Saturday, March 26, 2011

Discovered! The DNA of Jesus!

Skeptics sometimes complain that Christians who cite the Bible to prove their faith are guilty of "circular reasoning." This is why people argue about whether there is any evidence for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament, even though references to Jesus in Josephus and Tacitus, while (mostly) genuine, are little crumbs off the giant cookie of historical evidence.

The assumption behind this sideline is that the Bible itself is Christian propaganda, so you can't take it as evidence for who Jesus was and what he did. It probably wouldn't be fair to expect non-Christians to meekly admit everything the Bible claims about God or the work of Jesus.

But one must not forget that the New Testament is itself is, among other things, an extraordinary cache of 1st Century evidence.

The more we learn about the world, the more places we find evidence, and the more kinds of evidence we find. Fingerprints used to be just inconvenient smudges on the windowpane: now they are marks that uniquely identify you. Your retina used to be part of the equipment by which you saw the world: as we studied the eye, it became one way by which the world recognizes you. Look closely, and evidence can be found in small places: fingerprints on a piece of glass by a murder scene, DNA that proves your parentage.

What if the Gospels also contain a unique pattern of evidence for Jesus, similiar to DNA? . I maintain that they do. I think the Gospels contain a pattern as distinct as DNA or fingerprints, a "life pattern" that sets Jesus apart from anyone else else, and that this pattern can be used as definite and powerful evidence that Jesus was and is real, as the Gospels claim.

Richard Dawkins offers an analogy that makes this argument even more piquant. In his book The Selfish Gene, he drew a famous an analogy between genes and what he calls "memes," tunes ideas, ways of doing things:

"Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." (192)

Is it not true that, just as we can identify a unique human being by his or her DNA, we can also identify a unique person by the unique nexus of ideas and ways of thinking they exhibit?

I made a detailed case that Jesus can be so identified in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. There I described 50 separate characteristics that distinguish the Jesus of the Gospels, unique in known human history, many of which are difficult to explain by any naturalistic hypothesis. I show that Jesus shares these traits in all four Gospels, though other books that are often compared to the Gospels -- the so-called "Gospel of Thomas," the Iliad, Apollonius of Tyana -- turn out, when compared this way, to be entirely different kettles of fish.

Here I will begin by focusing on just one of those characteristics, then nurse out some of the implications of this argument.

I. Jesus and Women Recently, an atheist calling herself Sarah posted the following criticism of the Gospels in a Internet forum:

"Given that the entire NT has only one woman prophet (Anna) and she has no quoted words, it seems that the NT authors were working throughout time to eclipse the women characters."

This is not a unique complaint. The authors of the New Testament are often accused of having it in for women. Elaine Pagels complains that the "orthodox" see God as solely masculine. Tucker Malarkey says that when biblical Christianity won out over the Gnostics, "half of humanity was obscured from view." Karen King has traced an elaborate process by which she supposes women were obscured in the Gospels themselves. Dan Brown sold millions of books based on the premise that orthodox Christianity has it in for women. . But within this criticism, there is I think hidden the germ of a powerful argument for the historical truth of the Gospels. Consider an observation by Jesus Seminar member Walter Wink:

"Through the lens of feminist exegesis . . . we can see that in every single encounter with women in the four Gospels, Jesus violated the mores of his time . . . his behavior toward women . . . is . . . astounding, and was without parallel in 'civilized' societies since the rise of patriarchy roughly 3000 years before his birth." (Engaging the Powers, 129)

What does Wink mean by "the rise of patriarchy?" He is noting the fact that women were treated as second-class citizens in most ancient civilizations. Things would get worse for most before they got better -- doctrines like widow-burning, footbinding, and fear of witches, would take hold in great civilizations in the later centuries. But the trend was already clear. The Gnostics, for example, didn't mind having a female deity rebuke the (male) Creator, but saw child-bearing as an evil act, because it brought children into the "filthy mud" of material existence. They warned believers to "flee from the madness and bondage of femaleness, and choose for yourself the salvation of maleness."

Strong advice, if you can follow it!

Sarah hints that the authors of the Gospels are also misogenistic. Given the times, one would expect them to have been.

So what can account for the fact that they record such revolutionary actions on the part of Jesus? How likely is it that they would make up stories about Jesus that flagrantly contravened their prejudices, and consistently run uphill against their cultural conditioning?

