Thank you for your kind remarks about my study of the Bible. This has been an interesting subject for me for a long time and I have picked up a fair amount of information along the way, but I must say I have learned a lot since our discussion began, both from your remarks and from the research I did in order to reply to them. Your chances of winning me to your side are no doubt slim, as I assume are the chances of my winning you over to mine, but I think it is a beneficial exchange since I think we are both learning useful things.
You asked some questions about my criteria for belief, so I'll try to answer them:
One question I have is what is your criteria to be persuaded? How high are you holding the bar? Are you requiring something like 2+2=4?
I try to judge all issues by the same criteria, whether it's the truth of the Bible or whether the Atkins diet actually works. If the evidence piles up very strongly on one side or the other, I'll believe the strong side to be almost surely true. Otherwise I'll try to estimate the odds for each side based on how much evidence there is. Naturally if I think a claim is incredibly unlikely, I would require some extremely strong evidence (like 2+2=4) to convince me of its truth. In effect this is saying that if I already know of strong evidence on the "false" side of the scale I need something very big on the "true" side to overcome it. Examples of highly unlikely events would be that a psychic could bend spoons with his mind or that President Bush and Fidel Castro are playing Frisbee in my back yard. I think almost everybody reasons this way, but of course there are people who would easily believe in the spoon bending because they have a background in which this is plausible, whereas my own experience tells me it is not. With the Bible, of course, I start with some strong impressions on the "less-than-perfect" side of the scale, so it would take some powerful evidence to tilt it to the "perfect" side.
Are you persuaded that any writings from antiquity are true? Do you accept any of those?
There aren't any ancient writings that I think of as particularly reliable. If I read that Socrates killed himself using hemlock, this seems plausible enough, although I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that is was false. If the text says the father of Hercules was the god Zeus, I find that unbelievable, and would be extremely surprised if it turned out to be true. I have enough trouble believing things written today, when facts are far easier to check than they were in ancient times. Ancient writings are not only impossible to check, we often don't know much about who wrote them, nor do we know whether what we see is the same as what was originally written, since the originals are no longer around.
On my honesty
Thanks for your explanation. I now understand your meaning and I'm sorry for thinking you were calling me a liar. I'm glad we have that cleared up.
The ACLU and separation of church and state
You've made a number of comments with respect to the ACLU and separation of church and state so I'd like to make it clear what I think is going on. Just so you know, I'm an ACLU member. The ACLU doesn't have anything against Christianity, and it isn't against expression of religion in the schools in general. Specifically it is against the promotion of particular religious view by government (as well as protecting against various other intrusions of government on individuals). When you hear about the ACLU taking action against religious activities, it is ALWAYS opposing government supported activities. If a student wants to pray or wear religious symbols or talk about religion, the ACLU has no problem. In fact there have been cases where schools have tried to prevent students from doing these things where the ACLU has stepped in on the side of the student's right to religious expression.
Does the ACLU pick on Christianity more than other religions? Of course. That's because Christians are in the majority and they are usually the only ones in a position to use government to push their positions. I don't know specific cases, but I have little doubt that in Utah it is the Mormons, not the "Theists", that have problems with the ACLU. You indicated in one of your earlier letters that you don't like the idea that the majority forces it's views on the minority. This is what the ACLU tries to prevent.
There are many cases where religions use public facilities. I remember hearing not long ago of a church holding its services in a public school. This is fine as long as the school makes its facilities available to any group for the same price independent of the group's ideas. There is only a problem if the government shows favoritism towards a particular point of view.
Teaching about religion is also permitted in publicly supported institutions, as long as it is not a ruse for promoting some religion.
You presented evidence supporting the idea that the Bible and God were important in the founding of the country. I think it is true that in the early days of the country, the separation of church and state was much less stringent than it is now. I also agree that current practices goes beyond a strict constitutional interpretation that involves only laws by congress. I personally have no objection to this since it does seem to me a good idea for the government to stay out of the business of promoting any particular religious ideas. I have no problem with individuals and non-government supported groups promoting whatever religious ideas they have.
