Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, September 25, 2006

THE FALLACY OF BIBLICAL INERRANCY

The evolution debate on this blog is a bit unusual in that it is not driven by the notion of Biblical inerrancy. According to polls:

In 1996, 58% of American adults said they believed that the Bible was "accurate in all its teachings."

In 2001, 41% of American adults said they believed that the Bible was "accurate in all its teachings."

It's hard to believe that belief in Biblical inerrancy actually dropped by 17% between 1996 and 2001-- probably this is sampling error. Also, if one-half of Americans will casually tell a pollster that they believe the Bible is "accurate in all its teachings," that may not mean that they would assent to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy if laid out in full dogmatic detail.

It's safe to say that most Americans who say the Bible is inerrant have not read all of it. (I haven't.) In practice, the sticking point is probably the creation story. According to this poll, 51% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form," as opposed to either guided or non-guided evolution. That's about the same as the percentage who believe in Biblical inerrancy. (Polls are always subject to an ask-a-stupid-question-get-a-stupid-answer problem. I wonder: were there "Don't know" and "None of the above" options. If not, I can't decide which answer I would have picked.)

The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is untenable and deeply damaging to religious faith.

First of all, it rests on a dishonest epistemology. In normal life, in order to make a claim, we require a certain sufficiency of evidence. If we make a claim when there is an obvious insufficiency of evidence, we are considered to be lying. If (a) you ask me for directions to the store, (b) I tell you turn right on 18th Street and walk nine blocks, (c) you follow my directions and find nothing, (d) you return and ask me for an explanation of why I thought the store was there, and (e) I say, "oh, I just felt like saying that," then you will rightly be angry with me. To claim that the Bible-- a text thousands of pages long-- is wholly without errors is an extremely ambitious claim. To justify making it, one would at a very minimum have to have read the book from cover to cover, and have conducted considerable investigation into the meaning and veracity of its claims. To claim that the Bible is inerrant without having done so is fundamentally dishonest, although when ordinary people do this they are often more often confused and unreflective. (Some, though, are reflective, are thinking clearly, and are wilfully deceiving themselves and others).

The irony is that when religious people, whether out of confusion or bad conscience, teach Biblical inerrancy, they are actually violating the teachings of the Bible, which commands us not to bear false witness. Some who are taught this fallacy will reject Christianity for the most Biblical of reasons: honesty forbids them to assent to the propositions which they are being taught!

Yet there's an even deeper problem with the Biblical inerrancy idea: it's meaningless. Natural language is characteristically ambiguous and indeterminate, in varying degrees. A reader must entertain various possible meanings, reject some, settle on the one most likely to be the author's intent. Assenting and dissenting is part of the reading process: I read statement X, and then think (perhaps so quickly and automatically that I barely notice it): "That could mean X1, X2, X3, or X4, and X3 and X1 are pretty dumb, the author would hardly have meant that, while X2 is some other views that I know this author holds, so I think the author means X4." Inerrancy is not a characteristic that texts in natural language can have. Inerrancy is a property of statistical tables, technical documents, and other specialized texts that are artificially isolated from the usual ambiguity and indeterminacy of natural language.

When people are told the Bible is inerrant, this is destructive of their critical reading faculties, because-- to the extent that they actually apply the doctrine-- they have to read the Bible as a sort of technical manual; the text is thus murdered and falsified.

Religious professionals know better. Large majorities of the clergy from every denomination questioned (95% of Episcopalians, 87% of Methodists, 82% of Presbyterians, 77% of Lutherans, 67% of Baptists) rejected the proposition that "the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in faith, history, and secular matters." The reason for this is obvious enough: these people have read and pondered the Bible and its meaning. To do this is likely to prompt the realization that the inerrancy idea misses the point.

What is remarkable is the gap between religious professionals and ordinary lay Americans, particularly since half of all American adults, with nonreligious included in the sample so that among the religious the share must be higher, seem to believe in Biblical inerrancy (unless the stupid-question-stupid-answer problem is distorting the results). This represents a serious failing on the part of religious professionals, who really should have educated their congregations better. On the other hand, one can't entirely blame them: a government-run secularist school system largely marginalizes the teaching of religion to Sundays.

