## Compating Religions III: Ancient Roots

The next question on my list:

2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?

If a religious prophet claims to reveal the God who created the universe... well, since God must have existed before that guy came along, that prophet should have some story to tell about what God was doing beforehand, prior to the time that his own religion came into existence!  This suggests we should look for a religion that either (a) has roots going back to ancient history, or (b) is a plausible continuation of such religions.

Of course, just because a religion claims to originte from (or restore) some ancient religious tradition, doesn't necessarily mean that those claims are historically accurate!  There are plenty of examples of modern religious movements that have fake origin stories.  For example, certain Masonic texts describe an elaborate mythological origin for Freemasonry, involving Euclid, ancient Egypt and King Solomon's Temple, but there is no good evidence that the organization even existed before medieval times!

Similarly, Wicca claims to be based on an ancient pagan traditions, but actually has very little in common with any historical form of paganism.  (Their myth that millions of Wiccans were killed during the "Burning Times" is therefore essentially fictitious, since Wicca did not exist then.  The witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries were on a much smaller scale, and most of those killed were falsely accused Christians.)  Wicca actually originates with the 20th century occult figures Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, who constructed a more friendly version of the magical practices of the Satanist Aleister Crowley, by replacing the explictly selfish aspects with more humane principles.

However, in the ancient world there was such a thing as real paganism.  Typically it involved the worship of a pantheon of mulitple gods and goddesses.  Usually, the pagan myths described their gods as beings of finite power, wisdom, and goodness, who in turn produced new deities by various scandalous methods of sexual and asexual procreation.  These gods did not create the entire universe, they just built certain aspects of it.

These pagan religions did not usually regard themselves as making exclusive truth claims; there was plenty of warfare, but almost never over the question of whose pantheon was "real".  When polytheists encountered a new form of worship, they seldom denied the existence of the new deity (although they sometimes concluded that the victors' gods must be more powerful).  Often, they would identify the other culture's god with a corresponding deity in their own pantheon.  Alternatively, they would simply add the new god to their own pantheon, and start worshipping it alongside the others.  So the different polythistic religions should not necessarily be regarded as having rival worldviews.  They are much more like variations of the same basic thing, like different local varieties of wine or cheese.  In cosmopolitan cultures like the Roman Empire, they were freely exchanged to suit individual taste.

In the middle of all this, there was something else, which by any objective standard was quite different from the rest.  Israel was remarkable for being the only ancient nation whose national religion was strict Ethical Monotheism, eschewing all idolatrous representations of God in the visible form of any created being.  Although many great philosophers from all nations have arrived at the understanding that there is one God who created everything, Israel claimed to have this knowledge by revelation, because God had rescued Israel from slavery and made a covenant with them to be his own special people, and so gave them a special responsibility to obey his Law that no other nation has:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.  Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.  But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.  (Deuteronomy 4:15-20)

It is difficult to express just how unusual this prohibition of images was in its cultural context, but it allowed Israel to have a more sophisticated and less anthropomorphic notion of deity than the surrounding pagan cultures.

Another rather remarkable aspect of the Jewish religion is the large number of different prophets whose teachings were recorded in great detail.  The different books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written over many centuries—about a thousand years from Moses to Malachi, if you take the biblical chronology at face value—and contain the records of dozens of different prophets, each proclaiming the words of the same Deity, with a broadly consistent message.  This is quite remarkable, and I do not know of any parallel among polythestic religions.

While there were indeed pagan prophets and oracles, you cannot buy the "collected writings of the prophets of Aphrodite" in a bookstore, or if you could it would be a very short book!  Nor can you find an equivalent to the prophet Isaiah, in which Apollo speaks at length about his nature and his plans for human history.  (The closest one gets is a few ambiguous pieces of advice attributed to the Oracle of Delphi.)  These texts never existed, because these pagan gods simply did not reveal themselves in a definitive literary form, the way that the God of Israel does in the Bible.

So who is more likely to be right?  The diverse majority, or the peculiar minority?  Well, for one thing Polytheism does not seem to be very compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.  Nature is impersonal; it can be studied and normally it seems to operate according to fixed and objective principles.  Although intelligent beings more powerful than human beings might well exist, is hard for me as a scientist to take seriously the idea that different aspects of the Universe originate from a pantheon of squabbling deities.  It makes more sense to say that the real source of all things is something more basic and unified: either a single Almighty Deity, or a single Law of Nature.  So the a priori philosophical plausibility of Monotheism provides a solid reason to think that Israel is special.  All by itself, this tells us that Judaism is more likely to be true than any other randomly selected ancient religion.

(Note that, even if one were to assign e.g. an 80% prior probability to the majority opinion of Polytheism, and a 20% prior probability to the minority opinion of Monotheism, that would still make Judaism WAY more probable than 1 / total # ancient religious cults.  And that is before considering any specific evidence for supernatural or miraculous events, which we will get to in future questions.)

We Moderns would probably have preferred a more "democratic" setup, where all people groups are given equal access to divine revelation, and nobody is specially privileged.  Well, that's just too bad, because there is no religion like that.  Not unless we want to water down what we mean by religion to a lowest common denominator doctrine shared by multiple traditions (e.g. Ethical Monotheism or Pantheism) that removes all of the distinctive teachings.   Some aspects of these lowest-common-denominators might be valuable and true, as far as they go.  But if you want a religion that says anything nontrivial about God or humanity, then it has to be a specific religion, capable of making nontrivial claims that may contradict other religions.  (Although they can agree with other religions about important aspects of the truth.)

Anyone who accepts Jewish-style Monotheism must accept that Paganism was, at the very least, deeply confused.  However, that does not require us to say that it was entirely isolated from real spiritual experiences.  If human beings have a natural instinct or intuition that God exists, it is quite possible that many pagans indirectly sensed God's presence in Nature, and wrongly associated this numinous experience with a more limited, localized concept of deity.

Some Christians have noticed that, even though Paganism is incompatible with Jewish-style Monotheism, certain pagan myths can still be thought of as foreshadowing the Gospel in striking ways.  Despite what some crackpots say, the stories about Jesus were not directly copied from pagan myths.  However, elements such as e.g. gods being sacrificed to produce a harvest, or Odin hanging himself on a tree for nine days in order to gain wisdom, do hint at the method of salvation later provided through Christ.  Christians can attribute this to the influence of the Holy Spirit preparing the nations to receive and understand the Gospel of Christ.  Since human beings are created in the image of God, it is not surprising that human myths should in some way reflect our divine origins, as St. Tolkein argued in the conversation that resulted in St. Lewis' conversion:

Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused).  That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

("Mythopoeia", as quoted in "On Fairy Stories")

Yet these pagan myths (which include all kinds of obscene, superstitious, and absurd elements) can in no way be regarded as parallel to the explicit revelation of God to the prophets of Israel.  The teaching of Jesus presupposes that God really did reveal himself to Israel in a special way.

So if Christianity is true, then the essential claims of Judaism are also true.  They are not necessarily rivals.  Instead, Christianity claims to be the fulfilment of Judaism.

