Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Religious Life: Looking Back at One of My Theist Posts

[He holds the secret to the life you really want.]

Behold, a person struggling to find faith and to hold onto it. Here is an excerpt from me, February 2005:
What does it take to live a religious life?

I don’t mean “religious life” necessarily in the sense of being diligently observant of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim rituals. Certainly a religious life would entail one’s being observant in this way, but I think it is more important to be philosophically committed to the core ideas of one’s religion.

Abstract, egghead terms like “philosophically committed” are easy to dismiss. What I mean, though, is a kind of default mindset, a natural way of thinking all the time. As an example, I remember that my wife and I, at an early point in our relationship, understood that we were going to be together, to be married, and to build a life together. Breaking up or not being together ceased to be any part of our thinking – these thoughts [edited by me] ceased to be at all likely outcomes of anything happening in our lives.

I want this same kind of comfort and stability in my relationship with religion, specifically Judaism. I want to have a similar kind of entrenched commitment to and belief in a Jewish understanding of the universe. Obviously, I don’t feel that I live a religious life or that I have a strong internal foundation of Jewish belief.
Looking back, I see that I felt as though I should believe. I thought that the proper thing was to have belief. Not believing, or not believing in a natural enough way, was somehow a flaw in me. And here's how I rationalized:
Having doubt is perhaps a virtue. Posing questions about G-d, even directly to G-d, is about as Jewish as you can get. Besides, who can take seriously a person unwilling to examine his or her own spirituality? The problem for me is that I never seem to reach a point where I can say, “OK, I believe. Tomorrow, I might have doubts again, but right at this moment, I fully and genuinely believe in and love G-d.”
And I found the clergy to be of little help in my search for knowing God:
I understand that the best way to overcome my doubt is to study Torah, perform mitzvot, and participate in a Jewish community. Reading advice columns and other commentary – such as can be found abundantly online – provides little help for me.

For example, in “Is the Divine Just a Cosmic Party Pooper?” Rabbi David Aaron says, “People think that serving G-d is demeaning; servitude implies a slave-master relationship. But that is not the real meaning of serving G-d. The opportunity to serve G-d is the greatest gift we could ever imagine. It's empowering. To serve G-d means that we can do something on behalf of G-d. It's an unbelievable honor!”

If this formulation of the matter is intended to be persuasive, I don’t find it so – it’s essentially a he-said, she-said. One person equates serving G-d as a form of diminution; another feels honored to serve G-d.
How many people now are struggling to believe? How many people today feel abnormal or bad for having less than perfect faith? Heck, even many in the clergy don't believe!

And yet, book catalogs and bookstores are filled with "self-help" works designed to lead people to their perfect faith. Religious figures sell DVDs to the masses and appear on television to encourage them and lead their worship. They appear in person before the throngs. They stride about the stage, in front of a high-energy chorus and contemporary band. They speak confidently and ebulliently before video screens. Keep praying, the leader urges. Activate your faith! Tap into the timeless values of the Bible! Exercise your soul! Deepen your spiritual practice! Walk with God! Experience the revolution that Jesus started!

It's a grift, a confidence game played upon the nostalgic and sentimental masses by an industry that knows, above all, that people will freely give money. The synagogue/church/mosque promises to give people God or Jesus, promises to help fill their lives with meaning and purpose, promises to put the people in touch with a reality greater and better than they can possibly imagine.

People like the leaders of the synagogue/church/mosque and trust them. People attend the services, giving money (of course), time, energy and attention. People support the explicit mission and message of the worship factory. But people aren't sure how or why to pray to either a father-figure who often seems cruel and petty or a sainted son who appears really neither divine nor human. And the religious industry practically feeds off of this kind of uncertainty. The industry is constituted by the cognitive dissonance of the polished words from the well-groomed religious leader, on the one hand, and the vile deeds of the object of worship, on the other hand.

Of course, this is why the so-called New Atheists ruffle the feathers of believers. The NAs not only ask for evidence and clear reasoning on religious claims, and they not only question the special authority and deference given to religious figures: the NAs also affirm the very natural and normal skepticism that people have about religious claims and religious-based authority.

As a struggling theist I already knew my path to, ahem, salvation:
One way I need to find, explore, and express my beliefs is to argue for them.
For me, writing the arguments was the best way forward. Reading about them, thinking about them, considering them, expressing them in my own way, refining them, and working (with) them as much as possible. These processes ultimately led me to reject the struggle to maintain and cultivate religion's artificial worldview. By trying to make religion my own, I claimed myself.

Today, I know people who want to have a better faith, who wrestle with doubt. Unless they ask me to, I won't intervene in their personal explorations, but I hope they come to see that there is no better faith and there is no struggle.

Keef Sings "Happy"!! (The Song So Far, Q2)

It's so totally true!

And, heck, why not hear some angelic voices, too?

Everything Old Is New Again

Back in 2005, when I had started to eat right and exercise, I wrote:
As I go along, I find that nutrition is much more important than I ever imagined. Healthy eating more and more seems to be at the center of a fit life -- and I mean "fit" in a number of senses -- and yet, this fact also seems to be a bit of a secret. It's not the kind of point that's really stressed in advertising, media, entertainment, and so on.

It's funny. We get these fad diets that target one thing (e.g., carbs or fat). We also get pummeled with exercise routines, methods and equipment (e.g., Pilates, Tae Bo, Bowflex). But generally, healthy eating really seems to be more fundamental and important. Maybe it's the fundamentality that keeps it under wraps in our daily lives; it's just not that sexy.
These days, my family has begun a critical change in diet because we notice that we had gone off track. We had gotten in the habit of giving the kids chocolate milk in the morning. We were giving them sugary juices and Popsicles. We were giving them crackers and cookies. Picky eaters all, they weren't eating a lot of vegetables or getting a big variety in their diet. Our kids are pretty active, so they were not and are not fat, but on the other hand, I would not call any of them skinny.

We've changed our ways. I am ready to run a 10K this weekend. And we've started over with the family grocery list, cutting out a lot of the sugar and crackers while adding more vegetables and fruits. I'm really excited about this because I think the benefits will go well beyond nutrition, for all of us.

