Month: June 2013

Bart Ehrman – Making Biblical Scholarship Sexy

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Biblical textual criticism probably doesn’t sound like the most interesting subject in the world, but Bart Ehrman, a historian and scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is somewhat of a rock-star at making it so.

In addition to his published scholarship on the Bible, Ehrman, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor UNC, takes the time to write trade books for the rest of us. The most popular titles have been Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and WhyJesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), and God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, among others. If you have any interest in the Bible, no matter your religious affiliation or personal beliefs, then I couldn’t recommend these books highly enough. The titles are a bit controversial, but I think that is more or less an incentive to sex up a traditionally dry subject (see this blog post’s title) – Ehrman admits the majority of what he covers is consensus among Biblical scholars, and generally what has been taught in seminary for decades now (most ministers and pastors, however, fail to include these facts in their weekly sermons).

Ehrman’s personal trajectory is also of note, having moved from a Born-again fundamentalist Christian to a progressively more liberal Christian, renowned scholar, best-selling author (see interview on the Colbert Report here), and eventually agnostic. He is an expert on Greek and ancient languages, and, obviously, the Bible, which is why his debates are so interesting to watch (he also has somewhat of a temper).

Here he is debating Dinesh D’Souza, an intelligent but rather slimy and obnoxious apologist, who like most apologists, is great at rhetoric but not so great at logic. And unfortunately for D’Souza, he is up against someone who already knows all the arguments, and who knows the Bible much more intimately than he.

Finally, Ehrman’s personal website – – is notable for its philanthropic membership model. You pay a few bucks a month and you are provided access to his various blog postings during the week. All the money goes to charity. Quite novel, I think – at least I’ve not seen that anywhere else. I wonder if Joel Olsteen would do it?

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Finding God In Arby’s – A Lesson in Self-Deception, Pattern Seeking, and Religious Tolerance on RadioLab

Ah, Radiolab. I just came across Season 11’s “Are You Sure?” episode themed, incidentally, around doubt and certainty. The first segment, which is what I’ll focus on here, is about religious doubt and leaves you feeling, as Radiolab often does, both fascinated and slightly melancholy. You should listen to the episode, because I’m going to comment on it below, and the summary won’t do it justice.

The gist is that this young guy named Jeff Viniard, who had been a devout believer all his life, found himself having a crisis of faith only a short while before he was to be married to his fiancé, Megan (also a devout believer – and I’m probably spelling her name wrong). Jeff was literally struck with the thought, “I don’t believe in God” while doing the dishes and was so shocked by it that his fiancé asked him what was wrong on the spot. He demurred, but a short while later explained what had happened, and, long story short, they postponed the wedding.

So Jeff took off on a bike trip across the Nevada desert, hoping to find some evidence for God. He couldn’t, and they called off the wedding (Megan was adamant she wanted her husband to share her faith). Another year goes by and Jeff finds himself still lost, still searching, having lost his faith and the girl he loved. Along the way he has a few encounters that he thinks could be divine evidence, like a minister talking to him at Arby’s and the wind pushing at his back as he walks up a mountain (really), but he still can’t make up his mind. Another year goes by and we find that…almost miraculously, all is well. Jeff had started attending church again, though still with doubts, and Megan began to cope with the fact that her husband’s beliefs would be different than hers. Jeff now says he does believe in God, though you can tell it’s not the kind of certain faith that Megan has (and you can also tell she still wants him to have her particular type of faith), but they make a choice to love each other and the wedding goes through.

It was quite a rollercoaster story, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Jeff, even though it did all work out in the end.. It’s painfully obvious that he was essentially forced to admit a belief in God because he loved Megan, and because that was the only way he could conceivably be with her. He admits to looking for signs, which in his desperate state was clearly priming his brain to recognize false patterns (see Michael Shermer’s TED talk below this post on the funny things our brains can do). He seems so desperate, in fact, that I’m actually surprised he didn’t have a better religious experience/hallucination during his search. A proselytizing minister at Arby’s was the best he could offer up. I think his journey is an example of the depths people will go through to be with the one they love, to not be alone – which in this case is both sweet and slightly sad since it seems Jeff has forced himself into a delusion.

I wish Megan, and other believers, could learn to be more understanding of someone like Jeff’s position. Why make him go through all that? Why call off the wedding immediately? The fact is there just isn’t any credible evidence for God. If He exists, as Bertrand Russell would say, He’s gone through great pains to hide himself. So I find it silly that someone would break off their marriage to an individual they presumably loved, just because they can’t believe in the thing you believe in for which there isn’t any reason to believe in in the first place (other than you were taught to as a child and it makes you feel good).

Perhaps I’m simplifying it too much, but it seems more reasonable to me that marriages and relationships should be built on loving the other person, and not on what you each think happens after you die.

“Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire.” – The Brown Scapular and Catholic Superstition

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

When I was nine or ten, my older cousin introduced me this thing above, which if you’re not familiar is called a brown scapular. It was once a full body garment, worn over the shoulders, but has evolved into what is now basically a necklace. You drape it around your head and one of the cloth squares rests on your chest and the other on your back. I remember where we were when my cousin first showed me this thing, pulling it out from under his shirt. We were beneath a row of four large pine trees on the edge of a creek that ran through the backyard of our grandparent’s house. He didn’t know what it was called, but he knew what it did – it protected you from the tortures of Hell.

