These comments are not in the same order as from your letter. In some cases I've grouped related comments, but in others it may be somewhat disorganized. I'll start with some miscellaneous points.
Your dad, my dad
You wondered if our fathers were similar. Mine wasn't an atheist - he and my mother attended church when we were growing up, and he was even an elder in the church for a while. Both my parents were in the choir. The first challenges to authority I remember my father making concerned learning to sing higher notes from a friend of his who taught music and doing eye exercises to avoid wearing glasses. Both were the sorts of things the "experts" would say couldn't be done. Then he became involved in opposing the Vietnam war and in lots of alternative health issues. He also got into New Age spirituality. He seemed to love the idea that he had uncovered important secrets that the establishment didn't want us to know. Despite the fact that his ideas became progressively more outrageous, he was always skillful in debating them. I think he succeeded in getting me to realize the conventional view wasn't reliable, but his alternatives were often so unacceptable that it forced me to do a lot of thinking about how we really separate fact from fiction.
I am curious what sort of influence your father's atheism had on your own views.
You asked whether I put the Bible in the same class as wive's tales. It seems to me that the stories came from lots of different sources and range from fabrications and guesses to true stories embellished with supernatural features to stories that are essentially historical with the usual human error that would go into any historical account. I think stories like Adam and Eve, the tower of Babel, Noah, and Jonah are myths like those every other culture has. I suppose these wouldn't be much different from wive's tales.
A hypothetical god would have done these things?
In your fourth paragraph under Consecutive Bible Passages I think you have seriously misunderstood something I had said. You ask "Why would the items below automatically follow from someone's concept of a hypothetical god that didn't exist?" I certainly don't think any of the things in the list automatically follow from believing in the god but I will automatically disagree with any statement of what a god does if I don't believe in the god.
Theists favor conflict?
Another important misunderstanding I'd like to clear up occurred when I said in my previous letter that humanists support "love and kindness rather than conflict with other people." You took that to mean I claimed Theists supported conflict with other people. That is not what I meant. I only meant to say humanists did not support conflict (which you might assume if you think humanists are the opposite of Theists). I do not think Theists support conflict with other people.
Have I studied the reliability of the Bible?
You asked whether I had studied the reliability of the documentation of the Bible. I have asked Jehovah's Witnesses that came to my door about why they think the Bible is correct. I have read a pamphlet they gave me "Why You Can Trust the Bible" and a chapter in a book they gave me on the same topic. I borrowed a book from a friend (an evangelical Christian) on apologetics - I think it was by Josh McDowell - and read the arguments why the Bible is correct. I bought another book by McDowell and Stewart: "Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics ask about the Christian Faith" and read the parts about Bible reliability. I have attended several debates in which one of the debaters (Greg Boyd) was an evangelical minister and author who presented arguments that the Gospels were true. None of the arguments I have heard were persuasive. I am willing to listen to further arguments or expansions of those I have heard.
You suggested a couple of times that I accepted authority without question. In one case you referred to college professors and in the other I think you were referring to my book discussing JEPD biblical authors. I may have given the impression that I considered these sources to be unimpeachable. I don't. You had made some assertions that were also based on authorities such as the commentary in one of your Bibles. I pointed out that there are other authorities that disagree. I only meant to imply that the question is the subject of debate, not that my side is automatically correct. I do feel that academic authorities have a certain amount of credibility since their careers would suffer if their statements could easily be disproved. On the other hand, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that there are other similarly qualified authorities that have conflicting opinions, something that often happens in the academic setting.
I did find these sources pointed out many surprising things about the Bible which could be checked simply by reading the relevant passages without having to rely on their interpretations. If you get a chance, I would encourage you to read some of the Friedman book ("Who Wrote the Bible") or some similar book just to get an idea of what sort of analysis is involved. I don't ask you to accept any of it at face value.
If in the future I say some authority said XYZ, I don't mean to imply XYZ is necessarily true, only that the authority said so, for whatever that is worth.
Questioning my honesty
"You are trying so hard not to accept my argument that you are using arguments that you adamantly don't think are true." In effect, you are calling me a liar. I have not made any statement that I do not think is true. You are the one making a false accusation without justification.
