When is religion not like religion?

There are some news articles and YouTube videos around concerning the discovery of the fabled star catalogue of Hipparchus (c190-c120BC) as a palimpsest in a mediaeval manuscript from the ancient monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, whence also came one of the oldest near-complete manuscripts of the Greek Bible, Codex Sinaiticus.

The star catalogue is cited in ancient works, but the Greek original was believed lost until this new discovery of part of it confirmed its existence and nature. One video on YouTube about the discovery mentions how palimpsests occurred, as Christian clerics re-used expensive parchment by scraping off unwanted texts and replacing them with new manuscript material. The poster hinted at the iconoclastic nature of churchmen in thus deleting ancient knowledge in favour of religious dogma (in this case the spiritual writings of a local boy, John Climacus).

Many of the comments under the video picked up on this tired New Atheist trope, laying into the ignorant Christians determined to destroy all knowledge not in the Bible as pagan error, and so on. What they failed to notice were a couple of significant correctives.

The first is that the original palimpsest text is dated on epigraphic grounds to the fifth or sixth centuries, well into the Christian era and at the start of the monastery’s history. So the manuscript was either produced and then transported expensively all the way to the desert, or more likely copied by the monks themselves from an older, now lost, manuscript. In other words, they were in the business of preserving scientific knowledge, not destroying it. The re-use was done in the ninth century, and we have no idea whether the reason was lack of interest in astronomy in the later period, the possession of a less worn copy of Hipparchus, or simply prioritisation through shortage of materials or space.

I’m reminded that good science is lost nowadays in much the same way by secular universities, as I described here. Science actually proceeds by change of fashion as much as by linear progress, and if a new ruling paradigm finds favour, the books containing the old and supposedly irrelevant orthodoxy will gradually disappear from the main library shelves to the back storerooms. And as space there is filled, “obsolete” books, often containing solid research that might move science forward, are simply incinerated. A good example of that was the ousting of structuralism by the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s.

The second fact is that the discovery was made, and published, by the Evangelical Bible research centre of Tyndale House, in Cambridge, the lead author being the Director Peter J. Williams, whom I’ve met. I had a long conversation with him there before the publication of God’s Good Earth, a copy of which is in their library, and Josh Swamidass and I had a fruitful visit there in 2019 acquainting Peter with the Genealogical Adam and Eve paradigm. Rigorous and unbiased research is their watchword, drawing on many scientific fields and techniques for their work. For example Peter’s predecessor, Bruce Winter, actually a friend of mine, oversaw the publication of some of the most extensive archaeological work on New Testament background, benefiting secular history as much as religious.

This all reminds me how there is a similarly strong anti-Christian element in the movement of those sceptical about COVID, climate change and so on. It must be added that many of those who are “awakened” to the deception around us are informed by Christian faith, and I’ve mentioned before how even the non-religious have increasingly seen things in terms of (to them) unfamiliar “good v. evil.” Even so, there is a common tendency to compare the authoritarian dogmatism of governments and experts of various kinds with “religion.” The idea is that religion is something foisted on people by doctrinaire priests and prelates, unverifiable facts being asserted from the Bible, and compliance being demanded on the basis of priestly authority. Thinking for oneself is discouraged, and the only remedy is a truly scientific refusal to cooperate with mumbo-jumbo.

My argument today is that science itself, as a sociological entity, is nowadays indeed proving to spout corruptly authoritarian mumbo-jumbo on major issues, and that in fact this is an inherent weakness hitherto largely hidden by the very dispassionate authority it claims for itself. On the other hand my own experience of biblical religion is that it is rather more open to both external and personal validation than much materialistic science.

Let me start with science, briefly. Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra’s journey on the recent epidemic, for example, began from his beginning to have doubts about parts of the COVID narrative from his own field of expertise. But it took him a long time to develop doubts about the mRNA vaccine programme because he had always assumed, because medical authorities trained him to assume early on in life, that all vaccines are axiomatically safe and effective. He is, of course, not the only scientist to experience such an epiphany, for religious faith in science as a self-correcting, unprejudiced and honest methodology leads even the most critically aware scientists to accept the authority of the practitioners outside their own narrow field. Nobody can, in practice, check everything for themselves, or even much of anything. The alternative is belief in the myth of scientific integrity.

