Monday, July 16, 2012

Illiterate Sheepherders and the God Particle

Over the past few weeks, there's been much made of the "discovery" of the Higgs Boson.  It's an exciting time to be a theoretical physicist, as the pieces of the puzzle of creation continue to fall into place.  I'm particularly interested, personally, to know the implications of this for the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory, and some of the initial reflections seem to suggest that it may be a bitlet of confirming data.  Which would be cool, given that my whole manuscript would be rendered as meaningless as a reflection on the theological importance of a flat earth should it prove otherwise.

One rather...interesting...reflection on this profoundly exciting advance came in a recent article in the WaPo, in which the CEO of Beltway Atheists used the discovery as a reason to assert how ignorant religious people are.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given that anything and everything is a reason for anti-theists to assert how stupid faith is.  Wake up and have a cup of coffee?  Faith is stupid.  See a bunny hopping across your lawn?  Faith is stupid.   One has to appreciate such consistency.

Woven into the pattern of predictable rhetoric was a familiar trope about why the faithful are such remarkable dumb-dumbs.  Faith is the product of "illiterate sheepherders."   I've heard this one and variants of it many, many times, but thought it was worth taking a moment to reflect on it.

The only reason we believe in God, or so this particular anti-theistic line of reasoning goes, is because toothless half-wit inbred Judean hill people finally took a break from schtupping the livestock to goggle drooly-faced at the fastless deep of the cosmos.  Then, in the throes of their glazed eye confusion at the bigness of it all, they just made [stuff] up.

It's heartening red meat stuff for conventions of chip-on-their-shoulder freethinkers, no doubt.   But it has the unfortunate character of being completely, materially, and provably incorrect, utterly ungrounded in objective historical-critical research.

For starters, the assertion that "illiterates wrote the Bible" is...well...think about that statement for a moment.

Those who actually wrote the Bible were not, to put it in the most pretentious res ipsa loquitor wayilliterates.  Nor were they...with one or two exceptions...people who worked in the fields.  Scribes and the literate weren't exactly a dime a dozen in the ancient world, but where they did exist, they were the educated elite.  The folks who wrote the Bible were the scholars and trained historians of their era.  They were also the poets and musicians and storytellers, and those who observed and critiqued culture.

Were they dead on about the mechanics of the cosmos?  No.  Were they human beings, gifted with intelligence, creativity, and insights into the nature of what it means to stand in relationship with one another?  Of course they were.  

Even if one removes the whole God-part of the conversation, the presumption that human beings who lived in the pre-modern era were less human, less creative, and of less worth because they lacked the benefit of space-based telescopes and massive accelerators bugs me a bit.

It's the difference between humanism and anti-theism, I suppose.


  1. That kind of athiesm where the true believers (for such they are) are compelled to slam the authors of the Bible for not knowing twenty-first-century science seems to me to be just a boring type of what T.S. Eliot called temporal provincialism:

    "In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try and solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is provincialism, not of space but of time; one for which history is mereley the chronicle of human devises which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menance of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the people on the globe, be provincials together, and those who are not provincials, can only become hermits."

    Confusing knowledge with wisdom. 'Nuff said.

  2. I don't think anyone really slams the authors of the Bible for not knowing twenty-first century science. The problem is that they claimed to have special knowledge from the author of the universe, and they were wrong. Completely wrong. Deluded or lying, it doesn't matter. They simply did not know what they claimed to know. And it's not merely that they did not know that sky isn't a dome over a flat earth, or that disease is not caused by evil spirits that could be cast out with magic powers. They also didn't know, for example, how to treat women. Or that they shouldn't keep slaves. Or what, if anything, is a crime worth killing someone for. But they said they did, and they were often willing to kill anyone who said they didn't, and so that all that moral and scientific ignorance is ever with us when we ought by now to have the wisdom to know better. When we atheists talk about the ignorance of the ancient human, uninspired authors of religion, we are slamming the currently faithful for insisting on hanging all that ancient ignorance and false claimes to knowledge and wisdom around the neck of humanity.