Follow Jesus as he talks with a broken woman by a well, and nurses her crushed spirit to life. Listen to him tell Martha that Mary had "chosen the better part," because rather than simply serve the men, she wanted to study Rabbi Jesus' teaching with the male disciples. Observe how he saves an woman caught in adultery from stoning, at some risk to his own life. . Wink argues, in effect: this one fact alone sets Jesus apart from any teacher in the ancient world that I know of.

With East Asian tradition in mind, I can't think of any really strong parallels, either. (Though the 13th Century Japanese monk Nichiren did at least back off on the usual Buddhist idea that a woman needed to become a man to attain enlightenment.)

Two facts seem to best explain the remarkable stories of Jesus and women in the Gospels: (1) Jesus was really like that, and (2) The people who wrote the Gospels were close enough to know the facts, and were fundamentally honest to record facts that conflicted with their own views.

II. Piecing together the DNA

If you want to identify a specimen, mark the characteristics that set it apart from other specimens. If your sample is DNA, you need to make allowance for the phenomena of identical twins, who share entire genomes. In general, people or animals who are closely related will share DNA and phenotypes. But when it comes to memes, one twin brother may become a communist who plays soccer and eats raw eggs, while the other becomes a Baptist preacher who plays baseball and eats Eggs Benedict. Because human habits can be even more complex than our genetic coding, especially when it comes to our most brilliant thinkers (and obviously Jesus was, at least, one of them), it should be possible to identify such character by personality traits, ways of speaking, social habits, teaching methods, and fundamental beliefs, as by some physical marker like DNA.

Let us suppose that Walter Wink knows enough about 300 ancient teachers, to compare their treatment of women with that of Jesus. Let us suppose I know an additional 200.

If that is so, this one characteristic alone would mark the Jesus described in the Gospels with a specificity of at least 1 in 500. (Probably a person able to transcend his culture to the extent Jesus did is actually far rarer than that, but let us start with this number.)

Each new independent trait that differentiates Jesus from other ancient teachers would then multiply the uniqueness of this "memetic signature."

That's the power of genetic or memetic identification. When traits are independent of one another, the improbability of each unique trait randomly appearing can be multiplied by the improbability of other traits, so that the improbability of the whole signature becomes enormous.

Some of the characteristics I describe in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus are fairly common (teaching by means of Q & A, for instance), while others are highly unusual. The parables of Jesus, for example, are almost uniquely brilliant; at least, only a few parallels, like Kafka and Zhuang Zi, seem available in human literary history. His miracles are, I have argued, seemingly unique in the ancient world -- claimed parallels fall apart when you look at them closely.

If you multiply these numbers, it quickly becomes evident that the Jesus described in the Gospels is unique. That uniqueness shows, I think, that the person the Gospels describe is genuine.

But couldn't the Gospel writers have just decided to make up a person like that, and then copied one another?

The reason this is not a credible response, is that most of the characteristics I described in the Gospels (41 of 50) are not overwhelmingly relevant to "Christian theology." Most are not traits that would be intentionally preserved by an early church eager to prove "the Gospel."

This is demonstrated by the Gnostics (as I argue in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.') Gnostic texts also make use of "Jesus" as a heroic figure to preach their theology. Yet all the most interesting and unique "memetic DNA" of the real Gospels are almost totally absent from these works. The real personality of Jesus simply did not transfer.

All of this is to argue for what ordinary people often recognize with analyzing it like this. "No one has spoken as this man," the crowds around Jesus observed. With 2000 years more of surveying human teachers, also of reading phony Gospels manufactured to prove some theological point, it has become increasingly clear that the disciples couldn't have make Jesus up if they tried.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why are Americans Scientifically Precocious?

Why are Americans Scientifically Precocious?

Is Michael Behe Responsible?

The stupidity of the American people is an article of faith for many on the Left and among European intellectuals, it being generally accepted that religion is to blame. A popular discussion forum on right now, started by an Australian community developer named John Croft, is entitled “Why are People here so Scientifically Illiterate?" "Here" means not Australia, but the US:

"It is a sad and sorry state of US scientific illiteracy that a science forum is just full of discussions of (Intelligent Design) IDiocy and climate denial ostriches.

"The US is heading for irrelevancy, as the quality of its science is now done mostly by foreigners, whilst people here cannot address even the simplest scientific question.”

Croft cites research by Jon Miller, John Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University. (Right -->.) As reported in a 2007 paper, Miller found that only 28% of American adults qualify as “scientifically literate.”

About 190 posters so far have registered their acceptance of the premise that Americans are crash test dummies when it comes to science, and that America is “fast becoming the sick man of the world,” as Croft puts it, thanks to religion, by voting these comments "add to the discussion." The Jesus Land mentality seeps into our minds like oil into the Gulf, it seems, numbing us into buying creationism, Intelligent Design, and Global Warming skepticism.