I find this claim of fulfillment plausible because Judaism is clearly marked as provisional: there are many prophecies of a Messiah, descended from King David, who will be an exalted figure that leads to a new era in which God relates to people in a more intimate way; they describe both his suffering and his later glory.  The New Testament states that Jesus fulfilled many of these prophecies in specific and striking ways, even though some of them are still waiting for his Second Coming.

There are several possible objections a Jew might make to these claims, but probably the two most important to address are these:

First, the Torah (the Law given through Moses, contained in the first 5 books of the Bible) states that it is eternal, whereas the New Testament abrogates many of the specific ceremonial decrees of the Torah.  Of course, the New Testament agrees that the Torah sets up an eternally valid relationship between Israel and her Lord, and also that the Torah, being divinely inspired, is a perpetual source of wisdom and guidance in the Church.  The question is whether you still have to obey all the laws in a literal sense.  And here the answer can be conclusively proven to be No just from the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  For the prophets state that the Messianic age will result in a New Covenant being made, to replace the old one.  If the sacrifices and rituals of the Old Convenant were still adequate, there would have been no talk about replacing them with a new regime in which things work differently.  (To be truly consistent with a no-updating principle, one would also have to reject most of the prophets that followed Moses, like the Samaritans do.)

Also, the Torah itself indicates that the reason for many of its ceremonial rules is to keep the Jews separated from the Gentiles [non-Jews] and their immoral practices.  For example:

“You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.  Because they did all these things [sexual immorality and child sacrifice], I abhorred them...  I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.  You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds...  You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” (Lev. 20:23-36)

But one of the major predictions about the Messianic era is that the Gentiles will be joined with the Jews in the worship of the true God.  Many examples could be given; here is just one:

Many peoples will come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

But if the Gentiles give up their idolatry and worship God together with the Jews, this implies that the special ritual observances which were designed to keep Jews and Gentiles separate, having fulfilled their stated purpose, ought to come to an end!

A second and more critical objection, is that the whole point of the Torah was to teach Monotheism, but Christianity assails this doctrine by asserting the divinity of Jesus; that he is the Son of God and eternally one of the persons of the Trinity (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit).  And the Jews were supposed to reject any prophet who told them to worship other gods:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.  The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.  It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.  That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  (Deut. 13:1-5)

One possible response to this is that the Hebrew Scriptures already contain several hints that the Messiah would have some superhuman or quasi-divine status.  He acts as a sort of eternal mediator between God and Israel, ruling over all the peoples:

Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.  (Isaiah 9:5-7)

The most important thing here is not so much the title "God" considered by itself, since the Hebrew word אֵ֣ל (el) is ambiguous and could also be translated as "judge" or "hero".  Actually he more striking thing is that God is willing to trust a single human being with ruling the whole human race forever, saving us all from war and death, and acting as a perpetual parent and guide.  But Monotheism has no room for a semi-divine figure like this, since there is only one God—and "apart from me there is no Savior" (Isaiah 43:11).  So it was actually to preserve Monotheism that the early Christians decided that Jesus must be fully divine, of one being with his Father; not a separate god from the God of Israel.

It is the fulfillment of what God was aiming at all along.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God states that he will come and live among his people: through their observance of his Law, their reverence for his Name, in their Temple, etc.  But none of these proved sufficient by themselves; people kept turning away.  It is a dramatic and shocking claim (blasphemous unless it is true) that God came and dwelt among his people in a temple of human flesh.  But it gives new meaning to all of these promises, which could never really be fulfilled by a mere building in Jerusalem.

Why was God not more explicit about this from the beginning?  Because like all good educators, God was revealing the truth progressively, rather than trying to present all the material at once.  (For example, it was not until the later stages of the Jewish revelation that prophets began to explicity teach about an afterlife.)  It took over a thousand years to drill Monotheism into Israel and prevent them from continually falling back into idol-worship, polytheism and other pagan practices.  It was hard enough keeping the Israelites from having shrine prostitutes in the Temple, and sacrificing their own children to dark gods.  During this time the doctrine of the Trinity could only have been a distraction, misunderstood in the grossest possible ways (e.g. as a pantheon generated by sexual procreation).  First the Lord had to make it quite clear that he alone is God, that he is holy and righteous, and not to be depicted by an image or understood in a crudely anthropomorphic way.  Only after these lessons sunk in, could the mystery of the Trinity be fully revealed (as opposed to merely hinted at).

Now Islam claims, in turn, to be a fulfillment of both Judaism and Christianity.  Muslims believe that Allah sent many prophets before the final prophet Mohammad.  [Note: "Allah" is just the Arabic word for God, used even by Christians in Lebanon and other countries.  There are important theological differences between Islam and Christianity, but the name used for God is not one of them!]  God has no sons or daughters.  Instead Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, and Jesus were all prophets, speaking a message from Heaven, and that their religions were all essentially identical to Islam (allowing for minor differences in ritual observance to suit different times and places), but that their teachings were corrupted over time.  According to Islam, Jesus is merely the second-most important prophet in history; he did not did not claim to be the Son of God or divine:

When God says: "Jesus son of Mary, did you say to people, `Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God'?" he will say, "May you be exalted!  I would never say what I had no right to say—if I had said any such thing you would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know all that is within you, you alone have full knowledge of things unseen—I told them only what you commanded me to: "Worship God, my Lord and your Lord."  I was a witness over them during my time among them.  (Haleem translation of Sura 5:116-117)

The Quran also denies that Jesus was crucified or died, explaining that it only seemed like that to the bystanders:

“They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to himself.”  (Haleem, Sura 4:157-158)

And therefore the Quran also implicitly denies that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, although Muslims do believe that Jesus was taken into Heaven, and will return to rule over a Muslim kingdom during the End Times.

I find these claims of continuity with the past to be significantly less plausible.  It is true that Islam's strict Monotheism is superficially more similar to the teaching of Judaism, but it makes far less use of biblical prophecies and themes.  And the fact that Muslims have to resort to saying that the Torah and New Testament became corrupt whenever they contradict Islam, shows that they do not in fact fit very tightly to Islam.  It is very implausible that the process of copying the New Testament could have resulted in such thoroughly profound changes to the text; thus the Muslim must claim that our earliest written Christian texts, even those purportedly by Jesus' own disciples, radically misunderstood Jesus' own teaching.

The claim that Jesus was never crucified is especially historically implausible, since this is a fact which virtually every serious scholar (outside the Muslim world), even those generally skeptical of the historicity of the New Testament, agrees is historically certain.  After all, nearly all of the early sources that mention Jesus, including those by non-Christian Roman historians, allude to his execution.  (One text that may date to the 6th century, the Gospel of Barnabas, claims that Judas was substituted for Jesus on the cross, but this work is highly anachronistic and has no real historical value.)

Of course most of the early texts that mention Jesus' death also mention his Resurrection, which is not generally accepted by non-Christian scholars, because then they'd end up being Christians.  We will examine the evidence for the Resurrection later, but for now I'll note that there are solid reasons why even those who doubt the Resurrection accounts should still accept that Jesus was crucifed.  Crucifixion was an extremely shameful way to die in the Roman world, and it is quite unlikely that Christians would have invented a story their Master died this way if it hadn't actually happened.