My own comments on this being a Christian nation were not primarily aimed at saying there was strong separation of church and state in the early days of the country (which your statements do a good job of refuting). I wanted to make the point that the quality that set America apart from our European predecessors were not related to Christianity - in fact our European predecessors probably had stronger Christian foundations than we did.
The Jefferson Bible isn't too much of a myth. I have a copy of it. Jefferson called it "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth". My copy has an introduction by Forrest Church, the son of former Senator Frank Church. It says Jefferson first discussed the project in letters to Joseph Priestly, a prominent scientist and Unitarian theologian, and ordered pairs of Bibles for cutting and pasting in 1804 during his first term as President, even though he didn't carry the project through until 1819 or 1820. Apparently he didn't want to publicize his unorthodox religious views while active in politics, which might explain why some would assume he adopted them later in life.
There is a letter quoted in the introduction written to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1804 that includes this: "They [Jesus' doctrines] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the mysticism of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust and to view Jesus himself as an imposter. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." Apparently Jefferson had great admiration for Jesus but relative contempt for Paul and the gospel writers.
Evolution and racism
You said "The alternative to one human race is multiple human races caused by evolution. Some have not evolved as far as others. Don't you see how this has fed racism and genocide?". I don't understand this at all. People recognized different races in humans long before Darwin. Slavery based on race existed long before Darwin. Evolution has no concept of one group having "not evolved as far as others." Evolution explains that some people have dark skin because it is a beneficial survival trait in areas with particularly strong sun. How does this fuel racism? In the United States the strongest racism is in the deep south where there is also the strongest objection to evolution. My guess would be that if you polled people, you would find people who believe in evolution were less racist than people who don't. The real question, though, is whether evolution is true. I don't think we should teach falsehoods, even though we might think they would prevent some social problems.
You say that "pure humanism" doesn't simply represent (by definition) anti-Theism, but I still don't think any actual, identifiable group has these characteristics. In your letter before last you indicated pure humanists reject God because they want to violate God's laws (I presume this means sexual taboos), that they favor genocide, and that they favor stealing food from starving people. Then you gave as examples of pure humanism the ACLU, the mainstream media, and the NEA. I don't think this is realistic.
I have already pointed out that the ACLU does not have any anti-religious agenda - only an agenda to prevent the government from promoting some religion or interfering with another. They often defend unpopular causes, simply because the popular groups are rarely have their rights violated. People I know who are ACLU members certainly do not support hateful agendas.
The mainstream media is constantly demonized by the right wing. They have managed to manufacture the fiction that the media feeds us nothing but left-wing propaganda. As a result, when people wonder why the right-wing version of events is so different from what they see on network news or newspapers, they don't blame in on the fact that the right-wing version is extremist propaganda (which it is); instead they think the problem is with the mainstream media. Let's think about this. The mainstream media (with the exception of public radio and TV) are run by profit-making corporations and financed by corporate advertisers. Why would these people be spewing left-wing propaganda? They aren't. It does turn out that the majority of journalists are on the liberal side of the fence, but few are liberal extremists, and just about every mainstream news organization has conservatives as well. Of the two newspapers in the twin cities, one usually endorses Democratic candidates and the other usually endorses Republicans. In neither case do they exclusively endorse one side or the other. In every issue of the paper I see columns by both liberals and conservatives. Every Saturday the paper I get (the liberal one) has a "Faith and Values" section where they discuss religious organizations (including evangelicals) and their activities in a favorable light (you will be happy to know this irritates my humanist friends no end). Liberals are often upset that stories on their side have coverage suppressed because of the conservative media ownership. I am skeptical of these claims just like I'm skeptical of the conservatives. I will say the conservatives have been much more successful in their complaining.
The main bias of the media is not towards liberalism, but towards sensationalism. They will sensationalize the plight of the poor, which helps liberals, but they also sensationalize crime, which helps conservatives. The reason for the sensationalist bias is not political, it is financial. They want to sell more papers or get more viewers. This is exactly what we expect from profit-making corporations.
