January 13, 2011
A few months ago, John Loftus claimed that science debunks Christianity.
I’m not a fan of these types of claims, which are essentially sweeping generalizations that contain what I’ve referred to in the past as “the precision of 2×4.” Of course, any (a)theist who’s spent even in a minute in the trenches knows that both science and Christianity are often emotionally charged keywords that carry more baggage than a bellman at Luxor Grand. The author’s choice of words literally begs the reader to plunge headlong into a frenzy of racing and polarized analysis, fueled on reaction determined by the color of one’s glasses. Talk about fodder for the culture wars!
Nonetheless, I’d like to focus on a few of Loftus’ claims, and specifically challenge Loftus to take responsibility by supplying the necessary emendations to justify his arguments as needed, and/or admitting their lack of cogency as hitherto presented. Of course, the challenge is open, which means I’m interested to hear your input as well. In fact, I suspect Loftus won’t even respond, but… we’ll see. May he prove me wrong.
Of evolution and its supposed import to the Bible, Loftus writes:
An even bigger hit came from Biology, specifically but not limited to Darwinian evolution. The Catholic Church learned from the debacle in Galileo’s day and came to embrace evolution as a fact. Evangelicals still denounce it, even though it is slowly winning over the best and the brightest among them. But with evolution we no longer need a creator, for there is nothing left to explain by means of the supernatural hypothesis. Completely obliterated is the literal Genesis account of origins, and since that’s the case why should anyone think there is any divine mind behind the writings in the Bible at all? No one should. […]
-John Loftus, Science Debunks Christianity, emph. mine
Did you happen to notice the snippet I italicized? Folks, I’m sorry, I don’t normally use this type of language in describing someone else’s argument, but this is raw, unadulterated, misleading ignorance.
Evolution nullifies the need for a Creator? Get real. Evolution explains the diversity of biological life, and regardless of how many years life has been evolving for, Darwin’s TENS is limited in scope: it purports to explain the diversity of biological life. On John’s view, there are still another 10,000,000,000+ years of pre-evolutionary existence that need to be explained. How does Darwin’s theory of evolution explain that? No retreating to “cosmic evolution” or any other ad hoc variant, either: Loftus makes it clear that his argument is in the context of Darwin’s TENS. At best, Loftus’ conclusion is thousands of miles away from his premises.
Of archaeology and the Bible, Loftus generalizes using a three-tier claim:
Archaeology has debunked many stories in the Bible. Archeologists have discovered several ancient Mesopotamian texts that predate the ones in the Bible and tell similar superstitious stories of the origins of the universe. It has also shown us there was no Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt.
-John Loftus, Science Debunks Christianity
“Archaeology has debunked many stories in the Bible.”
Ah, I see… “many,” eh? Like science and Christian, as a quantifier, many is also notorisouly ambiguous. The author uses vague words which allow readers of varying ability and education to fill in the blanks. Is that a wise choice when the subject matter requires such precision?
The only support John gives in the post is passing mention of Exodus — which is an opinion: an inference drawn from facts, not a fact itself. John’s is not the only possible inference that can be drawn from the facts. Elsewhere, I’ve heard him allude to the “Luke and the Roman census” issue, but that’s elsewhere. Here, he gives but a single sentence to support his assertion. No supporting links, no pertinent quotations from qualified authorities, nothing but pure assertion. I’m almost certain John’s read something on these topics, you’d think the least he could do is toss us a bone, but — nothing. Apparently we’re supposed to just take his word for it.
What of Bible stories confirmed by archaeology? More importantly, what of archaeological discoveries that overturned alleged Bible debunking? I assure you they exist. Loftus filters the truth for the reader by mentioning only that which supports his preferred philosophical position of atheism.
Is that good scholarship?
For an example of a Bible story confirmed by archaeology, well… the problem is that there are too many to choose from. What about the 2,000-year-old wine jug unearthed at Masada, which bore the inscription of King Herod? What of Herod’s shattered sarcophagus? Are these not evidence confirming the existence of a New Testament figure? What of the Assyrian siege upon Jerusalem? Is this not evidence confirming an Old Testament event?
As an example of an archaeological discovery that overturned an alleged Bible debunking, well… for years, a long line of skeptics and minimalists belabored the lack of extrabiblical evidence for King David, and in fact, some still do. What of the Tel Dan Stele, of which even Wikipedia writes,
Why does Loftus only tell his readers one side of the story? Why doesn’t he stick to presenting facts and information, and let the reader come to their own conclusion? What motivates him to steer the reader towards his preferred philosophical position of atheism?
“Archeologists have discovered several ancient Mesopotamian texts that predate the ones in the Bible and tell similar superstitious stories of the origins of the universe.”
So then, I suppose from this we are required to infer that Christianity must be false? Where’s the justification? Note the continued lack of specifics in John’s argument: it’s simply another bare assertion. He doesn’t give a single example to support the second-tier of his claim. Perhaps he’s alluding to the Epic of Gilgamesh which predates the Noahic flood? In that or any similar case, I refer Mr. Loftus to the work of Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997):
1) Human sources may be relics (e.g. a fingerprint) or narratives (e.g. a statement or a letter). Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
2) A given source may be forged or corrupted; strong indications of the originality of the source increases its reliability.