There is a natural tendency to resist the idea that a divinely appointed and honored prophet could suffer such an ignominious fate.  Yet in attempting to save the Christ from dishonor, Islam implicitly denies the most powerful ethical themes in Christianity: love, sacrifice, and the triumph of God even in weakness and suffering.  From the Christian perspective, this is as if one bought a generic-brand pill from a pharmacist containing everything except the active ingredient of the name-brand pill.  The active ingredient is God suffering on behalf of human beings.

I admit, of course, that an omnipotent Deity would have the ability to successfully hoodwink everyone about what happened to Jesus.  But it is very hard to see a good reason why he would perform this particular trick.  First of all it would raise serious questions about God's truthfulness, which is fatal in a religion based on divine revelation, which requires trust in God's veracity.  I could perhaps see a motive to fool the enemies of a true prophet, but what motivation could there be to trick Jesus' faithful original disciples, whom the Quran speaks positively of:

O you who have believed, be supporters of Allah, as when Jesus, the son of Mary, said to the disciples, "Who are my supporters for Allah ?"  The disciples said, "We are supporters of Allah."  And a faction of the Children of Israel believed and a faction disbelieved.  So We supported those who believed against their enemy, and they became dominant.  (Sura 61:14)

Now consider the fact that the actual historical effects of Jesus' apparent Crucifixion—and, although the Quran does not mention this explicitly, his subsequent appearences to his disciples—were to convince his loyal disciples of (what Islam considers to be) false and idolatrous theological claims: namely the divinity of Jesus, and his ability to atone for the sins of the whole world through his death and Resurrection.  Given the verse I just quoted, it doesn't really seem consistent to blame the disciples for the mixup.  So it seems like God would be responsible for starting Christianity off on the wrong foot.

It's one thing for God to allow false religons to arise through the mendacity of charlatans; it's quite another for him to create them himself by means of direct and misleading miracles.  If God does such things, it would throw into doubt the claims of any religion based on divine revelation.  How would Muslims know that the miracles done for Mohammad were not equally deceptive?  One could never know for sure.

A related topic worth mentioning is the large number of stories about Bible characters found in the Quran.  Sometimes (as in the sura about Joseph), the quranic story is quite similar to the biblical narrative.  In other cases (such as the depiction of Ishmael) things seem distorted and inconsistent.  Now since the Quran is about 2,000 years farther removed from the people in question, it is a little difficult to believe that the traditional Arabic stories about these people were more reliable than the Hebrew traditions that went into the Torah.

The obvious reply for a Muslim, is to say that since the Quran is the direct word of God, the stories are not in fact based on Arab legends; instead they are divinely revealed accounts of what really happened!  Thus these stories were not transmitted to the present day by the usual processes governing history and myths; instead they were directly revealed by supernatural means.  But the trouble with this hypothesis, is that it fails to explain why the Quranic stories are so similar to the obviously legendary traditions that were already circulating at the time of Mohammad.

A very clear test case is the suras about Solomon.  In the Bible (e.g. 1 Kings 1-11), Solomon is portrayed as an ordinary human being, very wise and rich, but not endowed with magical abilities.  Apart from a couple visions in dreams, and a single supernatural sign to confirm God's acceptance of the Temple, nothing happens in the account of his reign which is not naturally possible.  But the Solomon of later Jewish legend is a veritable magician!  He can have conversations with birds and animals, and he can also enslave jinn (i.e. genies) with mighty magical spells and bindings, in order to force them to do his bidding.  (Even though sorcery was forbidden to pious Jews.)

Now to me there is no serious question which of these is the historical version, and which is the fantasy-novel version.  But the Solomon of the Quran is the mythological Solomon.  For example, see this excerpt from the Sura of the Ant:

Solomon was David's heir.  He said, "O people, we have been endowed with understanding the language of the birds, and all kinds of things have been bestowed upon us.  This is indeed a real blessing."  Mobilized in the service of Solomon were his obedient soldiers of jinns and humans, as well as the birds; all at his disposal.

When they approached the valley of the ants, one ant said, "O you ants, go into your homes, lest you get crushed by Solomon and his soldiers, without perceiving."  He smiled and laughed at her statement, and said, "My Lord, direct me to be appreciative of the blessings You have bestowed upon me and my parents, and to do the righteous works that please You.  Admit me by Your mercy into the company of Your righteous servants."

He inspected the birds, and noted: "Why do I not see the hoopoe?  Why is he missing?  I will punish him severely or sacrifice him, unless he gives me a good excuse."  He did not wait for long.  [The hoopoe] said, "I have news that you do not have. I brought to you from Sheba, some important information. (27:16-22)

To say that this is historical, would require believing that for some reason the Jewish chroniclers excluded from their own history all of the supernatural accomplishments of their greatest king; and then (over time) the stories about Solomon became gradually more and more accurate; until finally, under divine inspiration, it was revealed that these later myths were basically the same as what had originally happened.  Even leaving aside the absurdity of the tales themselves (if taken literally, rather than as fables), that is not how oral tradition works.

Now, let me be clear: I am not a fundamentalist when I interpet my own Scriptures.  (If we interpret either the Bible or the Quran as teaching that the Earth was literally created in just six days, then we have much bigger problems then Solomon talking to animals!)  So if a Muslim wanted to say: God was simply using fictional stories believed in by the surrounding Arab culture to teach important spiritual lessons, then in principle I would not have any objection to that method of teaching.

But most Muslim theologians seem to have a much stricter standard for the literal historicity of the Quran than that.  Their view of Scripture is not quite the same as that of the Bible.  Jews and Christians claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration working through the instrument of human writers, but Muslims believe that the Quran is the words of Allah revealed verbatim from heaven by the angel Gabriel, with no admixture of human skill or opinion.  I think that few Muslim theologians would consider giving up the literal accuracy of the stories about Bible characters.

And if they did, such an admission could potentially undermine the quranic claim to present a more accurate description of Jesus, whose nature is the key point of dispute beween Muslims and Christians.  (Indeed, some of the stories about Jesus can also be identified as later legends: for example the story of Jesus making a clay bird come to life comes from the 2nd century Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which fills in the gaps of Jesus' childhood with various capricious miracles, as if he were a superhero who hadn't yet learned to control his powers.)

There are several more recent religions, such as the Baha'i faith, which claim in turn to fulfil Islam.  But if Islam is untenable, then it seems any religion based on it must also fail.  Or, even if Islam were correct, the fact that Mohammad seemingly claimed to be the final prophet would still invalidate them.  So there seems to be no way forwards in that direction.

In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly warns that many false prophets would come in his name afterwards, and even lead people astray with deceptive signs and wonders.  This seems like something to take into consideration, when evaluating any religion that claims to extend his teachings.

