Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Lost Tomb of Jesus

An opportunity has come up to display a devotion to higher standards of proof than used by those we tend to criticize.

James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has produced a documentary called, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” where it is claimed that a burial site has been found that includes Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ son.

Perhaps the claim is true. Yet, the issue is not to be decided by a documentary put together by a Hollywood producer. The issue is to be decided by articles in peer-reviewed publications and debates by experts in the field. If they should form a consensus that these claims are correct, an individual with a proper concern for proof over propaganda will have reason to accept those results. Until then, they (we) do not.

An Intellectually Responsible Conclusion

The promotions for the documentary assert that the documentary will provide the viewer with evidence and then the viewer can decide for himself or herself what to believe.

Yet, my contention is that there is no way that a documentary can provide an individual, in 45 minutes, with enough information to make more than a guess as to the conclusion – and that guess will inevitably follow the viewer’s own preconceived notions.

Being convinced by this documentary would be like being convinced of a suspect's guilt while sitting on a grand jury. A grand jury only hears the prosecutor's case - all expertly wrapped to make it look as pretty as possible. No doubt, the message in this documentary will be well packaged to make it look as attractive as possible, to get unthinking people to buy it.

In holding to this standard of knowledge, one is already holding to a higher moral respect for truth than most people who will be discussing this documentary will allow. Most fundamentalists will hold that the claims are false, precisely because their religion claims otherwise. They will assert a certainty that a person with a proper love of truth to know to be unwarranted.

At the same time there will be those who will wish to view this documentary as confounding Christians, who will assert that in 45 minutes they have become sufficiently knowledgeable in the science of archaeology to make a conclusion that PhD scientists in the field do not universally accept.

The difference here is not between those who are certain P is true and those who are certain P is false. It is between both of these groups and the intellectually responsible person who asserts that those who claim to know are intellectually reckless and show an insufficient moral regard for the value of the truth and good evidence. The lover of truth will see members of both camps blinded by a will to believe and an arrogant assumption of infallibility that has a habit of causing a great many more problems in the world than it solves.

The Possibility of Being Wrong

In saying that the documentary will not provide us with sufficient evidence to make an informed decision, I am not saying that Cameron’s conclusions have a 50% chance of being true. Actually, they are far more likely to be false. There is going to be a long list of possible explanations for this data. These odds alone give the Cameron explanation a very low chance of being true.

Consider a case in which you have a friend secretly draw a card out of a deck of cards. You know that the card he is holding is either the king of hearts or it is some other card. Yet, this hardly implies that there is a 50% chance that your friend is holding the king of hearts. Your claim, “You have drawn the king of hearts,” is almost certainly (98% chance) false. Cameron’s claims are almost certainly false.

Yet, those who hold that Cameron’s chances of being wrong are 100%, rather than some smaller number, because their religion will not tolerate him being right, are also mistaken. There is a very real non-zero chance that Cameron’s claims are accurate. The dogmatic Christian who says that Cameron cannot be right because the Bible says so is no lover of truth.

These conclusions speak to a certain amount of justified moral condemnation for James Cameron and his crew. If they are lovers of truth, then they would not be telling their audience, “In 45 minutes, we can give you enough information to make decisions that professional archaeologists do not feel qualified to make.” How wonderful it would be if one of us can get the equivalent of a PhD in archaeology just by watching one documentary. Consider the tons of information that cannot be presented in a forum such as this.

The Right to Freedom of Speech

Now, whenever somebody condemns somebody else for saying something, suggesting that it is something that ought not to be said (in this case, that a 45 minute documentary can give a person sufficient reason to accept or reject a set of propositions on Jesus), that this is censorship and is to be condemned. The assertion would be that I am an enemy of free speech if I assert that Cameron is to be condemned for this particular exercise of speech.

Consistent with this, I would expect some Christians to condemn this documentary, and that others will use eagerly use the opportunity to accuse those fundamentalists of being an enemy of “free speech”

These claims would be mistaken. In order to violate Cameron’s right to free speech, one would have to advocate violence or legal penalties against him. Criticism – even in the form of moral condemnation for making certain claims – is not a violation of free speech, if it is not backed by violence. The right to free speech only makes sense if it includes a right to criticize, and a right to morally condemn, others. These acts are also speech, and those who perform them must also be free.

