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Monday, December 15, 2008

Careful what you believe

I caught part of Exodus Decoded last night on Discovery. I never would have known it was on if my husband wouldn't have told me about it.

It looked promising, as far at intellectual honesty goes. Then it went down the tubes, so to speak. If you look at the above link, at the bottom of the page you'll find the criticisms, and there are more, just Google it. Yes, I know, people can and will critique anything, but when you make a claim like the first born slept in beds while everyone else slept on roofs while explaining how the 10th plague could have been caused by carbon dioxide poisoning, and then I find out there is no archeological evidence that this is true, you tend to make me highly skeptical of your other claims. It also makes me wonder what the hell you were thinking by making a claim like that with no supporting evidence.

I felt the same way about The God Who Wasn't There and Zeitgeist. I feel the same way about anything I watch/read that is making claims about religion or science. Research it yourself, don't just take the word of the filmmaker/author that it's true or you'll end up believing a lot of false information.

I don't take the claims of the Bible at face value and believe them just because they are supposedly authoritative, why on earth would I take the claims made in a movie or tv show as such without properly researching them? If you want to disbelieve the Bible, there are plenty of perfectly good, sound reasons for doing so without twisting history and blatantly making shit up in order to convince others to do so.

Edit: Here are some of the natural explanations that could be used to explain the plagues. A lot of this is the same stuff covered in Exodus Decoded. But, remember there is a Wiki disclaimer that there might be unverified claims in there.

As an atheist, I think there probably are perfectly natural explanations for the plagues, people just didn't know what those explanations were at the time and they thought a deity caused them. I believe this because it is much more likely that natural phenomena happen for reasons that can be explained scientifically, than it is that a deity does anything.

Think about it. Remember when Katrina hit and people were running around saying it was the xian God's retribution for sin? If you have a solid understanding of hurricanes and weather patterns then you can understand what happened very well, without postulating a deity for which there is no evidence.

37 comments:

  1. I feel the same way about anything I watch/read that is making claims about religion or science. Research it yourself, don't just take the word of the filmmaker that it's true or you'll end up believing a lot of false information.

    Here here!

    Skepticism isn't just code for "hates God". It's a philosophical paradigm that guides our aquisition of knowledge - and it applies to both things we want to agree with and things that we don't. Heck, I'm pretty sure it's a logical extension of the scientific method.

    Thanks Nonmagic - this post makes me feel less like a voice in the wilderness

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  2. Oh you're definitely not alone in that wilderness, WEM!

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  3. NM,
    Sorry that didn't turn out too good.

    On the other hand, I watched a show on Discovery last evening, "The Real Noah," and they totally debunked the Old Testament version.

    Of course, the one of the oldest flood stories comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and they also mentioned another writing that was dicovered recently but the spelling or pronunciation was so wierd I didn't try to write it down.

    Suffice to say, it looks like the real Noah was an ancient Sumerian.

    The show debunked the myth that a ship 450 feet long could have been mad of wood and still held together.

    Obviously I have not had time to check into the credentials of the scientists quoted, but I am going to buy the DVD and do some checking on this.

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  4. As an atheist, I think there probably are perfectly natural explanations for the plagues, people just didn't know what those explanations were at the time and they thought a deity caused them. I believe this because it is much more likely that natural phenomena happen for reasons that can be explained scientifically, than it is that a deity does anything.

    That's making the huge assumption that the plagues in Egypt actually happened at all. The writers of the story probably based the plague story partly on observed natural phenomena and party on imagination.

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  5. "Skepticism isn't just code for "hates God".

    My Dad would say from time to time, "only where there is doubt can there be freedom."

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  6. Milo,

    Very true. I tend to think that in ancient times people wrote down or did hieroglyphs of important happenings. Maybe some of the plagues did happen. The locusts are plausible. Maybe a bunch of children did die and the story got passed down as it being the first born, ect.

    But the keyword there is maybe.

    Take for example the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Uh..nah, I don't think so. We have no archeological evidence for it. Most likely, I think, is that it's a myth.

