Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lying, and Why I Will Probably Never Be A Christian (Again)

Sam Harris has a new e-book out called "Lying". He has a nice blurb about why he wrote the book here:
One of the most fascinating things about this course [The Ethical Analyst at Sanford], however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.

I do not remember what I thought about lying before I took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

It would be hard to exaggerate what a relief it was to realize this. It’s not that I had been in the habit of lying before taking Howard’s course—but I now knew that endless forms of suffering and embarrassment could be easily avoided by simply telling the truth. And, as though for the first time, I saw the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle all around me.

Intuitively, we all think it is wrong to lie even though we might tell little "white lies" every now and then. Maybe due to my own myopia I sometimes think lying is a necessity, but for the most part I try to adhere to a mentality of "better ugly truths than pretty lies". This aversion to lying, even though there are bouts of akrasia (which is different from hypocrisy), is the main reason why I will probably never be a Christian.
 
I have firmly arrived at the conclusion over the past three years that the Christian religion is fundamentally structured around deception. Which is odd, considering that it is a religion that claims the value "truth". Now, this isn't a belief that I have simply because I'm "anti-Christian" or whatever. I actually came to this conclusion due to two different lines of evidence: the history of early Christianity, and what I think is the nature of Christian faith.
 
If you don't know about it, you should check out the most recent book by Bart Ehrman titled Forged. This book sums up my historical argument for why Christianity is based on deception. In short, the majority of the books in the New Testament are written by people who were not who they claimed to be or are attributed to people who didn't write the books attributed to them. Matthew was not written by the apostle/disciple Matthew (same for Mark, Luke, and John), 1 & 2 Peter were not written by the apostle Peter, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus (and Hebrews) were not written by Paul while Ephesians and Colossians were probably not written by Paul, the apostle John is more than likely not the same person who wrote those letters (though the letter writer never claims to be), and James and Jude who wrote their eponymous letters were more than likely not the same as Jesus' brothers (again, these writers never claim to be either).
 
While NT scholars title these works "pseudonymous", that's just a fancy way of saying falsely named (i.e. Mark 14.57 has the phrase "they gave false testimony" which in Greek is εψευδομαρτυρουν or epseudo-martyroun). And as Ehrman goes over in the book, forgeries weren't taken any more kindly in antiquity than they are in today's world. Worse yet, even in the authentic letters of Paul there are insertions into the text that have Paul say things he didn't originally say; and Matthew and Luke are basically heavily interpolated versions of Mark. The worst, of course, is that the vast majority of sayings of Jesus were never uttered by Jesus.
 
As for the nature of Christian faith, philosophically (or epistemically) this seems to be nothing more than the equivalent of self-deception. The thought experiment I go over in that earlier blog post introduces the argument like this: 
Say you are in a steady relationship with a significant other. There have been the usual ups and downs of a relationship, but overall things are going pretty good. Let's say, however, that one day you do the one thing that your significant other would possibly break up with you over. What do you do? Let's say there's no chance of them ever finding out. What now? Do you risk it and tell them, being honest? Or do you keep it from them, so that they remain faithful to you?
 
I admit this is a pretty tough decision. But what is underlying this is whether you simply want to possess the person, or if you love and respect them.
 
Actually, don't even answer the question. Your particular character isn't what I'm trying to point out here. What I would like to know is: What would a person who values [your] faith over everything else do in this situation? What will they do necessarily? That's right; they would have no second guesses about lying to you to maintain your faith in them.
 
Now, what if there is no second party involed. No significant other. What if it is just you confronted with a decision to face something that might make you lose faith in someone/something or to ignore that thing? What would a person who values faith do? That's right. They would have no qualms about lying to themselves to maintain their faith.
 
So what exactly is the difference between faith and self-deception? I don't think there is any difference. If a person cares more about faith than honesty (or "the truth") then any other option is necessarily some form of deception. 
So it seems to me that faith, specifically Christian faith, actually positions itself sternly in opposition to "truth".
 
As it stands, I actually think that this second observation explains the historical situation that created the NT in the first place. The dogma of the new faith in early Christianity was more important than what "actually happened", whatever that was. So it was necessary to deceive with these works that eventually formed the bulk of the NT. I also think that this second observation about the nature of Christian faith has completely corrupted the Christian religion making it morally bankrupt; why I become even less and less shocked every time I find out that Christians are lying for Jesus. The most recent example I read was how a Christian group claimed that homosexuality has a positive correlation with pedophilia. That is just despicable... but, I'm guessing, what's a "little white lie" to prevent people from viewing homosexuality in a positive light? I assume that's the mentality of those particular Christians, anyway. Would it be a stretch to say that the claim of Jesus being predicted in Jewish scripture is also a lie? That one is probably a bit more fuzzy. But it probably suffices to say that Christianity was exceedingly unpopular among Jews and only gained traction among non-Jews; non-Jews who were free to read the Jewish holy book in a non-Jewish way.
 