Moving over to the East, Hinduism is also an ancient religion (or perhaps more accurately, an eclectic mix of many different religious traditions, some of which are ancient).  This adds somewhat to its credibility, for reasons similar to our discussion of Judaism.  (If many people have been saying the same religious ideas for a long time, those ideas seem somewhat more likely to be based in objective reality than if one person has a revolutionary new idea about the gods, that no one has ever thought of before!)

On the other hand, Hinduism is considerably less unique looking than Judaism.  At the popular level the religion looks like standard paganism (i.e. polytheistic idol worship), but then there is an overlay of various more sophisticated philosophies, that teach more unified systems such as Pantheism, Monotheism, Materialism, Dualism, Nihilism etc.  This is more or less what the ancient Roman Empire looked like before Christianity became dominant there.  Of course, that does not automatically imply that any of these philosophical schools are wrong (that would require going into specifics) but it looks much less like a definitive supernatural revelation from Heaven, and a lot more like what you would expect people with a strong religious instinct to come up with on their own.

Buddhism clearly took over a number of important ideas from Hinduism, most notably the goal of achieving liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  The main reasons why Buddhism is regarded as a separate religion, rather than as a branch of orthodox Hinduism, are that 1) it does not accept the Vedas of Hinduism as religious scripture, and 2) it subscribes to the doctrine of anatman ("No Self") which denies that human beings have any permanent essence to subscribe to.  In these respects, Buddhism was a new religion; it does not "fulfil" Hindu religious scriptures the way Christ claimed to fulfil the Jewish scriptures.

On the other hand, I was surprised to learn a while ago that Buddha is regarded by many Hindus as the most recent Incarnation of Vishnu, sent "to deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of righteousness."  In fact he is the only Incarnation on their list to appear in historical times (i.e. after writing came to India, but before the future).  And indeed, when I visited India to teach at a summer school, we went on a day-trip to the Konark Sun Temple and saw a relief carving of Buddha on this Hindu religious site.

But if that's true, then I don't really understand why adherents of Vishnuism don't convert to Buddhism, since apparently that's the most recently updated version of the religion!  (When it comes to software updates, I'm not much of an early adopter.  I'd rather stick with what works, rather than migrate immediately to the newest version.  But if the next version of Windows came with a recommendation by God himself, then I might think differently about it.  And a couple dozen centuries is surely long enough to check that the new version is stable!)

Some Eastern religions, such as Sikhism, incorporate elements from both Islam and Hinduism.  This is a pretty audacious feat, since it is hard to imagine two religions that are, considered in themselves, more incompatible!  However, Sikhs identify as neither Muslim nor Hindu, and consider themselves to be an entirely new monotheistic religion, even though their Scripture includes the writings of certain Hindus and Muslims.

One important question that arises in any religion that claims to be revealed at a particular time and place, is what to say about those from other cultures who were never influenced by the message?  This is less of a problem for inclusivist religions (that teach that salvation can be achieved in any religion) or religions that teach Reincarnation (since these people could say that everyone will eventually be born into the right culture).  But in the case of Christianity and Islam, it raises more serious difficulties, since these religions teach that everyone ought to convert to the true religion.

(Indeed the problem is even more severe for Christianity, which teaches that union with Jesus is the actual cause of salvation.  Islam does not teach that Mohammad is a Savior; he only brought the final and most complete message telling people what God expects them to do.  This is similar to Pelagian heresy condemned by orthodox Christianity, the belief that human beings are already capable of pleasing God naturally, and only need instruction in how to behave, not a radical transformation of the human condition.)

In either case, I think the right strategy is to appeal to God's justice and mercy, to argue that people will be judged on the basis what they knew, even if they were not part of the truest religion.  I personally think the best interpretation of the Bible allows for the possibility of salvation for those who die as non-Christians, although like Christians they would be saved only through the sacrifice of Jesus.

If I were a Muslim, I would adopt a similar interpretation of Islam.  Even though there are passages suggesting that disbelievers go to Hell, there are also passages that explicitly allow for the possibility of monotheistic "People of the Book" (such as Jews and Christians) to be judged as righteous.  (On the other hand, orthodox Christians who consider Jesus to be divine would be committing shirk, the worst sin in Islam.)  It is also stated that God does not punish anyone unless he first sends a messenger to warn them:

Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul.  And whoever errs only errs against it.  And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.  And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.  (Sura 17:15)

suggesting that even some pagan idolaters might end up being saved, if they didn't know any better.

Since the foundational principle for both religions is God's goodness, it follows that we can trust God not to judge people unfairly.  Given that there is a life after this one, God's choice to reveal his truth by a historical process (initiated at particular times and places) does not require him to leave everyone else out in the cold permanently.

Next: Supernatural Claims

Posted in History, Theological Method | 7 Comments

## Comparing Religions II: World Evangelism

Having introduced the subject of comparing religions, we will now analyze the first question:

1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?

One of the reasons for this question is that few people have time to investigate all of the numerous religions that exist.  (I've done more than most people ever will, but there are still huge gaps in my knowledge.)  Since it is not possible to do a complete analysis of every religious tradition, one must have some way of sifting out the more likely candidates from the less likely ones.  Whatever criterion one uses for this sifting, it has to be something which can be measured prior to doing an in-depth investigation.

In persuasive writing, it is generally considered most rhetorically effective to lead with one of your stronger arguments, so that people don't dismiss your case out of hand.  But here, the nature of the subject requires me to lead with one of the weaker arguments for a religion, namely its popularity.  But it is not so weak that it doesn't deserve careful consideration.  Later on, we will discuss some more dispositive tests.

Ad populum (appeal to mass belief) is not necessarily a fallacy, when it is used only as a probability argument rather than a deductive argument.  I would never say that a large number of adherents guarantees that a religion is correct; obviously not.  Many completely wrong beliefs (e.g. homeopathy and astrology) still have lots of people who swear by them.  There are, however, some cogent reasons why a true religion is likely to have more adherents than it would if it were false.  So while the fact that a significant fraction of the world population believes in something cannot (taken by itself) be enough reason to accept it, I do think it justifies taking it seriously enough to investigate its truth.

All Else being Equal, Truth is More Convincing

Presumably a true religion is more likely than a false one to be found convincing by a broad range of people.  It is also more likely to be regarded as important enough to share with others.  While human beings are far from infallible, it says something good about a religion if it can pick up a large number of voluntary converts.  At least some people take into account reason and evidence (and any "signs" they may happen to witness) when deciding what to believe; so all else being equal, truth should provide a religion with a survival advantage.  (If this were not true, then there would be very little point in writing blog posts analysing the evidence for or against religion, because nobody would take them into account.)

It is especially impressive if a religion has been found plausible by people from many different cultures and backgrounds.  A religion might take off in a single ethnic group because of some fluke of history.  On the other hand, a multicultural distribution suggests that perhaps the religion contains something true to life, that it is in some way suited to the human condition at large, not just one cultural milieu.  If it has seemed insightful to many kinds of poets, philosophers, and peasants, then it probably contains at least some element of universally valid truth.

