lunedì 14 gennaio 2013

Historical Mohammed and Early Islam: a new persepctive

Everybody knows roughly the biography of Muhammad and how Islam was born. A pious merchant who used to retire into caves to pray, Muhammad received a revelation by God, whom he, the last messenger and prophet, gathered in the Koran and spread among his fellows, the inhabitants of Mecca. Forced to flee from his home town, he returned there some years later at the head of a large army of converted to his religion. When he died, the whole Arabia had been converted to Islam and in few years his religion diffused in the Middle East on the tip of the swords of the Arabs.

This is the history of Early Islam as Muslims tell it and as it had been accepted by Western historiography. But a new generation of scholars has been applying for a decade the criteria of modern historiography to the study of Muhammed's life and of Early Islam, and several doubts are arising on the validity of this history. In particular the scholars are investigating the place where Islam was really originated in and if it was since the beginning a new religion, distinct from Christianity and Judaism, or if this fundamental characteristic was acquired only after the beginning of the Arab conquests.

Regarding this matter, I suggest a documentary by Tom Holland for Channel 4, by the title of Islam - The Untold Story. Holland is a writer and a popular historian, but the foundations of this documentary are provided by historians like Patricia Crone.

Incidentally, Holland received several menaces after the airing of the documentary, besides several protests by Muslims, so much that an airing in front of a group of historians was cancelled.

Lisa O'Carroll, «Channel 4 documentary Islam: The Untold Story receives 1,200 complaints», The Guardian, 3 settembre 2012; John Hall, «Channel 4 cancels controversial screening of Islam: The Untold Story documentary after presenter Tom Holland is threatened», The Independent, 11 settembre 2012.

venerdì 7 dicembre 2012

Australia, the ethics courses continue, but will be "hidden" from the parents

Adrian Piccoli
The ethics courses in the schools of New South Wales, Australia, will continue, but the parents will be informed of their existence only after having renounced the religion class.

Adrian Piccoli, Minister of Education, has accepted the opinion of a committee, according to which ethics courses will be maintained as an alternative to the course of  Special Religious Education, but considers it appropriate to disclose to parents the existence of such courses only after they have expressed their intention to opt-out of the religion classes:
"Ethics classes can be promoted," said Piccoli, "but what it means in a technical sense as such, that when parents are asked the question 'do you want your child to do special religious education', that's the first question that gets asked and if they say no then they say, 'well you can either do other things or you can do ethics classes'."
Greens MP John Kaye has criticized this choice:
"Nothing in the Education Act, which was amended in late 2010 to include the right to have access to ethics, nothing in that act at all say we have to discriminate against ethics in this way." "(There's no need) to keep it hidden, in the back drawer, so that nobody knows about it at the time they make the decision."
The news of the continuation of the classes was taken with relief by Simon Longstaff, a member of the St James Ethics Centre, the institution in charge of organizing the courses. Longstaff, however, was surprised by the decision to "obscure" the courses:
"There's something curious about not even telling people that an option exists until they have chosen something else. [...] It's a bit like having ethics classes within a sealed section within a magazine."
The St James Ethics Centre recruits and organizes volunteers for the lessons, attended by 7000 students. The ethics courses, as those of religion, are paid for through donations; donations to religious classes, however, are exempted from taxes, and the St James is trying to get the same recognition for donations in favour of ethics courses.

The ethics courses were introduced in schools of New South Wales in 2010, after a period of experimentation. as an elective alternative to courses on religion (also optional). At the time they encountered the opposition of the association that brings together the managers of the various religious courses. Six months after it was revealed that almost half of the students had left the religious courses to attend to those of ethics. The success of the Australian ethics courses brought, a few months ago, to the proposal to establish similar courses in France.