The illusory nature of that assurance has begun to be demonstrated by John Ioannidis, Peter Doshi and others, but the truth is so unsettling that only a minority takes it seriously even within the scientific community, let alone in the public sphere. It is analogous to mediaeval Catholics’ cognitive dissonance at learning how many of their beliefs were contradicted by the Bible. How could centuries of experts be wrong?

Let me, though, contrast my own experience of Christianity. It’s true that I first accepted the gospel, at the age of thirteen, on intellectually inadequate grounds. I was told that the Bible diagnosed me as a sinner unacceptable to God (which resonated, albeit uncomfortably, with my self-knowledge), but that it also said that accepting the lordship of Christ was the sure and certain remedy – and that I had to take on trust. I trusted largely because of the quality I saw in the lives of those who believed it and told me about it, who were not priests, by the way. Belief in God was an existing starting point for me, because I was young enough to take his existence for granted – I remain convinced that children have to be educated out of that basic belief, which is as fundamental as belief in the existence of other minds.

The immediate difference from receiving some scientific truth on authority was that I began to experience the truth of that new acceptance by God. There is a big difference between belief grounded solely in an authority-figure, and belief first imparted by an authority, and then found to be true personally.

But that is not all. For a start, I was able to check out whether the Bible actually made the claims I had been taught. It did. But as my Christian education continued, I was increasingly able to assess all the claims of religious authority figures critically against the teaching of the Bible. Within months I could take what my liberal school RI teacher said with a pinch of salt, and now I’m happy to dispute amicably with theologians who taught me when I was younger, as well as recognising sheer heresy. Such validation of “religious authority” is open to everyone who has a copy of the Bible and is willing to do work with it. Reading every known scientific journal is a lot more difficult, and expensive.

And mark that such behaviour is no different from what is necessary in the sciences. It is commonplace for papers to be misinterpreted by other scientists, or even by the entire medical profession in the case of examples like the Framingham Heart Study. Not uncommonly even the author of the paper misinterprets his own data through error or, sadly, through corruption. Science has its own Televangelists!

But what about the reliability of Scripture itself? Once again for me this was different from accepting the authority of New Scientist over what my zoology teacher said, in the form of a transformative experience well after my conversion – in July 1971, to be exact. That experience, which I attribute to the Holy Spirit promised in Scripture, changed mere acceptance of the Bible’s teaching based on my Christian faith to a firm conviction that it was TRUE. This overnight change has never gone away, apart from the equivalent of C. S. Lewis’s admission that he only doubted Christ when alone in hotel rooms: psychological doubt is normal.

Beyond that, though, with a bit of reading I was able to discover the internal coherence and inter-textuality of a library written on three continents over several millennia, and to find answers to apparent contradictions as well as comparing them to the arguments of those who insisted on those contradictions. With a bit more of an intellectual hat on, I was able to research the origins of both the OT and NT books, to find the historical correlations both for individual people and events, and for general “cultural verisimilitude.” This can be as detailed as any science, for example in Tyndale House’s ongoing project to use biblical names to explore the date of composition, much as Richard Bauckham has done for the gospels. The contrast with the Book of Mormon or the Quran is stark (Haman coming from ancient Egypt, for example), but even more with any collection of scientific texts you could assemble from the same range of time and location.

But beyond the Bible itself, and supportive evidence, its worldview stands up to scrutiny in philosophy (including philsophy of science), in sociology, in psychology and in cosmology, to name just a few fields. Moreover, that worldview has repeatedly shown its viability as both ancient and novel ideologies fail, which is more than can be said for, say, naturalist materialism. One recent example of such a resurgence is Russia, indoctrinated in atheistic “scientific” Marxism for 70 years, and yet now 70% Orthodox.

I could continue, but my point is made sufficiently for Christmas, I think. We celebrate the birth of the baby who was also the eternal divine Son. But we don’t have to accept the narratives, or the mere fact, on the authority of some priest threatening us with excommunication or hell-fire, as the rapidly declining Gnus would have it. Or even on the word of a blogger, if you are willing to do some critical thinking culminating in personal commitment.

Have a great Christmas.

This is the Real World – Jon Garvey
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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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