The odd thing is, when actually read, Miller’s paper, “The Public Understanding of Science in Europe and the United States,” shows the opposite: that Americans are better-informed about science than almost any other nation on earth, and rising rapidly. In fact, the study may even suggest that American heresies like Intelligent Design and AGW skepticism are part of what makes Americans exceptionally good at science.

Croft and his readers have some excuse for reading Miller as they do, however, as that is what Miller clearly wished his survey showed, and tried to make it show. So let us look at the data, the bias it hides, the spin Miller put on it, how best to understand relative American success in promoting scientific literacy, and what if anything that says about religion.

I. The Facts. Here's a country-by-country list of the percentage of those in each country found by Miller to be scientifically-literate (we’ll get to what he meant by that later):

Sweden 35.1%
USA 27.8
Holland 23.9
Norway 22.3
Finland 22.2
Denmark 22.0
Bulgaria 19.3
Iceland 18.2
Belgium 18.1
Germany 18.0
France 17.0
Switzerland 17.0
Czech Republic 16.8
Luxembourg 16.7
Hungary 15.3
Great Britain 14.1
E.U. 13.8
Estonia 12.1
Italy 11.9
Croatia 11.7
Slovakia 10.1
Austria 10.1
Ireland 9.4
Poland 9.1
Spain 8.6
Greece 6.5
Portugal 6.0
Romania 5.9
Japan 5.0
Malta 4.8
Lithuania 3.3
Cyprus 2.8
Slovenia 2.3
Latvia 2.2
Turkey 1.5

A separately-conducted survey located China in the 3-4% range.

How to explain this data? What does religion have to do with these numbers? Lutherans seem to do well, except for Latvians (who are largely atheists, anyway)! Catholic and Orthodox countries seem to do less well. But the bottom is occupied by the only Muslim country on the list, and neither Hindu country is surveyed. The only (nominally) Buddhist country is towards the bottom, despite its wealth and education. Former communist countries fall all over the spectrum.

Could one explain these data, by saying not that religion is harmful, but that countries that used to have a strong religious monopoly, tend to do poorly? But let’s talk about interpretations later.

II. Survey Bias: ID and AGWOne should understand that the author seems to have created this study with an agenda in mind. In his article, Miller bewails the "high proportion of American adults who reject the concept of biological evolution" as a "joint failure of our secondary education system and the emerging structure of partisanship," identifying conservatives and Christians as a problem. It appears he was hoping Americans would do badly, so he could use our ineptitude as a stick with which to beat political and ideological enemies. To give him credit, he published contrary results, admitting more or less forthrightly: “On balance, European adults are not better informed about science than American adults.”

But the survey is rather sneaky. Five of the 32 questions on the American version (fewer questions were asked in some international surveys, but care was apparently taken to ensure they remained representative) were loaded, and may measure agreement with Miller more than scientific knowledge per se.

Most questions seem pretty objective:

True or false: "Lasers work by focusing sound waves."

True or false: “Electrons are smaller than atoms."

"Provide a correct open-ended definition of 'DNA.'"

But several seem designed to bate those Miller calls "religious fundamentalists," alleged to be aligned with a "more uniformly conservative Republican Party," though:

(a) True or False: “Global warming is increasing primarily because the level of direct radiation from the Sun is increasing."

I agree with Miller that the right answer is "false." But many respondents may recognize, or feel without expressing it in words, that Miller begs the question of whether Global Warming is increasing. The temperature of the atmosphere has increased about 1 degree Celsius, at varying rates, for more than a century. But it is not clear that the rate of increase has increased – which some respondents may understand this question to mean.

(b) "True or False: Astrology is not at all scientific."
What does it mean, "not at all scientific?"

Probably Miller is bating ID proponents here. He seems to be asking people to comment on Michael Behe's famous claim, in expert testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial two years earlier, that astrology, while false, was a "scientific theory" in the sense of "a proposition based on physical evidence to explain some facts by logical inferences."

In that sense, the correct answer to Miller's question might be "yes." Certainly astrology shares SOME characteristics of science, as Behe recognized. This question is thus a sand trap for contrarian logicians.

(c) "True or false: More than half of all human genes are identical to those of mice."The correct answer, Miller assumes, is "true." But actually, genes are almost never "identical," so the more accurate answer should be "false." Religious respondents might notice this technical error, and use it as an excuse to wipe the smirk off Miller’s face by giving a “wrong” answer that is in fact correct. At least, that might be this sinner’s inclination.

