Faith and evidence: how they work (or don’t)


Peggeen here.

This is about how faith works — or doesn’t — inside of religion and out of it.

Two examples. Both begin with folk tales or ancient stories — then examine how they intersect with reality.

The Cascadia Story

Scientists knew for a long time that the Pacific Northwest had characteristics of a major subduction zone — volcanoes, one techtonic plate descending under another, and so on. The one thing it didn’t have — or so they thought — was gigantic mega-thrust earthquakes.

Although other subduction zones around the world “let go” every 100-200 years, producing the world’s most catastrophic earthquakes, Cascadia (as the region is called) had been placid since Europeans arrived.

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was a wake-up call that inspired geologists to dig deeper. But only one, a guy named Brian Atwater, took an unusual, seemingly unscientific, direction: he listened to tales of coastal NW Indian tribes. They spoke of the Thunderbird rising, shaking the earth and raising the waters.

The myth sounded silly. But Atwater reasoned that it meant the ancestors of those Indians had endured a giant earthquake and tsunami. And he had faith (a confident guess) that, if so, he could prove it.

Off to the muddy Washington state coast he went. Sure enough, in salt marshes and tidal flats he found evidence that a spruce forest had once existed — then suddenly died and been covered in sand. Logical hypothesis: the land level had abruptly descended, sinking the dry-land trees into a salt marsh, killing them all at once. A tsunami had also swept over the trees, depositing sand. Carbon dating placed this event around 300 years ago.

I’m a skeptic. But I admit that, if I had that much information, I’d conclude with confidence that Atwater and the old tales were correct: Cascadia can produce a whopper of a quake.

But in this world, Atwater’s impressive discovery still wasn’t enough.

Across the Pacific, Kenji Satake learned of Atwater’s research and thought to himself that, while the American NW had no written records from 300 years ago, Japan had many. And if there was a monster quake in Cascadia 300 years ago, an “orphan tsunami” (that is, one not associated with any local earthquake) would have hit Japan.

Bingo. Satake found records in four Japanese cities that such a tsunami struck in January 1700. Knowing how seismic waves propagate across the ocean, it was even possible to pin down a date and time for the quake.

But you know what? That was still not enough evidence to back Atwater’s original leap of faith.

Then along came tree expert David Yamaguchi. He examined the tree rings of coastal “ghost forests” — ancient dead trees still standing. And he confirmed that, all up and down the north coast, the trees had suddenly died precisely in early 1700.

Then, and only then, could scientists accept that not only could the Cascadia subduction zone produce quakes that would be among the world’s largest, but that a quake between magnitude 8.7 and 9.2 had struck at 9:00 p.m. on January 26, 1700. That knowledge enabled Atwater and others to uncover evidence of even older mega-thrust quakes and begin to understand how frequently they occur.

Only after that much investigation could scientists and emergency planners get on with such big questions as: when might this happen again, what can modern people in cities expect, and what can we do to protect ourselves?

It began with a folktale and a leap of faith. The folktale itself is only an approximation; but by considering the tale as the first bit of evidence, truth gradually emerged.

It’s very important to understand that only after rigorous investigation with multiple confirmations would knowledgeable people accept that the Cascadia subduction zone is a powerful earthquake producer. Even after that, every bit of knowledge about Cascadia quakes remains subject to change and interpretation, based on new evidence.

The Bible Story

Now, if one pagan folk tale can, in the right person’s mind, lead to uncovering such a vital and potentially life-saving truth, surely the bible — which contains so many more stories and was created by god — can lead investigators with modern tools to even greater facts. Facts that can change our lives for the better. At minimum, we should expect the bible to lead us to facts that verify the truth of bible stories and claims.

Alas, in the best cases, decades of investigation result only in a tossup about whether a given event in the bible happened or didn’t. Some stories, like the famous walls of Jericho “tumblin’ down” may — or may not — be backed by physical evidence. But the evidence doesn’t quite reach the Atwater stage, let alone the Satake or Yamaguchi status of reasonable proof.

And that turns out to be no surprise. Because the closer you look at the bible itself, the more you discover it’s an error-laden mess and at least parts of it are outright forgeries (written to inspire or influence or control, but not based on real events).

You quickly find that whoever wrote the bible thought the value of pi was precisely 3 (and stated that repeatedly) and believed that some insects were birds that walked on “all fours” (not to mention that rabbits were cud chewers and bats are birds).

Now, Christian apologists will answer these points. And answer these points. And answer these points — often with considerable inventiveness, disagreeing with each other as much as skeptics disagree with them.

And it’s probably true that some apparent errors are mistakes of translation, not of the original language. (One does wonder though, why a god who set out to use this one, single compilation as his inerrent truth, meant to be understood by all for their salvation, never bothered keep either originals or translations lucid, coherent, and accurate.)

And if god meant the Old Testament to be his inerrant word, why is it that some books of the OT were edited numerous times — apparently to make the bible’s god (or gods) conform to the views of changing human power structures?

Did god goof the first time? And the second?

Some of the events described were written hundreds of years later by people who had only mangled knowledge of history and whose “facts” were about as reliable as those you’d find in a Harry Potter book.

The more you dig, the more evidence researchers uncover, the more deeply scholars explore, the more absurdities, unliklihoods, hinks, outright forgeries, and come to light. For instance, of the 13 letters in the New Testament once believed to be by Paul, evidence has now shown that six are probably fakes. For instance, scholars know that the writing style isn’t Paul’s, and/or that the cultural references in some dubious epistles are from dates long after Paul’s death, and often the opinions don’t even match Paul’s.

Most scholars also believe that Peter didn’t write 1 or 2 Peter. And few people even pretend any more that the gospels where written by actual disciples of Jesus (or Paul) named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

It appears that, as differing factions tried to take over Christianity in its first centuries, various agenda-driven people pretended their own words were those of Peter or Paul or other Christian luminaries in order to give the apostles’ authority to their own viewpoints. That’s forgery, impure and simple. And despite what some Christians like to claim, there was never a time in human history when forgery wasn’t considered dishonest and contemptible. There were just times when it slid by because it was hard to detect — and times when forgeries were very deliberately propagated because a particular forgery fit the prejudices of men in power.

And contradictions? The OT isn’t alone in being filled with hinks. The New is also loaded with wildly basic ones and the Christians’ answers become ever more inventive. (While also, as usual, ignoring important details; did Judas buy a field or throw his blood money into the Temple?)

Any skeptic can go on, pointing out errors, inconsistencies, absurdities, cruelties, and other hinks in the bible. And Christian apologists can go on coming up with highly inventive and sometimes partially plausible explanations.

But the bottom line is that when something is true or even contains a grain of truth, the closer you look, the more you examine the evidence, the more you confirm that truth.

The closer you look at the bible, the less the evidence holds up. Desperately elaborate (and incomplete) explanations do not cut it. If a ridiculous tale like that of the Thunderbird can hold a core of scientifically verifiable truth, then why is it that the closer we look into the bible, the more we see errors and outright fraud, rather than verification of its accuracy? Because the stories of the bible aren’t even authentic folk tales, let alone authentic writings of an all-knowing being.

We can begin with faith. But when real evidence contradicts faith, then faith is mere delusion.

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