A Census of World Religions

If even 1 in a thousand people (worldwide) investigate religions in a sufficiently sensible and open-minded way to identify the truth (whatever it is), then it would follow that the true religion must have at least 7 million adherents or so, which would narrow us down to about a dozen possibilities (according to the website adherents.com in 2014.)  If you scroll down past the pie chart of the first link, you'll come to the following list:

1. Christianity (2.1 billion)
2. Islam (1.5 billion)
3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist (1.1 billion)
4. Hinduism (900 million)
5. Chinese traditional religion (394 million)
6. Buddhism (376 million)
7. primal-indiginous (300 million)
8. African Traditional and Diasporic (100 million)
9. Sikhism (23 million)
10. Juche (19 million)
11. Spiritism (15 million)
12. Judaism (14 million)
13. Baha'i (7 million)
[+additional religions with 4.2 million religions or fewer]

Of course, many of these categorization decisions are questionable.  Nonreligious is by definition the absence of a religious commitment (although Communism might be regarded as a religious substitute for a substantial minority of these people); Chinese traditional represents various admixtures of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship; indiginous or African traditional are umbrella terms for thousands of different pagan religious traditions (most of which would have less adherents than Baha'i if taken individually); while Juche is just the state ideology of the North Korean dictatorship (which has approximately the same moral credibility as Nazism).  Fringe Christian or Islamic cults might be better regarded as separate religions, and some of them (like Mormonism) I will be treating as separate religions in subsequent posts.  But the exact division is not very important.  The point is that there are really only a small number of options on the table, if you use the rest of humanity to sift out the options that have been found most plausible.

(That being said, if there is some particular religion with fewer adherents that you have some reason to think is specially promising, I'm not saying that you shouldn't investigate it.  But it is reasonable to start with more popular religions.)

Another Reason to Consider Popularity: Divine Favor

A true religion is also more likely to have divine favor assisting its spread across the world (assuming of course that the religion is theistic).  I don't want to put too much emphasis on this, since the worship of strength and worldly success is one of the crudest of all religions.  My own religion centers around the Cross, therefore it is (or ought to be) on the side of the unjustly persecuted everywhere.  Might does not make right.  Yet sometimes, when human hearts are receptive, right makes for might.  Truth may be weak, but sometimes this weakness is itself a paradoxical form of strength, as Gandhi showed in India, and the Civil Rights Movement showed in America.

If there is a religion revealed by God, then it is an obvious sociological fact that not everyone on earth has accepted the message.  For whatever reason, it is not the divine will to overawe everyone into accepting it (at least, not yet).  But if it is a genuine revelation, one expects that he would protect and defend it to some extent, at least enough to accomplish whatever goals he has in revealing the message.

At the very least, extinct religions like e.g. Greek or Egyptian polytheism are probably not worth taking very seriously—if those gods are at all real, why would they have allowed their names to be completely forgotten, except as fodder for dissertations, garden statuary, and comic books? It took a lot of kahunas for the prophet Jeremiah, way back in the 600s BC when the Jews were surrounded by polytheists, to taunt the followers of other gods by telling them (in Aramaic, the international language):

“These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jer 10:11).

But in quite a large portion of the globe, including of course the Middle East where Jeremiah was prophesying, this is exactly what has happened.  (This process is not yet complete, but if a prophet had predicted that all the world would one day consist of blue-skinned people, and then over the next few centuries half of the people on the planet had turned blue, I would start taking the rest of what he said more seriously, even if it hadn't yet happened to everyone!)

The Jewish Origins of the Idea of Progress

Historically, it was extremely unusual, in the pre-Christian world, for a religion to predict its own global dominance.  As moderns we think that every ideology should predict a future in which it is more widely successful, but that's not how most people thought back then.  The ancients usually expected that the world would keep on going more or less as it was before, or maybe keep getting gradually worse.  As Westerners we are used to ideologies having an eschatological aspect—looking forward to a future utopian society that is a radical improvement on the present—but the reason we think this way is precisely because of the influence of Judaism!  (The only other eschatological pre-Christian religion I know of is Zoroastrianism, which presumably either got it from Judaism, or else influenced Judaism in this respect.)

Universal vs. Ethnic Religions

The Jews did not (and still do not) regard it as necessary for pagans to become Israelites in order to be saved.  The Hebrew prophets spoke against idolatry and polytheism, but they foresaw the worldwide acceptance of pure Monotheism as a sign of the future Messianic Era, not as a realistic goal for the present day.

However, at the time of the Roman Empire, there were a large group of "God-fearers", who came to believe in the truth of Judaism, but did not formally convert due to the burdensome nature of Jewish ritual.  A lot of these people later became Christians, once it became clear that you didn't have to become a Jew in order to be a full member of the Christian Church.

If this model is right, then God cultivated an ethnic religion for a limited period of time, in order to produce the right circumstances in which the Messiah could come.  But now that he has come, Christianity is a religion for all people, in fulfilment of God's promises:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

Hence, if we wish to find a worthy rival to Christianity, it should probably be a universal religion, i.e. its message should be sufficiently relevant to the perennial human condition, that it can be adopted by people from every culture and tribe, without completely wrenching them out of their social context.  A religion cannot really be considered cosmic in scope, if it isn't even able to be cosmopolitan.  This criterion rules out a large number of purely ethnic and tribal religions.

If God were still restricting his message primarily to a single ethnic group, presumably the rest of us would not be judged too harshly for not being in on the program.  Even the insiders might not think you have a moral obligation to join their group.  This makes it a lower priority to investigate ethnic religions such as Judaism or Hinduism (unless of course you happen to belong to one of these groups already).

As the most extreme case of ethnic exclusion, some religions currently forbid conversion altogether, for example traditional Parsees (Zoroastrians in India), and the Druze (in the Middle East).  These religions also forbid their adherents to marry outsiders.  There's just no way to get in, even if you wanted to!

Other religious traditions teach that God reveals himself through all cultures and therefore it is counterproductive to cast aside your ancestral teachings in favor of theirs.  These religions may discourage converts: for example, a woman from the church I grew up in became interested in Hinduism, and went to India to study under a guru.  He told her to go back to the USA, saying that she wasn't done being a Christian yet!  I've heard other anecdotes along similar lines, so apparently this attitude is fairly common among Hindu teachers.

Then there are various small religions (such as Baha'i, which is right on the edge of my somewhat arbitrary 1/1000 threshold) that are clearly intended to be international in scope, but have failed to achieve a very large number of converts to their cause.

(In some cases this might be because the religion is new.  Of course all religious movements start out small, so we can't place too much weight on this criterion or it would imply that nobody should have followed Jesus at the beginning, when he only had a few disciples.  At the same time, it seems reasonable to say that an untested charismatic cult leader needs to clear a higher bar than a well-established religious tradition.)

Hence, to score top points on this criterion, it is best to have already convinced a significant fraction of the world.

The Three Big Evangelical Religions

These considerations suggest we should focus the most attention on Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.  These are the 3 world religions which have had the most success in gaining converts even in radically different cultures, the ones whose message has been perceived as "Good News" to numerous people groups around the world.  (But I will still try to say some things about other religions as well, to the extent that my limited knowlege allows.)  To what extent their religious teachings actually are good news—well, that is a subject for the later posts!