    This is going to be an interesting part of the SMRT Bible Project, I think. We get to look at the Bible together with the skeptical minds of ...however many people have signed up to do it. I'm pretty excited about it.

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  7. Dale,

    I might have to see if I can find a torrent of that. Thanks for the heads up.

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  8. Wrote them down? Yeesh, I'm in a hurry. I meant to say oral tradition. You guys know what I mean.

    Gotta scoot.

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  9. Froggie wrote My Dad would say from time to time, "only where there is doubt can there be freedom."

    That reminds me of the Thomas Jefferson quote below. It's almost counter-intuitive that uncertainty can lead to great things, but reality and human history seem to have confirmed it:

    "When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny."

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  10. As far as I know, there's no archeological evidence that any of the "plagues" ever happened in the first place. So speculating on what caused them is a waste of time.

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  11. Yeah, I'm with Milo - first you have to show me any proof the plagues even happened before I'm going to worry about the actual facts of who died.

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  12. The Bible says the plagues happened, people. Get it?

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  13. I'm not saying that the Bible is a reliable source that the plagues happened, either. I'm saying if something of that nature DID happen in that part of the world at that time, I wonder what it was and I think it's interesting that people might have used a deity to explain natural occurrences that they didn't have any other explanation for.

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  14. It is my opinion that in most cases there was "some" historical event behind the stories. It is likely that a group of mercinaries called the Hyskos did beat feet out of Egypt and one point. Then the originals story got embellished.

    Same for the Noah flood. There is good evidence that there was a flood in the tigis area that was so unusual and the magnitude so great, that it demanded to written about, But that was in Sumerian times (see Gilgamesh.)

    Just like there was a certain person that inspired the tales of Paul Bunyon, etc.

    Humans are great mythmakers and they used it for inspiration back in the day.

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  15. Did anyone see the 'Secret History of Jesus' at the weekend?

    Apparently in one of the Gnostic gospels there's a version of the resurrection story that includes 2 giants helping Jesus out of the tomb and they're all followed by a giant floating cross that hovers overhead, booming with the sound of God's voice going;

    "Tadaaaa!"

    Or something to that effect.

    Weird shit.

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  16. We get to look at the Bible together with the skeptical minds of ...

    Could somebody tell me the difference between a skeptical mind and an open mind?

    Remember, we're doing it wrong if we don't read the bible with that fabulous 'open mind'

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  17. Wait a second - you're not implying that you'd even question somebody like Richard Dawkins, are you? It's my understanding that we just listen to every word he says and take it all as truth.

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  18. Tilia wrote Could somebody tell me the difference between a skeptical mind and an open mind?

    Remember, we're doing it wrong if we don't read the bible with that fabulous 'open mind'


    Ha! Great question, and I'm going to have to refer to the Objectivists (aka Ayn Rand) in order to provide an answer.

    According to her (and I think I agree), a skeptical mind is one that only conditionally trusts the information coming into it. Things which have been and can be verified are given more weight than things which are learned/experienced for the very first time.

    This kind of mind uses filters by which to make judgements about that information. If I have debated Christian Fundamentalists and found them to be dishonest in the past, then I will tend to view future fundamentalists in the same light - regardless of whether they're dishonest or not.

    But.... a true skeptical mind is wary of giving complete control of our perception to these filters. Skepticism is recursive.

    ---

    Being open-minded about something is essentially "being willing to entertain any and all possibilities". It is the intentional disabling of the filters mentioned above.

    Rand suggests that an open mind is also an undiscerning mind - incapable of deciding which ideas should be given more weight than others.

    ---

    Open mindedness is simply an old expression here in the US; common (and undiscerning) usage of it usually is in the context of "being open to new possibilities or ideas". This by itself isn't such a bad idea - but it can be abused. You can be accused of Close Mindedness if you refuse to be willing to entertain bad ideas.

