The thought processes of liberal Christian scholars who uphold the Bible but realize its limitations from human authorship are not much different. Instead of premises based around inerrancy, their convictions are often built around an unalterable foundation. While they might accept that there is a historical inaccuracy in one passage, a difference of author opinion in another, and a scientific absurdity in a third, the idea that the Judeo-Christian God never existed is an inconsiderable position because it conflicts with the foundation that has likely been in place since childhood. While they believe that mistakes, contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities are human reflections of an infallible god, they never seriously consider the ramifications of an infallible god that would allow a great measure of mistakes, contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities to be his textual reflection. It is much more sensible to say that a perfect being had absolutely nothing to do with the Bible, but since they prematurely used their conclusion as a premise, these Christians will not seriously consider such a possibility. A dispassionate outlook is an indispensable necessity when in search of the truth. Religious scholars who began as religious believers lack that critical component.
It is an inescapable reality that the vast majority of people who have spent a great deal of time studying the Bible believe it is the word of God. While stating that 90 percent of experts agree with a given position is usually a valid point to make, it is a mere appeal to authority on its own. Should we then at least leverage some credibility to specific claims based on the position of the authorities? My answer is that it depends.
I am perfectly aware that the vast majority of experts in the history of the Ancient Near East will back positions that are beneficial to Christianity–but that is because the vast majority of experts in the history of the Ancient Near East were born in a Christian society. The majority of those who will back the Qur’an were born in an Islamic society. The majority of those who will back the Torah were born in a Jewish society. We can best predict the distribution of experts on a highly emotional issue by evaluating biases toward their respective predetermined conclusions, not by weighing the evidence.
My claim of bias refers not only to the confirmation bias practiced by the experts, but to the affiliation bias of the sample as well. People who have an interest in pursuing knowledge of the history of Christianity are most certainly those who have already been indoctrinated with the importance of it. If they believe in Christianity ardently enough to pursue a career from it, they are unquestionably more likely to interpret evidence so that it is favorable to their preconceived notions. Should it come as any surprise that the vast majority of experts in any religion believe in the very religion that they study, even though no religious belief is even close to holding a majority opinion in the world? Christians make up 33 percent of the world, yet 90 percent of experts in Christianity probably practice it. Muslims make up 21 percent of the world, yet 90 percent of experts in Islam probably practice it. Mormons make up far less than 1 percent of the world, yet 90 percent of experts in Mormonism probably practice it.[i] I could continue with Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism, Shintoism, etc., but I trust that I have made the point that the scholars long believed in their respective religions before they ever studied them in depth.
If one wishes to argue that the number of Christian scholars is disproportionately larger than that of other religions, we need only remind ourselves that most religions are not in the business of defending their claims and proselytizing potential converts through structured argumentation. Hindus and Buddhists generally do not feel the obligation to convert others or threaten them with eternal punishment for not accepting their respective positions. The distribution of religious scholars might also parallel the availability of such studies within each region. Religious believers in impoverished areas of the world are more likely to be concerned with feeding their families than building advanced universities for studying the intricacies of their beliefs using Western methods.
As for confirmation bias, it is clear that apologists of every religion begin with the conclusion that their scriptures are true and work backwards to find the supportive evidence. They are not interested in the most likely conclusion that they can draw from the evidence, but rather the most likely conclusion that does not invalidate their beliefs. We can say with unflinching near-certainty that if Christian apologist A were born with religion X instead of Christianity, Christian apologist A would instead be just as confident that religion X was the correct belief. There are countless apologists for every religion who claim to be able to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that each of their respective, contradictory belief systems is true. If 90 percent of scholars studying Christianity agree with a position on a hypothetical dichotomy that favors Christianity, I would make the bet every time that roughly 90 percent of the scholars came into the field as Christians. The opinion of such authorities, who began with a certain conclusion instead of analyzing the evidence to reach that conclusion, cannot be trusted simply because they are authorities. Conclusions based upon evidence are important; conclusions based upon evidence that has been interpreted to support an a priori assumption are what we should take with a handful of salt.
Rightfully so, I put little stock in the opinions of people who began studying Christianity years after they accepted the existence of a talking donkey. If we brought in an intelligent, rational group of people who were never indoctrinated, who were never even exposed to the idea of religion, and asked them to become experts in the ancient history of the Near Middle East, I would be extremely confident that it would be the unanimous consensus of the group that the Bible is bunk. They would not be subjected to the centuries of aura and mystique that society has placed on the Bible, and there is absolutely nothing in the book that would impress critically thinking dispassionate outsiders. To them, the Bible would be just another book in the mythology section of the library. You simply cannot trust those with huge emotional investments to be objective on critical issues.