«Parents 'left in the dark' about ethics classes», ABC News, December 5th, 2012.

martedì 4 dicembre 2012

Betting on horses and the resurrection of Jesus (II)

Thomas Bayes (1701–1761)
In the last article I used a horse racing / mathematical problem to introduce Bayes' theorem in its odds-based form, ie the one using the ratio of the probability p that an event 'A' occurrs and of the probability 1-p that it does not occur: O (A) = p / (1-p).

At the end of that same article, I also promised a connection between this formulation of Bayes' theorem and the resurrection of Jesus. Obviously the key to this promise is found in the article immediately before, "On the validity of the testimony of the apostles about the resurrection of Jesus", in which I explained why the testimony of the apostles of Jesus about his resurrection is not an evidence strong enough to accept as true the hypothesis that a human being has risen from the dead. Now, with the help of Bayes' theorem, we can calculate how unlikely this hypothesis is.

Bayes' formula

First a small summary. Let O (H) be the odds of the hypothesis 'H' regardless of the occurrence of event 'E', P (E | H) the probability of the event 'E' when the hypothesis 'H' is true, P (E | ¬ H) the probability of the event 'E' when the hypothesis H' is false, and O (H | E) the odds of the hypothesis 'H' when event 'E' is taken into account; then Bayes' theorem is expressed in the following form:
O (H | E) = O (H) * P (E | H) / P (E | ¬ H),
that is the odds of hypothesis 'H' when observing event 'E' are equal to the odds of hypothesis 'H' regardless of the observation of 'E' multiplied by the likelihood ratio, the ratio between the probability to observe the event 'E' when the hypothesis 'H' is true and the probability of the event 'E' when the hypothesis 'H' is false. Through this ratio it is possible to update the odds of a hypothesis following the observation of an event.

The subject of the inquire

Our hypothesis 'H' is "Jesus was truly risen", meaning that Jesus was a human being and that his body returned to life. We have no direct observation of this resurrection, but we observed the event 'E' "the apostles of Jesus were witnesses of the resurrection".

The question we ask ourselves is what is the value of O (H | E), what are the odds that the hypothesis "Jesus is truly risen" is true, taking into account the event 'E' "the apostles of Jesus were witnesses of the resurrection". Applying Bayes' theorem, we find that this quantity depends on three factors:
  1. the odds that the hypothesis 'H' is true, regardless of the testimony of the apostles, O (H);
  2. the probability that the apostles would have been witnesses of the resurrection if Jesus was really risen, P (E | H);
  3. the probability that the apostles would have been witnesses of the resurrection if Jesus was not really risen, P (E | ¬ H).

How many people have lived on Earth?

What is the probability that Jesus rose from the dead, regardless of the testimony of the apostles? Given that this testimony is the only evidence of such an event, it is not unreasonable to think that the resurrection of Jesus has in general the same probability of occurrence of the resurrection of every other human being.

domenica 2 dicembre 2012

Betting on horses and the resurrection of Jesus (I)

A friend of yours, a real fanatic of horse races, has convinced you to follow him at the racecourse on a racing day. While you are waiting for the beginning of the races, you decide that, after all, a small betting would be fine. So you read the program of the first race, and the name of a horse comes to your attention: Soldatino!

You ask your friend if Soldatino is a good horse, but the answer is negative: in 105 races in which it participated, it "showed" (i.e., it arrived within the first three places) in just 7, that is, for each time it showed it did not for 14 times! Well, not exactly the favourite of the race...

Seeing your disappointment, your friend tries to get you a bit on the moral: "During the night it rained a lot, so the ground is very heavy." Noting your quizzical expression, your friend tells you that in 70% of the races in which Soldatino showed, the ground was heavy, and in those races in which it came in fourth or worse, the ground was heavy in 10% of cases.

venerdì 30 novembre 2012

On the validity of the testimony of the apostles about the resurrection of Jesus

Some Christian apologists (William Lane Craig, Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ?; Mike Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus) argue that the resurrection of Jesus must have been a real event because otherwise it would be impossible to explain the availability of the apostles to be martyred for witness: if Peter had not been convinced that Jesus was truly dead and truly risen, he would not had let himself be killed in his name, but he would have confessed the deception and got saved.