Of these three "evangelical" religions, the spread of Islam is somewhat marred by the fact that the early spread of Islam, starting during Mohammad's lifetime and continuing for several centuries thereafter, was largely due to military action and subsequent cultural imperialism.  Although obviously Muslims would attribute this rapid spread to God's will, from a human point of view it seems that the sword discriminates among truths far more clumsily than rational discourse does.  (There are however a few countries, such as Indonesia, where the spread of Islam seems to have largely occurred through peaceful means such as trade.)

Of course some Muslim historians will insist that each of these conquests was morally justified by various particular circumstances.  But, to paraphrase a bit of popular wisdom: anyone might meet one or two jerks, but if everyone you meet seems to be a jerk, then you should consider the possibility that you might be the jerk, and they're just reacting to your personality.  In particular, any group that tries to conquer large parts of the world by the sword, should not be too surprised when the other countries look on with dismay and try to fight back.  (Here I am speaking historically, and not attempting to justify any particular modern wars.)

It actually took several centuries for these conquests to result in a majority for Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.  At first it was mainly the rulers of the conquered lands who were Muslims.  While pagans were required to convert at swordpoint, monotheistic groups such as Jews, Christians, Mandaeans (yes, there still exist followers of John the Baptist who never converted to Christianity!—although by now they have become very gnostic and reject even Moses), and Zoroastrians were generally tolerated, so long as they accepted second-class citizenship (dhimma), paid extra taxes (jizya), and did not try to convert Muslims to their religion.  Over the long run these legal disadvantages gave Islam a decisive advantage.

Mind you, at times the situation for Jews or "heretics" in medieval Europe was even worse than this.  It is easy to find examples of persecution of religious minorities in Christian history.  (Officially speaking, the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy only asserted authority over baptized individuals, but sometimes local rulers would impose Christianity on their domains, and then later the Church would try to enforce orthodoxy in these populations since they were now "Christians".)

Even Buddhists have sometimes engaged in religious persecution, e.g. historically in Japan, and at the present in Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma).  A college friend once tried to argue to me that anyone who persecuted other people wasn't a real Buddhist and therefore didn't count.  But this was an obvious use of the No True Scotsman ploy.  In my opinion the Christians who persecuted people weren't in that respect very good examples of Christianity either, but they still existed.

However, I think it is fair to say that both Christianity and Buddhism usually spread to new cultures primarily through evangelism.  This is especially true in their early years, and also in the contemporary world.

For example, after converting to Buddhism, the Indian king Ashoka (formerly a cruel tyrant) seems to have become a pacifist who promoted religious toleration (although there are some contrary traditions whose accuracy is disputed); his support for missionary activity in other countries helped spread Buddhism to many other nations.  And for the first 3 centuries the Christian Church rapidly expanded, even though it had no control over the government and intermittently went through periods of severe persecution, prior to its legalization by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.

Of course there were plenty of instances of persecuting others which occured after these religions were well-established.  But it is open to both Buddhists and Christians to claim that the persecutors were bad examples, that they were ignoring the explicit instructions of their own sacred texts, and ought to have known better.  And perhaps that, in the long run, their religion would have advanced just as well or even better, without the aid of violent support.  It is not really open for a Muslim to say the same thing, because then they would have to disown their own Prophet and his immediate followers.  Of course they can still renounce particular instances of expansion through warfare, as being done in an inappropriate time or manner, but they cannot renounce it on principle.

(Christians do have to deal with divinely commanded warfare in the Old Testament, although this was not for evangelical purposes and was geographically limited.  There was no command to spread Judaism to other nations by conquest!  I will reserve discussion of the ethics of this violence until later, but it does introduce our next topic, namely continuity with other religions.)

Next: Ancient Roots

Posted in History, Theological Method | 11 Comments

## Comparing Religions I: Introduction

May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

In my previous response, I came up with a list of questions to ask to compare religions.  Here they are again:

1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?
3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?
4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?
5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?
6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?
8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
10. What is the general moral character of the religious teaching?
11. Do people who are serious about this religion generally feel that they are put into an actual relationship with the divine?

I will now attempt to answer these questions, both for Christianity and its competitors.

Some disclaimers are probably appropriate.  Obviously there are some religions I know more about than others, and I apologize in advance to any member of another religion if I've gotten anything factually wrong.  Corrections are welcome in the comments.

Obviously, in order to say why I think Christianity is more plausible than other religions, I will have to be honest about what I think the shortcomings of other religions are.  In doing this, I do not intend to communicate any disrespect to the adherents of these religions.  I would like to believe as well of everyone as I can, but I am constrained by the truth to give my honest opinion.  I will try to do my best to highlight the good aspects of other religions as well as the problematic aspects.

I do not aim to write from a "neutral" viewpoint (nor do I think there is any such thing on this subject), but I do think I'm fair-minded enough to explore things from other perspectives, yet also—and this is equally important—interested in identifying actual evidence and truth, unlike supposedly "objective" scholars of comparative religion.

Not being interested in the truth of the underlying claims (or at least, interested in imagining what it would be like to care about the truth claims) is actually one of the most subjective ways to study a religion, in my opinion.  Because it sidesteps or brackets the thing most essential to most actual religious believers, it has a tendency to end up comparing superficial cultural similarities and differences, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

And I am certainly not trying to evangelize my own culture.  I do not want everyone to share my own culture, but Christ.  Christian missionary work is not about the Imperial impulse, getting other people to give up their own culture, in order to learn Greek or English and become Europeans or Americans; no, it is about bringing Christ into every culture, to transform it into what God created it to be.  Certain specific cultural traditions may need to be changed because they are unjust or idolatrous—but that applies to Western culture as well!  The point of missionary work is to introduce other cultures to Jesus and let him show them what needs to change so that they can truly be themselves, not to make them over into the image of another group of people.

Some Christian missionaries have made the Imperial mistake in the past, but I think they've mostly figured it out by now.  I have seen many missionaries give presentations at churches about their foreign work, and almost down to the last man and woman, they have all seemed far more excited to share what they've learned about foreign cultures with Americans, then to spread American culture anywhere.  It is Jesus and the Gospel which they want to share, not Western culture in general.  (The one major exception is Western medicine, another type of "good news" which is beneficial to everyone, and which most missionaries are also very interested in sharing with other cultures.)

Please bear in mind that I'm trying to paint in really broad strokes here, because otherwise each of these questions would have to be a book in its own right.  So if I say that a religion is "primarily based" on something or other, or I summarize its teachings very briefly, I expect that there are plenty of nuances which I'm glossing over; due to my misperceptions as an outsider, different sects adopting different interpretations, and so on.  There is certainly potential for bias in my descriptions, but I still think these comparisons are worth doing.  Even near-sighted people can usually tell the difference between an elephant, a dog, and a rat.

