Monday, July 16, 2007

Damascus Road

What really happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Both Christians and atheists have expressed the view that his conversion could have been no more than an epileptic fit. What do you think?

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

And your point is?

kiwibear said...

NO anonymous comments please! but I will respond.
The crux of the a/theist question is the existance of a spiritual realm. Does Paul's experience shed any light on the debate? How we respond is an indicator of the rationality with which we approach the larger question.

BEAST said...

Oh course Paul had an epileptic fit, same as Muhammad and all those silly "prophets" who claim to have an "experience" with God.

And that is precisely why anyone today who experiences such symptoms are not being proclaimed as a prophet, but rushed to the nearest hospital.

akakiwibear said...

Your evidence? Or is it just convenient to believe it that way. Paul’s life is actually fairly well documented and without mention of falling sickness or possession by demons – the then likely diagnoses of epilepsy. Interesting that even then they distinguished between epilepsy and close encounters of the God kind.

Bob Kowalski said...

Even if Paul had an epileptic fit on the road to Damascus, that is not so important as what is absent.

Has any religious person ever asked themselves what really just happened to them? Or were they too excited and enthralled with the possibilities for advancement and manipulation that had just opened up before them?

The oddest and most damning thing about religious experiences is the lack of surprise at who appears in them. Vishnu never appears to Jews or muslims, let alone Christians. And as far as I know, Jesus has never made his presence known to Hindus.

That ought to be enough to give pause to anyone claiming to have received a telephone call from Beyond.

Further, it's not dispositive, but again it should give food for thought: religious experiences are symptomatic of brain damage.

The question is not "what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus" but "Why does it matter? Does it make a difference?"

akakiwibear said...

Bob, thanks for stimulating the grey matter, but you are on thin ice with “religious experiences are symptomatic of brain damage”. Even if it were true could it be an evolutionary step? Next step is atheists are extinct and then we would have to rely on heretics to berate religious leaders for their excesses.

I agree, the context is important as is what is not said. Beyond dispute is that Paul lived and that his ‘Damascus Road’ experience lead to a change in heart for him. He attributes it to a religious experience, whatever it was, it was dramatic. You suggest it may have been a simple move for glory? He must have had one hell of a PR agent if it was. A PR agent that got the outcome of the spread of Christianity right and got the client to go for poverty, imprisonment and a rough death in the cause of spreading what he saw as a heresy he deeply opposed – plus that without Paul the spread may not have got to the gentiles as effectively as it did! As good as he was, I am not sure I would go for the same PR agent!

The ‘what is not seen’ is a smoke screen. If there is one God why would God not appear under the guise most relevant to the observer? If God is a some sort of combined or collective consciousness acting with common purpose, then multiple ‘identities’ would fit in well. It is also significant that the majority of religious experiences are not of God directly, but an agent (angel?) of God who would not be readily identifiable to the person. Maybe the “Hi I am …” line actually is needed.

Former Follier said...

I think that if Saul of Tarsus is the best evangelist of the Christian faith, perhaps he should've named his god to his converts. When admonishing people to follow his "lord" and "savior", he may've been referring to Baal. After all, he is not quoted as having spoken the name "Jesus" and the Bible says that "no man cometh unto the Father but by (Jesus)" so all Paul did was cow a bunch of false converts into submission.

akakiwibear said...

former follier, try reading, for example, Paul's letters say 1 Corinthians if you want examples of his use of the name Jesus. Perhaps you have an unusual translation (the atheist source book?) but all the bible versions I am familiar with use the name Jesus e.g. New American Standard Bible, King James, New Revised Standard etc.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil, I have copied this from one of your other comments to clear up that thread a bit
The quotes are Neil quoting me, the comment is Neil’s
"I think there is enough in the history to lend weight to the claim that there is a God (Paul’s conversion would be a good example)."

It would lend weight if Paul's conversion could be verified historically. We've got two accounts, both in Acts. Paul's conversion is mentioned in one of the epistles, but not in any detail. Of course, we should use the historical method rather than just reading the accounts. The checklist from R. J. Shafer raises some good questions.

3.2. When did he report in relation to his observation? Soon? Much later?

The account was written a few decades after the events described. This raises questions about the veracity.

3.3. What was the author's intention in reporting? For whom did he report? Would that audience be likely to require or suggest distortion to the author?

Both Paul and Luke are thought to have been active missionaries. This raises concerns about biases, either conscious or sub-concious.

akakiwibear said...