UPDATE: Tom Reasoner comments:

The main problem with teaching religion in schools is that if you're going to teach about one, you have to teach about them all (to be fair and just).


Um, no, not if you have a voucher system. Then schools can mix religion into the curriculum any way they want, and parents can choose which type of school they want their children to attend. Of course, if you're a religious minority, there might not be enough of your kind to support a school that teaches your faith, and you would have to send your child to a school that teaches another religion, and do religious instruction on the side. In that case, you'd be in the same position as Christians and others are today, sending their children to secularist schools and teaching religion on the side. There's nothing "fair and just" about secularists getting to educate their children in their own beliefs at the taxpayer's expense, while other groups don't. Tom goes on to recite the secularist catechism:

And here's the best part about being secular: if my beliefs are wrong, and evidence is found indicating that, I won't stubbornly continue to hold those beliefs, I'll change them to something that the new evidence supports, thereby strengthening my "faith". You could say I temper my beliefs in the flame of evidence. Belief in secularism, when it comes right down to it, is simply belief in evidence.


The secularist-materialist worldview implies a certain determinism in the physical world that is incompatible with the existence of free will. It also effectively denies the existence of the ethical-- unless right and wrong can somehow be reduced to a material basis, which they can't. Our everyday experiences of right and wrong and free will are evidence-- sufficient evidence-- against the secularist-materialist worldview. There must be something more than what the secularist-materialist view has to offer. People intuit this, which is why religion remains strong despite an onslaught from the intelligentsia that has lasted for centuries. Tom has learned to blind himself to this basic introspective evidence. He doesn't realize he's doing it anymore, which is why he can get on his just-the-evidence high horse.

6 Comments:

  • I'm just going to quibble with your point at the end. The main problem with teaching religion in schools is that if you're going to teach about one, you have to teach about them all (to be fair and just). That's very problematic. Can you imagine trying to teach the Abrahamic religions, Christianity in all its forms, Islam in all its forms, Judaism in all its forms, alongside religious beliefs like Scientology, Shinto, Hinduism, Taoism, Sikh, Buddhism, Satanism, Paganism, etc, etc. And what about the religions that are mostly dead, like the ancient Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, and so on, religions? And what about the religions that are just made up on the spot or the ones that are based on popular fantasy and science fiction, such as the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Do our children really need to be exposed to all of this nonsense non-voluntarily? What exactly is the point of church if not for religious education? I get that the main contention of Believers is that the stuff taught in schools has a secular agenda, and thus to be fair, we should teach the non-secular along side it. But the biggest difference between secular and non-secular is evidence and corraboration. I'm not secular because school made me that way. I was actually raised Catholic, went to Sunday school, went to mass on the holidays and such. No, I'm secular because secular beliefs are supported by evidence. It's the evidence that bolsters my "faith" (if that's what you want to call it). And here's the best part about being secular: if my beliefs are wrong, and evidence is found indicating that, I won't stubbornly continue to hold those beliefs, I'll change them to something that the new evidence supports, thereby strengthening my "faith". You could say I temper my beliefs in the flame of evidence. Belief in secularism, when it comes right down to it, is simply belief in evidence. If Believers don't like being taught evidence in school, then maybe they should just go to church and avoid school altogether.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:36 AM  

  • What if people's answers from introspection differ? Does that mean that some are introspecting incorrectly? Who?

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:58 AM  

  • Good question. The simplest answer is that I trust my own introspection more than I trust your report of your introspection. Actually, in theory we could both be right: we may just be different kinds of beings. If I say, "I know introspectively that I have free will," and you say, "I don't sense any free will introspectively," then in principle maybe I have free will, and you're an automaton.

    The reason we never believe this is that we all believe-- this is an example of what I call faith, because (a) it is a "meta-belief" in the sense that it's content is fundamentally elusive (b) it can't be rigorously justified, yet (c) we all believe it and not to believe it is a form of madness-- that there are other people, like ourselves, in the world. I believe that your basic nature is the same as mine, therefore I regard my experiences as a guide to what yours must be. It is very difficult to state the sense in which this is the case.