It's not even very clear which statement of mine you are complaining about. My best guess is that it is this: "The calculation also assumes there are two and only two equally probable positions on each issue." Your calculation assumes that there is a 50% chance that we agree on each issue. You calculate the odds against agreeing on ten issues as 1 in 1000, which I assume is rounding odds of 1 in 1024, which would be the result if there was a chance of 1/2 for each of 10 independent issues. Isn't that how your odds were calculated? If so, doesn't that imply there are two equally probable sides?
Perhaps you are unhappy about my implication that 50% may not be appropriate. Of course for any position you take, you can divide it into two possibilities: agree with you or disagree with you. If your position is just one of many possibilities, it is very self-centered for you to assume your own position has a 50% chance of being true and all others combined have a 50% chance of being true. Part of the problem is that you seem to consider any position opposed to your own to be caused by Satan (you don't claim this explicitly, but it seems to be the basis of your argument that all positions that disagree with your view of God's will are essentially equivalent). Since this is one of the things your argument is aimed at proving, you cannot use this assumption as part of the argument. You might bear in mind that Islamic extremists are another group that thinks everyone who disagrees with them (including both me and you) are working for Satan.
Of course the biggest problem is not that the odds are far off, but that there are simple reasons not involving Satan for why issues aren't independent of each other, and that there are issues where humanists agree.
USA is based on God's law and theism
I disagree with your statement that the "USA is based on God's law and theism." I understand that D. James Kennedy is a well-known proponent of that idea.
Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and several others of the founders were deists, which means that they thought God was the creator but then stayed out of human affairs, providing no rules and expecting no worship. Deists are not Christians. Jefferson, in particular, was an admirer of Jesus's philosophy, but didn't believe he performed miracles, rose from the dead, or was the Messiah. Jefferson actually published a book known as "Jefferson's Bible" that omitted the Old Testament, the teachings of Paul, and all references to the supernatural. It was limited to the teachings of Jesus that Jefferson thought were unlikely to be fabrications of Gospel writers. Quite a few of the founding fathers were Masons. John Adams and some others were Unitarians. Madison was a strong proponent of separation of church and state.
The Declaration of Independence mentions "the creator" several times, but never mentions Jesus or Christianity. It lists the reasons for breaking off from England, and promotion of Christianity was not one of them.
In a world where most countries had a state religion, America did not. We fought the Revolutionary War against England which did have a Christian state religion.
The constitution doesn't mention God, the Bible, Jesus, or Christianity at all, and the only places it mentions religion are to prevent the government from getting involved in it. I cannot imagine that Theists of the sort you describe would have written the constitution this way.
The major principles that set America apart from countries that went before it were democracy and individual rights, neither of which are Biblical concepts. Biblical government involved kings, and we made a big point of not having one.
The only thing I know of that made the United States Christian is that the majority of the population were Christians of one sort or another, but that was true for the nations of Europe as well. I did see a big list of quotes mentioning God from American leaders including some of the founders, but few if any claimed biblical infallibility, and many may have been typical political pandering to the public's taste. Outside of that, I know of no respect in which the United States is based on God's law or "Theism".
Darwin and racism
You accuse Darwin of being a bigot. This is an ad hominem attack on his character that says nothing about the actual issues involved. It made me realize that I need to address this kind of attack more directly on my website.
Although it is irrelevant to whether he was correct about evolution, it does seem that Darwin was not a racist. Here is a site that discusses it: http://home.att.net/~troybritain/articles/darwin_on_race.htm
The actual quote you presented is just a joke implying that married men are worse off than negro slaves. It doesn't actually imply negroes were inferior or should be slaves, although I suppose today the statement would not be "politically correct."
The apparent bigotry in the book title "...or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Preservation of Life" can be explained by a quick look in the dictionary. Here's what mine says: "5. biol a. A plant or animal population that differs from others of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits; subspecies. b. A breed or strain, as of domestic animals." [This is from the definition of the word "race" which I neglected to note in my original email] As a biologist, Darwin was clearly talking about this sort of race.