When I began to eat "clean" I observed that my mood, my energy level, my alertness, and even my resistance to illness--they all improved. Now, perhaps this improvement was to some degree a placebo effect. And I certainly don't want to overstate the claim. Nevertheless, some in the medical community see at least an indirect connection between nutrition and mood. From a blog at the Mayo Clinic we get this:
Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, tryptophan, folate and other B vitamins, low glycemic foods, and chocolate have all been studied to assess their impact on mood. The results are mixed but seem to show an association — though not a direct link — between these foods and improved mood.

Of course, these nutrients and foods are part of a healthy diet. And when you eat a healthy diet, your body reaps the benefits. For example, when you eat fruits, starchy vegetables and whole grains throughout the day you keep your body fueled and your blood sugar level on an even keel. And you're getting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Combining carbohydrates and proteins enhances the availability of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter said to have a calming effect and to play a role in sleep.
I am quite gratified that many of the foods I used to buy only for myself, such as all natural peanut butter (just peanuts and nothing else!), are now back in our home as staples for all of my family. I love being able to model for the kids the kinds of behaviors that I think will serve them well in their physical, emotional, and intellectual lives. And in this way, my children give me the gift of living m life in the way I really want.

What are those lines by William Wordsworth?
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Russell's Teapot Still Serves

Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot" is an icon of Atheist argumentation. The image of an undetectable china teapot orbiting our Sun is at once humorous and grand. It is also part of a subtle argument about the nature of religious beliefs. The power of such beliefs often comes from repeated affirmation, from social pressure, and from ongoing and increasingly-sophisticated developments in the relevant theologies. And this power is manifested in very remarkable and implausible claims that nonetheless appear normal (and normative). Thus, in a predominantly Christian culture, Jesus is obvious; in a predominantly Mormon environment, Joseph Smith is obvious (not that I'm saying Mormons are not Christians).

To many atheists, the celestial teapot has perhaps become obvious as well--if so, this is not a good thing. It is very worthwhile, therefore, to review Russell's teapot while also remembering that the entire essay leading up to the famous passage deserves a careful reading. That passage, from Is There a God?, often appears quoted as follows:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Not everyone is impressed by the teapot. Dr. Bill Vallicella, formerly a philosopher and professor, has a blog called Maverick Philosopher. Dr. Vallicella finds Russell's teapot lacking (leaking, he says) in its most important arguments.

I will eventually challenge Vallicella, but I want to start with where he and I agree. Point number one:
One thing Russell is doing in this passage is making an unexceptionable point about burden of proof and/or the ad ignorantiam fallacy. If the existence of X has not been disproven, it does not follow that X exists, or even that it is reasonable to believe that X exists. So if anyone were to affirm the existence of something like Russell's celestial teapot or Edward Abbey's angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, then the onus probandi would be on him to support his outlandish claims. The burden of proof would not rest on those who deny or dismiss such claims.
And here's the second point of agreement:
So far, so good. Russell is of course doing more than underscoring a couple of obvious points in the theory of argumentation. He is applying his points of logic to the God question. Here too I have no complaint. If the existence of God has not been disproven, it does not follow that God exists or even that it is reasonable to believe that God exists.
But, to me, Vallicella starts to go off the tracks here:
The issue is whether a reasoned case can be made for theism, and the answer is in the affirmative. Belief in God and in Russell's teapot are therefore not on a par since there are no empirical or theoretical reasons for believing in his teapot.
In my opinion, Vallicella overrates the empirical and theoretical reasons for believing in God, but I'm quibbling. Where Vallicella errs critically is identifying the main point of Russell's teapot. The main issue is not "whether a reasoned case can be made for theism" because Russell surely knows that reasoned cases can be made. In fact, earlier in his essay Russell disposes of several reasoned cases, including the argument from first cause, the argument from evolution, and the moralistic argument. According to Russell, these arguments all suffer from being too vague and from appealing "to the heart as opposed to the intellect." These arguments, therefore, are indeed made but not made successfully.

And 60 years after Russell's essay, the situation seems to be very much the same today. The arguments made for theism all ultimately fail to deliver. See, for example, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I'll simply list here:
1. The Cosmological Argument
2. The Ontological Argument
3. The Argument from Design
4. The Argument from The Big Bang
5. The Arguments from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
10. The Argument from A Wonderful Life
11. The Argument from Miracles
12. The Argument from The Hard Problem of Consciousness
13. The Argument from The Improbable Self
14. The Argument from Survival after Death
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
17. The Argument from Altruism
18. The Argument from Free Will
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
23. The Argument from Holy Books
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
25. The Argument from Suffering
26. The Argument from the Survival of The Jews
27. The Argument from The Upward Curve of History
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
31. The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal's Wager)
32. The Argument from Pragmatism
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
34. The Argument from Sublimity
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the World
36. The Argument from The Abundance of Arguments
But the serious oversight that Vallicella makes is in ignoring the evolution of the teapot assertion. In Russell's passage, the china teapot is first introduced, suggesting that it exists. Then, an addition is made whereby we learn that the teapot is too small to be detected by human inventions. Then, the existence of the teapot is captured in text and in ritual, and bolstered by social pressure. As we see here, teapot belief evolves. It changes in the face of challenges in order to survive. It matures from individual affirmation into cultural axiom. By the teapot analogy, Russell seems to suggest that the development of widespread belief in God is also evolutionary and accretionary.