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  19. wem,
    that really complicates things... I mean, I can try to be open to the ideas in the bible, but I definitely can't stop being skeptic about it.
    Shouldn't a good idea survive skepticism?

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  20. I too am with Milo. Prove the plagues happened before trying to explain them.

    As was said in the NOVA documentary, there was probably a few families, 3 or 5, that did escape from Egypt. The truth though is the early Canaanites were the ancestors of the Jewish people. There was no mass exodus, because there was no mass enslavement. With no mass enslavement then there is no reason for there to be plagues.

    There is no evidence for any character named Moses either. His life actions were amalgams of ancient Sumerian myths.

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  21. I'm going to go all mark w laine on your asses and paste a long quote. It's about skepticism from http://www.skeptic.com/about_us/

    Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

    Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber.

    Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.

    The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity. Over three centuries ago the French philosopher and skeptic, RenĂ© Descartes, after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am. But evolution may have designed us in the other direction. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring. We are their descendents. In other words, to be human is to think:

    Sum Ergo Cogito —
    I Am Therefore I Think.

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  22. @ Stew:

    The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.

    That's pure beauty right there...


    ---

    @ Tilia

    I don't really think it's that complicated. Being open-minded means to turn off your filters, temporarily. A really good example for me is going to a concert that I'm skeptical of - I try as hard as I can to simply listen and absorb everything before judging it.

    Today's skepticism, as Stew's quote points out, really involves striking a balance between Accepting every idea and Rejecting every idea.

    Yeah, a good idea should survive skepticism, but there are (imho) a number of reasons as to why it might not. The idea may be expressed/described poorly, or the skeptic may be unable to perceive the idea fairly/accurately.

    A good skeptic knows when he/she is filtering out something unfairly.

    If your next question is "How do I know if I've done this?", the answer is to be honest with yourself. Know yourself as best as you can. Understand why you do or do not like things, where your biases are, and when you're letting your filters have too much control.

    ---

    This topic touches on much of the stuff I've blogged about in the past

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  23. Tilia, in short I think that being a good skeptic means that you know enough about yourself to admit (even if only to yourself) that you're being unfair.

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  24. I too am with Milo. Prove the plagues happened before trying to explain them.

    I don't know. It might be interesting to see where they did their ideas from. If there was no natural explanation why the Nil turned to blood, I would still think whoever wrote about it had a too close relationship with another red liquid, but I don't believe that all bronze age people where crazy or drunk.
    Maybe most of them just tried to explain and interpret what they saw. Just like us. We're just a little more skeptic about things and we have by far better methods to explain the world.

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  25. wem,
    I'll try to be as fair as possible...

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  26. "Maybe most of them just tried to explain and interpret what they saw. Just like us. We're just a little more skeptic about things and we have by far better methods to explain the world."

    In this case, it is a group of people trying to show that they are different from the originating group. They were trying to feel special and set apart. They do this by making a story of how they were enslaved and freed by God. Part of the freeing process were these plagues. Now it is possible that a small group did escape from Egypt and as they tell how they escaped it gets exaggerated. Soon they are parting the oceans to escape the evil captors.

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  27. Perhaps this is old news to some (or all of you)...

    The 10 plagues were to such that they were to show the superiority of YHWH over the 10 most important (or 'powerful') gods of Egypt.

    For a quick outline of this, one reference (but not the only) is:

    http://highland.hitcho.com.au/plaguesongods.pdf


    Sorry if this is old news to some (or all) of you. Just providing some background on this subject.

    -laof

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  28. WEM said
    A good skeptic knows when he/she is filtering out something unfairly.

    I have only recently become aware of my own "confirmation bias" and I do try to keep it under control.

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  29. Sort of related...

    I was talking to my mother this morning and she told me that she has a huge cold sore that is very painful.

    My mother, being not very educated, often comes up with what she believes to be reasons for occurrences that just kind of boggle the mind, but I love her and I take into consideration her education level and try to gently explain to her the actual reasons as to why things happen as they do. Old ideas die hard, though, and she doesn't really accept the logical explanation for everything.