Your Stephen J. Gould quote seems to imply that the theory of evolution promotes bigotry. The statement doesn't actually imply that people are bigots because of evolution - only that people who are bigots (most likely for some other reason) use evolution as a rationalization. People have used religion as an excuse for bigotry for years, such as claiming that the skin color of black people is the mark of Cain, the Bible's first murderer. Anyone who actually understands the theory of evolution recognizes that it doesn't promote bigotry in any way. There is a concept called "social Darwinism" which was never promoted by Darwin and is a bigoted and brutal distortion of Darwin's actual views. One cannot blame evolutionists for the fact that there are some fools who misrepresent evolution for their own twisted purposes. I haven't researched Gould's quote, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if he makes the same points I do here. I doubt he is saying believing in evolution is bad.
You asked for a brief statement of the morality system I believe in. "Try to maximize the overall good of humanity" would be a good way to sum it up. Other statements that I see as essentially equivalent are "Work for the greatest good for the greatest number" or "Love you neighbor as yourself" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Your fourth paragraph under "Explaining the world" suggests very much the kinds of things I think we should try to maximize. I like the fact that you include long-term as well as short term and the total for all and not just some individual or select group.
There are two kinds of "good". One is moral good and the other is individual good. I believe it is morally good to maximize the individual good for all of humanity. You concluded that my statement "good is what we like and bad is what we don't like" implied moral relativism. It doesn't because I meant "good" in this sentence to mean individual good, not moral good. I'm sorry if I didn't make this distinction clear. I am not a moral relativist because I think that moral systems that don't try to maximize the overall individual good are wrong. Relativists say (as I understand it) that every culture's moral system is right for the people in that culture. If a culture tells us, for example, that women should be forced to marry the man her father chooses, then I consider that culture's moral system to be wrong because it doesn't maximize the overall individual good.
You made a comment that when I discussed group cooperation it implied some group is excluded. It doesn't imply any exclusion to me, and I certainly didn't intend to exclude any people. I do exclude plants, animals, rocks, and other inanimate objects. I also exclude fetuses, which is probably the only category that would bother you. I include all races, nationalities, religious viewpoints including Theism, and all genders and sexual preferences, and so on.
You asked me to explain how humanism maximized the goodness statistic more than Theism. If, indeed, God does not exist, or if God exists and doesn't have the characteristics Theists claim for him, then humanism does the better job. If people spend a lot of time and effort trying to please a god that either doesn't exist or doesn't actually approve of these efforts, they would be better off trying to solve humanity's problems in a more direct way. If people make sacrifices in this life with the expectation they will be rewarded in heaven, and that heaven doesn't exist, they are missing their only opportunity for happiness. If people berate others for not behaving according to God's law, and that law is mythical, they are creating unnecessary strife. I will expand on some particular cases of this later when I comment on political correctness issues.
If, on the other hand, Theists have correctly interpreted God's nature and expectations, then I would agree with you that Theism does a better job than humanism.
Biblical themes and concepts
Nearly all of the themes you listed involved God, so obviously I don't agree with those. I believe in "sin" but I would normally call it immoral or unethical behavior. I think there is violence and tyranny, but I don't think society is necessarily deteriorating - these problems existed throughout history - but I don't think there is any assurance things will be better in the future either. I think only one human race exists, but I may not understand what you mean to imply since I'm not sure what the alternative would be. I do think you should love your neighbor as yourself.
As to other areas where I or humanists agree or disagree with in the Bible, let's look at some laws or commandments since morality is based on them.
Jesus summed up the law with his two commandments - love God and love your neighbor. Humanists don't agree with the first, not because they dislike God, but because they don't think he is real. They agree with the second one. They are fifty percent on this.
The most famous list of commandments is the "Ten Commandments".
I would total this as humanists agreeing in five cases, disagreeing in three, and partial on two. My guess is that Theists agree on eight, disagree on one, and are partial on one.