See, for example, Russell's arguments at the beginning of his essay:
In the earliest times of which we have definite history everybody believed in many gods. It was the Jews who first believed in only one. The first commandment, when it was new, was very difficult to obey because the Jews had believed that Baal and Ashtaroth and Dagon and Moloch and the rest were real gods but were wicked because they helped the enemies of the Jews. The step from a belief that these gods were wicked to the belief that they did not exist was a difficult one. There was a time, namely that of Antiochus IV, when a vigorous attempt was made to Hellenize the Jews. Antiochus decreed that they should eat pork, abandon circumcision, and take baths. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem submitted, but in country places resistance was more stubborn and under the leadership of the Maccabees the Jews at last established their right to their peculiar tenets and customs. Monotheism, which at the beginning of the Antiochan persecution had been the creed of only part of one very small nation, was adopted by Christianity and later by Islam, and so became dominant throughout the whole of the world west of India. From India eastward, it had no success: Hinduism had many gods; Buddhism in its primitive form had none; and Confucianism had none from the eleventh century onward.
Russell here highlights the gradual development of true monotheism, in the case of Jewish belief, and indicates the evolutionary character of other religions. Russell's implicit suggestion is that given enough time and a suitable combination of cultural attention and theorizing, the celestial teapot would also evolve into a sophisticated and reasoned  belief. That the teapot seems baldly and obviously ridiculous to Vallicella actually works in Russell's favor because this is precisely the skeptic's view of belief in God. To the skeptic, belief in God and in Russell's teapot are certainly on a par.

Therefore, I see Vallicella falling into a common trap of religious argumentation and apologetics: asserting an unwarranted uniqueness or exceptionalism for the arguer's belief. It's special pleading. Those of us who appreciate and see a still-cogent connection between God and Russell's teapot need to remember that the teapot analogy is not primarily a vehicle for making belief in God seem ridiculous but rather a tool for showing how reason and time can make absurd claims appear ever more plausible and plain.

Want a remedy for special pleading in religious arguments? Try the Outsider Test for Faith developed by John Loftus.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The (Dubious) Authority of Scripture

Two questions that get to the heart of why one should be skeptical about scripture (in both the big-s and little-s senses).

Question 1: What method distinguishes words that have been divinely inspired from words that have not?

Question 2: What method reliably determines when a sacred text is speaking figuratively?

With the first question, I'm thinking that many religious traditions claim divine inspiration for their texts. For instance, some traditions hold that the deity even authored texts. But can we tell that a certain text--or parts of it--is the result of divine inspiration or authorship? And if so, how? Is it a matter of the words? The expression? Sophistication of ideas? Verbal and numerical patterns? Something else, as in a special experience while reading?

Regarding the second question, we know that some interpreters view elements of scripture as figurative. For example, they might say that the snake in Genesis didn't actually talk. Or they may say that the sun in Joshua did not really stand still. Yet, for thousands of years, people seem to have thought the Bible was speaking literally.

Our approach to scripture often rests on authority. Maybe you trust the authority of the rabbis--they have the right interpretation. Or maybe you trust the Church. Perhaps you have a study Bible and buy into the framing of the annotator. Heck, one can even get a completely different kind of commentary from Project Reason or Conservapedia.

What's more, the authority of these authorities seems to be based on granting ultimate authority to the holy texts themselves. However, this move appears to be more rhetorical than actual, since the preacher claims to speak the book and to speak for the book. He claims to be a conduit through which the book's intent becomes revealed to others. It's the mediation of the preacher or commentator that formulates the authority of the text and the justification that supposedly precedes the preacher/commentator.

It's a scam, in other words. You can't understand this book fully but I can. And this book reigns over both of us, so you better follow my reading and my book-based counsel. If you question or go against me, you betray the book, and you will be subject to divine wrath for your obstinacy.

I don't buy it, either the authority of the preachers and teachers or the authority of the texts themselves. Now, I do realize that we trust in authorities for all sorts of things and not just in the sphere of religion. Indeed, I am not certain we can get by without trusting some authorities at some time.

But to return to the two questions at the beginning: why should we trust religious authorities if there doesn't seem to be a clear method for unambiguously identifying the divine word and the literal or figurative registers of the sacred text? Really...why?

So, if a preacher enjoins you to follow your "calling" and turn to God, or to fight against what other consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom, or to feel guilty about your curiosity about the world--just remember that the preacher's authority is self-appointed and self-serving. You're better to do your own learning and your own decision-making.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Materialism and All There Is

One of the main targets of religious polemicists, apologists, and intelligent design proponents is the idea of materialism. For example, the intelligent design website Uncommon Descent establishes itself in direct opposition to materialism:
Uncommon Descent holds that…

Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins. At the same time, intelligent design (ID) offers a promising scientific alternative to materialistic theories of biological and cosmological evolution — an alternative that is finding increasing theoretical and empirical support. Hence, ID needs to be vigorously developed as a scientific, intellectual, and cultural project.
UD sees mainstream science and education as beholden to materialism and committed to spreading it as a worldview. Sounds rather nefarious, but I don't believe UD. They use "ideology" pejoratively and then make the remarkable but ambiguous claim that "the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted." What they call "corrupted" seems to be nothing more than scientific conclusions and research they don't like. Yet, they are not biologists and not cosmologists themselves but rather religiously-committed engineers, philosophers, and journalists--so they don't really know (and seemingly don't care to know) about how and why the scientific method is employed in these disciplines, and within what boundaries.

But what's the big deal about materialism, anyway? To understand, I think Wikipedia's entry on materialism does a good job of introducing the basic line of thinking:
In philosophy the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance. As a theory, materialism is a form of physicalism and belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism and to spiritualism.
We can see why materialism might be viewed unfavorably at UD and by committed theists: if matter is the only thing that exists and all phenomena are purely the result of physical interactions, then there cannot be God, the supernatural, the soul, or free will.

I probably am a materialist but I really don't know enough about either materialism, its philosophical alternatives, or the data behind it all to have a cogent opinion. I do know, however, that anti-Atheists love to attack Atheism through materialism. Discovery Institute guy Cornelius Hunter writes today about a supposed fatal flaw in Atheistic reasoning, and he brings materialism into it. Here's the entirety of the brief post:
Atheism's (Not So) Hidden Assumptions
Evolutionist Jerry Coyne thinks atheism is true. But if atheism (in addition to evolution) is true, then how could Coyne know it? For if atheism and materialism are true, then Coyne's brain is nothing more than a set of molecules in motion. Its various configurations are simply a consequence of its beginning, subsequent inputs, and some random motion here and there.

