Men Who Stare at Facts

Men Who Stare at Facts July 16, 2014

clooney2A few nights ago I had dinner with a friend who encouraged me to reconsider my stance on faith, arguing that the Bible encourages us to “test and retest” what it says for ourselves to see if it’s true.  While I disagreed with his interpretation of the language of the particular verse he used, I agreed with him that, at least in some places, the Bible does precisely that.

The Bible’s not consistent on this, of course, because there wasn’t really one invisible mastermind behind the production of this chaotic book.  It was produced over several centuries by wildly divergent communities and in some cases even by opposing factions (see James vs. Paul on what the word “faith” even means).  And the way it gets used today is even more diverse, with one group insisting that testing the claims of the Bible is totally legit while another group says “How dare you!” and argues that encouraging us to pass judgment on the Bible puts us in the place of God, which is blasphemy.  You see how frustrating it can be to address “the Christian view” of almost anything.  Something as subjective as religion can shapeshift and reinvent itself so many times that it’s impossible to say a single thing against it without at least two groups calling “straw man” simply because what you just described doesn’t fit with their peculiar variety.

But there are in fact places where the Bible encourages us to test for ourselves what it claims.  People in the Bible frequently asked God for proof of his claims and he obliged them.  Sometimes he even offered it on his own, like when Thomas doubted the resurrection and Jesus just said, “Here…touch the wounds yourself.”  If that story were being rewritten today, more likely they would have had Jesus berate Thomas for his skepticism and tell him that if the disciples’ word wasn’t good enough for him then tough luck, that’s his problem not God’s.  “It is a wicked and perverse generation that demands a sign,” they might say (Hey, I told you it wasn’t consistent, didn’t I?).  They talk about proof this way because twenty centuries have taught the church to hone its rationalizations for why real proof never comes.  Nowadays you have to be okay with descriptions of proof that other people got many centuries ago because that’s all you’re gonna get.  And shame on you for wanting more!  How dare you use the same standard of verification for faith that you use for all other areas of life!  What a disappointment you are.

Some Christians, however, are insulted by this anti-empirical approach to their faith.  They want to believe that it’s intellectually respectable to believe in floating zoos, parting seas, and men walking on water.  They reject Paul’s embrace of “the foolishness of the cross” and insist that if you just study everything hard enough you’ll see that claims of the Christian faith are completely reasonable, perhaps even academically defensible.  I think my friend falls into that category.  His intelligence has clearly garnered him great wealth, and I suspect he makes more in a month than I make in a whole year, even with all three of my jobs combined.  His financial success in life only reinforces his belief that he’s doing it right because clearly God is blessing him, right?

His affluence is probably what led me to bring up the challenge in Malachi to test God to see if giving to him brought financial prosperity.  Both Jesus and Malachi (and disputably Paul as well) encouraged us to give in order to get back more.  Interestingly, they didn’t couch their challenge in terms that guilted us for wanting more than what we already have (more inconsistency); in fact, they positively capitalized on it.  They encouraged it.  And they claimed that if we test them on this matter we will see empirically that this claim is true.  Well, I did that.  For many years I did that and no such benefit materialized, not just in terms of material provision but in terms of every conceivable reason for prayer and faith.  And I know, I know.  Shame on me for even thinking that way, right?  Never mind the fact that I learned this way of thinking from the Bible itself.  Most self-respecting intellectuals would distance themselves from this approach because most aren’t surgeons whose idea of a “lean month” is quadruple my gross monthly salary.  It’s easy to believe that God provides materially when you make six figures (or, alternately, if you talk about your needs so much that people often give you things out of pity).  But my friend took a different approach, one which I’ve previously heard applied not only to the promise of material provision but also to all other failed claims for things like healing, miracles, church unity, or just about any other thing under the sun.  His interpretation was that I just didn’t wait long enough.  Twenty years was apparently “not long enough.”

Horoscopes, Faith, and the Death Touch

When you believe something strongly enough, no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade you from your belief.  You will overlook mountains of contrary evidence, and no validation will be too small or too weak for you to bank your entire system upon.  That’s just how faith works.  Keep in mind I don’t say that as one who has always been an outsider.  I say that as one who occupied that mental world for decades but who now sees the whole enterprise in a different light.  If you are willing and “your heart is right,” you can be persuaded by arguments so weak that one day you may very well look back and say, “Are you kidding me?  Did I really believe that? Tell me I wasn’t this deluded!”