Not only does the problem of experts with premature conclusions reach outside of Christianity, it continues outside of religion. Think of other fields of study that skeptics and rationalists regard as mythical. For example, consider UFOs. What percentage of people who are UFO experts believe that UFO sightings are evidence of flying saucer-shaped vehicles piloted by gray aliens? I have not been able to find a statistic on the question, if such a study has even been undertaken, but should we not feel confident that the vast majority of UFO experts are UFO apologists? People with such interests will naturally flock to such fields, initiating their studies with the determination to validate their unusual beliefs, continuing with the notion that seemingly inexplicable phenomena have radical solutions, and striving to convince people of their outlandish beliefs. The problem is multiplied for religion because we must appreciate the much greater impact that society has on reinforcing an expert’s belief in a personal god compared to an expert’s belief in UFO visits, as well as the overwhelming elevation of emotion and identity that experts have invested in religion compared to UFOs.
Just like the biblical defenders who are prone to practice confirmation, UFO apologists do not pay much attention to evidence and explanations that debunk their beliefs; they find ways of making it consistent. Since they are not interested in simple, rational explanations for sightings–just as religious believers are not interested in simple, rational explanations for miracles–they begin with the premise that the sighting is authentically alien–just as religious believers begin with the premise that the miracle is authentically divine–and mold explanations without breaking their foolish premise.[ii]
Have you ever seen the pseudoscientific techniques and equipment used on television shows that delve into the world of ghost hunting? Like the Young Earth Creationists who inappropriately use carbon dating on living organisms in an attempt to discredit the method,[iii] these ghost hunters will determine that unusual electromagnetic fields present in old houses, typically caused by bad wiring, are spirits of the deceased looking for someone among the living to avenge their deaths. While this ghost hunting process may seem foolish to discerning Christian readers, it is no different from Christian scholars using ridiculous apologetic and hermeneutical studies to eliminate obvious textual inconsistencies. The answers are obvious, but they aren’t the answers that they want. In each discipline, researchers ignore the simple explanation while advancing the interesting explanation that in turn advances the preconceived notion.
We can say the same for those who promote cryptozoology, gambling systems, mind reading, paranormal beings, astrology,[iv] etc. The believers have the desire to become the experts; disbelievers have no real interest in the matter. Thankfully, you will occasionally find rationalists dedicated enough to devote some time to explain that glowing spherical objects in ghostly photographs are just illuminated dust particles, memories of alien abductions are the result of sleep paralysis, and tales of vengeful gods who demand to be worshipped are remnants of ancient folklore. These rationalists, who have studied with great interest but without preconceived notions, are the ones who offer natural explanations for unusual phenomena.
There is every compelling reason to believe that average people who take the time to learn both sides of the debate, and who did not enter with interest in the paranormal, will agree with the naturalistic explanations offered by skeptics. The skeptic, because he has no emotional investment in Bigfoot, will eventually conclude that the creature is based upon myth since the evidence does not support the claims of the believer. Despite the opinion of the objective skeptic, and with no good evidence in favor of the existence of Bigfoot, the believer is going to continue believing what he wants to believe, thanks in part to dubious evidence and crippled thinking skills. The Bigfoot enthusiast will not listen to reason because he convinced himself long ago of the veracity of his beliefs. Otherwise, he will have to accept that he wasted his life on nonsense–and who wants to come to terms with that?
To someone who has never heard of the Judeo-Christian God or the American Bigfoot, the nature of each should be no different. Since no special privilege has been bestowed incessantly upon either entity, debunking the existence of one should be no more difficult than debunking the existence of the other. Intelligent believers in each, however, often pose a problem because they are extremely gifted at coming up with ridiculous scenarios that maintain their increasingly ridiculous proposals. Likewise, intelligent apologists are quite skillful at making an argument seem valid when a critical eye can tell that it is not. I see the solution to this problem, not as a matter of debunking those ridiculous explanations that believers offer, but rather as a matter of exploring the best options to make them appreciate the underlying reasons for their beliefs. Once this is accomplished, the foolishness of the defense should eventually become apparent. Appreciating the absurdity of the Judeo-Christian God is a simple task for an outsider; similarly convincing a crowd who has believed in a talking snake since they were children proves much more challenging.
[i] A list of studies and surveys used to compile these figures can be found online at http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html.
[ii] UFO apologists actually have it a bit easier than biblical inerrancy apologists. The former can admit hoaxes and mistakes because they need only a single substantiation; the latter must defend the entire package.
[iii] From The TalkOrigins Archive, accessed online at http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CD/CD011_3.html.
[iv] It is widely known that Ronald Reagan, the leader of the free world during much of the Cold War, used his wife’s astrologers to assist in his scheduling, security, and perhaps, his foreign policy. Scary thought, no?