2016-07-27
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Aspects of religion are based on articles of faith - things people resolve to believe without conclusive evidence. That God exists, for instance, cannot be proven; there is some evidence, but ultimately, to believe in the divine you must take it on faith.

Rationalists often reject religion exactly because it hinges on articles of faith, asserting that unless a belief can be derived from pure reason or confirmed fact, it is humbug. Now, curiously, a new sort of anti-religion is arising among intellectuals which is, itself, based on an article of faith, or perhaps anti-faith. The new form of anti-religion believes the supernatural simply cannot exist. The dogma of this new anti-religion is that all reports of supernatural power must be fraudulent - not that there are doubts or questions (there surely are), but that belief must be phony. This attitude is itself an article of faith, as surely as it is an article of faith to believe that Jesus is God's child.

An excellent example of this evolving anti-religion is the cover story of a recent Harper's magazine. Harper's, not to be confused with the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar, is a 151-year-old literary publication that stands alongside The Atlantic Monthly as one of America's leading popular intellectual journals. 'FALSE TESTAMENT,' declared the Harper's cover headline. Beneath that was the subhead 'ARCHEOLOGY REFUTES THE BIBLE'S CLAIM TO HISTORY.' The entire Bible disproved - wow! Bible refuted! Prepare to shut down all synagogues and churches. And somebody better tell the Pope.

On second thought, believers can relax. Accounts in the Bible may or may not be historically true: debate is passionate and engaging. But what the Harper's article, by writer David Lazare, represents is a sort of manifesto for a central dogma of anti-religion: not that there are valid questions about scripture, but that the Bible cannot be true. Maybe the Judeo-Christian scriptures are historically accurate, maybe they aren't, maybe scripture is a mix of truth and embroidery. In the new anti-religion, you don't have to think about this because an article of faith tells you everything in scripture must be wrong. Dogmatic priests are the ones who announce the message, in this case priests calling themselves scholars, but the mechanism is the same. There is only one permissible view, that the Bible is made up, and you must believe this because, well, because the believers say so.

To pound the table and insist that religion must be wrong is just as goofy and fallacious as to pound the table and insist that religion must be right. That such an eminent publication as Harper's has now taken the table-pounding anti-religion position makes it important to show why the magazine's cover story, touted as an exercise in disinterested scholarship, is really about a new form of dogma.

The Harper's article begins by grudgingly allowing that the Bible might contain a "kernel of truth" - okay, so the Nile is really a river, and people did once sleep in tents. Matters head rapidly downhill. The second sentence summarily dismisses all reference to the supernatural, announcing, "Obviously Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake."

Obviously? No argument is given for this declaration, which simply assumes that the supernatural cannot exist. Rules of logic are violated here, since to declare the supernatural impossible, you must falsify it. All the great materialist philosophers have begun by admitting that God cannot be disproved; Harper's must know something that has been concealed from centuries of logicians. It's one thing to say that you doubt the supernatural or find mythology a better explanation for supernatural accounts; these are fair points. But to start from the premise that the supernatural simply cannot exist is starting from an article of faith, if anti-faith in this case. It's the parallel to declaring that God must exist because priests say so. And it's as slapdash as, say, trying to argue against evolution by asserting, "Obviously people did not descend from relatives of the apes."

Simply to dismiss the supernatural also misses the key point that what appears impossible from one level of knowledge may be well within physical law from another level. Isaac Newton, if shown pictures of a 747 in flight, would have sworn that a flying object the size of a small town "obviously" could not exist. Copernicus, if told that a device weighing only a few pounds could kill a million people by fusing invisible atoms, would have said such a thing was beyond physical law. Did the Red Sea actually part for Moses? I haven't a clue. But should I baldly assert that parting a sea is a physical impossibility? For all I know, some future tour-guide company will do this for vacationers. Jesus is said to have walked on water; whether he actually did, I have no idea. But I do know that German engineers have levitated an entire passenger train on a magnetic field, as part of the "maglev" railroad project. Levitating an entire train seems rather more daunting that levitating one person in sandals. If told an entire train had been levitated, the leading rationalists of the past surely would have declared that "obviously" could not happen.