My reply to Neil

The account was written a few decades after the events described. This raises questions about the veracity.
well not really. We don’t have any of his earlier letters (before 1 Thes in about 52), but the letters we do have establishes that he has been working for a good number of years and must have consistently presented himself as a reformed persecutor otherwise he could not refer to it as an event prior to his early work in later letters e.g. Gal 1:13. Fair enough he does not go into the light show and voices bit, leaving that to his fellow traveller Luke, but there is clearly a conversion (Gal 1:13)

Both Paul and Luke are thought to have been active missionaries. This raises concerns about biases, either conscious or sub-concious.

We know Paul lived and was put to death as a Christian. The only challenge to his conversion then lies in what he may have been before he became a Christian – well he was not a Christian so he had to have had a conversion of some sort.

How big was the conversion – did he come from being a ‘sort of Jew’ or was he the persecutor of the church? There is no evidence to discredit his claim to having been a persecutor of the church (Gal 1:13 et al alludes to it being common knowledge) – the stoning of Stephen seems to establish that if not the lack of contrary evidence. Plus we actually know a lot about him, who his Jewish teacher was etc. We can be fairly certain he was a devout Jew and was engaged in the persecution. So his conversion was a big one.

So that only leaves the mechanics of the conversion. Now the early followers of Jesus that he turned to immediately after the conversion doubted the conversion itself – but that is different from us having to recognise that there was a conversion but still questioning the specific mechanics of it. Are the mechanics (light & voice) actually material – I think not. The conversion itself is – Paul experienced a massive change of heart that he attributes to God revealing the nature of Christ to him

It is hard to find any other credible motive for such a massive shift in belief. Clearly it was not a move to fame and fortune – he had already achieved recognition as a hot shot persecutor and was hardly poor. Signing up to the belief system he was engaged in persecuting was hardly the way to avoid persecution or get to the easy life. He knew he was heading for trouble and blames God for what he recognises as opting for an obviously unsafe path.

Neil Turton said...

NB. This is a continuation of this thread.

Hi akakiwibear,

I wasn't meaning to suggest that Paul's conversion never happened. I was just questioning the accuracy of the accounts in Acts. I think that we can agree that Paul converted from persecutor to champion of Christianity.

You say that it was not for fame and fortune that he converted. I'm afraid you're way ahead of me there. How do we know he had achieved recognition as a persecutor and was not poor? We've got Philippians 3:6 which says that he zealously persecuted the church. It doesn't say anything about recognition though. And I don't think 3:7 can be referring to financial matters. What am I missing? And I can't remember Paul blaming God for the path he chose. Can you jog my memory, please?

While it's possible that Paul was converted by divine intervention, can I present two alternatives? Both of them are speculative but I'm just trying to show that there are possibilities other than the orthodox view.

Suppose Paul believed that he had an encounter with God but was mistaken. Perhaps he had some sort of psychological experience instead. Wouldn't that explain everything we have? Paul's actions and writings are all based on his belief that he encountered God, whether or not that belief was correct. As a result, we can't tell if the belief was correct.

Another possibility is that Paul was having a hard time persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem and was looking for something else to do. He realized that the Christians were being persecuted because they were trying to convert Jews and so he thought it would be safer for them to try to convert gentiles instead. None of the Jerusalem leaders were prepared to do that so there was an opportunity for Paul to take Christianity to the gentiles and become a prominent leader in the church. All went well until the Romans started persecuting Christians, but Paul was committed by that stage.

Maybe neither of those are actually possible. Please let me know if not.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

"You say that it was not for fame and fortune that he converted. I'm afraid you're way ahead of me there." - not really, the life promised by adopting Christianity was hardly going to make him rich (at that time they still pooled their possessions) - perhaps fame, so I may have used the expression 'fame & fortune' too lightly.

I am interested in your two alternative explanations. The latter, that of a plot to convert gentiles as a diversion to converting Jews is innovative, but as I am sure you agree, still requires a massive change of heart - a conversion. Certainly it did not promise an easy life as his letters make clear that he was not universally well received.

Your other explanation is more conventional - mental illness, delusion. This is surely an example of argumentum ad ignorantiam that atheists so frequently decry when used by theists. Either we allow it or not?

Plus the mental illness argument does not really explain the specific nature of the conversion. A one-off event, a though decision that he did not reverse when "sanity" returned etc ...

More plausible is to accept that he had a religious conversion experience - after all it is the only explanation that fits all we know of the event.

You said I wasn't meaning to suggest that Paul's conversion never happened. I was just questioning the accuracy of the accounts in Acts. I think that we can agree that Paul converted from persecutor to champion of Christianity.

Naturally if you concede a true religious experience then you admit to theism, so I won't hold my breath ... but do you have any alternative first hand witness accounts that shed a different light on the events?

Paul's conversion remains a stumbling block for atheists. Even you acknowledge the potential with While it's possible that Paul was converted by divine intervention, ... but you can't accept the logical extension, so you reject the explanation of a true religious experience, based apparently on no more than personal bias or a preconceived position - this is not the rational high ground claimed by atheists.