I was also going to look at some other Old Testament law, so I started at the beginning of Leviticus. The first ten chapters are about animal and other sacrifices. I suppose humanists disagree with all of this. I have never seen any indication that any sort of Christian agrees with any of this either. Just reading this stuff makes me wonder how anybody can realistically think this is important enough to be part of the "Word of God".
Two kinds of humanism
You say that you are not defining humanism but you are calling something that is anti-Theism humanism. I don't understand the difference, but I do feel like we are talking about two kinds of humanism - the kind invented by you that embodies everything you despise, and the kind that I am familiar with that is described by Humanist Manifestos and Humanist Declarations and endorsed by many people that I know personally. While both types may disagree with your belief in God and literal interpretation of the Bible, the two types of humanism don't agree on much else.
In your last letter you have made the following accusations against humanists:
If you intend these to apply only to anti-Theism "humanists" then that makes a certain amount of sense. You are not really making any claim about an existing group, but defining people who have these opinions as humanists. If you think they apply to people who call themselves humanists, then these statements are about as hateful and bigoted as any I have ever seen applied to any group.
I suspect you think number one actually applies to self-described humanists, and I can understand why you might like to think that, but from what I see, people become humanists rather because they find religious claims unrealistic and are troubled by people who use religion as their justification for doing harmful things. If any of the humanists I know gave up religion so they could pursue a life of wild sex or crime, they have done a good job of hiding it from me. Almost all have conventional lifestyles that are indistinguisable from those of Christians. I can only assume you have not met many people who consider themselves humanists.
As to numbers two and three, I will assume that you are only talking about hypothetical "anti-Theists". People who call themselves humanists strongly oppose bigotry, genocide, and stealing from the weak. I encourage you to read humanist literature if you have any doubt about this.
I must say I am not aware of any organized or recognizable group that have "anti-Theistic" principles. Somali warlords are almost certainly religious (Muslim) and would not, for example, believe in evolution. Hitler may or may not have been religious, but certainly most of his followers were, and the idea of Jews as Christ-killers was a big motivating factor in persecuting them. Soviet style communists may come the closest to your evil stereotype. Although I don't know of any organized group that actually advocated Stalin type genocide, certainly many went along with it for their own personal gain.
You also imply that humanists are bigoted toward Christians. Humanists are opposed to all kinds of bigotry, including that toward Christians. They are not likely to address bigotry against Christians very often since Christians are the vast majority in this country and bigotry against the majority is rarely much of a problem. I don't know of any case where humanists could be said to have favored excluding Christians from any group, as Christians have done in excluding atheists and gays from Boy Scouts. On the other hand, humanists disagree with Christians on important issues, and of course try to promote their own point of view.
I will go through the topics you listed, and for the ones humanists support, I'll briefly explain why the humanist position is the one that better supports the good of humanity assuming that there is no god with the characteristics Theists assume.
1. Homosexuality: if God is not actually against it, it is cruel and unloving to condemn and discriminate against these people.
2. Abortion: It is very unlikely that the Hebrew word for kill used in the commandment "You shall not kill" included the killing of fetuses. If that were the case, the law in Exodus 21:22 "when men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." Obviously this is not considered murder.
Why do most humanists think abortion should be legal? The characteristics that make killing people far more serious than killing animals are that people are intelligent and self-aware. Fetuses don't have these qualities, especially early in the pregnancy. Unwanted births often produce unhappy parents and unhappy children. Because they want people to be happy, humanists usually support allowing women to terminate unwanted pregnancy. They also recognize that if it is illegal, back-alley abortions will frequently take place anyway to the detriment of all involved.
3. Relativism: Humanists are not relativists.
4. New tolerance: Humanists do not believe in tolerance toward all behavior. Humanists do not believe in punishing people for beliefs they disagree with but are perfectly willing to argue that some beliefs are wrong. Humanists disagree with Christians but they don't single them out for any sort of persecution.
5. Environmentalism: Humanists don't put the environment before humanity. The reason for wanting to limit population growth is so that future generations will have enough resources to have happy lives. To do otherwise is short-sighted and selfish.
6. Feminism: Humanists do not require women to discard their traditional roles. They support the idea that women should be free to chose their roles. This position is motivated by caring about the happiness of women.
