Saturday, September 29, 2007

Inescapable Bias?

I have observed in myself a bias towards those with whom I share a commonality. In particular I am thinking of political and religious contexts. For example, when I hear of a politician accused of being unethical, I have noticed my reaction varying depending on whether he shares my political views or not. If he shares my views, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, whereas if he has views I strongly dislike then I find myself more sceptical of him. Now I know this reaction is not rational, as the politician's ethical conduct is not going to be better or worse if he shares by views, so I find my reaction curious. It is a trusting of, and a partiality towards, the in-group contrasted with a suspicion towards the out-group.

Now I believe this kind of reaction is very common currently and historically. It is a good excesize to search for it in your own reactions to different people. Can you find yourself putting greater trust in someone simply because he/she has a commonality with you such as the same race, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, home-town, religion, political-orientation, or some such thing? These in-group preferences are not rational in the sense of truth-serving, and in some cases have lead to all kinds of nasty behaviors such as to slavery when applied racially or ethnically. So I see this bias towards the in-group as an evil that we have to struggle against.

Addressing religion, I believe there is a more insiduous working of this bias that I have observed in myself and others. In various churches that I have been a member, I found myself putting great trust in the leadership and doctrines of the church. I would put significant weight on the particular leader's interpretation of the bible, or his views on divisive issues like homosexuality or the role of women. But why did I put so much weight on the views of my church as opposed to the multitude of other views of other churches many of which are even better considered? Somehow I absorbed the idea that my church was special and had a special corner on the truth. This applies not only between churches, but between religions. I put far greater trust in the teachings of my religion and its holy book, than any of the other religions and their books. But why, if a priori there is no reason that one religion or revelation should have greater insights or be more likely to be true than others? Well, that was the role of the evangelist; to sell Christianity as having a corner on the truth that no other religion has. Indeed the salesmanship worked on me and I believed for a long time that Christianity and the Bible had a hold on the truth. And this was self-reinforcing as I would naturally trust the claims of Christianity and the Biblical writers as I considered them part of the in-group. In fact it took many years of struggle to escape from this in-group allegiance I had. Now that I can look back from the outside, I see that I was sadly deceived in part by this tendency to trust the in-group. Indeed, I see many deceived in the same way I was and I don't know how or if they will escape. But at least from my experience I know there is hope and a way out for those who seek.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


I have started reading about humanism. A good summary is the Humanist Manifesto III. It is interesting how it is diametrically opposed to much of what I learned growing up in a Christian household. Humanism, as its name implies, has a very positive outlook on humankind, whereas Christianity takse the opposite approach: as fallen creatures we are essentially evil and can do no good unless enabled to do so by God. (Depending on one's brand of Christianity this is emphasized to a greater or lesser degree.) So which attitude is right?

Everyone would agree that humans can do much evil; that is evident by looking current or historical events. But as humans are we condemned to committing evil? Humanists are the optimists and say: No, we are capable, given the right philosophy, of doing great good and living good and productive lives. Christianity is the pessimist in this regard: due to Adam and Eve eating the fruit we are lost in a vicious circle of evil begetting more evil. Only God's intervention can enable us to do good.

Is there any way to decide between these competing claims that good is a result of human motivation or only as a result of divine intervention? Unfortunately there is no way to determine if any action was caused by divine intervention. Good (and evil) actions can be done as a result in a belief in God, but a belief in God is much different than God actually intervening. So a choice between these isn't going to be made on physical evidence (although a choice might be made on a lack of evidence for supernatural intervention).

So it seems to me that a lot depends on a choice in attitude. It is either:

  • I can live a good life on my own and will strive to do this, or

  • I can't live a good life on my own. I will need to rely on God and he will make me good.

Which of these will be more successful in living a good life? I don't think it is the second. While it might seem attractive by its apparent modesty, I think it is a false modesty. By denying our ability at the outset it instills defeatist attitude. While it is true that none of us is perfect, that doesn't mean we can't be good, despite Christian claims to the contrary.

I believe the first option will lead to a better life. By pursuing the very things that make us human: rationality, creativity, compassion and love, we can live a good life. The good life is thus the fulfillment of being a human. Surely that is worth striving to achieve.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Gods of the Bible

Christianity has developed a very strongly monotheistic world view. God is immaterial spirit, omnipotent, all-knowing, the creator of everything else, and so on. We have all this baggage in mind whenever we read the word "God" or "Lord" in the Bible. Unfortunately this prevents us from seeing the God that is actually revealed in the Bible. I've been reading the book: "Is it God's Word" by Joseph Wheless, and he brings up a lot of things that are brushed under the carpet in regular Christianity. While he has a negative view of Christianity, nevertheless he makes many points that Christians should consider before concluding that they have the right view of the Bible and its revelation. In this post I will bring together and summarize some of his points about the God we find in the Bible. To see a much fuller analysis, read Joseph Wheless "Is It God's Word" (available from Amazon) pgs. 75-80, and 201-235.