Finally there is the NEA (I assume you mean the National Education Association). I don't see it as any different from any other professional organization or union. They lobby for the interests of their members. Since teachers tend to be liberal, conservatives denounce the NEA for political purposes. I don't see the NEA as being a force for moral good or evil. They just support their members like similar groups.
Are people in these groups sex perverts or genocidal maniacs or people who steal food from the hungry? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Georgia Guide Stone Monument
I had never heard of this, but I looked it up on the internet as you suggested, which was interesting. Here are my thoughts on your questions:
I realize that some of my arguments about Biblical contradictions are somewhat nitpicky. I wouldn't make these arguments if people just told me the Bible was a great book we could learn a lot from. I would assume almost every book has errors, and some have contradictions, but I like many of them anyway. However there are many people, and I think this includes you, that feel that the Bible is perfect. Contractions provide a fairly simple way to show that isn't true. To try to show a "theme or concept" isn't true, even if it isn't, can be very complicated, so I start with the simple stuff. Perhaps more important than pointing out that the Bible is fallible, I'd like to point out that the authorities who tell us it is infallible may not be as wise as they seem. It seems to me that many people have an emotional attachment to the idea of Biblical perfection that isn't justified by the facts.
As to whether I'd take the same approach to a scientific document, no, I wouldn't, because I already know that scientists are fallible. If I notice an error that affects the conclusion I take it seriously, and I know of some scientific papers where that is true. Even if I don't find any contradictions or errors, I still recognize that the results could still be wrong.
Your passage supplying evidence that Heli was actually Mary's father kept me busy for a while looking stuff up. While I'm not convinced, it does make some good points. It does seem to be true that Matthew tells the story from Joseph's point of view and Luke from Mary's, even beyond the sections referenced, which is something I was unaware of. I couldn't find any text of the Talmud on the internet to check the Hagigah reference, but I did find an article discussing possible references to Mary and Jesus in the Talmud. It involved a complex argument that someone called Yeshu ben Pandira was actually Jesus and might have been the son of Miriam the dresser of women's hair. Apparently there is a passage unrelated to the above mentioning someone named Miriam whose father was named Eli. Various inconsistencies were also mentioned, so while this might be a possible link, it seems unreliable.
Even if it turns out the Heli really is Mary's father, I would still have to call the passage wrong, especially in English. It is interesting that in Greek the article is omitted from before Joseph's name, but I see no reason to assume that implies the name following his in the genealogy is actually his father-in-law's. If there was any precedent at all for the son-in-law relationship to be expressed this way in Greek, I would expect the source you provided to have mentioned it. Certainly the Biblical translators, who have to be Greek experts, did not choose to translate it as "son-in-law". While in may not be traditional to include a woman in a genealogy, I doubt it is traditional to include a son-in-law relationship either. If this is the work of God, he should not be compelled to obey some custom. It also would have been easy for Luke to state that Mary's father was Heli, and then give Heli's genealogy, if indeed that is what he was trying to convey. The passage as written causes the reader to form an incorrect conclusion.
The explanation of Judas's death is also unsatisfactory. Imagine you were the editor of a newspaper and you knew that after shooting his wife, a criminal went and hung himself, but the rope broke and he fell causing his bowels to gush out. Suppose your reporter wrote the story "after killing his wife, the criminal fell and his bowels gushed out". Wouldn't you be embarrassed to have a reporter that left out the essential part of the story where the criminal hung himself? I don't think God, the ultimate power in the universe, would tolerate such shoddy reporting by one of his gospel writers.
Of course the obvious situation is that the story of Judas both hanging and falling is just an unbelievable concoction by people trying to rationalize the incompatibility of the two stories.
Calling the claim that Judas bought the field is a "summary" of the story in Matthew 27 is even worse. If in fact the reality was that Judas threw down the money and the priests bought the field, then did Judas buy the field? No. He did not. To call this statement a summary is wrong. If it was said that the money was used to buy the field, that would be a truthful summary. If it is said that Judas bought the field, then the statement is false.