While I may occasionally mention them, I will not be too concerned with the theological differences between different Christian denominations in this series.  I believe that what Christians share in common is far more important than what separates us.  (Here I am referring to geoups that actually believe in the supernatural claims of the New Testament, and have the mainstream Christian view about the basic nature of God and Jesus.  Fringe groups like Mormonism are probably better thought of as separate religions.)

In some ways, the internal differences within non-Christian religions are actually more significant for this project, because when a dispute between Christians is important, if need be I can simply defend the viewpoint I find most plausible.  But if there is a division inside of a non-Christian religion, in priciple one would need to investigate every possible permutation of the other religion to find the most plausible version.  This task is particularly vexatious in the case of Hinduism, which I am not sure should even be regarded as a single religion!  (Since you can find Hindu sects with basically all possible positions on the nature of divinity and its relation to the world.)  In other cases, I am going to try to keep things simple by focussing on the religious founder and trying to identify what form of the religion he (or she) taught, even though it's conceivable that the version that is most "authentic" to the founders intentions might not always be the version that is most true or beneficial.

Note that I will be discussing a fairly large number of criteria in the blog posts that follow, and it is not necessarily obvious which criteria are the most important.  Hence, even if I seem to "eliminate" a religion from consideration in one blog post, I may nevertheless continue to discuss that religion in future blog posts.

I am particularly grateful to my friend and fellow physicist Ahmed (of firewalls fame) for several conversations on Islam which have significantly benefitted my understanding.  I consider myself to have much more important things in common with him, than with any of the run-of-the-mill irreligious physicists I know.  Of course the views I express are my own, and so are any mistakes!

When irreligious skeptics in America bring up other religions as an objection to Christianity, it seems to me that they are quite frequently arguing in obvious bad faith.  When they look for parallels to the claims of Christ in some other religion, it is really to argue against Christ, and not because they actually take seriously, for one minute, the idea that some exotic foreign cult leader might actually turn out to be the true prophet sent by God.  If they did take these other religions seriously as rivals to Christianity, I think they would approach the question with far more caution, and would inevitably find themselves making distinctions between the plausibility of different ideas.

(Surely it is horrendously unlikely that all religions would have exactly equal plausibility.  Even if they were all fake, some fakes are a lot more convincing than others!  And you can't possibly know they're all fake, until you've investigated them carefully.)

At this point I should also mention another "skeptical" approach to evaluating religions which I think has very little merit, just to get it out of the way.  And that is to read the scriptures of a religion solely for the purpose of compiling a long list of "contradictions" that supposely disprove the books in question.  The main problem with this approach is that, generally speaking, the "worse" of a reader you are (i.e. superficial, hostile, and literal-minded) the more seeming contradictions you will find.  In other words, this is an approach which rewards poor reading.  And as St. Lewis remarked in one of his Narnia books, "the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."  (Of course, this approach is even sillier when done by followers of another religion, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own holy book might be subjected to the same treatment.)

You have to give a text an chance, "suspending your disbelief" and savoring its taste on your tongue, even in order to find out what it is really saying.  Only then can you judge whether the ideas in it are sound or not.  This goes doubly for texts that were written a long time ago, where the authors lived in a completely different cultural milieu from our own.  Any historian worth his salt knows that even very accurate historical texts can contain puzzling statements, which may be difficult for us to reconcile with the rest of our knowledge about the period (but the resolution might have been transparently obvious to those who lived through the events, perhaps so obvious that they didn't bother explaining it).

And when it comes to the more intangible spiritual or ethical truths, only a fool would automatically reject any hint of paradox or tension between opposing ideas.  That's like saying that because your left eye and your right eye show slightly different images, you have to disbelieve either the one or the other, or both.  The better option is to combine both images, and then you can see in 3D!

This does not imply that all religious ideas are equally valid, either historically or philosophically.  At the end of the day, there might be irresolvable contradictions in a putative religious system.  But you should always make sure to criticize the essence of what is being said, rather than sniping at superficial "gotchas".

For these reasons, I find it's usually far more interesting and productive to have conversations about religious disagreements with an actual believer of another religion.  In this case, neither participant can "win" simply by retreating into a bottomless pit of endless skepticism, since each person also has something they wish to defend!

Next: World Evangelism

Posted in History, Theological Method | 5 Comments

## Out with the Old Random Links

Since it's now 2019, it's a good time to clear out some random links I've got bookmarked to show you.  Here they are:

♦  You can't take an introductory psychology course without hearing about Zimbardo's "Stanford Prison Experiment", but in fact many aspects were faked.  Part of the scam is that the experiment went so "badly" that it would be unethical for any other researchers to repeat it—but not so badly that it couldn't still be used to catapult himself to perpetual fame and glory.

♦  The hot new result in biology is "epigenetics", the idea that (modifying the standard Darwinian picture) the experiences of one generation can affect which genes are expressed in the next generation.  You'd never guess from the wild news coverage of this that the phenomenon has never been convincingly demonstrated in human beings.

♦  Martin Gardner's attack on Karl Popper.

♦  Llamas, the secret bioweapon for producing vaccines that work on all types of flu?  I'm putting a question mark on this, only because 90% of the amazing news stories about medicine don't pan out somehow.  I wish journalists would write more news stories about the things researchers discovered 10 years ago that are now definitely curing lots of people...

♦  Potoooooooo, a famous race horse and stud.  Pronounced POT-EIGHT-OHS.

♦  Rithomachy, the medieval arithmetic battle board game, was apparently nearly as popular as Chess for a few centuries.

♦  An illustrated history of the American Revolution by a Japanese book in 1861... in which the Founding Fathers battle various giant beasts.

♦  Bitcoin is currently using half a percent of the world's electricity.  Perhaps we shouldn't be squandering the planet's resources on a mindless race to manufacture currency that doesn't actually produce anything valuable?

[UPDATE 2/7/19: here's a possible rebuttal of the guy whose blog apparently started this ecological alarm.  Haven't put in enough work to figure out who's right here, but until then I'm taking these articles with a grain of salt.    If anyone knows more about this I'd be grateful if they weigh in.]

♦  In other cryptocurrency news: The (arguably unconstitutionally appointed) Acting Attorney General was previously involved in a scam to try to trick people into buying time travel cryptocurrency.  Unbelievable!  As if an AG disbelieving in Marbury vs. #@*\$^&! Madison weren't bad enough.  (I knew about the UConn crackpot from when I decided not to apply to a faculty position there, but I had no idea these threads were connected...)  Apparently it really is important to educate the public about why time travel is worth talking about but not really worth investing your retirement savings in.

♦  The Sabbath as a radical act of protest against being treated as a slave by the economic system.

♦  The Graphing Calculator Story, another radical act of protest... in favor of voluntarily working without pay?  Hilarious.

♦  As for involuntary servitude, a cynical take on schooling: Part I, Part II.  As a lazy bright kid who didn't do most of the homework I was assigned despite significant feelings of guilt, I 100% endorse these posts (except I disagree with the bit opposing standardized tests, and have some reservations about the section labelled "foreign kids").

♦  Why state educational ratings are measuring the wrong thing.  As a libertarian magazine, Reason has its own biases, but it seems quite reasonable that we should control for different state populations, and shouldn't count money spent on education (which is a cost) as if it were an educational outcome (a benefit).  Don't forget to click on the plot that shows their new rankings.