Next the Harper's article moves to discussing the findings of biblical archeologists. But, in the manner of priests proclaiming dogma, only what supports the anti-religion view is mentioned, while all counterevidence is skipped over. The article avers that "scholars" have proven there was no flight from Egypt, no battle of Jericho, no House of David: the list goes on, quite confidently asserted as if these were matters of fact rather than opinions.

And whose opinions? The views in the Harper's article are attributed almost exclusively to Israel Finkelstein, an archeologist at Tel Aviv University whose work - Harper's never mentions this - has been emphatically put down by other archeologists, including archeologists on the left wing of the debate. "Not a single senior archaeologist has come out in support" of Finkelstein's primary methodology, while many leading scholars have rejected it, writes Herschel Shanks, the extremely well-credentialed editor of Biblical Archeology Review,the essential journal of scholarly debate on the historicity of scripture. The kind of pseudo-analysis touted in the new Harper's was recently denounced at a meeting of the Biblical Archeological Society - the leading scholarly organization in the field, often criticized by organized religion because it is broadly liberal - as "Biblical nihilism" composed of "ideological cant, not scholarship." (Read Shanks's account of the recent annual meeting of the Biblical Archeological Society, at which the "Biblical nihilists" were strongly criticized even by liberal archeologists.)

Maybe Israel Finkelstein is a lone genius whose work will someday be acknowledged. But by presenting Finkelstein as representing the consensus of scholars without mentioning that his work is rejected by most scholars - or without mentioning the many, many credentialed biblical archeologists who come to different conclusions, William Dever, Amihai Mazar and Amnon Ben-Tor to cite just a few - the Harper's article crash-lands somewhere between shoddy and dishonest.

Here are a few other quick examples of anti-religion masquerading as analysis, and ones that don't require you to be a reader of Biblical Archeology Review (though you should be). Harper's asserts, "We now know that Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him." Watch that slippery verb know, a favorite of Middle Ages priests. Maybe Abraham and Moses were invented, but how do the Biblical nihilists know this? Because there's no proof of them! Hmm, what "proof" is expected of a figure from 3,000 years ago--a DNA sample? A CNN interview? There's no "proof" that Imhotep or Alexander the Great or any ancient figure existed, just old records saying so. Perhaps the records are accurate, perhaps they are fabulous. Anyone who says he knows one way or the other is declaring an article of faith.

Harper's also pronounces the battle of Jericho story untrue. Its assertion is worth quoting in full:

Although archeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found in the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1,300 BC, seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua's army.
This paragraph is as oily as the statements of an Enron executive. First, it fails to mention that Kenyon's theory was proposed nearly 50 years ago and has since been cast into doubt by other studies. Bryant Wood, a former professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, has published extensive analyses suggesting Kenyon misunderstood what kind of pottery she was looking at, and thus dated it wrongly. Second, think about the logic in the above paragraph. It can be rewritten as:
Source A claims evidence B supports date C. Source X claims evidence Y supports date Z. Therefore, Joshua did not have an army at Jericho.
You're not going to get a passing grade in a logic course with this kind of reasoning, as the conclusion has nothing to do with either claim of evidence. The conclusion has, instead, everything to do with a new anti-religion that insists God just can't exist with the same ferocity and closed-mindedness that Middle Ages priests once insisted God must exist. The Bible might be true, might not be true or might be a mix of truth and imagination. Debating the possibilities is rich, interesting, intellectually and spiritually invigorating. Replacing the old closed-minded approach of must religion with a new equally closed-minded approach ofcan't anti-religion accomplishes nothing.

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Want to make up your own mind? Subscribe to Biblical Archeology Review (cautionary note to traditionalists--though BAR rejects "Biblical nihilism," it is famous for generating outraged "cancel my subscription!" letters from conservatives) or see "Is The Bible True?" by Jeffrey Sheller (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), a solid, balanced, cleanly-written introduction to the topic. Scheler, the religion correspondent for US News & World Report, knows substantially more than Harper's about this subject, and gives fair treatment to the arguments for skepticism and for reverence.

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