Since the prophecy concerning silver pieces could actually be the basis of what was written in the gospels (rather than observations), there is no need to assume the prophecy was actually fulfilled, but it is even more interesting to read the actual "prophecies", both in Zechariah and Jeremiah that your source referenced. I encourage you to read these passages. I think people must very rarely actually check these references, or they would not be so impressed.
Strange ten commandments
I apologize for the fact that my reference didn't include all the relevant verses. Your explanation that the tablets contained both the traditional ten commandments plus the other commandments stated in Exodus 34 is a surprising thought that did not occur to me. The fact that Moses wrote them rather than God is a good point. However verse 28 says "... he [Moses] wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." This implies that the covenant is the ten commandments (and that Moses did the writing of the ten commandments). I also think it is widely accepted that the covenant was either the ten commandments or all of the law, not just the rules listed in verses 11-26.
I apologize even more for mangling the reference to the two similar stories about David. You were right that there is nothing peculiar within the range of verses 3-9. In reviewing the sections so I could get the correct references I realized that the parallel stories extend somewhat longer than I originally noticed. I Samuel 24:3-22 tells the story of David refusing to kill Saul in a cave. I Samuel 26:5-25 tells of David refusing to kill Saul in a field. In both stories, David's companion(s) recommend killing Saul, David refuses because the king is the Lord's anointed, David takes something to prove he was there, David talks to Saul afterwards, Saul admits wrongdoing, and Saul blesses David. Yet the second time there is no mention that anything similar had happened before.
There are numerous other stories that come in pairs (and apparently some triples) for no obvious reason except the one proposed by Biblical scholars who believe that, based on writing style and point of view, different versions were written by different people.
If the Bible is not the word of God
You asked a bunch of questions relating to what happens if the Bible isn't the word of God.
Should we junk it? In my opinion it modern writers could do much better in providing a moral and spiritual guide, but there is an enormous amount of historical information in the Bible, even if we can't be sure exactly what parts are true. I think it provides valuable insights into how human culture changed over the centuries.
Who was Jesus? I know some people who claim he never existed, since many elements of his life parallel divine figures from earlier religions, but I agree with some who point out that certainly somebody wrote the words that are attributed to him, so that person is effectively who Jesus is. Jefferson felt he was a brilliant moral philosopher, and I think there is some truth to that. I don't think he was a God or that he could perform miracles.
What do I do with the prophecies? I read a bunch of prophecies (about the Messiah) listed in a Jehovah's Witness publication and I found that they did not fit Jesus very well (and there were other problems, like some didn't appear to be intended as prophecies). I think some prophecies work simply because the Gospel writer assumed they were true and wrote the story in that way. For example, Jesus might not have been born in Bethlehem, but since that is where the messiah was supposed to be born, a story was developed around that assumption. In one case Isaiah apparently predicted that Cyrus would order the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt. However that prophecy could have been inserted into Isaiah after the event had occurred. Other prophecies just aren't all that accurate.
What do I do with the miracles? I find that even today there are plenty of claims of miracles. I could find lots of such claims in the "New Age" section of the bookstore. I don't think they are true. Biblical miracles could simply be incorrect stories based on errors or frauds or stories that became more fantastic over time as they were retold.
What do I do with the fact that he (Jesus I assume) supported the Old Testament? Jesus believed the Jewish religion and I think he was wrong.
How do I explain the formation of Christianity? I think that it has a very emotionally compelling story and it is understandable that it caught on. That doesn't mean the story was true. Other religions have flourished despite the fact that their stories weren't true.
What is the humanist intellectual and rational position on all these? There isn't a single standard position, but I assume many would say something similar to what I do above.
Abortion in the Bible
I wondered what Jewish thinking was on whether "Thou shall not kill" covered
abortion, since they should be the experts on Old Testament law. I found