The first thing that is often brushed asside is that the Hebrews recognized a pantheon of gods, similar to the Greek gods. Each tribe or people had its own god or gods. The Hebrews had their own god, Yahweh, who demanded that the Hebrews worship him alone and not any of the other gods. The terms El, Elohe, Elohim used to denote god or gods (with no special capitalization) are applied to Yahweh and to the other gods. Many, many times the Old Testament writers recognize these other gods. Here are just a few examples:

  • Genesis 31:30-34. Laban had caught up to Jacob and demanded of him: "But why did you steal my gods?" Jacob replied "But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live" although he didn't know that Rachel had taken the gods. [Here we have Jacob recognizing Laban's gods]

  • Exodus 20:3 (The first commandment): You shall have no gods before me. [The gods of other nations are recognized, and the same in the next 2 quotes]

  • Exodus 31:14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD (Yahweh), whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god.

  • Exodus 23:24-25 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD (Yahweh) your god...

  • Deut. 10:17 For the LORD (Yahweh) your god is god of gods and lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, [Yahweh is the chief god, like Zeus]

  • 1 Sam 5:2-3 Then they carried the ark into Dagon's temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD (Yahweh). [Here is one of a number of competitions between Yahweh and the other gods showing that Yahweh is greater, but in so doing recognizing the other gods.]

And there are a multitude of other passages similar to these where the Hebrew god, Yahweh, is one of the gods, albeit a possessive one that demands that the Hebrews do not worship any of the other gods.

Wheless points out that one of the reasons that God (god) being one of the gods is often missed by modern readers is an intentional mistranslation of the reference for the Hebrew god. This God/god has his own name just like the other gods (Chemos, Dagon etc.) have names. He reveals it to Moses in

  • Exodus 6:2-3: God (Elohim) also said to Moses, "I am Yahweh (the LORD). I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El-Shaddai (God Almighty), but by my name Yahweh (the LORD) I did not make myself known to them.

Thus God has a proper name, Yahweh, like your name or my name, that distinguishes him from the other gods. God is refered to as Yahweh some 6000 times in the Old Testament. But translators are uncomfortable with God having a name like the other tribal gods and so the translate it: "the Lord" or "the LORD". But this is wrong. The word "Adonai" means lord and is used to address Yahweh as well as human masters. So this mistranslation of the Hebrew god's name, Yahweh, into "the LORD" makes it easy for us to read all our baggage belonging to the concept of God into the Old Testament references of Yahweh. Reread the scripture quotes above and see how replacing "the LORD" for "Yahweh" changes the implication. We can see more clearly the polytheistic world view of the ancient Hebrews.

Now Yahweh is a god with very human qualities. He could be heard walking around in the garden (Gen 3:8). He sits on a throne, not just figuratively but literally as seen by various prophets. He has sons who take for themselves daughters of men and have children, (Gen 6:2). He comes down to earth in human form many times including to speak with Moses Exodus 33:11 Yahweh ("the LORD") would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend, and also to meet the other leaders of Israel: Exodus 24:9-11 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. This is despite what John claims in John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. Clearly John is uncomfortable with the Hebrew concept of a god that can be seen. But nevertheless lots of prophets claim to have seen God including

  • Daniel 7:9 "...the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool...",

  • Isaiah 6:1 I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple,

  • Job 42:5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you

  • Amos 9:1 I saw the Lord standing by the altar...

And like the Greek gods, Yahweh dwells in particular locations; wherever the ark travels he travels. He is a god of war, as quoted by Joshua 10:11 As they fled before Israel ... Yahweh (the LORD) hurled large hailstones down on them from the sky. And when the Israelites were fleeing Pharoh's army Moses tells them: Exodus 14:14 Yahweh (the LORD) will fight for you. And indeed in v. 24 the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.

Then there is the creation story in Genesis 1. Here it is not just Yahweh doing the creating, it is the assembly of gods creating the world. It starts

  • Gen 1:1 In the begining Elohim (the gods) created the heaven and the earth."

The plural, Elohim, is used. To see that this refers to an assembly of gods look at:

  • Gen 1:26 Then Elohim (gods) said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...
  • Gen 3:22 And the LORD God (Yahweh-Elohim) said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.

So man has become like one of the gods, as pointed out by Yahweh to the assembly of other gods.

It is interesting how we smile when we think of the pantheon of Greek gods and their escapades with humans. We never think that the bible contains similar stories, and yet if we are willing to read what is written in it and don't force a harmonization with much later monotheistic dogma, then indeed we find many stories of gods and men. It is the forced harmonization with church dogmas and Greek philosophy that blinds us to the vivid polytheistic stories of the Hebrews.