♦  How the US Educational system does math word problems completely wrong, by a mathematician from Russia.  Come on, folks!

♦  I've heard several times before that there are different potentially valid models of how to look at mental illness, but I think a few paragraphs in the middle of this blog post give a particularly striking answer for what makes a "spiritual model" different from other approaches, namely that it actually engages with—even when it does not agree with—the content of mental issues in a way other approaches do not.  (I don't have any reason to think the author is a Christian, but I still found this helpful.)

Oh, and Ivy League schools should stop discouraging people from being supportive to students with mental illnesses!

♦  This account of fixing an issue causing depression is also somewhat interesting, although I'm not sure how well the method would work on everybody...

♦  St. Shamus Young has an interesting series about procedural world-building that I think is pretty cool; his autobiography/conversion-story is also worth reading through.  Not for the slow of connections, though.

♦  An interview with a Christian neuroscientist at Stanford, St. William Newsome.

♦  Here's a brain viewer that's supposed to show you how different parts of the brain are mapped out, but I'm not sure my own brain is capable of handling the web interface.  Let me know if anyone figures out how to actually extract useful information from this.

♦  A side effect of people becoming less religious is we start treating political cults as if they were a religious identity.

♦  St. Ben Sasse, Senator from Nebraska and St. John's College graduate, had some balanced remarks about the MeToo movement during the recent confirmation fight.

♦  Tips for more productive and realistic political conversations.

♦  The Believing Game, another conversational tool for identifying certain sorts of truths.

♦  A while back I gave some advice about how to read the Bible.  The same guy also asked about Church History, and I put off answering because I thought I might write a whole blog post on the subject.  Ha!  My actual recommendation is to start by reading The Lion Handbook on the History of Christianity.  Then, if you are curious about some particular great Christian of the past, find a translation and start reading their work for yourself.  If it doesn't speak to you, pick something else.

♦  You know how in the Bible, when the king Jeroboam split Israel off from the southern kingdom of Judah, he set up an alternative system of worship involving a sycretistic hybrid religion where YHWH was worshipped in the form of golden calves?  [If the answer is no, click on the first link in the previous item.]  Well, archaeologists have recently found a payrus with some creepy alternative psalms from the Northern Kingdom religion.  Although there are parallels to the Biblical Psalms, in these psalms YHWH is worshipped alongside other Middle Eastern Gods, and may be identified with a "Bull".  He is also portrayed as being satiated by bowls of sacrificial blood.  I think most Christians don't realize how a lot of the biblical Psalms (like #50) are polemics against this sort of crass religion.

♦  One of my ancestors, the Rev. Aron Wall, helped lead a group of Mennonites from the Ukraine to the United States.  I'm staring right now at a photograph of him and his wife that is hanging on our mantelpiece, and he looks almost exactly the same as in the photograph I just linked to.  The Mennonites weren't originally from the Ukraine either; as Anabaptists (the more radical wing of the Reformation) they had been persecuted by both Protestant and Catholic countries in Central Europe.

♦  The Biodeterminist Guide to Parenting, by popular blogger Scott Alexander, one of the few people I trust to summarize the actual scientific evidence in a suitably tongue-in-cheek manner.

♦  Recently I've been commenting sometimes on Scott's blog Slate Star Codex.  Readers of this blog may be interested in my Ask Me Anything which mostly turned into an argument about the evidence for Christianity.

I've also been having some interesting conversations with a guy who is summarizing the beliefs of secular biblical critics about the Bible; this spans many threads but you can find most of them by tracing back links from the index post for the Torah /"Deuteronomistic History", the index post for the Prophets, and the most recent post of his ongoing series on the Writings [I may update this with the Index post later.] You can find out why scholars believe the Documentary Hypothesis, and more about why I'm skeptical of such hypotheses.

Have a blessed 2019, everyone!

## Breakthrough Panel Discussion on Time Travel

Everyone seemed to love the panel discussion on "Is time travel possible?", featuring Veritasium's Derek Muller as host; and Nima Arkani-Hamed, Daniel Harlow, Daniel Jafferis, and myself as panelists. We had a lot of fun with it, but also there's some profound physics involved, in what one might have thought was a pretty flippant choice of topic. So without further ado, here it is:

(Back up to 7:55 if you want to hear all the introductions to the event at the beginning.)

After our panel there were two others on "What are the limits of Science" and "Is there life in the Universe", recorded in the same video. There were a lot of interesting people on these panels, although I don't think the conversations cohered quite as well as ours did, perhaps because they involved people from different disciplines.

In the second panel, Andrei Linde is a fun speaker, but I think he overplayed how much we currently know for sure about the early universe after inflation happened. There are a lot of mysteries between the time inflation ended (about $10^{-35}$ seconds after the Big Bang by his reckoning) and the time of the Higgs Phase Transition (about $10^{-12}$ seconds, which corresponds to the highest energy scale we can measure at the LHC). Between these times there are a lot of mysteries, like what process produced more matter than antimatter, as needed for any matter to exist today. I also wish he'd mentioned Cosmic Variance, a pretty obvious Limit on Science in his field.

Gary Ruvkin, the guy who thinks life on earth came from outer space was also kind of interesting. Apparently after about a billion years of nothing, life shows up on Earth and it's already pretty complicated. So maybe it came from elsewhere? The downside of this hypothesis, he said wittily, is that it "only buys you another 10 billion years" to evolve life (going back to the Big Bang). Since this is a physics and theology blog, I'll mention that even though I generally think that Darwinian evolution suffices to explain the evolution of complex life from simpler life, it does seem bewildering how something as complicated as the first cell might have arisen naturally, without a miracle. But just because I can't imagine it doesn't necessarily mean it couldn't have happened by some natural process. As a theist I am philosophically open to both supernatural and natural explanations, both of which are ultimately due to the Creator of all things.

That third panel should really have been: "Is there other life in the Universe", otherwise I think the question is pretty easy. This panel includes Jocelyn Bell Burnell who received a special Breakthrough prize this year for her revolutionary discovery of pulsars. Scandalously, the Nobel was given to her advisor but not to her; either because of sexism, or because of a bias against graduate students, or some combination thereof.

This seems like a good time to mention that, if I understand the history correctly, it was Daniel Jafferis' grad student Ping Gao who had the original idea to try to make a traversable wormhole in AdS/CFT. (Although as the 3rd person to join the collaboration, I can't speak to the exact division of labor between Ping and Dan.) Now the New Horizons prize was awarded for our lifetime of work so far, and not just for this one article, so I'm not saying that Ping should have been eligible for this particular prize. But I do think it's important for people to acknowledge junior collaborators, and not just assume the senior people did all the best work. So thanks Ping!

[Apparently I misunderstood the history, and is was Daniel who had the original idea and assigned it to Ping as a project.  I apologize for the mistake, but of course I'm still grateful to Ping for his hard work and insights!]

Posted in Physics, Talks | 4 Comments