It was Jewish arguments against Christianity that convinced me that Christianity was false. It is the nature of Christian faith that makes me almost certain that I will never be one again on moral grounds.

6 comments:

Chris said...

I'm not sure how else to contact you but I have a question that isn't related to this post.

What do you think of the recent trend by lay atheists to distinguish their atheism with the gnostic/agnostic qualifier? You can google "atheism chart" to see what I mean.

Does it make sense to you to do that? At first I was confused to hear "gnostic" used in such a context.

Robert said...

Do you have anything to say about Ben Witherington's review of Forged? I am uncertain who is more right on these issues. Ehrman and Witherington are both knowledgeable men and both seem biased to me.

J. Quinton said...

Robert,

I am uncertain who is more right on these issues. Ehrman and Witherington are both knowledgeable men and both seem biased to me.

I think Witherington sums up his position here:

My answer [to whether Ehrman is correct] is sometimes yes (when he talks about Christian pseudepigrapha from the second to fourth century) but mostly no (when he talks about the NT and the period when it was written)

I would say that his assumption (it's an assumption that most NT scholars have) is that earlier documents are more correct than later documents. This could be true, but it has to be demonstrated in some way. There are cases where later documents contained more accurate information than earlier ones.

I personally don't think that Jesus (if he existed, which I'm mostly agnostic about) was a wandering preacher, and we have no way of determining - once a saying or deed is deemed "early" - whether it actually goes back to a Jesus himself, goes back to some other early Christian, or goes back to some pre-Christian sectarian Jewish tradition (a la Dead Sea Scrolls community). He also seems to be writing his review to gird Christians from losing their faith upon reading the book; that alone should be a red flag as far as bias goes (it's kinda the theme of my original post here).

Then again, we don't know what Ehrman's "true" purpose was in writing this book, and I wouldn't want to speculate too intently on it either. Was it to debunk Christianity? Or was it simply to publish somewhat common scholarly knowledge in a popular venue? The latter would be a good bias to hold whereas the former would probably make Ehrman lean too heavily on his more controversial conclusions.

Since I don't think that caring about whether Christians lose their faith is good bias to have, I would have to side more so on Ehrman's take.

J. Quinton said...

Chris,

I've used "agnostic atheist" terminology before. It makes sense to me since atheism is more about how we act towards the existence or non existence of god and agnosticism is a statement about knowledge.

Does someone move through life as though a god exists? Then they are a theist. Do they think it's not possible to know to some degree of certainty whether this god exists? Then they are agnostic.

A lot of people pick the "agnostic" title because they don't want to be seen as some sort of militant atheist, but these people live their lives as though no god exists. So I would have to conclude that they are atheists in action, even if their position about knowledge is one of agnosticism.

I always say that agnosticism is a statement about epistemology and that [a]theism is a statement about ontology. Though the "gnostic" qualifier seems to throw me off a bit because I usually associate it with early Christians - but to be fair, non-Gnostic Christians who were contemporary with the Gnostics more than likely would not have given themselves the title "Agnostic Christians". So if agnostic can have a modern meaning, then I guess gnostic, being its antithesis, can get an update too.

Robert said...

Thanks J. Quinton,

Your agnosticism on the existence of Jesus is more skeptical than the scholars. Is this because you have found arguments that screen off their authority, or do you believe that they are a biased and poorly calibrated group?

J. Quinton said...

Robert,

I would say it is a combination of that post and another LW post about evaluating the soundness of academic mainstream conclusions in an unfamiliar field. Historical Jesus study seems to fail all of the heuristics listed there; there doesn't seem a lot of low hanging fruit (the evidence for Jesus hasn't changed in a couple hundred years, at the least) and there seems to be an ideological bias as well: the vast majority of NT scholars are practicing Christians.

One major problem, for me, when researching the historical Jesus is the lack of independent corroboration with our sources of Jesus. A figure comparable to Jesus would be Socrates, yet because we have independent contemporary or near contemporary attestation to Socrates' existence, I would put the probability of his existence higher than that of Jesus.

An even bigger problem is defining what it means to even say that "Jesus" existed. What if Christianity is based on a guy who was crucified but didn't preach and wasn't named Jesus? What if Christianity is based on an anonymous, or multiple anonymous, wandering preachers who were never executed but whose teachings made up the content in the canonical gospels? I don't think these questions can be answered with the type of evidence that we have.