Month: August 2013

Class is in session: Bart Ehrman’s biblical pop quiz to undergraduates…

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (Univ. North Carolina) is famous for giving a short introductory quiz to his undergraduates on their first day of class to test their knowledge of the New Testament. He’s always surprised by how few get more than half correct as they are fairly easy, particularly if you’ve gone to church with any frequency during your life  (he even sometimes offers to buy students a steak dinner if they get more than 8 right, but admits he doesn’t have to buy very often) .

Earlier today he actually posted his questions (you can visit his blog here), so now you can try yourself. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to see if Erhman would be buying me a steak dinner. I’ll post the answers in the next few days. No cheating.

  1. How many books are in the NT?
  2. In what language were they written?
  3. In what century were they written?
  4. Name the Gospels of the NT
  5. Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament
  6. What does the word “Gospel” mean?
  7. According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus?  Who carried his cross?  Who buried him?
  8. In about what year did Jesus die? What year was he born?
  9. The author of the Gospel of Luke wrote two books.  Name two of them.
  10. What is normally thought to have been the occupations of (a) Matthew and (b) Luke?
  11. Which of the following were Jews?  John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Simon Peter, Tacitus, the Apostle Paul.
  12. What is the shortest verse in the New Testament?
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Bart Ehrman comments on Zealot and Reza Aslan

After getting several email inquiries about Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has commented on the subject via his blog. You can’t read the full post unless you are a subscriber, but I with a few bullet points below. Finally, if you have any interest in biblical studies at all, consider becoming a member of Ehrman’s site, as his commentary is always interesting, the subscriber rate is minimal, and all the proceeds go to charity.

About Zealot, Ehrman notes that:

  • He hasn’t read it yet. The publisher sent him a copy before it was anywhere near a hit book, but Ehrman notes he’s generally swamped with reading scholarship and doesn’t have much time for books written for non-experts.
  • Because it has become such a hit, he has added it to the syllabus for his upcoming class at UNC, “Jesus in Scholarship and Film”.
  • His answer, in short, to the question of “is Reza Aslan a recognized scholar of early Christianity?”, is no.
  • Two other books he often has students read for the “Jesus in Scholarship and Film class” are Elain Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (which I’ve read, and it’s terrific) and John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (which I have not read but am planning to).

You can dig into these answers quite a bit more by visiting the actual site, so if you’re at all interested I would go here now. I would also suggest, as I have before, checking out some of Ehrman’s own trade books like Jesus Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus.

Krauss calls WLC out for being a liar, con artist, and bathrobe salesman

Still patiently (well, less and less) waiting on the good folks at Life, the Universe and Nothing and City Bible Forum to release the videos from the three-part debate between cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and apologist William Lane Craig which took place in Australia over the last few weeks. So far the only way to get information on how the discussions went is to stalk facebook and the blogosphere for eyewitness reports.

In the meantime, however, the host group has published a couple interviews with WLC and Krauss, and the latter is characteristically frank. He explains, very simply, that he agreed to the discussions because he wanted to expose Craig as a “con-artist” and “liar” who distorts science in order to bolster his arguments for God. I’ve posted a few of the more interesting quotes from Krauss below, and you can read the entire interview here (the best part is when he calls out Craig for using his popularity as an apologist to sell bathrobes…really, go here):

“In this particular case, I also [agreed to the discussions] because I happen to think William Lane Craig abuses science and says many, many, many things that are not only disingenuous but untruthful, but recognises that his audience won’t know that. So one of the reasons I like to do these, and certainly why I agreed to allow the first one to be videotaped, is to demonstrate explicitly examples of where he says things that he knows to be manifestly wrong, but also knows that the audience won’t have access to the information. It amazes me because I wouldn’t presume to talk about theology and nor would I want to, although I’ve spent a lot of time with theologians. That’s what upsets me the most. I feel the same way about Deepak Chopra, who also usurps science in a different way. Dr Craig makes it appear as if (a) he understands the science, which he doesn’t and (b) as if the science provides some support. Where in fact, science tells us a wonderful story about the universe and it tells us that we don’t need anything beyond the laws of nature to understand what’s going on. That’s not a failing, that’s just the way it is.”

“I’ve had discussions with theologians who I think are much more honest [than Craig]. I first debated Dr Craig in North Carolina. I agreed to do it for this group called Campus Crusade for Christ, but I agreed to do it anyway because I thought he was an honest intellect and we could have a discussion. I think he’s wrong, but I thought we could have a discussion. But the minute he started talking I thought, ‘this guy is a con artist’ and I still think so.”