What Coyne thinks is knowledge would merely be certain molecular states, not necessarily having any correspondence with truth. How do evolutionists reconcile their atheism with their convictions of knowledge and truth? This Hobbesian predicament is particularly ironic in light of the atheist's strong theological convictions and arguments. We know atheism is true because god wouldn't have created this world. Do you see why atheism is parasitic on (and much less dangerous than) theism?
Hunter's first move is to introduce Jerry Coyne as the arch-Atheist. He gives a link to Coyne's site but unfortunately doesn't address the content there. So, here is what Coyne was talking about:
I think it shows far more respect for the faithful to engage their arguments honestly and openly than to pat them on the back and say, “There, there—even though I don’t share your beliefs I won’t risk upsetting you by questioning them.”
Coyne is talking about dialogue, about Atheists and theists engaging one another in an intellectually honest way--with both sides getting to say what they want in their own way. Coyne makes the very valid point that critics spend more time complaining about how "strident" and "vitriolic" the so-called New Atheists are instead of dealing with the substance of their claims about religion.

I personally think the complaints about the New Atheists' tone are completely bogus, but I also understand a bit about why people may be taken aback by a Coyne, a Richard Dawkins, or a P.Z. Myers. When I first read The God Delusion, I thought it was mean-spirited. I wasn't persuaded by it. I eventually became convinced of Atheism by the lack of substantive evidence in favor of theism, by the quality of the questions and arguments coming from the Atheist side, and by the hard data and sound reasoning in the scholarly disciplines that made religious explanations the much poorer ones. At the end of the day, the intellectual reasons against theism and for Atheism are overwhelming.

Now, here comes Cornelius Hunter. If atheism is true, he argues, then we humans cannot know whether it's true. Knowledge is just an illusion, a state of mind and not an objective fact.

This line of thinking and its specific application by Hunter has several flaws.

(1) Hunter conflates Atheism and materialism--although perhaps he just means to say that Coyne is both an Atheist and materialist.

(2) Nevertheless, there's no necessary connection between either Atheism and materialism or Atheism and knowledge (i.e., epistemology). One can reject a god (any god) and not be a materialist. Similarly, whether one admits the possibility of deities is separate and distinct from how that person learns and knows with her/his mind. The human brain works, biologically and neurologically, regardless of any deity's state of being.

(3) It's well-known that the human mind, while duly amazing, is unreliable. We remember things wrong. Our sight is limited. We are easily tricked and taken by illusion.

(4) It's also well-known that we can and do build tools to help us assess and refine the data gathered through our minds. Our data and inferences of the universe are constantly available to independent testing.

(5) Hunter seems to ascribe Coyne with a 100 percent certainty of Atheism's truth. I don't think this is the case. Most Atheists, including me, admit the possibility that one or more gods exist, and that some or one of them could have had a role in creating our universe. But we give this possibility a very, very low probability because of the lack of evidence in favor of it; the wealth of evidence showing human societies inventing tales of gods and super-humans; and the information we have gained about the universe and its history, thanks to technologies and tools we've developed.

(6) Hunter says: "What Coyne thinks is knowledge would merely be certain molecular states, not necessarily having any correspondence with truth." OK, so what? What we think we know might be wrong. It's happened before and will happen many times more. No big deal. That's why we test.

(7) Hunter characterizes an Atheist argument as "We know atheism is true because god wouldn't have created this world." This is not a true or fair characterization because we are not concluding that Atheism is true; rather, we are asking theists about their claims. If God made us and God is super-intelligent, why then does the vertebrate eye have its receptors facing backwards? As reported in a post on Panda's Thumb, "It is not the best arrangement optically." Our eye, that post continues, is --
an outpocketing of the cortex of the brain. It retains the layered structure of the cortex, even; it's the way it is because of how it was assembled, not because its origins are rooted in optical optimality. You might argue that it's based on a developmental optimum, that this was the easiest, simplest way to turn a light-sensitive patch into a cup-shaped retina.

Evolution has subsequently shaped this patch of tissue for better acuity and sensitivity in certain lineages. That, as I said, is a product of compromises, not pre-planned design.
So, we're not saying that Atheism is true. Rather, we're saying that theist claims of Godly design don't seem to match the data. We're saying that theist claims of Godly design and intent don't help us understand the way Earthly life is actually built. We're saying that we have naturalistic hypotheses that, while themselves imperfect, do a much better job of accounting for the specific data under consideration and the data beyond.

Despite these flaws, Hunter's argument has its fans. Here's "Barb" posting at Uncommon Descent:
Materialism makes reason impossible. If our mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there’s no reason to believe anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can’t evaluate between true and false; they don’t reason, they react.

I wonder how many atheists have considered this startling contradiction in their belief system.
To answer the last point first: many of us have considered the "startling contradiction." I'd heard the argument before, and it's not nearly so impressive as anti-Atheists and anti-materialists think because there really is no contradiction. Barb's error is in thinking that our mental processes are somehow diminished by being "nothing but chemical reactions in the brain." But she's right about one thing: there's no reason to believe that anything is true that we think is.  

That's the point! That's why we've devised our sciences, our technologies, and our tools. Materialism explains why reason is necessary. Does theism?

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Exactly Does Theism Explain?

[Upon closer inspection, flaws emerge]

This blog post will get a "masochism" tag. Against all good sense I followed a link to a new collection of essays: Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science, edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona. Why do I follow such links? I don't know: I always think that maybe this time I'll read a really good argument. Invariably, I'm disappointed.

I glanced through the book's table of contents using Amazon's "Look Inside" tool, and some of the titles seemed promising. Then I read a bit of David Wood's piece, "God, Suffering, and Santa Claus: An Examination of the Explanatory Power of Theism and Atheism." From what I read, it's a deceptive piece grounded in horrible thinking. Read, for example, how Wood sets the stage for the essay:
In the previous chapter, we considered three approaches theists can take when responding to the argument from evil. The present chapter addresses a related issue--the claim that theism should be rejected because it doesn't explain or account for the presence of suffering in our world.
Wood doesn't say who makes this claim, and it's good he doesn't because the claim is quite stupid. Of course theism explains and accounts for the presence of suffering. We all know that theism has its accounting fors and explanations.