During our long conversation, my friend claimed that the Bible presciently describes everything from the hydrologic cycle to the Big Bang to dark matter and dark energy.  Where does it do that, you ask?  Frankly, I’d rather not take the time to recount it all.  You can pick up the work of Hugh Ross or one of the “Intelligent Design” proponents to see what they have to say (I went through one of those phases once, years ago).  Let’s just say it was awfully sneaky of Yahweh to hide such wonderful nuggets of science inside Hebrew poetry.  But it would have been nice if he had also included some kind of decoder pin with the text, or perhaps if he had disclosed something more pressing, like the germ theory of disease or how to grow penicillin.  While he was at it, it would have been nice if he had made a bit more clear that people shouldn’t be considered property, and that rape and genocide are always bad.  But oh, well.

To be honest with you I showed my friend little patience as he started in on this line of argumentation.  He probably found it rude of me to cut that discussion short the way I did; but at this point in my life, I just refuse to dignify this talk with any more attention than I already have.  I explained to my friend that Muslims do the exact same thing with the Koran, anachronistically finding advanced scientific knowledge throughout the text.  If you hold your head just right, and forget how primitive the original writers of the texts really were, you just might be able to accept the idea that something magical happened there.  God was speaking in code, the sneaky prankster, and kept us in the dark about it for ages.  It’s purely a coincidence that God chose to finally reveal the hidden message of his holy book at the same moment that modern science discovered those same things through the hard labor of scientific inquiry.

Never mind the fact that these people thought the earth is stationary and at the bottom of everything.  To them, celestial bodies like the sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around us and could “fall to the earth” without utterly incinerating the whole planet.  It’s not their fault; they just didn’t know what we know.  But that’s not an acceptable view to someone who needs to believe that this book is special, immune to the limitations and imperfections of the men who wrote it.  For example, my friend wanted to believe the book of Job predicted dark energy, so that’s how he reads it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

There’s something going on here—a psychological process that I wanted my friend to see for what it is.  I illustrated it to him by comparing a reading of the Bible to the reading of a horoscope.  For example, looking at my horoscope for today, I read:


That’s amazing, isn’t it?!  Thank you, horoscope!  I do have the talent!  And as a matter of fact, I had lunch with another new friend just today, and it was brilliant.  See?  This stuff really works!  If someone were so inclined, he could make any day’s events conform to his daily horoscope.  We’re practically geniuses when it comes to things like that.  The person writing the horoscope doesn’t even have to work very hard at it.  The reader does all the work for him.  You possess the raw data of your own day, and you will actively organize it in your mind to ensure the story comes out in a way that makes sense to you.

We are all boundlessly creative storytellers, every one of us.  If you doubt that, look no further than your own dreams every night.  What brilliant writers we all are!  I’m convinced that those whom we call “geniuses” are merely people who have access during the daytime to the subconscious creativity that the rest of us only possess while asleep.  That’s why horoscopes and religions both thrive the way they do.  As long as the faithful are willing, there will be endless ways we can make the words of our supposed authorities fit what happens in order to ensure our faith in them remains strong.

When I told my friend that the promise of provision never materialized for me in my life (I could have replaced that with any one of the other failed promises but that was the easiest criteria to measure), he told me it just hasn’t materialized yet.  Evidently twenty years wasn’t long enough to wait for the promises to come to fruition.  But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; I know this game.  I was taught to play it, too, and I did it for years until it finally dawned on me that I was only playing tricks on myself.  This game is illustrated perfectly by a short scene from the movie Men Who Stare at Goats.


Just like the “Death Touch,” the promises of God will never fail as long as his subjects remain so eager to reinterpret whatever happens to conform to those promises.  This kind of faith is a versatile thing.  It’s incredibly elastic.  Retrospectively, it allows you to shoehorn modern science into the poetic language of primitive Mesopotamians (“See?  No conflict between religion and science!”), and it allows you to reshape your own life story as it unfolds so that if you want it badly enough, you can find whatever you think is supposed to be there.  At this point in my life, I see no valid reason to pretend like this is a legitimate belief just because people engage in it so instinctively.  It makes for great comedy in a movie script.  In real life, it’s just as silly.  Time to put it away.

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