1) The event happened - you acknowledge that.
2)You offer weak alternative explanations - is there a viable alternative?
3)There is a logical cause effect in the Christian view of the event.
4)
I respectfully suggest that you too are struggling with this.

Hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

You wrote:
"Your other explanation is more conventional - mental illness, delusion. This is surely an example of argumentum ad ignorantiam that atheists so frequently decry when used by theists. Either we allow it or not?"

If this is argumentum ad ignorantiam then we should certainly disallow it. I don't want to hold double standards. However, I fail to see that it is argumentum ad ignorantiam. Please can you explain? After that, I'll respond to the whole of your comment.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil,
As interesting as this is I think you & I have flogged Paul's conversion to death!

I am preparing a new posting that explores the distinction between humans as highly sophisticated bio-computer/machines and humans autonomous beings with freewill.

The hypothesis is that if there is no distinction then there is likely no metaphysical component to humans and hence (if you recognise my metaphysical enables theist thinking) no God.

The work of B Lebit is the basis for much atheist thinking on this point, but is (inevitably) not conclusive. However the theory is, for me, interesting enough to explore.

Hamba kahle -peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

I notice you avoided my request for clarification.

You wrote:
"as I am sure you agree, still requires a massive change of heart - a conversion."

True. I'm really not clear what your point is though. L. Ron Hubbard is alledged to have invented Scientology and then started to believe it himself. He had a change of heart too - a conversion. Does that mean that God intervened? I don't think so.

"Plus the mental illness argument does not really explain the specific nature of the conversion. A one-off event, a though decision that he did not reverse when "sanity" returned etc ..."

That assumes an odd definition of sanity - one that involves being right about every subject. Suppose someone sneaked some drugs into your food, you might hallucinate and see a big purple badger. When the drugs wore off, you would no longer see the purple badger, but you might still believe that you had seen one. It's true that given your 21st century perspective, you might suspect that someone had drugged you and so suspect that your experience was not real, but Paul was living in a different culture so he might not have made that connection. I'm still stuck at this hurdle: How do we get from knowing that there was a conversion to knowing that it was caused by God?

"but do you have any alternative first hand witness accounts that shed a different light on the events?"

I don't think we do. My position on this is not that we have evidence for what actually happened to Paul and that it's not the Christian version. My position is that we don't have enough evidence to know what happened... and so we can conclude nothing from it. I don't expect to see other first hand accounts.

"As interesting as this is I think you & I have flogged Paul's conversion to death!"

That's true, although we've completely avoided coming to a resolution. Why do you think that is?

Peace, Neil.

Neil Turton said...

PS. I'm looking forward to your post on freewill. That'll be interesting.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil, your That's true, although we've completely avoided coming to a resolution. Why do you think that is? tempts me to say "Because you won't agree with me", but I will resist the temptation".

Perhaps the real answer lies in your comment My position on this is not that we have evidence for what actually happened to Paul and that it's not the Christian version. My position is that we don't have enough evidence to know what happened ... and so we can conclude nothing from it. I don't expect to see other first hand accounts.

I would suggest that you have chosen to arbitrarily reject the only evidence we do have as it does not fit with your preconceived position. Certainly the evidence is not conclusive proof (not sure what we could add that would get it there?). There was no opportunity to establish a panel of independent observers or a control group, or even to repeat the event in a controlled environment. There is only the first hand account of the person involved, admittedly without any available contradictory accounts.

I appreciate that for you to accept the evidence that does exist would require a major rethink of your position, but is that a good enough reason to dismiss it?

Would the reasoned approach not be one of at least accepting that religious experience proposed by the evidence is at least more likely to have occurred than not ... too much of an admission? ... well then perhaps that at least that it is a possibility that it occurred.

What I am doing is encouraging you to open your thinking to possibilities that you currently preclude, apparently, only because they contradict what you believe.

I am not asking you to say "Oh yes Paul definitely had a religious experience - case absolutely proven". Even I cannot take that position, although I think it highly likely. But perhaps you could join me is saying "It is an explanation that fits with the available evidence"

Hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

You wrote:
"I would suggest that you have chosen to arbitrarily reject the only evidence we do have as it does not fit with your preconceived position."

Not true. I've chosen to reject your interpretation of the evidence. Not the evidence itself.

"There is only the first hand account of the person involved, admittedly without any available contradictory accounts."

Right. And the first hand account is sufficiently vague that we can't tell what happened.

"I appreciate that for you to accept the evidence that does exist would require a major rethink of your position, but is that a good enough reason to dismiss it?"

To be honest, I wouldn't need much of a rethink. In some ways it would be quite a relief. Christianity provides an instant social group, for example.