The real problem is that theism doesn't do a very good job of accounting for and explaining--and, and, and it doesn't provide evidence of sufficient quantity and quality!

Theism stinks as an answer because it explains everything all the time. The answer is always "God did it." It's as simple and definitive you can get without getting into the actual complicated details.
  • Why is there something instead of nothing? God did it.
  • Why does our world have just the right combination of conditions (i.e., fine-tuning) for life? God did it.
  • How did life on Earth begin and how did so many different and various species of animal emerge on our planet? Why, God did it!
  • How is it that people developed consciousness. Hey-na, Hey-na, God did it.
  • What about morality? Yep, God did that.
  • How do we explain miracles, smarty pants? Uh-huh, God. Checkmate.
However, "God did it" never makes a satisfactory answer and simply is not viable as an explanation. To illustrate, let's look at Wood's very first argument about the explanatory power of theism:
[T]heism explains why we have a world at all: God has the power to create, and he exercised this power in creating the world. We know scientifically that the universe had a beginning, and we know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. Theism posits a cause powerful enough to create the universe.
I have to admit that this three-sentence argument stuns me, not only because it's woefully inadequate but also because there must be people who will find it persuasive! Let's break it down a bit:

(1a) Theism explains why we have a world at all. Big deal. On its face, this statement blandly asserts that we have a world because some god exists who preceded the world and caused it to come into being at some point in time through some means. We could replace the word "god" with "alien," "physical event" or "something" and the statement would be just as true. Just because theism makes an explanation does not mean the explanation is good or that it's accurate.

(1b) God has the power to create. Sorry to repeat myself, but big deal. I was skimming Ovid's Metamorphoses over the weekend, and his gods also had the power to create worlds. How do we know that Wood's God or Ovid's God(s) can create? What are the bases for knowing this?

(1c) And he exercised this power in creating the world. This is according to a book that's thousands of years old, a book with an oral history that precedes it for centuries and with contemporaneous analogues in neighboring cultures. But going beyond the dubious authority of the Bible, the questions of the nature of the creative power and what/how we know anything at all about it are insurmountable. It seems to me that at some point every power that we ascribe to God becomes indistinguishable from the unfolding workings of a vast natural universe operating according to laws of physics.

(2a) We know scientifically that the universe had a beginning. OK, but so what? How does this knowledge unambiguously point to one or more immortal beings preceding and causing this beginning? And what's the connection between having a beginning and being created? It's one thing to say the universe begun, but that doesn't help us figure out whether it was created, whatever "created" means.

(2b) And we know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. This statement sounds very much like the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, championed most notably by arch-apologist William Lane Craig. The KCA purports to provide a virtually iron-clad philosophical argument for the existence of God. But consider this question: when exactly does something begin to exist? What is the defining instance--that ultra-small fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond--that constitutes the very first instance of something having begun to exist? Now I'm no philosopher, I don't pretend to be, but it seems to me that "the beginning" is a human convention rather than a natural one. Or it's at least some part conventional and some part natural. Thus, we don't know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. We think it or we speculate about it, but we don't know it. The KCA's first premise is to me an intellectually squishy thing and surely not something upon which to base one's whole life.

(3) Theism posits a cause powerful enough to create the universe. This essentially re-states (1a), which means we've come full circle. I don't care, and neither should you, that theism posits cause A or cause B. What's the evidence for each? What's the strength of the evidence for each? How do we determine the better one?

Wood argues that "Atheists maintain that theism is a poor hypothesis because it fails to account for suffering." He further asserts that "theism accounts for a number of significant facts about our world." I have just shown that theism does not at all account for much of anything. Indeed, theism hardly accounts for itself. Theism's explanatory power stops at the first level of accounting: something caused something else to happen. Forget about accounting for suffering, theism is a poor hypothesis because it fails to account for the specifics of what it's trying to explain.

Wood also tries, deceptively, to pit theism against Atheism as two different modes of explaining facts in/about the world. This is a misrepresentation of Atheism. As a theist, Wood may see theism as attempting to explain the world. However, as an Atheist I don't ask Atheism to explain the world, and I don't use it that way. How do I "use" Atheism? I once wrote:
Atheism has something important to say about the world, our assumptions about the world, and the institutions we use to teach us about the world (including religion and science).
Atheism is commentary. What it says is not an explanation of the world but rather a determination of what makes some explanations better or worse than others. Theism and Atheism, then, are not at the same level; they are not trying to do the same things.

Atheism most decidedly is not an answer. it's rather a commitment to continue pursuing answers at their source. To me, theism's claims to have answers are very much overstated. Those of us who identify as Atheists are committed to scrutinizing theism's claims as we do all other claims, and when we find overstatement we call it out.

This, therefore, is what theists really must understand about Atheists and Atheism:

We Atheists are looking very closely at the explanations theism provides. We take theism's statements seriously. We consider these statements and want to understand them. We can and often do approach them without malice and without prejudice. But we're not going to lie and say that theism provides answers when it really doesn't. And we're not going to wink and call theism's explanations "good enough." They aren't.

I don't want to be called hostile or unfair to religion. I don't want to be thought of as someone who is blindly or heedlessly contemptuous of religion and religious beliefs. The fact is that I'm considering theism's arguments earnestly, and these arguments fail badly every time. They just don't work.

What's an honest and good person to do?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Purity and Sin

[A time and place of purity gets introduced to sin.]

In the writing of my last post, on running, I struggled with the concept of purity:
There's no purity about running, in my opinion. Rather, running allows one to circumscribe purity--to enable a personal vision of how a purely human life might be lived.
My original version of the above was along the lines of running being a pure kind of activity, just a person out in the world. But of course this is not entirely true. A person wears shoes and special running attire, and the world is often the social world of the road or even the trail. Purity is but a conceit.

And that's the thing about a concept such as purity: it represents an ideal or a theoretical construct. It's a term for setting context, not a term of practical reality. It thus sets the context for other concepts. Sin, for example, amounts to a transgression or violation; its meaning relies on and relates to the meaning of purity. Whereas purity sets a line between the ideal and the real, sin crosses that line and even breaks it. The sin is the rejection of the natural, of established order, of differentiation. Sin explodes purity.