“Well, I said I’d never debate him again. But I agreed to do it publicly because I wanted to show that he was a liar. I think I did that, in my opinion, in the last debate. And I’ll do it again. I want to show what the science is. So I’ll show it again. Tonight I’ll show that he abuses the science but I agreed to do it mostly because the people who run this organisation [City Bible Forum] impressed me and against maybe my better judgement and after several meetings were I was highly suspicious, I was convinced that they were well-meaning people interested in honest discussion.”

“I have a double purpose: to promote some aspect of science, and I don’t care what people take away from it except some amazing aspects of the universe, and if it reinforces their faith I don’t give a damn, but also to recognize that they should listen to people who are honest and not trying to sell bathrobes on their website and raise money for ‘A Reasonable Faith’ by doing whatever they can. I mean, I have a day job and I think people should recognise that when they’re buying ideas they should ask whether the people selling them are making money off them.”

The silliness of Matt Chandler

I’ve posted about Matt Chandler before, the charismatic lead pastor at The Village Church in Dallas, TX. He’s likable, but from what I can tell doesn’t think too hard about much beyond scripture (I’m using “likable” less and less now when describing him, actually). The jaw-dropping straw-man in this video on evolution had me boiling for months, and I had avoided watching another short clip of his on YouTube called “The Sillyness of Atheism” (yes, that’s misspelled), mostly because I care less about atheism and more about reason and science denial. I was also a little worried he’d say something ridiculous and that I would end up frustrated. Hypothesis confirmed.

In the 51 second clip below, Chandler shows exactly how muddy his thinking is. The premise of the clip (and it is just a clip – perhaps he clarifies certain points before or after so I don’t want to judge too harshly) is that he cannot understand “why people who don’t believe in God are so hostile to the idea of there being a God.”

Well, that’s a pretty glaring generalization and mis-characterization of nonbelievers, a group with tremendous variety in terms of thought and attitude toward religion (there’s not even one name you can fit them under, for example: atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists, etc). Yes, some nonbelievers cross a threshold into anti-theism and are openly hostile toward religion, but the great majority never give God a second thought beyond studying religion as a natural phenomenon or when it interferes with civil or human rights.

Chandler jokes that the two tenets of atheism are 1) there is no God, and 2) I hate Him. He sees a discontinuity, which I think is meant to demonstrate a logical fallacy with atheism, between being angry about something one doesn’t believe in. He goes on to say, “I have never grown furious about unicorns … it’s a weird thing, all this pent up animosity toward something you don’t think exists.

But of course, Chandler’s analogy fails. People who don’t believe in unicorns (and that hopefully includes you, dear reader) don’t grow angry about unicorns because nobody believes in unicorns! If 80% of the american populous expressed a belief in unicorns, you would likely see a hostile reaction to such a belief. Heads of state don’t pray to unicorns, there are no moralities based upon ancient scriptures devoted to unicorns, laws are not influenced by followers of unicorns, children are not indoctrinated into unicorn cults before they can think for themselves, people do not constantly insist that the science rejecting the existence of unicorns is flawed, and rival groups of unicorn believers do not slaughter one another.

It is perfectly consistent for an atheist to be frustrated with religion (and it’s a frustration with religion and the tenets thereof, not with God, which an atheist obviously can’t be frustrated with). In an atheist’s mind, there is no more evidence for God than there is for unicorns – but the former (in one form or another) is worshiped by the majority of people on the planet. For the believer, I ask whether it wouldn’t frustrate you for the majority of people to suddenly start worshiping unicorns (provided the evidence for unicorns stays exactly as it is now: zero)?

Personally, I try not to be overly hostile toward religion, but one can understand why some think they have a moral imperative to be outspoken about what they see as a mass delusion, particularly one that has such an influence on society.  As Bertrand Russell said:

There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true … Either a thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it’s true or whether it isn’t you should suspend judgement.

Does God Exist? William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, First Post-Debate Analysis

If you read my post here, you know WLC and Lawrence Krauss just finished a three-night debate series at various locations throughout Australia. The host organization is currently working on editing the videos, and they should be released soon. In the meantime, I’ve been following Life, the Universe and Nothing’s facebook page to read reactions from those in attendance, trying to piece together how each performed.

As you might expect, comments are mixed, with theists generally siding with WLC and skeptics with Krauss. Surprisingly, however, there is a little buzz suggesting that Krauss actually trounced WLC in the final debate (recall that WLC is almost never beaten in debates by atheists, not because he makes good arguments, but because he’s such a practiced and formidable debater). Here’s a brief review from Christadelphian Unbelievers:

I never thought that I would live to see William Lane Craig beaten in a debate with an Unbeliever; but tonight (16 August 2013) I saw him outgunned by Lawrence Krauss.
The moderated discussion in the Melbourne Town Hall was packed to the back and it was a thrilling night. Bill spoke first with his usual style and closely reasoned arguments. It was WLC at his best and I cringed at the thought of Lawrence having to handle such a strong presentation.But when it was LMK’s turn to speak we were treated to a devastating barrage of blockbuster points one after another that never seemed to end.

