Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Facts and Opinions in the Bible

Suppose someone you haven’t seen before comes to meet you at your home or workplace. The very moment you see that person, your mind makes the following distinctions for you:
 Is that person a male or a female?
 Is that person an adult or a child?
You don’t do it consciously, but it happens at the subconscious level. You react to that person based on these distinctions.
Here is another similar situation. You either hear or read a statement. The very moment, your mind makes the following distinctions about that statement:
 Is it a fact or an opinion?
 Is it to be understood literally or metaphorically?
Your reaction will be based on these distinctions.
    Here is an example:
You hear someone says:  “My boss is a tiger.”
The moment you hear this, you make the following distinctions:
    This statement is an opinion, not a fact.
    This statement is to be taken metaphorically, not literally.

Imagine what will happen if you fail to distinguish between fact and opinion, and between literal and metaphorical! This is basic to effective communication. In our everyday life, we misunderstand facts for opinions, and opinions for facts. Similarly, we misunderstand literal for metaphorical, and metaphorical for literal. The result is miscommunication, that is, the communication sent is different from the communication received.

Someone sends a message (idea) encoded in a language using an audible or visual medium. The one who receives it needs to decode it correctly in order to receive the intended message. Failure to decode it correctly results in miscommunication.

Miscommunication is dangerously high in religious literature. It is not because there is anything wrong in the communication sent, but because the readers receive different communication by misunderstanding. Here we shall see examples from the Christian Bible.

A fact is a statement that can be verified by evidences. Facts are independent statements in the sense that they stand on their own regardless of whether there are people to believe them or not. The statement “Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” is a fact because it can be verified anywhere.

However, all statements are not facts because evidences are not available for a large number of statements we make. When I make a statement without the support of evidences, then it is my belief or opinion. The statement “Humans were evolved from monkeys” is not a fact because enough evidences are not available to prove it in an undisputable way. It is a belief or opinion for some people. Once scientists are able to produce clear evidences, then it gets promoted to a fact. Opinions or beliefs are dependent statements in the sense that they can’t exist without the support of people.

A belief gets social acceptance depending upon its popularity. Once a belief is accepted by the majority of people in a certain community, that belief is elevated to the status of a fact. That belief would be considered a fact, and whoever deviates from it will be considered a heretic. In Psalm 53, the poet says: The fool says in his heart there is no God. The majority of people in his community believed that there is God; therefore, the handful of people who denied the existence of God became fools in the sight of the majority. In a community where the majority deny the existence of God, those who believe in God’s existence would be fools. In a Muslim nation, a non-Muslim would be considered fool; in a Hindu nation a non-Hindu would be considered fool, and in a Christian nation a non-Christian would be considered fool.

Most of the statements we make in science are facts. In history, statements regarding who, when and where are mostly facts, although statements regarding why and how are mostly opinions. In religion, most of the statements we make are beliefs or opinions. Religion answers the basic questions of existence such as Who are we? Why do we exist? and How should we exist? Evidences are not available to answer these questions conclusively. Therefore, the answers we give remain beliefs or opinions; never facts. No wonder, there are countless belief systems and religions. Beliefs about existence vary from person to person, and even a person changes beliefs from time to time.
A belief or opinion could be true or false. We just don’t know. Only facts can be conclusively true or false. Beliefs or opinions can either be true or false. We just don’t have enough evidence to prove either way. However, all the time we hear people claiming their belief to be the only true belief!

Similarly, a fact need not be absolutely true. A fact is true only based on our present knowledge. When we gain better knowledge of something, a fact regarding it may become a non-fact. For example, the statement “Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” might be proved false by the science of the future. Who knows? However, there is less chance for a fact getting demoted to an opinion than an opinion getting promoted to a fact.
Although beliefs cannot be classified into true and false, they can be classified into three categories based on their relevance and effect.
1.    Positive  (beneficial to the healthy existence of humankind)
2.    Negative (harmful to the healthy existence of humankind)
3.    Neutral   (neither beneficial not harmful)
Positive beliefs should be encouraged, negative beliefs should be rooted out, and neutral beliefs should be ignored. Here are examples:
    Positive:    God loves all people alike.
    Negative:   God loves some people more than others.
    Neutral:    One should face the east when he/she prays.

A major part of the Christian world considers the Bible to be the infallible word of God. By this, they mean that everything in the Bible is true, or in other words, all the statements in the Bible are true facts. They imply that there are no beliefs or opinions in the Bible, but only facts. They quote the Bible saying, “Bible says” or “God says”. It doesn’t matter to them whether the statement was uttered by Matthew, Paul, or Peter because they were mere pencils in the hand of God, the real author.
I shall cite a few examples to make this idea clear. Psalms is a collection of lyrics or songs used by the Jewish community.
In psalm 22, the poet says,
        I am not a human, but a worm!
In psalm 23, the poet says,
        The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!

These lines were written by poets to express their diverse states of mind. In ps. 22, the poet is at the depth of depression. He identifies himself to a worm. In ps. 23, the poet is at the height of a feeling of safety and security. There is confidence, courage and hope.
 In one psalm, in the midst of troubles and tribulation, the poet complains to God:
“God, why are you sleeping?”
However, in another psalm, the poet affirms:
        “God does not sleep!”

Anyone can see that these lines were not written by God, but by people expressing their beliefs and feelings at different times. When I quote something from Paul I prefer to say, “Paul says” rather than God says or Bible says. I believe that all these authors were divinely inspired to write. However, it appears senseless to me that they were just pencils in the hand of God.
There are both facts and beliefs in the Bible. Statements such as:
        Jesus lived in Palestine
        David was a king of Israel.
are historical facts. However, statements such as:
        Jesus is the savior of the world.
        David was the greatest king of Israel.
are beliefs or opinions.

Presenting a belief or opinion disguised as a fact is dishonesty. If I want to convert someone to my belief, I might present my belief clothed as a fact. Although I might win him/her temporarily to my belief, once he/she realizes that it involved deception, he/she becomes my enemy. Honesty is the best policy. One is free to tell others what she/he believes provided that it is made clear that it is one’s belief.  When people spread their religion, they need to take this into account.


Thomas Varghese said...

Dear John, Your article Facts and opinion is pretty good. I will say it is, the article itself is Fact. Let some blind believers get some insight.

Anonymous said...

Great post. The arrogance of fanatical religious elites can be understood and accepted as either ignorance or dishonesty by simply thinking logically and practically.

Tony Daniel said...

"Presenting a belief or opinion disguised as a fact is dishonesty" So true! May I add, they who 'believe' in it to be facts are also into this dishonesty. If the brand of religion people believe in, was a company policy, it would have been consigned to the scrap heaps a long time ago, labelled as "ineffective, never to be reopened".