(d) True or false: “The primary human activity that causes global warming is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil."
Most Americans got this question "wrong" by saying "false."

This a scientifically complex question, involving several issues: (1) The reality of Global Warming; (2) its allegedly human cause; and (3) the alleged leading role the burning of fossil fuels play in that cause.

The first claim is nominally true, but could be disputed. The atmosphere does seem to have warmed slightly over the past century. But to many people, the term “Global Warming” will likely include not only facts about the past, but the claim (especially given (2)) that such warming will continue in the future.

I agree that some, but perhaps not most, of Global Warming is due to human activity. Earth warmed for decades before CO2 output began to increase dramatically after WWII. Assuming natural trends before 1940 had continued, the “extra” increase in warming over the past 70 years, above an extrapolation of the earlier trend, appears to constitute less than half of the overall warming for the past 110 years.

If he wanted to be objective, Miller should have asked a more neutral question, such as:

"True or False: The primary human activity that leads to increased release of CO2 into the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels."

And finally:

(e) "True or false: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals."This question, answered "wrongly" by 63% of respondents, the worst result of any, is also one of the most ideologically touchy. Strictly speaking, I think Common Descent is true. I would probably have answered this question "correctly." But knowing what Miller was up to, I might have looked for an excuse to get it "wrong." One cannot, for example, be sure that "human beings as we know them today" developed entirely from "earlier species of animals." Who can say scientifically (this being an historical question) that God did not reach the tip of his finger out to Adam, to tweak the reeds and make them rustle up some thought? Respondents may react to Miller’s reductionist tone and intellectual presumption as much as to the scientific "facts.” To the extent that he prompts such responses, Miller measures not scientific literacy, but scientific orthodoxy.

Frame those five questions in a more fair-minded way, and who knows how many Americans would have "passed" his test? We might even have beaten the Swedes! (Who have nothing to do all winter long but trace the geometry of snowflakes on window sills!)

III. The Miller Model of the Scientific Method
Step A: Form an hypothesis, Y, and an emotional attachment to Y. ("Americans are bad at science because religion rots the brain.")

Step B: Test Y with a survey, including a few snide questions to bias answers towards Y, but find -Y anyway. ("The percentage of scientifically literate Americans has tripled in two decades, and is now higher than in almost any other country.")

Step C: Publish -Y accurately, but in interviews, gratuitously suggest Y, anyhow.
Step D: Watch while allies take your gratuitous Y comments and broadcast them to the world by means of the brain-rotting Internet, while -Y is buried and forgotten, all your “enlightened” allies being too lazy to read the original report.

IV. So why are American "IDiots" and "Climate Denial Ostriches" so good at science?That, apparently, is the correct question to ask.

One factor, mentioned by Miller, is that Asian education so often involves what Chinese call "stuff the duck" method of teaching. Students sit silently in class and take notes. They memorize, stuffing themselves with facts like ducks readied for the slaughter, for all-important entrance exams. Then they test, slack off in college (my students at Nagasaki University often spent the nights playing pool), and read comic books for the rest of their lives. They've been inoculated to real education as Socrates (and Confucius) taught it, and lost the childhood passion for learning they once satisfied at their mother’s knee.

I taught in Japanese colleges for six years. I had a few good students, but they seemed to retain their love of learning despite, not because of, their long and too-often overly didactic education.

Miller's suggestion is that many Americans know some science because they were forced to take "at least one year of college science courses en route to a baccalaureate."

This may seem a bit self-serving, since Miller's job is to promote scientific literacy from his perch at Michigan State University. But I'm willing to give Dr. Miller some credit. I'm pretty sure some good things lodged in my mind during my 1st year Honors Physics class, including the truth (Honors Calculus helped here too) that I would never be an engineer.

Still, looking down Miller's list of questions, I'm not sure I learned the answers to any of them in college. I think I first garnered answers to ten or so of them in the process of exploring heretical thoughts about Evolution and Global Warming. So Miller must share some credit for the success of American scientific education with Michael Behe and Roy Spencer.

Perhaps there is an indirect connection between the religiosity of Americans and their scientific success. I suspect enthusiasms of both sorts are encouraged by a free market for ideas. (And freedom, in turn, I agree with Bunyan and Locke, is a proper implication of the Gospel.) Freedom is also why heretical ideas like Intelligent Design, and opposition to Anthropogenic Global Warming, catch on in the US: we have an open market of ideas, with alternative institutions like home-schools, Sunday School, Talk Radio, and conservative think tanks and magazines. Ideas thus have a better chance to clash than in countries where ducks open their mouths and have them filled. And when our ducks go out and forage for themselves, they develop healthy but discerning appetites, and learn not to blindly accept everything from our governmental Master’s hand.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

How Many Christians are there in China?