The moderated discussion afterwards was poorly moderated by someone who hardly spoke a word and at times looked as if he was reading a newspaper. The two protagonists tore into each other unrelentingly; but WLC sensed that he was fighting a losing battle and before long Krauss had taken over the evening.

In one sense there was nothing new in the points made. It was the dazzling new style of Krauss that amazed me. He’d done his homework, learned from his losses to WLC in the past and lifted his game substantially.

Nevertheless, Bill did well and acquitted himself with his usual dignity. He was firm, but respectful to Lawrence; his keen intelligence added considerable depth to the scintillating discussion. I only wish that the discussion had lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was superb.

I’m excited for the videos, and have been checking for them every day since last week (I will post as soon as they go up). Krauss apparently used a “bullshit” buzzer in the first debate to combat inaccuracies and lies, in addition to creating this post-debate video:

Reza Aslan calls Dawkins a “fool” and a “buffoon” … and you’re probably wondering who Reza Aslan is …

Reza Aslan, my friends, is the author of a few books on religious history, including his most recent, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, now a bestseller on Amazon. He’s been catapulted to what may or may not be brief fame for Zealot’s pretty sophisticated PR campaign, helped inadvertently by this dastardly interview on Fox News, where commentator Lauren Green attacked his credibility to pen a historical work on Jesus because, of all things, he’s a Muslim.

Aslan correctly pointed out to Green that one’s personal religious beliefs do not disqualify someone from writing a work of historical scholarship, and that he has several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in religion (even though he refers to it somewhat slyly as a doctorate in the “history of religion” which actually doesn’t exist at the university where he studied), making him well-qualified to write such a book. I defended Aslan in a previous post here, prompted by the unconscionable campaign of defensive Christians to review-bomb Zealot on Amazon, even though they had clearly not read a single page of the book.  I’ve now read Zealot, and it was fine, though, exactly as I suspected, it’s mostly a popularization of other peoples’ work, namely Schweitzer and Meijer. Aslan is much more of a writer than a historian or scholar (his current professorship is in Creative Writing, not any type of history or religious studies, for instance), and he doesn’t put forward any new ideas. In fact, he rather bizarrely treats many events in the Gospels as historically reliable in order to complete his narrative, even though that’s far from the modern consensus (see critical review of Zealot’s scholarship here). All in all though, Zealot is a fun read – he does a good job of summarizing the historical events leading up to the time of Jesus, including the complexity of Jewish culture, and has a very interesting section on the theological divisions between Paul and James, and why Paul’s view ultimately won out (which differs greatly from that of the historical Jesus…at least as best as we can tell, which we can’t very well).

But I won’t be defending Aslan anymore. Reacting to a controversial tweet from Richard Dawkins the other week (see post here), Aslan goes on to call him a “fool” on twitter and then a “buffoon” in a recent interview . This baffles me, particularly when one compares the professional accomplishments of one to the other (go ahead, just google it). Even Dawkins’ critics, and my goodness he has many, aren’t so silly as to say he’s not an intelligent person. If there’s anything Dawkins is not, it’s a fool. But I suppose when you’re just a lowly creative writing professor enjoying his first bestseller, there’s no better way to get attention than to attack the man just voted the world’s top thinker.

As Washington Post columnist Manuel Roig-Franzia notes in this fairly critical piece on Aslan, he’s a bit over-eager to be taken seriously as a scholar, often exaggerating his credentials (see Fox News article above, and note his slightly pompous self-assertion that he’s “actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States”) and academic expertise.

Hm, I’ve never seen Dawkins exaggerate his credentials. I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t need to?

Fooled again! Pinker puts a nail in the coffin of the Freakonomics crime theory?

This keeps happening to me. Every time I pick up a social science book, my understanding of the dramatic crime drop in the ’90’s changes (all three books I reference are pre-2011, so apologies if I’m late to the party and you already know all this).

First there was Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, which postulated that the “Broken Windows Theory”  (the idea that policing minor crimes like vandalism has an effect on major crime as well) was responsible. That sounded mildly convincing, until I read Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics a few weeks later, which argues that legalized abortion actually correlates quite well with the drop in crime (simply, the mothers in environments most likely to have children prone to violence later in life started having abortions in the 70’s when it was legalized, thus there were fewer potential delinquents around in the 90’s). That seemed to blow Broken Windows out of the water (see earlier post here), and I remained convinced of the abortion correlation until coming to a section in Steven Pinker’s epic, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a few days ago. Now, I’ve got to say, I’ve switched again.