3) The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate description of what really happened.
4) A primary source is more reliable than a secondary source, that is more reliable than a tertiary source and so on.
5) If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
6) The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
7) If it can be demonstrated that the witness (or source) has no direct interest in creating bias, the credibility of the message is increased. (source)
Note #5. If we are to apply these principles of source criticism fairly, why wouldn’t the fact that two independent cultures both mention a catastrophic flood be considered a point in favor of the claim? Why wouldn’t this apply to creation myths? Loftus simply implies that because a story broke outside the Bible first, that the Bible is somehow untrustworthy. Do we doubt a book about the Civil War because it came out in the twentieth century?
“[Archaeology] has also shown us there was no Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt.”
What John fails to tell his readers is that the jury is still out on the Exodus. As with his other assertions, he gives no evidence or argument to back this one up, either. Further, no mention is given to evidence that challenges John’s assertion. He seemingly ignores the fact that we find references to Israel in Egyptian epigraphy, for example the Stele of Merneptah, discovered at Thebes by Sir Flinders Petrie. Written in hieroglyphics, the stele records the boasting of Merneptah, who ruled Egypt in the early thirteenth-century BCE and claimed that he had “humbled Israel.” The omission of the customary determinative sign denoting “land” corroborates the idea of a nomadic tribe. Further, if Merneptah conquered this nomadic tribe — as the stele records — is it unreasonable that a remnant fled? Regardless, the jury is still out, and the rational thinker is under no compulsion to side with Loftus here, especially in the absence of anything remotely close to a cogent argument that takes the totality of evidence into consideration.
To better understand why we should be skeptical of Loftus — or anyone else who tells us that archaeology disproves this or that — consider the controversy over the city of Jericho. Carl Watzinger and Ernest Sellin concluded that the city of Jericho was unoccupied at the time the Israelite conquest is thought to have occurred. Later, John Garstang disagreed with them, and offered evidence in favor of the conquest. After that, Kathleen Kenyan objected to Garstang’s methods and the pendulum swung back the other way. Then, Bryant Wood came along and challenged Kenyan’s findings, on account of pottery apparently authenticated by carbon-14 dating, which seems to validate Garstang’s conclusions.
My point is not to align myself with one camp or another. Rather, my point is to demonstrate the foolishness of aligning oneself with one camp or the other, because new discoveries are constantly being made. This doesn’t mean archaeology is useless in apprehending the truth of historical claims. That is not at all what I’m saying. Rather, my point is that the pendulum is still swinging.
Within the Introduction, Cline appropriately defines biblical archaeology (subset of Syro-Palestinian archaeology dating from the early second millennium BEC to the first millennium CE) and explains that archaeologists do not “deliberately set out to either prove or disprove” the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, but investigate the material culture of biblical times to reconstruct the culture and history of the region. [p.3]
Despite the fact that even accredited scholars advise against using archaeological data to infer proof or disproof of the Bible, Loftus forges ahead. I’m reminded of a comment from Tom Talbott in this discussion with Loftus:
A retired colleague of mine in our physics department once shared with me a wonderful quotation from the Nobel Prize winning physicist Alfred Lande, who admittedly is not much in vogue these days. Although I have been unable to locate the quotation, which appeared in a chapter on quantum mechanics, the gist of it was this: Much of the scientific literature on this subject is philosophically confused, he claimed, and even rests upon a rather elementary category mistake.
I am in no position, of course, to endorse such a statement. But here is the interesting part of what Lande said. Pay little attention, he exhorted, to what scientists say when they talk about, or draw implications from, their own work. They are as apt to jump to conclusions, or to embrace a set of non sequiturs, as anyone else. But pay the closest possible attention to what they do in the laboratory and to the actual experiments that they perform.
-Tom Talbott paraphrasing Alfred Lande
Descartes demonstrated that one could doubt anything besides their own doubt, and I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar you can find yourself a qualified minimalist to help you doubt any Biblical claim. As the example of Jericho illustrates, consensus is more like a pendulum than a beacon. It is precisely for this reason that we should treat the enterprise of science as a person trying to have a very long, thoughtful, and drawn-out discussion with us. To draw conclusions before the discussion is over is — especially in the case of a slow-moving science like archaeology — to interrupt.
Here’s John Loftus — who preaches the ethos of science — feeding you a masterfully cherrypicked argument, ostensibly in the name of rationality and reason. This is exactly the type of thing both Christians and atheists need to watch out for. Christians, because, if they are of the timid or lay variety, they might be too fearful or too unfamiliar with the arguments to expose the errors, and walk away unnecessarily dissuaded. Atheists, because, if they are of the knee-jerk or polemic variety, they might be too uncritical or too emotionally motivated to catch the errors, and walk away with their atheism superficially bolstered.
Unsupported assertions. Lack of evidence and citations. Overstated claims. Sweeping generalizations. Conclusions that do not flow from their premises. My heart laments that so many people accept this type of stuff unquestioningly. People are throwing away their faith in God because of misleading propaganda like this. Tread softly!
For these reasons, I claim that we should be skeptical of John Loftus. Very skeptical.