7. Gun control: Humanists don't take a stand on this. Even those who are for gun control do not usually support the idea that all guns be banned.
8. Capital punishment: Humanists don't take a stand on capital punishment. Those on either side base their choices on what they think is best for humanity overall. There are arguments on both sides for which policy benefits people the most.
9. Socialism: Humanists don't take a stand on socialism. Opinions are based on what they expect to work best for human welfare.
10. Globalism: Here you surprised me. I hadn't read Humanist Manifesto II in a while an I didn't realize there was a section promoting world government. I can say that it is not a very high priority for humanists since I never hear anyone promoting it. Your statement is absolutely false, however with respect to the idea that humanists support totalitarian government or that the purpose is to eradicate God or destroy Christianity (humanists would like to see Christianity die out because they feel it is a false religion, just as we both would like to see Islam die out, but that has nothing to do with world government). Humanists support democracy and human rights. The reason for supporting a world government would be that it would prevent war and bring democracy and human rights to parts of the world where it doesn't exist now. What I think most would envision would be an American style government expanded worldwide. While the Bible may describe the antichrist as the leader of a world government, that doesn't imply that any world government would have an antichrist as its leader. I know of no Biblical requirement that people should have separate governments.
11. Pluralism: Humanists don't believe that all religious pathways lead to God or that they are equivalent.
12. Multiculturalism: Your definition goes a little beyond what humanists support, particulary in saying any belief is "manditory" but in general I think they regard it as a good thing. I know of nowhere in the Bible this is forbidden. Perhaps Jews were discouraged from intermarrying. The Babel story says that God confused the languages in order to keep man from being too powerful, not because God wanted independent cultures. To the extent that humanists support multiculturalism it is because contrasting cultures create a climate of mistrust and misunderstanding that can lead to conflict. Avoiding conflict helps create a happier world.
13. Evolution: Humanists support evolution because they feel that is what the scientific evidence indicates happened. People should know the truth whatever that may be. If evidence is uncovered that shows evolution to be false, the humanist position should change. You obviously feel that evolution is incorrect and in the future I assume you will present arguments for that.
I'd like to get started on the question of why we would think the Bible is infallible.
There are many reasons I disagree with the idea that the Bible is the literally true Word of God.
First, I don't expect any book to be completely true, whether it is a volume of an encyclopedia, a textbook, or a book on current events. Books written ages ago by authors about which little is known are far more likely to contain errors. Books promoting a powerful agenda are still more likely to contain errors. Books containing fantastic supernatural claims are still more likely to contain errors. To make things worse, the Bible contains contradictions, laws that are ignored by Christians, bad moral examples, useless boring details, and terrible writing. I'll mention some examples.
First, there are contradictions. There are many, but I'll just mention two that seem fairly clear-cut.
There are two genealogies of Jesus. Matthew 1:1-17 gives the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus and Luke 3:23-38 goes backwards from Jesus to Adam. The first thing that strikes you is that Joseph's father in Matthew is named Jacob in Matthew and Heli in Luke, with different ancestors for each of them. When I asked Jehovah's Witnesses about this I got the same excuse (when they returned a couple of weeks later) as I did when I looked it up in the McDowell and Stewart book - that Heli was actually the father of Mary. Both made some excuses for the fact that the word "son" might be interpreted more than one way and so on. Now I am looking at a passage that says in effect "A, the son of B, the son of C, the son of D,..." and they are telling me that "son" means something different when it is the son of C that it does when it is the son of A, B, D, etc.! Give me a break! There is, of course, no independent evidence that this is actually the genealogy of Mary - it is just the only excuse they could think of for the contradiction to Matthew. If that weren't bad enough, there is also a difference in how David descended from Abraham. Matthew has Hezron the father of Ram the father of Amminadab, while Luke has Hezron the father of Arni the father of Admin the father of Amminadab. Not a big difference, but not infallibility either.
Another problem is the death of Judas. Matthew 27:3-5 says "When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying 'I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.' They said, 'what is that to us? see to it yourself.' And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself." But Acts 1:18 says "Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all of his bowels gushed out."