On this topic, some preliminary considerations should be discussed: for example, we are not sure that Peter was indeed martyred, nor we know with certainty that the deny the resurrection of Jesus would have saved his life, nor can we rule out that he had no particular reason to prefer death the unveiling of lies (think of Ron Hubbard and Scientology). But for this discussion, we will assume that Peter would deny Jesus without further consequences, but he chose to die to bear witness to his resurrection.

It should also be noted that the argument presented is valid only if the apostles (Peter) knew that Jesus had died and had risen again: it is important to emphasize that their mere belief in the resurrection is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate its actual historicity, as it is possible that they were wrong. In other words, with respect to the relationship between the resurrection and the apostles, there are three possible scenarios: the apostles knew that Jesus had risen, the apostles believed that Jesus had risen (for example, through a re-reading of the biblical allegories to understand the reasons for the death of their master, an event incompatible with their faith), or the apostles knew that Jesus had not been resurrected (and lied about his resurrection). Of these three scenarios, the only favourable to the apologists is the first one, in which the apostles are witness of the resurrection (as described in the Gospels, for example) and not merely convinced of its occurrence.

Well, the apologetic defence of the resurrection is just disowned by the existence of the Christian martyrs! Of all the Christian martyrs, in fact, the vast majority were killed for their faith, because they were convinced of the resurrection without being witnessed; just a minority of them (Peter, besides the "other" apostle and the women, if they were actually martyred) died because they were convinced by the facts.

Of course, it is possible that Peter was an eyewitness of the facts and died to bear witness of the resurrection, while the other (tens of) thousands of dead for their faith have taken this step without being witnesses of that event; this does not affect the possible truth of the resurrection. But what this reasoning proves is that the argument of the martyrdom of the apostles is not evidence for the truth of the resurrection as, if anything, of the fact that the apostles were convinced that it had taken place without being really been witnesses.

The picture is The martyrdom of Saint Peter, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, through Wikimedia Commons.

venerdì 9 novembre 2012

Poland, Christians offended by the campaign in favor of atheism

The Catholic Action of the Archdiocese of Czestochowa and the Association of Catholic Journalists protested vociferously against an advertising campaign that promotes atheism.

"I don't kill, I don't steal, I don't believe"
"He that believeth not, is not alone"

These two slogans have been used in an advertising campaign funded by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and by the Polish Association of Rationalists, which has been spread in the Polish city of Lublin in October. However, the atheists' claim about their own morality, together with a reference to the existence of an association of non-believers, has been considered offensive by the two Catholic groups.

"The posters that appeared in our city go directly against the Catholic Church and the Christian Doctrine. And it all takes place in a free and democratic society", reads a statement of the two organizations:
"In Poland, the Decalogue has been hit: the most sacred thing for believers, as well as the foundation of human morality. The invasion of the modern atheists into the holiness of God's law crosses the boundaries of freedom of religion, and therefore must be at least called by its name: vandalism"
Claiming of not stealing nor killing, and in doing so to be unbelievers, is therefore considered an offense to believers, as it "hits" the Decalogue; with this act of vandalism, the atheists «invade the law of God.» Any use of religious references is a violation of freedom of religion, for these people. The mere existence of people who think differently from them - who even dare to be moral without having to resort to the alleged "holy law of God" - is a threat that must be suppressed.

Ironically, the page of the news agency Zenit that reported this news indicates as related article the following: "Pilgrims to the Pope in defense of freedom and pluralism of the media in Poland"; that is, Polish Catholics are fighting for the freedom of the media, but they want to censor the free expression of others. As they say, "chiagni e fotti"...

Don Mariusz Frukacz, "Proteste in Polonia contro la campagna a favore dell'ateismo," Zenit, November 8, 2012.