Since Mao Zedong died in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution ended, no country on Earth has changed more dramatically and significantly than China. When I first visited Canton in 1984, crowds would gather around us every time we stopped to buy oranges in the street. We stayed in a dorm for 6 yuan a head -- less than a dollar in today's money. The streets were full of bicycles, which marked Canton as a prosperous city.

Over the past twenty years, China has followed the upward economic growth curve pioneered by Japan, then Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore before it.

Christianity has spread in China at a rapid pace as well. There has been much debate over how many Christians there are in China. The official figure is some 20 million, but popular rumors, often ascribed to some government official, often put the number at over 100 million. (Even the figure of 200 million is thrown around.) Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission, has cited 110 million: when I challenged that figure, he said he obtained it from David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, whose numbers are often cited as authoritative. Two years ago, The Economist bandied about a figure of 130 million.

My own view, based on travel throughout China in dozens of visits, and two longer-term stays, and study of the data, has been that a figure of 50-70 million, for Protestants and Catholics combined, is probably closer to the mark.

Figures of over 100 million seem to me to fly in the face of reality. Even in cities like Wenzhou, the "Jerusalem of China," one sees about three temples for every church. When I ask people their religion, that seems about the right proportion. Even in Henan Province, thought to be quite a citadel of Christianity, most young people seem to be "hand-me-down" skeptics. And there are vast areas of China -- Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, some parts of Yunnan -- where Christians remain fairly rare. (Though that may be changing.)

Last year, Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion completed an exhaustive survey of religious belief in China. Sponsored by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and guided by Carson Mencken (who kindly sent me a copy of the report), Byron Johnson, and Rodney Stark. The study involved more than 7,000 respondents.

At first glance, the results yield a surprisingly low number of Christians, and a surprisingly high percentage of unbelievers. Only 2.7% of respondents described themselves as Protestant or Catholic. 17% called themselves Buddhists, and 77% claimed to have no religious beliefs. (Only 1% claimed other religions -- Daoism, Confucianism, and Islam included.)

The number of Christians appeared low to the researchers, too, so they commissioned a second survey to test the response rates of people whose religious identify they knew. They found that two thirds of Christians refused to answer the survey, while only one third of non-Christians refused.

Adjusting the data according to this bias, it appears that there are about 70+ million Christians in China today. (This includes Protestants and Catholics, also nominal believers and cultists. It may also be based on adult response, then include children in the total -- I'll have to see how they extrapolated. If so, this procedure would probably be less valid in China than in countries where children of believers generally go to church, and the true number might be a bit lower.)

I haven't had a chance to study the numbers in detail, yet, but I guess the number of Muslims here also seems too low. "Taoist" and "Confucianist" are vague terms -- often people who call themselves "Buddhist" have been as much influenced by these, or folk religions, as formal Buddhism. Most likely the number of committed and informed believers in Buddhism, in any recognizable sense, is a small percentage of the supposed 17%, while many included in that number would more accurately be described as followers of folk religion.

The survey showed that women were 2.3 times more likely to call themselves Christians than men. That seems a bit high to me, though there certainly has been a remarkable "people movement" among elderly ladies! Probably men (and young people) more often refuse to respond, since religious faith would be more of a stigma for men.

All in all, the survey confirmed what those who have been involved with China for a long time recognize: communism has had a real and lasting effect on how Chinese see the world. The country is still something of a spiritual desert. Compared to those in the West, who often convert away from Christianity and have conceived a great distaste for it, many of China's "agnostics" are conventional in their second-hand skepticism, and in many cases seem open to changing their minds. Most regions of China with few Christians (aside from Guangdong), also seem to have few "Buddhists," apparently because of the latent winter-like effect of Maoism on all spiritual shoots. It seems, though, that the winter may soon be over, and the desert about to bloom.
(photos: (1) a large rural church near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, one of many; (2) a believer in the same area, some 20 years ago, telling me how the Gospel had spread through miracles from village to village; (3) John 3:16 in stylized Chinese, on the wall of a church in Wuhan, Hubei; (4) White Horse Temple, founded outside the capital of China near modern Luoyang, in 68 AD, the oldest official Buddhist temple in China, though the present buildings are more recent.)