Pinker rebuts quite convincingly the theory popularized in Freakonomics, and puts forward two overarching explanations but admits that the decline “likely had multiple causes, and no one can be certain what they were, because too many things happened at once.” Since this is the third time my opinion has been swayed, I’m perfectly happy to remain agnostic on the issue. I am reproducing Pinker’s entire section below that refutes the abortion theory (without permission…hope he doesn’t mind) because I can’t find a thorough enough excerpt on the web. Do consider reading the entire book, however. It’s one of the best I’ve ever picked up.

From Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, hardback, page 119-121 (without annotations):

The 1990s crime decline inspired one of the stranger hypotheses in the study of violence. When I told people I was writing a book on the historical decline of violence, I was repeatedly informed that the phenomenon had already been solved. rates of violence have come down, they explained to me, because after abortion was legalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, the unwanted children who would ordinarily have grown up to be criminals were not born in the first place, because their begrudging or unfit mothers had had abortions instead. I first heard of this theory in 2001 when it was proposed by the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt, but it seemed too cute to be true. Any hypothesis that comes out of left field to explain a massive social trend with a single overlooked event will almost certainly turn out to be wrong, even if it has some data supporting it at the time. But Levitt, together with journalist Steven Dubner, popularized the theory in their bestseller Freakonomics, and now a large proportion of the public believes that crime went down in the 1990s because women aborted their crime-fated fetuses in the 1970s.

To be fair, Levitt went on to argue that Roe v. Wade was just one of four causes of the crime decline, and he has presented sophisticated correlational statistics in support of the connection. For example, he showed that the handful of states that legalized abortion before 1973 were the first to see their crime rates go down. But these statistics compare the two ends of a long, hypothetical, and tenuous causal chain – the availability of legal abortion as the first link and the decline in crime two decades later as the last – and ignore all the links in between. The links include the assumptions that legal abortion causes fewer unwanted children, that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that the first abortion-culled generation was the one spearheading the 1990s crime decline. But there are other explanations for the overall correlation (for example, that the large liberal states that first legalized abortion were also the first states to see the rise and fall of the crack epidemic) and the intermediate links have turned out to be fragile or nonexistent.

To begin with, the freakonomics theory assumes that women were just as likely to have conceived unwanted children before and after 1973, and that the only difference was whether the children were born. But once abortion was legalized, couples may have treated it as a backup method of birth control and may have engaged in more unprotected sex. If the women conceived more unwanted children in the first place, the option of aborting more of them could leave the proportion of unwanted children the same. In fact, the proportion of unwanted children could even have increased if women were emboldened by the abortion option to have more unprotected sex in the heat of the moment, but then procrastinated or had second thoughts once they were pregnant. That may help explain why in the years since 1973 the proportion of children born to women in the most vulnerable categories – poor, single, teenage, and African American – did not decrease, as the freakonomics theory would predict. It increased, and by a lot.

What about differences among individual women within a crime-prone population? Here the freakonomics theory would seem to get things backwards. Among women who are accidentally pregnant and unprepared to raise a child, the ones who terminate their pregnancies are likely to be forward-thinking, realistic, and disciplined, whereas the ones who carry the child to term are more likely to be fatalistic, disorganized, or immaturely focused on the thought of a cute baby rather than an unruly adolescent. Several studies have borne this out. Young pregnant women who opt for abortions get better grades, are less likely to be on welfare, and are more likely to finish school than their counterparts who have miscarriages or carry their pregnancies to term. The availability of abortion thus may have led to a generation that is more prone to crime because it weeded out just the children who, whether through genes or environment, were most likely to exercise maturity and self-control.

Also, the freakonomists’ theory about the psychological causes of crime comes right out of “Gee, Officer Krupke” when a gang member says of his parents, “They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had. Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!” And it is now as plausible. Though unwanted children may grow up to commit more crimes, it is more likely that women in crime-prone environments have more unwanted children than that unwantedness causes criminal behavior directly. In the studies that pit the effects of parenting against the effects of the children’s peer environment, holding genes constant, the peer environment almost always wins.

Finally, if easy abortion after 1973 sculpted a more crime-averse generation, the crime decline should have begun with the youngest group and then crept up the age brackets as they got older. The sixteen-year-olds of 1993, for example (who were born in 1977, when abortions were in full swing), should have committed fewer crimes than the sixteen-year-olds of 1983 (who were born in 1967, when abortion was illegal). By similar logic, the twenty-two-year-olds of 1993 should have remained violent, because they were born in pre-Roe 1971. Only in the late 1990s, when the first post-Roe generation reached their twenties, should the twenty-something age bracket have become less violent. In fact, the opposite happened. When the first post-Roe generation came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they did not tug the homicide statistics downward; they indulged in an unprecedented spree of mayhem. The crime decline began when the older cohorts, born well before Roe, laid down their guns and knives, and from them the lower homicide rates trickled down the age scale.