Monthly Archives: January 2011

Is God a Psychological Phenomenon?

Please don’t take the title as pejoratively as it sounds. I’m working on my always-in-progress-but-never-done systematic theology project. I could do with knowing if there are any ways in which you can think that monotheists (particularly Christians) understand God as other than an internal subjective psychological actor.

I can think of just one. The doctrine of ongoing creation. That the natural cosmos is dependent for its continual existence on a creative act of God. That without a continual and direct intervention of God, the physical laws of the universe would not hold from Planck-time to Planck-time. This, as a doctrine, is obviously non-psychological.

I should add that I’m explicitly allowing myself to deny the existence of miracles, by an argument from the complete lack of any evidence for them (i.e. they are potentially verifiable, and therefore are not part of any sensible modern theology).

It seems to me the theologies I’m reading talk about the agency and actions of God, but all those actions are purely psychological. God may be personally redemptive and transformative, he may free someone from the guilt of sin, or promise them eternal life to come. He may appear in revelation or in visions, he may reveal information or provide mental or emotional resources for his adherents, he may provide spiritual gifts or new abilities.

But I haven’t found modern theologians wanting to claim that God directly and super-naturally impinges on the world independent of people.

Even as understood by believers, God’s stage is in the psyschology of human beings. Is that fair? Or can you think of a theological claim that could be made by mainstream liberal theologians where God currently acts otherwise?


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Who Were the Twelve? — Mark 3:16-19

And he appointed the twelve:
Simon (whom he gave the name Peter),
James son of Zebedee and
John the brother of James (whom he gave the name Boanerges, the sons of Thunder), and
Andrew and
Philip and
Bartholomew and
Matthew and
Thomas and
James son of Alpheus and
Thaddaeus and
Simon the Cananaean and
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him

— tr. mine

One thing you notice in the New Testament. There is a pretty good agreement that there were a group of Twelve. We call them the Twelve disciples, or Twelve apostles, though both terms have problems. In the NT they are often just called “The Twelve”.

An icon of the Twelve

The Twelve Disciples from a Greek Icon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But what you don’t notice is complete agreement about who was in the group. Here is Mark’s version. Matthew agrees with Mark, but there are variations in some texts that change Thaddaeus to Labbaeus (and even a later scribe who hedges his bets and write “Labbaeus called Thaddaeus”). Some variants of Matthew have other Judases, Judas the Zealot, and others add Judas the son of James. Luke has this Judas son of James in his version (both in Luke and Acts), and Simon the Zealot. Earlier, however, during the stories of the calling of the disciples, Luke has Levi son of Alphaeus (James’s brother?), who is called in a story that Matthew uses for Matthew (and this is one of the reasons Matthew’s gospel is so named). John’s gospel doesn’t even name the full set, but he does include a Nathanael who isn’t elsewhere. Paul doesn’t give us a list either, but he refers to them, in terms of their obvious authority in the early Jesus movement (and one can’t help but hear a less than respectful tone for that authority).

There are traditional ways to reconcile these differences (somewhat creatively). What’s fascinating is that it seems clear that the individuals aren’t important. What’s important is that there are Twelve.

Obviously a highly significant number for Jews, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel. And there’s the irony. There are three different sets of “Twelve Tribes” in the bible too – over time the constituents of the twelve change, but the important part is that there are twelve.

Decades after Jesus, the specifics about the Twelve might have been forgotten, but the number had not. But what’s also interesting is that the era of the Twelve was brief.

After Judas’s exit from the Twelve, Acts tells the story of how a replacement was elected (Matthias). To the early church the number was important enough to hold this election. But then Luke tells us nothing more about them. Paul uses “Twelve” as a name, but doesn’t talk about them as if there were twelve. For Paul (c.f. Galatians 1 and 2), there is only Peter. The other major heavyweight is James (Jesus’s Brother), who doesn’t appear in any list of the Twelve.

Who knows if the loyalty of the Twelve really did survive the Crucifixion. There are hints they did not. We know that their symbolism was more powerful than their reality very soon afterwards. And as the new religion grew beyond Judea, there was very little need for the symbolism any more. The calling of The Twelve was remembered, I think, as an authentic act of the historical Jesus. Like many things he said and did, it was something the early church, particularly the Pauline church, found it no longer needed.

