Fallacy of Axioms

Fallacy of Axioms
Any problem can be solved by an additional level of indirection.

I was listening to a podcast today where someone said the strange thing about religion is that people – even people who otherwise embrace the scientific method – get touchy when asked to provide evidence of God. You can be a skeptic in all things, it seems, but when you get close to people's beliefs about the supernatural, there suddenly is this resistance to questioning.

My initial reaction was, "That's not true – religious people will often give detailed articulations of why they believe what they believe!"  And then it hit me – there's a layer of indirection in those explanations, a practice I know only too well from the computer world. It's not that they have no evidence for what they believe – it's that they accept as evidence something axiomatic.

How do we know Jesus loves me?  "...for the Bible tells me so!"  How do we know we can believe the Bible about that?  "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching...."  Which is, of course, a circular definition, since the source of the Bible's claim to authority is the Bible.  Others point to subjective personal experiences of God as evidence that He exists, then use "the assurance of the Holy Spirit" as all the evidence they need that the Bible is accurate. (I'm sure the assurance of the Holy Spirit will be added as a publication criterion in major scientific journals Real Soon Now.)

Years ago, I was listening to a Great Courses talk on the Old Testament, and I was very offended by the professor's off-hand comment that David almost certainly didn't actually exist; if he did, he probably was not the father of Solomon, assuming he also existed. I was listening to learn about The Bible, not about faithless assertions that the Bible was an interesting collection of folklore!

For some reason, reading about the sources of the Gospels gave me a milder reaction. That theory posits, not that the events of the Gospels are untrue, but that they are based on older contemporaneous documents which no longer exist. It's that distinction – that believing in source analysis didn't require disbelief in the content – that made me able to stretch my mind and explore a new concept.  But once you've explored the concept, you see where it can be applied elsewhere.

The theory that the Old Testament similarly has source documents is simultaneously more and less threatening to that part of my mind.  Modern religious studies see the Pentateuch as going through several major revisions by authors with different aims and beliefs, all at much later dates than we are traditionally told.

Yahweh was one of many gods in ancient Canaanite religion. Israel went through a period of henotheism – a term I hadn't encountered before – in which they didn't deny the existence of other gods, but they worshiped one in particular. (This is an interesting parallel to the ancient Romans, who didn't care what other gods you worshiped so long as you also acknowledged the state-sponsored deities. Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire were called "atheists" because they didn't believe in the national gods.) One of the subsequent revisions of the Pentateuch attempted to retroactively stamp out mentions of other gods than Yahweh, either implying that they were different names for the same personage or denigrating them as idols and not real gods.

This thought, that the Bible has not always been what it is today; has not always said what it says today, might be scary for some. Others will be completely sanguine, trusting that God has shaped the Book attributed to Him into the form He desires it to be in the present day.

But for those who embrace knowledge, embrace the search for truth, it's also the beginning of a deeper exploration of what the Bible is and is not.