Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Belief amid questions

I started a series on this topic and have had it published.  But, I want to share it with my readers.

I’ve been having a discussion via e-mail with my younger brother about belief.  It grew out of a book I’m working on for a client who believes the biblical Exodus from Egypt is accurate.  My brother, who is not overwhelmingly religious, said that he accepts the story of the Jewish escape from Egypt under Moses regardless of archaeological evidence. 

“I believe,” he wrote.  “Isn’t that something?”

Good question, but it can also be taken two ways: isn’t it something that he would believe such a thing or isn’t his belief worth something.

Later, he told me he was making a light comment, but I think the whole question of belief is worth pursuing.

With belief, we can accept anything: my uncle can be reborn as a cow; a god died for my sins; heaven awaits believers; etc.  However, that belief is the result of happenstance: what did the family I was born into believe?  If our parents were Catholic, we would have been taught something totally different.  And, we would have believed it.  I'm not in favor of chance.  I would like to know what I believe actually has some validity.  That's why the Da Vinci Code was so devastating to Christianity: millions worldwide believed the book was valid because the stories about Jesus have been shown to have little historical base.  Christians quickly accepted a novel as being real. 

A recent book explaining why such tales gain credence – the text was focused on conspiracies that people take as gospel – pointed that that whatever is claimed must be believable while the actual truth seems to have some gaps.  The idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their lineage affected world history seemed plausible in contrast with Christian beliefs.  It didn’t matter that the Priory of Sion, a supposed secret religious group protecting Jesus’ distant relatives, was invented in the 1960s or that the existence of any children fathered by Jesus would immediately destroy the claim of his divinity, which remains the whole point of the religion.

I find validity by studying and reading about archaeology and history.  What I believe requires that kind of underpinning.  As such, I can discard what does not fit into known historical evidence.  Take the cow and my uncle.  That's belief.  No amount of history will show that people are living multiple lives or come back as cows, mosquitoes or other humans. 

That's not true with the Exodus.  It had to have taken place in a particular time and place.
The Bible is our only source for this important event since no Egyptian records mention it.  The holy text provides some details that can be examined and verified.  Unfortunately, all the known facts simply do not match up with history.  No known pharaoh ever drowned.  Slaves did not build Egyptian cities.  No evidence of anyone living in the Sinai around 2,500 years has ever been found, even though evidence of prehistoric man has.  No mountain fits the description of Mt. Sinai.  Jews never went back to Mt. Sinai, the only known people who did not have regular pilgrimages to the site of an epiphany with their god.  Canaan was never invaded by Jews.  Cities supposedly destroyed were sometimes burned down in different eras; were already in ruins; were never destroyed; or did not exist then.  Cultural artifacts in Israel show no change over more than 1,000 years, conclusively indicating no influx of new people.

The latest theory on the origin of Judaism is that an impoverished portion of Canaanite society rebelled under the banner of a different god and succeeded in achieving some freedom.  Scorched wealthier sections of some cities support that theory.

As such, I cannot "believe" in something that did not nor could have taken place, any more than I can "believe: in Noah's ark, Saul talking with the ghost of Samuel or any other lovely biblical story.  Besides, I do not know how to pick and choose between one thing I'm supposed to believe in and something I can't.  If I can believe in the Exodus, where do I stop?  Why not believe in Jesus, Mohammad, Joseph Smith etc.?  If I draw a line, then I'm being capricious -- accepting one thing for no reason while rejecting another without any better reason.

I can’t use the Bible as bedrock.  After all, the Jewish section differs from the Christian portion.  In The “Old” Testament, for example, God condemns human sacrifice and demonstrates that by stopping Abraham from ritually killing his son.  Yet, in the “New” Testament, he blithely sacrifices his own son.  That’s one of a legion of discrepancies.

That leaves only facts and one question for my brother or anyone coping with the unfathomable idea of belief:   If I cannot base my belief on known facts, what could I possibly base my belief on?

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  You can write him via his website www.williamplazarus.com.

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