Sin is a profoundly evil idea, then. But more than this it is taught with evil intent. The teaching that says "you are a sinner" instructs people to know themselves as out of sync with the universe, as divided against one's family and community, and as polluting the world. Some teachings suggest that sin can be redeemed, purchased or managed--by the teachers, of course, and for a price. Always for a price.

So, I'll reject and dismiss both purity and sin in the same motion. They are distractions. They are dangerous. And the person bringing in these terms seeks to bring you in line. Such a person is attempting religion's primary purpose: imposing conformity. Such a person wants you to respect her or his authority. I won't do it. You don't need to, either.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Run

Me in 2007(?) after a particularly hilly 10K.

Five years ago, I trained to run long distances. In 2006, I ran two marathons--Boston and Lowell.

Although my marathon days are probably behind me for good (but who knows?), I am back out on the road most mornings.

Two races upcoming:

The Harvard Pilgrim 10K at Patriot Place, 4 July 2010

The Run Gloucester 7-Mile, 22 August 2010

So far I seem to enjoy running even more than I used to. I don't talk to myself in my head as much as I once did--or at least I'm better at controlling it. Because I'm an introvert, a lot of my activity is thinking and dreaming. But when I'm out running, I give my mind a break and let it coast. I let it be an observing organ, an instrument for processing all that I see and hear and feel about me. This is one of the things I really enjoy about running.

Like many activities, running teaches. A runner learns about things like letting the mind coast. About just listening, about setting oneself tall and strong, and about getting to one's center when adversity strikes. About moving out and returning home.

Every runner has to run in her or his own unique way. What's more, every runner has to learn how to find this way. Every runner has to learn how to relate to the world: the weather, the terrain, the traffic, and the surprises.

There's no purity about running, in my opinion. Rather, running allows one to circumscribe purity--to enable a personal vision of how a purely human life might be lived.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Comedy Favorites: Woody Allen and Mel Brooks

No big ideas today. I'm a fan of comedy, and Woody Allen and Mel Brooks are two favorites.

Here's the wonderful opening to Annie Hall:

I like several aspects of Woody's bit. I especially like how the second joke--the Groucho Marx/Sigmund Freud one--expresses a condition that seems so human to me. Think about it: why wouldn't someone want to be part of a club that would have him as a member? It's a joke about doubt and self-esteem. It's also a joke about the communities and granfalloons to which we belong--and those to which we think we might want to belong. I wonder if other animals besides humans have similar thoughts that our group isn't so cool as that one.

Woody's brilliance is to make the joke personal and intimate. I hear in the joke the echoes of something that might be  true for people generally: that many of our "wounds"-- our troubles and worries--are self-inflicted and not nearly so significant as we make them out to be. Not that these wounds don't deserve attention and care, but they could perhaps not be accompanied by so much drama. The irony, of course, is that the drama accompanying the wounds of Woody's character wind up being the substance of a classic movie, a movie that ends with Woody's character having written a play about his experiences.

Here's a terrific interview with Mel Brooks, though it's more like a monologue:

Mel so obviously loves being in front of an audience. He wants to talk with them and perform for them. He tells stories and sings songs; he's not just firing off jokes. And he's tangential: it seems he could go to almost any subject or mode from wherever he is at the moment. I love how he talks over the interviewer, not out of rudeness but rather out of just being excited to say whatever it is that's come into his mind. Mel is simply a treasure.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

This Is Why I Am an Atheist

Not very long ago, I wrote about how I became an Atheist. In that piece, I concluded by describing my transformation from theist-leaning agnostic to self-identifying Atheist:
I kept reading the science and religion blogs that were part of the project. I continued studying the claims, reasoning, and evidence that people brought out. I began posting on some of these blogs as a commenter and debater. I kept learning, and I kept developing my positions. By summer of 2009, I realized that it was no longer rational for me to accept
  • The claim of existence for God or for any divinity.
  • The claim of existence for anything like the supernatural.
  • The claim of divine inspiration for the scriptures of any religion.
  • The claim of any sort of moral or social authority for any religious group.
I determined that none of the religious faiths or their spokespeople were putting out anything other than fantasy. I decided that it was no longer responsible or honest for me to call myself anything other than an Atheist.

And so I say I am an Atheist.
Now, I want to explain why I felt it was necessary to self-identify as an Atheist. After all, I could have simply realized that I was more an Atheist than an agnostic, kept this realization to myself, and moved on.

My thinking on the four bullet points quoted above hardly changed. For example, I always had questions about God's being. Same thing regarding the supernatural and divine inspiration. So there really was not much of a transformation in my thinking, just a bit more conviction fueled by greater understanding of both the atheist and the theist arguments. But that last bullet--on claims of moral and social authority for religion--that one deserves attention because it's the beginning of why I felt a responsibility to stand up and be counted among the Atheists.

I want the world--the whole world--to be a better, safer, saner place. Atheism contributes to this goal in a way that religion cannot. A mindset unencumbered by imaginary agents, repressive dogma, and restrictive doctrines is more available to reflect on observational and experimental data, on reasoning, and on the influences of bias.

When I look at the world, I see serious issues:
  • Education: cost, access, quality, curriculum.
  • Health care: cost, access, quality.
  • Economy: jobs, wages, long-term growth, poverty, debt.
  • Environment: environmental care and responsibility, post-BP.
  • Government: Size, power, reform.
  • International relations: diplomacy, sensible arms and military policies.
  • Science and technology: exploration, leadership, promotion.
Can anyone look at these topics and explain to me what God, the Bible, Mohamed, or Jesus have to do with any of it? Is there any reason to invoke God in a discussion of public school costs and quality programs, for example. Do we need to consult the Bible to understand the prospects for jobs and unemployment in the U.S.?

In all of the issues and topics--hardly an exhaustive list--our conversations as an electorate and a society will be helped by common access to pertinent facts, by shared understanding of the relevant issues, and by willingness to accommodate both short and long-term views. But our conversations will be made all the more difficult if we mingle facts with holy writ, current issues with ancient platitudes, and informed opinions with self-righteous pronouncements.