I wonder what Jesus would have made of Paul.


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What is the Probability of God's Existence?

There’s been a few posts recently about using probability theory to illuminate questions of biblical historicity. It reminded me of a review I wanted to post on last year, but didn’t get time for.

In this review (via clayboy) of the new “Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction”, Vernon paraphrases one (among many) of the book’s arguments on the probability of the existence of God:

Atheism is not the default position when it comes to God – as if the burden of proof was on the theist – for a number of reasons, but most interestingly because atheism is not the most likely as a prior probability (that is, the probability before you consider any evidence.) Anthony Kenny has offered one argument as to why: atheists have to deny every definition of God; theists have only to affirm one. So the atheist has to prove more than the theist to ensure their position stands, which suggests atheism is a lower prior probability.

The use of probability to talk informally about the existence of God has a long pedigree, but a rather ignominious one. And indeed folks like Swinbourne, and Tony Kenny have dabbled in making it a little more explicit. But this specific argument, whilst also being methodologically confused (it doesn’t understand what ‘prior probability’ means, technically) is also naive in a very freshman-probability-course way.

What is the probability of you not rolling a 6, on three fair dice? It is 5/6 on the first die, 5/6 on the second, and 5/6 on the third, giving 125/216 of not rolling a 6. So even though the chance of rolling a six is small, with three shots at doing it, the odds of avoiding a 6 come out at not far from 50:50 (if we had a fourth roll, the chance would drop below 50:50).

This is Kenny’s hypothesis – what is the chance of no God existing, of atheists being right. We calculate it in the same way: What is the change of Yahweh not existing? What about the Christian Trinity? Vinshnu? Zeus? Allah? Isis? Each probability might be close to one: each God may be unlikely. But multiply them together and the chance of none of them existing drops way down. For example, if we had one thousand potential Gods, each with only a one-in-a-thousand chance of existing, the likelihood of the atheist being right is only 35%.

Unfortunately this line of argument is crock. It assumes independence.

When you first learn statistics and probability, chances are your instructor would have spent a lot of time telling you that things are independent. Flipping heads 10 times on a coin does not mean the next flip is more likely to be tails*. This is counter-intuitive, so it gets a lot of emphasis.

But unfortunately, things in the real world are very rarely independent. The independence isn’t normally the kind that we intuit (our intuitions really are most often wrong in probability**). But we cannot assume independence in general. And in my experience even graduate students of science find it hard to shake the idea, planted in high school, that every probability is independent.

The non-existence of Gods, for example, is highly dependent. And without independence, the Kenny system is laughably naive (and a good way to flunk undergraduate statistics). Yahweh isn’t a completely new option to Allah, or even Isis. The mythologies are connected, deeply, historically and psychologically.

Taking the probability of each of a thousand broadly similar Gods as being one-in-a-thousand, the final probability of there being any God, would end up being pretty much still one-in-a-thousand. And that is definitely not a good argument for agnosticism.

There are better ways to argue for agnosticism, I think, and in fact in Vernon’s article he goes onto a much better one, that the existence of God reduces the number of explanations, which in general tends to be associated with better explanations. I disagree with that, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

* I’ve said before on this blog, that the correct answer is that, a coin that flips heads ten times in a row is more likely to flip heads on the eleventh. When I said that before, I was disagreed with. But, nevertheless, I was right 😉

**Here’s a famous example: My sister has two children, one of whom is a boy – what is the probability of the other child also being a boy? (assume that there is a roughly 50:50 male/female split among children as a whole). For the answer, drag your mouse over this invisible text to select it and read it: There is roughly a 1/3 chance the other child is a boy – if that matches your intuition (and you haven’t heard the puzzle before), then you’re very, very unusual.


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Literature and Analysis

I’m increasingly understanding an important distinction in the intent of authors, which I’d like to share in half-baked terms for you to pick apart. Bear in mind this is just a model I’m finding useful at the moment.

