox without being in the least worried about the Da Vinci Code. It's the public's sheer ignorance about the Bible and church history that makes this silly fantasy a threat.

4 comments:

Sanpete said...

The clever Christian will recognize in your verificationist argument the foundation for the principle of faith. He will say, "Suppose God wanted us to sift ourselves, to be able to gravitate to whatever our truest hearts were drawn to. What would He do? He wouldn't want to just show us which way to go, leaving no doubt of the right way, because that would only be a matter of following our intellect, and our true hearts might be overridden. No, He would need to just put out the options and let us feel our way according to our dearest hopes and attractions, by faith. More blessed is he who believes without seeing." One complication with that view for most Christians, if they ever considered it, would be that they actually believe there is good evidence for God, for his intercession in our lives, among other things.

And this relates to your other point. Rationally, in the narrow sense, they probably shouldn't believe that. But in a broader sense, maybe they should. If you accept the evolutionary story, we're just animals who got smart. But not that smart. People like Aristotle and other philosophers are probably too impressed by the latter point, the rational part of rational animal. Your story about the cats and the neighbors is at least as revealing of what we are. We aren't primarily rational in any very rigorous sense. And (I think some philosophers have argued this with mathematical tools in recent years) there may not be any good reason for us to be more rational than we are, given our limited resources and time. How much time should the average person spend trying to learn how to reason better, or gathering and sifting evidence about this or that, and so on? (You teach reasoning skills, maybe you have an answer?) Just consider the economic implications of time spent on that rather than other things. Even more, how much should she spend trying to figure out if the most hopeful, satisfying account of life she knows of is wrong, as long as it works for her? Do you ever wonder who is really the smartest, the sophisticated skeptic or the perhaps less artful believer? (Not that there aren't some very sophisticated believers not so artful unbelievers.)

This implicit, mostly unarticulated practical logic does leave people open to outrageous false beliefs, but usually they aren't too harmful--evidently harmful beliefs get more skeptical attention. I've wondered if more rationality would be good or bad, on the whole. If you are led by rationality to the conclusion that all values are ultimately subjective, one sense in which it's irrational to prefer to do something horrible is greatly diminished for those with desires to match. And the power of individuals and small groups to do harm is always increasing. How to weigh that risk against that of religious and other motives for bad acts? What about the effect on individuals who may find mere subjective values somehow unfulfilling (something that varies with personality, it seems). No new ideas there, just old ones I don't know what to think of. I'm drawn back to them whenever I'm alarmed about how irrational people are.

H. E. said...

Obviously, we follow rules of thumb and formulas--going through the utility calculations in every case wouldn't be cost-effective so we use various heuristics and approximate. That's rational. But that's still not what most people are doing--and that isn't always as harmless as my current cat shit problem.

The most disconcerting--and deepest--comment I ever got on a course evaluation was from someone in a logic class about 15 years ago: "What's the good of being logical if no one else is?"

That's dead on and, as they say, I leave the implications of that as an exercise for the reader.

Sanpete said...

I was thinking of all the kinds of thought that are involved in clearly sorting out a complex issue like whether God exists or who to vote for (or whether to vote at all). There are real questions whether the benefits of the effort would equal the costs for most people. How much effort should people make to be rational?

Yes, there can be the most severe costs from irrationality, when combined with other factors. I don't think it's obvious that the ultimate costs of rationality are any less. I'm a good Humean to this extent: rationality is a slave to the passions, and it's the passions that cause us the most trouble, ultimately. Having better tools may help; it may eventually make things worse.

I don't think I'm doing very well with your exercise for readers. What your student wrote has the ring of a joke I can't quite recall (maybe this was the joke). I think I may see some of what you draw from it, but I'm not sure what it would be like for even one person to be logical, let alone a whole bunch of people.

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