Thursday, December 5, 2013

For the Bible Tells Me So

Castle of the Pyrenees. Rene Magritte
The other day I came home to find a pamphlet the Jehovah's Witnesses had tucked into my door frame. It's entitled Can the Dead Really Live Again?, and it's answer is a resounding yes. I normally just throw those pamphlets away, but I've kept this one because of an interesting argument it uses to defend its position on life after death. It starts with a rhetorical question: "Can we really believe what the Bible says?" Then it answers, "Yes, for at least three reasons." And here's the striking thing: all three reasons are supported solely with Bible verses.

Now, I'm no logician, but I'm pretty sure that's circular reasoning. It's basically saying, "We can believe what the Bible says because of what the Bible says." In other words, it tries to support its conclusion with statements that assume the conclusion is true. The argument hovers in midair. What's needed to connect it to the firmament of credibility is firm, verifiable evidence that the Bible is true, beyond what the Bible itself says. But no such evidence is offered.

My point here isn't to debate whether there's life afer death or to bash Jehovah's Witnesses. I've known many of them, and they're usually very nice people. Nor do I want to stomp on an easy target like a cheaply-printed pamphlet. I know there are lots of Christians out there far more logically sophisticated than whoever wrote that. What I'm trying to do is point out this kind of circular reasoning, and the real harm it can do.

I don't just see such reasoning in throwaway pamphlets. I see it used all the time by certain conservative Christians to justify attitudes and laws that hurt real people in real ways. The clearest examples these days are assertions that homosexuality is immoral and that gay marriage should be illegal (or remain illegal). This country is full of people who think it's fully justified to tell two consenting adults they shouldn't be able to love or marry each other. They're willing to deny them what most people consider one of the main sources of happiness and meaning in life, and they justify this attitude, and those laws, by citing Bible verses.

That's a pretty serious stance to take. So when I hear people taking it, I always try to ask, as nicely as possible, "OK, but how do you know the Bible is right?" Responses vary, but one I've heard several times is, "Because it's the word of God." So then I ask, "But how do you know that?" Once again, responses vary, but I've actually heard people say, "Because it says so in the Bible."

So we're back to circular reasoning; to arguments built on floating boulders instead of bedrock evidence. And that's just not good enough, especially if those arguments are being used to dictate how people can live their lives. Unless there's clear and undeniable proof that: 1. There is a God. 2. God is the ultimate judge of what is right. 3. God dictated those Bible verses; then pointing to them doesn't count for much. If there isn't clear evidence for number 3 in particular, the simpler explanation for those verses is that they were written by plain old human beings...people just like you and me, except that they lived in a far more violent, sexist, ignorant, and superstitious time. If they were written by such people, without divine inspiration, why should we listen to them? Haven't we made some intellectual and moral progress since then? After all, it's no longer considered acceptable to massacre whole cities, to stone people to death for adultery, or to attribute mental illness to a legion of demons. Why should we put stock in ancient opinions about other things?

Of course, the ancients were probably right about some things. "Thou shalt not kill" seems like a pretty good moral maxim (even if it's widely ignored.) So, I'm not necessarily saying they weren't right. I'm just saying that if they were, you can't prove it by saying, "It's written in this book." Anybody can write a book. If you add, "and God wrote or inspired that book" that would certainly add more weight to the argument, but only if it's true. And if someone says it's true, then they should be able to tell me how they know that. "Because the Bible says so" is not an acceptable answer, because it just takes us back where we started. What's the evidence that takes us outside the logical circle? If you ask an astronomer why she thinks the universe began in a Big Bang, she'll start citing measurable, independently verifiable evidence: leftover radiation predicted before it was discovered, galaxies flying away from each other, predictions from general relativity and particle physics, Hubble observations of young galaxies, and so on. If she couldn't offer any such evidence, we would have no reason to take her seriously. Why should it be any different for someone quoting the Bible?

Another assertion that can't stand on its own is, "God says this is wrong." If someone says that, then surely it's fair to ask: Why? Why does God say it's wrong? Does it cause harm? If so, what? If not, then what else is his reason? Surely God doesn't disapprove of things for no reason? If someone can explain why something is wrong--by saying what harm it does, for example--then they're actually giving me a reason to consider their argument. Alternatively, if they say, "I don't exactly know why God says it's wrong, but I know he says so," then we're back where we were before, and  they should be able tell me how they know he actually says that.

If people can offer evidence for those things, then they're making an actual argument. It's not necessarily a valid one, if the evidence is unconvincing or doesn't logically support their conclusions. But at least its an honest effort. What isn't a real argument is saying, "it says it in the Bible," or "God says it's wrong." Such statements might possibly begin a convincing argument, but they certainly can't end one, despite what the bumper stickers say. By themselves, they just hover in mid-air, resting on nothing.