I have, to this point, assumed that all descriptive non-fiction is analytical. That is, a non-fiction text is authored to say what it means. And so one can judge the meaning and the worth of a work by reading it and understanding it. This is a useful assumption. Because it mostly is true. Some works may be better written than others, may use language more artfully, and be easier to get drawn in. But ultimately a writer says what they are trying to say.

But I’m increasingly understanding another kind of authorial intent. That, for the sake of classification, I’ll call literary. In these cases what is written is largely irrelevant. The point is to provide the reader with an aesthetic experience, of language, of concepts and of their relation. The text itself may be explicitly meaningless, untrue, or downright offensive. But that doesn’t matter: the point is to experience the brilliant artistry of the author.

So I read Kant, for example, analytically. And he makes a couple of excellent, excellent arguments. Unfortunately he takes 500 pages to do it, and says lots of things on the way that make no sense whatsoever. So I find I don’t much like Kant. And I talk to philosophers who are Kant fans and they have no desire to discuss the analytic points I’ve discerned. To them Kant isn’t making great arguments about Epistemology, he is a literary artist, exploring the language and dynamics of the philosophical form. I see the same thing in some theologians. It might be possible to write a theology completely devoid of any analytical insight, but that provides a transcendent aesthetic experience.

Does that make sense? If so, when literary works can sound like they’re making analytic points (but either terrible ones or ones that are obviously wrong), how do we tell the difference? How do we tell the difference between intentional meaningless, conceit, and general cluelessness? My gut reaction is to cry that the literary emperor has no clothes, but the small vestige of intellectual humility I have left gives me cause to pause.


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Did the Resurrection Happen?

Did the resurrection happen?*

Obviously I think it did not. Otherwise I’d be a very odd atheist.

But there are some very strong lines of evidence:

From the very earliest threads we can trace, a group of Jews believed and taught that God had raised Jesus from the dead. This is evidenced in content such as the Aramaic hymn in Philippians 2, which is generally thought to pre-date Paul’s letters (which in turn are the earliest written source) by some time.

There is no dissent from the idea that Jesus appeared, after death, to certain of his followers. Paul recites this tradition, it is found in the gospels. The earliest gospel, Mark, has no resurrection appearances, but is clearly written from the perspective that the resurrection happened, and in fact the earliest ending we have of Mark gives a prophecy of future resurrection appearances, which we’ve no reason to assume Mark didn’t think had been fulfilled.

Mark’s gospel puts Mary as the key witness to the resurrection (or at least its notification by an angelic figure). This is then used by Matthew and Luke (who, it is almost universally admitted, worked from a copy of Mark). The gospels themselves admit this is a far fetched story, particularly (one assumes) coming from a woman. That Mary was the first witness may be embarrassing, which is a useful criteria that a teaching was authentic, or came from an authoritative early source.

There is no unambiguous material that shows Jesus’s resurrection (i.e. God raising him from the dead) is a story that the early Jesus followers had access to in other contexts. It wasn’t a theology that seems to match second temple Judaism. It is hard to argue from silence (we may not have found the right writings, or they may have been destroyed by later Christians), but to the extent it tells us anything, it supports the notion that the resurrection was a new idea.

But that evidence doesn’t sway me. Because there’s a lot of what-ifs and reconstructions and so on in there. Against those, I find some other lines of reasoning compelling:

When charismatic religious leaders die, there is very commonly a spiritualization of their death. The specific story and theology might be new, but the impulse to interpret the death of the leader as only an apparent phenomenon seems to be fundamentally human. As such wanting to understand Jesus as having been raised seems to me to be psychologically feasible, and historically common.

The overwhelming majority of the stories of resurrection suggests that the Jesus they saw raised was ephemeral. The accounts generally are of an insubstantial figure: able to appear and disappear at will, unbound by doors, able to appear in other forms so as not to be recognized, invisible for large chunks of time. If people remember the generality rather than the specifics, then it seems clear that seeing the resurrected Jesus was a matter of having visions of him, rather than interacting with a regular physical person.

The revelation of the risen Jesus all seem to trace back to one small group of disciples, in Jerusalem. There are other communities of Jesus followers (such as those who compiled the sayings gospels, including Thomas and possibly Q) who either don’t know or don’t care about the resurrection appearances. Those in the Jerusalem church clearly use their resurrection visions as the basis of their apostolic authority, so much so that Paul feels the need to get in on the act.