    So we're talking about the cold sore and she tells me she thinks it's because she ate some pork the other day. I have no idea where she got this idea from, so I started questioning her about it. Turns out she doesn't know either.

    I think it's interesting, however, that in some way the idea that eating pork and a cold sore erupting got intermingled in her mind.

    If I didn't know her but I heard that she thought that cold sores were related to the eating of pork, I'd want to know how that idea formed. It's not as important to me that she even really has a cold sore or not, as it is how she got the idea.I'm curious about people and their beliefs, and it doesn't have to be religious.

    My brother has a bump on his chin that has been there since he was in his teens. I asked her about it several times growing up and she said that he ate an orange, the juice ran down his chin, and the next day the bump was there. There is something there....some connection she makes between the eating of certain foods and the formation of blisters or marks on the body. I'm not so arrogant as to think it's a simple lack of education, although that certainly plays a part. People, especially in the poor, rural area where she was raised, saw things happen in their environment and made these crude connections between the events and certain outcomes. That connection is what puzzles me and fascinates me. Always has.


    I had a ton of religion courses in college. I'm well aware that there isn't any proof for a ton of stuff in the Bible...but I wonder...did something (or several somethings) happen in that geographic area that caused people to make the crude connection in their minds that it was caused by a deity.

    Let's say nothing happened. Absolutely nothing, and that the stories are either just stories trying to show the superiority of one god over another. I still wonder about the connections people in the ancient world made between occurrences in the natural world and their causes.

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  30. Thanks for that, Stew. I haven't used the phrase before, but it's been popping up around here lately. It's time I added it to my vocabulary.

    Incidentally, the best way I've found in dealing with confirmation bias involves two very simple ideas:

    1) whenever possible, if I'm expressing an opinion (or at least knowledge which I may believe to be incomplete), I add the words "I think". Simply put, there's a difference between Fundamentalists are dishonest
    and
    I think fundamentalists are dishonest

    2) I always assume that I'm wrong to some extent. Even if I'm arguing something heatedly, I keep in mind that someone may very well demonstrate that my information is incomplete somehow. And given that I'm not omniscient, it's a guarantee that I'm operating with a limited about of information.

    ---

    These two wont prevent confirmation bias from sneaking in. But when it does happen, they make it really easy to fix the problem and move on.

    It's not a matter of humility - it's a skeptical foundation.

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  31. Just skimmed the comments. Ya'll cleared up the open mind v. skepticism nicely. What do I do about my hard, hard heart?

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  32. Wield it like a club, dude.

    For Spartaaaaaa!

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  33. Froggie said:

    Same for the Noah flood. There is good evidence that there was a flood in the tigis area that was so unusual and the magnitude so great, that it demanded to written about, But that was in Sumerian times (see Gilgamesh.)

    Just like there was a certain person that inspired the tales of Paul Bunyon, etc.


    And how at one point, there used to be a real Michael Jackson. I get what you're saying.

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  34. NM,

    I agree with your point of view. What is behind the story is fascinating. Sometimes it is a symbolic meaning that we are no longer aware of or a way to justify a position. For example, Cain & Abel was possibly about the early conflict between nomadic sheep herder way of life and farming. Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt could have been based on natural formations found in the area. However I have gotten into too many discussions that disolve into nonsense over stories that never happened. It's like arguing over how many tribbles were on the Starship Enterpise or how many hours a day the elves work at the North Pole.

    We can look at all sides of story which is the best part of not believing the bible is literally true. I'm looking forward to it!

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  35. Milo....

    WHY DOES MY MOTHER THINK PORK CAUSES COLD SORES?????

    :::slams head on desk::::

    I'll never know the answer, I just know it.

    I hope that we can explore this more at SMRT Bible Project.

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  36. NM'El, maybe the Jewish notion that things with hooves are unclean? I believe this idea can be found in the Bible...

    Anyhow, the Bible project is sounding more interesting to me all the time...

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