In fact, this particular use of “the right to free speech” contradicts itself. Those who make this claim are effectively asserting, “No good person would ever make the claim that there are things that no good person would ever claim." The position is incoherent.

Cameron clearly has the right to be free from violence or punishment for producing this documentary. This does not remove his guilt that his documentary contains an invitation to intellectual recklessness and irresponsibility.

Going Against Christian Dogma

In reading a news account of this documentary, one of the statements that I ran across said that, “[S]everal scholars derided the claims made in a new documentary as unfounded and contradictory to basic Christian beliefs.”

Sorry, but a scholar would have no grounds for deriding a claim because it contradicts basic Christian beliefs. That objection would either require the assumption that all Christian beliefs are true, or that it even false Christian beliefs should never be contradicted. Both of these are violations of the fundamental ethics of scholarship.

This leaves only “unfounded” as being a legitimate objection to Cameron’s piece. When this objection comes from scholars, it has merit. However, when this objection comes from the church, it brings with it a touch of irony – that of a church official condemning a belief on the basis that there is not sufficient physical or material evidence to support it.


The General Tendency of Skeptics

In the article, a biblical scholar Stephen Pfann said, “[S]keptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear.”

This might actually be true of some ‘skeptics’. However, I would hope that the moral culture of the skeptics would suppress such tendencies. Instead, I hope that skeptics, in general, would be more concerned with whether a proposition is true or false and well supported by the evidence than whether the proposition is convenient or pleasant to entertain.

In fact, Pfann’s claim is an insult in that it attributes a mean spirited – a ‘love of having others suffer’ to skeptics. Apparently, the list of things that are entertaining to the average skeptic is the suffering of a person who has discovered that a cherished belief is probably false. I suspect that Pfann would scoff at the idea that there might be a skeptic who bits his tongue rather than poke holes in the cherished beliefs of an associate or family member, just because he does not want to cause such a person pain.

There are, of course, some skeptics for which this accusation is true. However, what should be true of skeptics “in general” (contrary to Pfann’s hate-filled bigotry) is that the love of truth itself is more important than the love of any given belief, such that the belief can be accepted or rejected based on the evidence. A certain amount of condemnation would be appropriate for any who love a belief more than they love truth.


Anonymous said...

"Cameron clearly has the right to be free from violence or punishment for producing this documentary. This does not remove his guilt that his documentary contains an invitation to intellectual recklessness and irresponsibility."

Along with this line there are a few moments where you suggest moral condemnation for James Cameron. Do you mean to suggesting that Cameron is being intellectually reckless, and deserves moral condemnation? If so, I disagree on the grounds that his documentary is not meant to convince anybody, but rather supply a few facts and allow a viewer to draw as much of an opinion as one can in only 45 minutes. I have not seen anything suggesting Cameron's intent is that we should be able to draw a final conclusion after watching this documentary.

Heather said...

I agree. The director himself makes the exact same statements in interviews on the official site: www.jesusfamilytomb.com
Nobody is saying that this is conclusive. They're just presenting some finds that have been analyzed and that they think the public should know about. They're actually interested in pursuing the issue and not trying to hide valuable information like others might have done.

Anonymous said...

Well put! Truth before belief.

Chris Rosebrough said...

I’ve written a comprehensive rebuttal to claims and evidence of this film. Please read it and decide for yourself.

You will find it at extremetheology.com

Alonzo Fyfe said...

TheGsus, Heather

It is not sufficient that Cameron and company are not claiming that they have conclusive evidence.

The arguments that I gave above were to show that, at this point, with the types of evidence being presented in this documentary (as opposed to peer-reviewed scientific research) the conclusions reached in the documentary are probably false.

Compare this, for example, to the story last decade of the Mars meteorite with signs of life. The story broke only after the scientists had gotten their findings accepted into peer-reviewed scientific publications. Even then, the conclusion that the Mars meteorite contained signs of life was probably false, and later proved to be highly unlikely to be true.

I would have wished that the people involved in this documentary would have gone through the same effort. It would have been my wish that the archaeologists involved in this documentary would have put their efforts first into getting their findings accepted into peer-reviewed journals, and then created the documentary based on what the peer-reviewed journals found reasonable.

I see no sense in taking the case to the public first. I find this to be intellectually reckless.