The stories of the empty tomb are unlikely, and they get more and more elaborate and far fetched as the gospel writings go on. Paul, the earliest source, says nothing about them.

Here’s a possible scenario. After Jesus’s death, the group of his supporters in Jerusalem are in a heightened state of emotion. Mary sees a vision of Jesus (remember she’s described as having seven demons expelled from her in the gospels, given that demon-possession is often the biblical interpretation of mental illness, it may have been that she had a propensity to such things) and reports it to the other disciples. There is a mixture of disbelief and intrigue. Another disciple sees a vision of Jesus. Then another, until that group of Jesus followers descends into a kind of mass hysteria and goes through a profound religious group experience.

That seems to me to be the right kind of event (the kind of event that has happened hundreds if not thousands of other times through history) to generate the stories we have about the resurrection. It may not be true in specifics, but based on common sense and a general understanding of the way the world works, it seems to me to be the right general idea.

It would certain be the same kind of explanation the vast majority of Christians would prefer for the similar kinds of events happening in a UFO cult, or a grove of fairy mages.

* For the avoidance of doubt. I’m not talking about ‘happen’ in the sense of elaborate theories of what constitutes history. I mean it in the exact same way that I could ask “Did you wear a shirt yesterday?”. If you can understand that question, you can understand the question I’m asking.

If you have to redefine the notion of history to answer the question, then for my purposes the answer is ‘no’. I.e. No the resurrection didn’t happen in the normal way stuff happens, but there is some kind of way in which we can look at the resurrection as a crucially important act somehow related to things that were historical. That’s fine. But that’s another question.


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Religious Models

All of us have models that we use to understand the world. There are religious models, scientific models; models given to us by our parents, and models ingrained in our culture. Models allow us to separate things into categories, then to attach rules to those categories: rules about how those things work, and about how we should act in response to them.

There are unlimited ways you can divide things up and categorize them. There are unlimited models. But they are not arbitrary. Some models are more useful than others: they are better at allowing us to understand how things work, and they provide better motivation for our actions.

In my grandfather’s generation, race was an important cultural model. It grouped people into races, and attached information and rules about those races and how to act in response to them. Some of those bordered on the complimentary, most were derogatory. We are learning that race is not a good model for human character and behaviour, let alone for how we should respond to people. Even using race as a functioning model can be an indication of racism, whether or not you are specifically denigrating any particular race.

Religions seek to build models of the world. They group phenomena together: people (who’s saved and not, who’s enlightened and not), practices (the sacred and profane), events (naturally caused, and miraculous), texts (divinely or humanly inspired), morality (commandments and prohibitions, or else divinely mandated duties) and so on. The question is, are those categories useful? Do they allow us to understand reality better, and act appropriately towards it?

This question, it seems to me, is at the heart of the atheist response to religion.

In the comments of previous posts, John has shown an instance where a religious model may be deeply useful: in Alcoholics Anonymous or other “12-step” programs, the model of a higher power can be directly useful to motivate and give strength to someone battling their addiction. To me religious models of sacred experience and ritual can be useful to organize myself around. To some atheists, I think, there are no useful models in religion. To others, any useful models are irredeemably tainted by their historic association with the vile models (the sectarianism, the misanthropy, etc): they are to be avoided on principle.

Does any of this resonate with you? Are there models that you think are useful and important?


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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Thanks to everyone who made 2010 a really great introduction to blogging for me. It is the first time I’ve run a blog with any focus (other than little blogs for work informing of new developments). I can honestly say that it is the comments and discussions that has been the best thing. Several times I’ve been beaten back from things I thought I thought. And I can honestly say, that is one of my favourite things.

Next year, I hope to focus a bit more on the biblical studies angles, and less on random rants. And hopefully I’ll keep smattering the blog with random bits. I’m overdue a post on conlangs, I think.

Please let me know directly or in the comments if there’s anything you particularly like or hate, or want to talk about. Or things I can generally do to make the site more user-friendly. Like I said, this is really only fun because you make it so!

Thanks again, here’s to a great 2011.


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