    The reason that I'm confident in saying that introspection reveals the existence of free will is that usually even those who argue against the existence of free will don't base their determinist claims on introspection. They don't generally say, "I don't have the feeling that I'm making any choices, I am always impelled by internal forces with respect to which I'm a spectator." More often, they claim that they do feel free will, but that this feeling is an illusion. At that point, the argument is no longer about introspection, and one has only to show them why their proof that free will is an illusion fails, and also to question whether it is really possible for introspection to be deceived in such a fundamental way (and if it is, why should we trust any other source of information?!).

    Of course, there are no doubt a lot of people who are so dogmatically committed to scientific determinism that they wouldn't even admit to the subjective experience of free will.

    I suppose that if a person who otherwise seemed sensible, reflective, and intelligent, who fully understood the question and showed no sign of being blinded by materialist indoctrination, insisted that he simply had no subjective experience of free will at all, then I might at some point start to entertain the possibility that he was simply a different kind of being, a humanoid automaton of some sort.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 5:22 AM  

  • Interestingly, some philosophers who find Dennett's qualia irrealism discombobulating have speculated that he is perhaps an example of a philosophical zombie (a being that doesn't have veridical experiences but rather has only as-if experiences that fulfill the functional portion of experience while leaving out qualia.

    As Carruthers points out, in intersubjective science one need only explain why it seems to people that they experience things in a certain way to fit the bill. To insist that it actually *is* the way one experiences something to be is familiar, but really no more familiar than many instances in which we will accept external evidence to show that our personal experiences are an inaccurate representation of what has actually happened. This can happen even in our own brains, as shown by those affected by strokes and other forms of brain damage.

    All that said (and retreading familiar ground), I certainly believe we have free will in all the ways that matter. I just don't think that radical causal independence for one's will is a type of free will that matters. Whether the world is deterministic or indeterministic appears to me to have no meaningful relationship to free will.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:09 PM  

  • re: "To insist that it actually *is* the way one experiences something to be is familiar, but really no more familiar than many instances in which we will accept external evidence to show that our personal experiences are an inaccurate representation of what has actually happened."

    I have a stake in countering this claim, since I tend to be very deferential in my arguments to deferential evidence. Do we sometimes allow external evidence to override the evidence of personal experience?

    I think the cases when we do so usually fall into one of two classes: (1) introspective evidence itself is ambiguous or uncertain, or (2) the fact for which evidence is being introduced is a fact about the external world, and not about our personal experience per se.

    Let's suppose that I think the sound I am hearing is a C-major chord (introspection, since this is about my experience). Suppose further that I do not have perfect pitch. My introspection in this case is weak, so if I have a tuner handy that can check the pitch of the chord I am hearing, and the tuner says the chord is C-sharp-major I will certainly defer to it.

    Now suppose that I turn on the tuner and it says that I am hearing a C-MINOR chord. I am certain that I know the difference between the sound of a minor chord and the sound of a major chord. In this case, therefore, I will assume that the tuner is broken. But if many other people of strong musical training listen to the chord and they all say, "That's a C-minor," even as I continue to hear a C major, I may eventually conclude that the chord really is C minor. In this case, though, I will probably think that there is something wrong with my ears-- my built-in machinery of hearing. I still believe that my subjective experience is that I am hearing a C-major chord.

    Since I doubt that there are examples of external evidence overriding introspection that do not fall into one of the classes above, I consider that the fundamentality of introspection relative to external evidence stands, for the moment, unrefuted.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 5:35 PM  

  • re: "I certainly believe we have free will in all the ways that matter. I just don't think that radical causal independence for one's will is a type of free will that matters. Whether the world is deterministic or indeterministic appears to me to have no meaningful relationship to free will."

    I suppose this is just a battle of intuitions. I can't get my head around the distinction between a deterministic world and the abolition of free will. The identification of "free will" with a lack of external coercion is an obvious semantic evasion, but any other attempt to reconcile free will with a deterministic world tends to strike me as barren sophistry.

    Free will seems to me to be a very basic aspect of experience, to the point of being undeniable, and too fundamental to be overridden by overridden by chains of reasoning developed from other evidence. How free will fits with other aspects of experience into a coherent worldview I'm not sure, but I am compelled to reject any worldview that does not have room for free will. Possibly that sounds dogmatic and unsatisfying, but what can I do?

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 5:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home