And take a good look in the newspaper:  It's religious belief driving controversy in the classroom. It's religious belief poisoning the health care debate with fear-mongering. It's religious belief that champions a have and have-not society. It's religious belief that sanctions domination of the environment. It's religious belief that takes shelter beneath the ever-fattening wing of government. It's religious belief that catalyzes ancient conflicts and ideological challenges. It's religious belief that thwarts scientific potential.

I know, people have strong personal and family/cultural ties to their religions and to their religious beliefs. But I think people need to learn to accept that it's unhealthy to hold onto wishes that life is other than it is. When a loved one or a friend dies, that person is gone permanently. When a loved one or a friend goes out into the world, there's no guardian protector looking down to keep bad things away.

It's up to us, each of us, to remember love and to work to make good things a reality in the world.

This is why am I an Atheist. Because the world needs voices to speak for reason and for reasoning. Because the world needs people to show that they are opposed to social governance by doctrine and dogma. Because the world needs people who want to learn, to think, and to teach about the issues developing before us. Because the world needs leaders who consider opinions rather than dictating them.

This is why am I an Atheist. Because the world needs people like me to do something.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Let the Dead Bury Jesus

[Jesus and Mo]

The last time I talked about historical Jesus, I concluded:
[W]e don’t know much of anything at all about the historical Jesus. All we can say for certain is that the New Testament reports on him as a teacher, executed rebel, and religious icon.
Biblical scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann, whom I admire, seems to be of the same opinion. His years of scholarship on the matter and involvement with the relevant sources lead him to conclude that --
[T]he sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus.
This statement from Hoffmann's important essay on historical Jesus scholarship declares that there's not much we can know about the historical Jesus. But the picture gets even more complicated because what we know has often been wrapped tightly in what we believe. To Hoffmann, we need to reality check both the content of our knowledge and the emotional investment we often make in that knowledge:
I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him--the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example--is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion--a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact--a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.
In both church and school, our understanding of the historical Jesus has traditionally had more to do with ideology than reality. But if I understand Hoffmann, the historical Jesus is also a decidedly modern phenomenon in the West:
Odd...that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.
Hoffmann notes that in the formative centuries of Christianity, the humanity of Jesus (which is not quite the same thing as his historicity) was actually de-emphasized in favor of his divinity--so much so that keeping hold of the idea that he was a walking and talking person at one time was a struggle. By comparison Hoffmann discusses a bit of the Islamic tradition, in which the humanity (again, not the same as historicity) of Jesus was cherished:
Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.
What Hoffmann is trying to do here is establish a positive space for religion and religiosity. That first paragraph above stakes out the battery of intense human passions for which religion allows such expressive power. Religion--not Christianity, Islam, or any other major religion--has never been about relaying information but rather about presenting all experience as holding overarching significance and connectedness. That second paragraph challenges mythicists who dismiss religion out of hand as superstition and fantasy. Hoffmann defends Jesus and religion against the mythicists: it's not entirely fair to crow about the lack of evidence for the historical Jesus, he says, because early Christianity didn't realize it would ever need it (assuming there was evidence).

Instead, Jesus-as-God-incarnated was very much shaped by early Christianity's battles among believers and believers-to-be:
Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology.
Hoffmann thus seems to be heading toward an idea that we are captive today to the sources available, and those sources emphasized the divinity of Jesus while subduing his human aspect. We cannot know if there was a "real" Jesus, but we can perhaps filter out the semblance of a human being from early Christian beliefs about who Jesus was:
If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.
Hoffmann argues that just because early Christianity made Jesus a magical, fantastical being doesn't mean that Jesus was all magic and fantasy. So, he's calling for measured applications of skepticism--agnosticism, even.

As I said, Hoffmann is one of those scholars I admire. I like his knowledge and his application of reasoning. However, I only find a weak case here against the mythicist position. Hoffmann appears simply to dislike the attitude of mythicists--maybe they seem too biased or too gleeful at the prospect of what a 100% no-Jesus would mean. I see Hoffmann as suffering from the same problem that many smart people have when it comes to religion:

On the one hand, religious beliefs are false and wrapped up in so much of what has been both immoral and tyrannical in world history. On the other hand, many people--including those we love--have drawn strength from their religious beliefs and have powerful personal ties to religious celebrations and rituals.

The problem is one of how to let go of religious beliefs, how to finally release them into the air.

Hoffmann seems not to want traditional belief. Yet he also wants to retain some appreciation, veneration even, of religion. I agree that it's important to have a a clear and unfiltered understanding of both religion generally and religions specifically. It's important to know their beliefs, their history, and their impact on cultures and individuals.

But we also have to accept that so much in religion describes stories which rise to the level of the impossible: the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Assumption, and so on.

It really is OK that these are just stories. It's alright that they did not actually occur as reported. We can appreciate the stories, and we can listen to them and even learn from them. They just aren't true, and they are not stable pillars of a life.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Mt. Sinai in Negev, not Egypt?

[Har Karkom Summit]

The story below, presented in its entirety, comes from a recent issue of the Jerusalem Post. The story relates to the historical Exodus, which I discussed in another post. Archeologist Emmanuel Anati proposes that the actual location of the biblical Mount Sinai is at Har Karkom in Israel.
‘Vatican to accept that Mt. Sinai is in Negev, not Egypt’

By Steve Linde

‘I‘m sure Karkom is the real mountain of God,’ Prof. Emmanuel Anati declares. ‘Israel should be proud.’

It has taken him more than a decade, but Italian-Israeli archeologist Prof. Emmanuel Anati now believes his controversial view that the biblical Mount Sinai is in Israel’s Negev desert rather than Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula will soon be adopted by the Vatican.

On Friday, he presented his theory in the form of a new book at a seminar at the Theological Seminary in the northeastern Italian city of Vicenza.

“Actually it’s not a theory, it’s a reality. I’m sure of it, Anati told The Jerusalem Post by telephone from his home in Capo di Ponte. “My archeological discoveries at Har Karkom over many years and my close reading of the Bible leave me with no doubt that it is the real Mount Sinai. I’m now sure that Karkom is the real mountain of God.”