That was, at least, what his parents had been convinced of, having recently converted to “Traditionalist Catholicism” (a more conservative form of Catholicism that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council). His entire family, including his older sister and younger brother, began wearing brown scapulars at all hours of the day – not even taking them off to shower. Such devotion to brown scapulars can be traced back to the 13th century, when the Blessed Virgin herself supposedly appeared to Simon Stock, the superior general of the Carmelites, telling him: “Take, beloved son, this scapular of thy Order as a badge of my confraternity, and for thee and for all Carmelites, a sign of grace. Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire. It is a sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.” Well, with a claim like that, it’s no wonder that so many people throughout the centuries have believed it. You can even find supposed “proofs” for its efficacy here: The Wonders of the Brown Scapular.

Flash forward hundreds of years to the present and we still have priests telling believers that a cloth garment can invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary at the time of one’s death. We have parents telling their children (children!) to wear this piece of cloth lest they die with too many sins on their back to avoid eternal punishment. We have cousins scaring cousins under pine trees in their grandpa’s backyard (if you haven’t yet, check out Richard Dawkins moderating a panel at the AHA conference on “Religious Child Abuse“).

And yes, at ten, I fell for it. Right there, under the pine trees. I hunted down a brown scapular and got one for my little sister, too. I wore it at school for a few days, quietly, until in gym class I had to change my shirt and a friend of mine asked me what it was. I explained, and he hesitated for a moment before saying something that I can still remember clearly, something that made me feel like a fool, something that was perfectly correct, and something that immediately broke the spell of superstition I had embraced:

“That’s stupid.”

It was stupid. I put my shirt back on and threw the thing away after lunch.

“Too local, too provincial” – Richard Feynman on beauty in (probably) the best video on YouTube

This has to be one of the best videos on YouTube – Feynman just has a perfect voice for this type of thing. I’m in the middle of his biography, Genius, by James Gleick, and it confirms what you can pretty much tell from the clip – he was a force of nature and easily one of the top scientists of the 20th century.

And also very sweet. You can read the letter he wrote to his first wife, Arline, two years after she had died of tuberculosis.

Why Anyone Wanting to be Scientist Should Avoid Ball State University

No doubt you are aware by now of the controversy at Ball State University (public, by the way), where Assistant Professor Eric Hedin has been formally accused by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of violating students’ first amendment rights by injecting religious views into a supposed “science” course. I won’t rehash in detail – you can find a good summary of events here, but I did want to comment on the issue both because BSU is in my home state of Indiana (I briefly considered attending…phew!) and because I’m personally torn on what should be done.

First of all, there really is no question that what Hedin is teaching is poor science. Just look at his reading list (bottom of post) and note the silly amount of religious accomodationists, ID-advocates, and apologists. I mean Lee Strobel! In a science course!?! If I found this list on the street, I would assume it could only be an elective at a Theological Seminary in the Bible Belt. So, obviously Hedin is injecting religion and poor science into his class – but the question is, has he crossed a line, and to what extent do we defend academic freedom?

As much as I want to say Hedin shouldn’t be allowed to promote this bunk in anything like a science department course, I am also concerned that censoring a professor would have very bad effects going forward. Wouldn’t the Discovery Institute like to pounce on this? They could easily paint it as another example of Intelligent Design being shut out of the discussion, which it should be, but to the untrained ear that sounds an awful lot like “unfairness” on the part of evolutionary scientists, which is already the perception of many evangelicals. So I tend to lean toward letting Hedin teach whatever he wants and hoping students have enough critical thinking capacity to withstand any religious proselytizing with poor science…or maybe enough critical thinking to just avoid Ball State University altogether (provided you want to be a scientist).

I encourage you to check out Jerry Coyne’s post about the issue (he helped bring it to the attention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and then P.Z. Myer’s disagreement.

And here, as promised, is the reading list for Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course. If you’re not familiar with most of these authors, that’s because they’re very much on the “boundaries” of science…some very clearly do not even qualify as scientists, like…Lee Strobel (face palm). I still can’t believe it!

There's something a little odd about these "science" readings, don't you think?

There’s something a little odd about these “science” readings, don’t you think?

Today at 4 EST: 20-year-old Zack Kopplin to Debate Discovery Institute ID Advocates

Evolution Defender, Zack Kopplin

You can catch 20-year-old champion of evolution Zack Kopplin debate two Discovery Institute ID-advocates, Michael Medved and Casey Luskin, today on Medved’s radio show beginning at 4pm EST by clicking here.

If you haven’t been following the story, Kopplin, a current undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, became something of a sensation in helping to lead a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which would allow public school teachers to use “supplementary materials” to criticize “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill recently died in committee for the third year in a row, but these brush fires continue to sprout up, and I’m glad we have individuals like Kopplin standing up for scientific integrity and separation of church and state. Should be a fun interview – I’m not sure exactly of the context, but Medved and Luskin would need to start debating 10-year-old’s to have any shot at winning a debate on ID in public schools.

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.