Now this sounds like a contradiction, but McDowell and Stewart have an excuse. They say that perhaps Judas hung himself and later the limb or rope broke and he fell down and his bowels gushed out. They didn't explain how he bought a field with money that he that he thrown down in the temple. Maybe they would say he went back and picked it up. But no - that won't work. Matthew 27:6-7 goes on to say "But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, 'It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.' So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in." It doesn't matter if McDowell and Stewart would be stumped by this. Their "hanged and then fell" story is so farfetched that I can't take them seriously. There is a simple and obvious resolution to this problem: at least one version of this story is false.
The Bible is supposed to be the authoritative source of moral advice. However it has passages that reflect a barbaric morality without any commentary that indicates there is nothing wrong with it. Consider these:
Psalm 137: 9 says "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" The psalm is about the writer's hatred for the Babylonians.
In an earlier letter I mentioned Numbers 15: 32-36 in which God tells Moses to stone a man to death because he was picking up sticks on the sabbath.
Exodus 21:20-21 says "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money."
Numbers 31:17-18 does not have a nice message. After a battle, Moses says "'Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
You have made a point of the fact that Jesus said neither jot nor tittle of the law should be changed. I see a lot of laws that are ignored by virtually all Christians. Exodus 22:25 forbids charging interest on loans to poor people. That would not be very good in a capitalist society. Exodus 23:10 says that crops must be allowed to lie fallow every seventh year so the poor can eat (sounds like a form of welfare). Do Theists follow this? Exodus 22:29 says the first-born of your sons should be given to God. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, but I don't think anybody is obeying it. There are lots more strange or irrelevant laws in Exodus through Deuteronomy, including many involving sacrifices, diet, and rules about touching things that are unclean, which are routinely ignored.
The writing and editing is not up to the quality I would expect from the work of a perfect God. In Exodus 34: 1-10 there is a description of God replacing the broken tablets for Moses which had listed the ten commandments. But within the story there are a group of commandments (perhaps ten) such as "All that opens the womb is mine, all your male cattle, the firstlings of cow and sheep." It appears that the writer included the wrong set of commandments.
It is common for effectively the same story to be told twice with different details. Perhaps the story happened twice, but the second telling never notes the similarity to the earlier event. In both Samuel 34: 3-4 and Samuel 26: 7-9 David declines an opportunity to kill his enemy Saul in different circumstances. This kind of thing is part of the evidence that scholars use to show that the work of different writers were merged to produce parts of the Bible. In any case, it makes for very confusing reading.
In Exodus 17: 2-7 Moses strikes a rock with his staff to produce water for the thirsty people. In Numbers 20: 2-13 the same thing happens, except that this time it seems to cause God to be very angry with Moses (for a reason that is obscure) and refuse to let him go to the promised land. In both cases the place was named Meribah. Did it happen twice? What is going on here?
Why does the Bible contain pointless laws about sacrifices and cleanliness rituals? Why is there tedious detail about dimensions of buildings and census data and genealogies? None of this makes sense for a book that is given to us as a guide to life by a perfect God.
Reading the Bible objectively
I think people usually only read the parts of the Bible that are pointed out to them, and when they do read other parts they are so in awe of the idea that they're reading the "Word of God" that they assume a lot of the bizarre stuff actually has some important meaning to experts who study it. I have come to believe that the experts do not actually find anything profound in these mysterious parts, but they often find features that make sense if we accept the fact that this book was written by humans who make lots of mistakes and may sometimes fabricate things for their own purposes. It may seem odd, but often humanists and atheists will comment that they wish people would read the Bible more. That's because it is not the book that most people think it is. I can open almost anywhere and within a few paragraphs find things that don't make much sense, or at least are useless for modern readers.
If there is a God, I doubt that he was the one responsible for the above problems or many others I could point out. I think they are the product of human fallibility.
It seems like we would need some very powerful evidence to show this book is true if we are to overcome the many problems above. Although I have looked for answers to this question, I don't know of anything significant. Please let me know what arguments you have in support of such infallibility.