In 2001, Anati published the English edition of a book that was first issued in Italian two years earlier and titled The Riddle of Mount Sinai – Archaeological Discoveries at Har Karkom. In the book, he postulated that Karkom, 25 km. from the Ramon Crater, was probably the peak at which Moses received the Ten Commandments – and not the summit in southern Sinai where Santa Catarina (Saint Catherine’s Monastery) stands.

“I know this is revolutionary,” he conceded. “I’m not only changing the location, but I’m moving Mount Sinai to Israel, and I’m sure it will anger the Egyptians. But Israel should be proud of this. The Negev is empty and should be developed.”

“I’m also changing the date of the Exodus from Egypt to some 1,000 years earlier than previously thought,” he added. “I know this will drive everyone crazy. But I am right. I’m sure of it.”

Anati reasoned that if the account in the Book of Exodus was historically accurate, it must refer to the third millennium BCE – and more precisely to the period between 2200 and 2000 BCE.

Jewish tradition puts the Exodus around the year 1313 BCE. According to Catholic tradition, Helena of Constantinople – the mother of Emperor Constantine credited with finding the relics of Jesus’s cross – determined the location of Mount Sinai and ordered the construction of a chapel at the site (sometimes referred to as the Chapel of Saint Helen) in about 330 CE.

According to Anati, however, an abundance of archeological evidence showed that Mount Karkom had been a holy place for all desert peoples, and not just the Jews, which substantiated his case.

He said more than 1,200 finds at Karkom – including sanctuaries, altars, rock paintings and a large tablet resembling the Ten Commandments – indicated that it had been considered a sacred mountain in the Middle Bronze Age. In addition, he said, the topography of its plateau perfectly reflected that of the biblical Mount Sinai.

Finally, he concluded, the biblical tale clearly backed up his geographic argument.

“When the Children of Israel left Egypt, they reached the Arava. They couldn’t have been in Santa [Catarina], because it says in the Bible that they reached Nahal Tzin, and moved on to Hebron,” Anati said. “The whole story of receiving the Torah must have taken place in the Negev. The Children of Israel wandered in the north and not the south, in the Negev and not the Sinai.”

He was just as certain that the Holy See would officially sanction his stance, and that millions of Catholic pilgrims could soon be visiting Mount Karkom instead of Mount Sinai.

“Actually, they have already accepted my theory,” he said. “They are already organizing pilgrimages. There is already a plan, and I have meetings scheduled with theologians and others, including the Vatican pilgrimage office. They want to start pilgrimages to Karkom as soon as next year.”

Anati said he was aware that he had his detractors, especially among archeologists in Israel, several of whom were interviewed refuting his claims on a Channel 1 Mabat Sheni documentary aired on Wednesday night.

“I know there are all kinds of people – including professors – who resist my theory, and it’s natural that this occurs,” he said. “I urge them all to read my book and study the evidence before criticizing me.”

Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Israel Finkelstein, a world-renowned expert on the subject, said he could not accept Anati’s hypothesis.

“I do not see any connection between the third millennium BCE finds at Har Karkom and the Exodus story. The latter was put in writing not before the 7th or 6th centuries BCE, and as such depicts realities which are many centuries later than the finds of Har Karkom,” Finkelstein told the Post. “Roaming the desert with the Bible in one hand and the spade in the other is a 19th-century endeavor which has no place in modern scholarship.”

Anati said it had taken the Catholic Church several years to be persuaded by his argument, and recognition had been a slow process.

“About three-and-a-half years ago, I had a telephone call from the Vatican that a priest of high standing wanted to meet with me, and he arrived here with a driver. I live 500 km. from Rome, and he sat with me for a whole day and asked me a lot of questions,” Anati recalled.

“Then he disappeared, and after about a year, a group of theologians from the Catholic Church appeared and wanted to investigate the matter more deeply. Seven theologians sat here for the whole day, and I later met with them four times.

“Six months ago they spent four days with me at Karkom, and as a result of this, the Vatican publisher – Edizioni Messaggero Padova – asked me to write up my findings. I revised and updated my book, and they have now published it in Italian, changing the title to The Rediscovery of Mount Sinai.”

“Twenty years ago, I had a hunch that Har Karkom was the real Mount Sinai,” Anati said. “Three years ago I was convinced I was correct. Today I know I’m right.”

There was no official Vatican response to Anati’s claims, nor was there an immediate reaction from the Egyptians.

Anati was born in Florence in 1930 to Jewish parents, and soon after the establishment of Israel, he moved to Jerusalem and received a bachelor’s degree in archeology from the Hebrew University. He later became a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard and was awarded a doctorate at the Sorbonne.

Fluent in Hebrew, he taught prehistory at Tel Aviv University and conducted extensive research in the Negev.

Upon his return to Italy, he founded the Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici in Capo di Ponte in 1964, and he remains its executive director today. It is believed to be the only institute in the world that specializes in prehistoric art.

Anati’s study of rock paintings in Valcamonica spurred UNESCO to include the alpine valley in its list of World Cultural Heritage sites.

Tal Gottesman contributed to this report.
Anati's certainty is off-putting. My experience is that people with such certainty are usually wrong because they diminish and dismiss legitimate contradictory evidence. Anati seems to have a strong nationalist and faith-based agenda consorting with his archaeology.

Obviously, I cannot intelligently determine where the "real" Mount Sinai is. But if we assume that Anati is not completely incompetent, then we should expect that his interpretation of the data--the artifacts--has some measure of correctness. The real problem with an ideologue in Anati's position is that it falls to the rest of us to try and separate the data, the interpretation, and the ideology.

To me, the real work of scholarship and reasoning concerns doing this work of separation. Most anyone can do a dig, or conduct an experiment, or build a new tool, formulate a hypothesis, or write a blog. If one wishes to be a scholar and an intellectual, however, the important and distinguishing part is the work of separation that one needs to do for oneself.

I would be willing to take Anati much more seriously if I could read in his works an honest effort to disprove his hypothesis. However, I am not encouraged by how he seems in the article below to label those who disagree with him as "detractors."