"Would the reasoned approach not be one of at least accepting that religious experience proposed by the evidence is at least more likely to have occurred than not ... too much of an admission? ... well then perhaps that at least that it is a possibility that it occurred."

Yes, it's a possibility. It would even be a possibility if we didn't have any evidence because it's impossible for something to become a possibility by discovering evidence. For me to admit the possibility of something happening is nothing. The real question is whether it's likely. I don't think it is. I presented two natural explanations for the evidence we have. You present one with an extra element - God. According to Occam's Razor (I had to include it somewhere, didn't I?), mine are more likely.

"It is an explanation that fits with the available evidence"

I'm afraid I can't even say that. The problem is that it's only half of an explanation. A proper explanation would tell us what caused the religious experience and why some people get them but others not and so on. I just don't feel very enlightened by the explanation "God did it".

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

You said, "According to Occam's Razor (I had to include it somewhere, didn't I?), mine are more likely. " and "The problem is that it's only half of an explanation. A proper explanation would tell us what caused the religious experience and why some people get them but others not and so on.".

It seems to me that you are seeking a more complex explanation - contrary to your dear razor. The simple explanation is "God did it". You appear to be seeking all knowledge before you will accept an explanation which fits all the evidence available.

IF new evidence becomes available which contradicts the conclusion supported by the existing evidence it would be fair to review and perhaps reach a different conclusion. Until then I see no rational reason to support a view that God did not do it - you admit to the possibility, yet you reject the possibility for no apparent reason.

I see it as really quite simple. A rational decison. Paul had a religious experience or he did not. No evidence that he did not, evidence exists that he did.

I admit that drawing an absolute conclusion that with certainty will stand the test of all time would not be appropriate here, but then is it ever?

Sala kahle

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

It's good to hear back from you. I thought you'd forgotten about your blog.

I disagree that "God did it" is the simplest explanation. A simpler explanation is that "something did it" since this removes an element: God. However, neither of these explanations really give any understanding of what's going on because we don't know what the "something" is in one case and because God is a mystery in the other.

As a result, both of these explanations are universally applicable. Why did Paul convert? God/something did it! Why did lightning strike the house? God/something did it! Why did the ship sink? God/something did it! Why did the apple fall? God/something did it!

We don't accept "God/something did it!" in the case of the lightning, the ship or the apple. As I see it, it's no different in the case of Paul.

Maybe we're arguing over semantics. I suppose in a technical sense, "God did it" is an explanation. Just not a very good one. Will you join me in saying that "something did it" is an explanation which fits the available evidence?

You wrote:
"yet you reject the possibility for no apparent reason."

I do apologize if I've not made myself clear. My reason for rejecting your explanation is that it introduces a complex God in a complex metaphysical realm. I have proposed two simpler explanations. Perhaps we can move this discussion forward by talking about why each explanation is simpler or more complex than another.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil,
It's good to be back in discussion - the real world can be demanding. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to one thread as they all seem to converge anyway.

I will happily join you in saying "something did it". Now what did it?

You baulk against introducing a complexity. OK we could persist in a state of 'something - I don't know what' ... but why?

What are the real options around the D-rd experience - in no particular order.

1) God did it
2) He imagined it - free from anything - nothing did it
3) Mental disturbance/illness caused it.
4)Something did it - no basis to conclude anything else

Can you add to the above list? What if we now compile an argument for & against each position - or do we know where we are likely to end up? i.e. have we flogged this topic.

I know I threatened a post on consciousness - so the somewhat half baked opening to the topic is there. I will not be offended if you exit our other threads as they are long in the tooth.

hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

You wrote:
"It seems to me that you are seeking a more complex explanation - contrary to your dear razor."

... and then ....
"You baulk against introducing a complexity."

Clearly we need to introduce complexity and yet Occam's razor encourages simplicity. How can that be?

The thing is that every time we discover some evidence, complexity is forced on us. The trivial explanation for any new evidence is "something did it". When one piece of evidence arrives, we can say "something did it". When a second piece of evidence arrives, we can again say "something did it" but it's understood this "something" could be different from the first "something". This has doubled the complexity because we now have two independent explanations for the two pieces of evidence. After this has happened several times, we can potentially decrease the complexity by finding a single explanation for all the pieces of evidence. This new explanation will be more complex than "something did it", but less complex than using "something did it" once for each piece of evidence.

The problem with using "God did it" as an explanation is that it replaces the question "what did it?" by the question "why did God do it?". It just replaces one ad-hoc explanation with another ad-hoc explanation. So the explanation has done nothing to reduce the complexity but has increased the complexity by introducing God as an extra entity.

As a result, (4) on your list will always be a simpler explanation than (1) until we can work out why God does some things and not others. Do you have any reason for believing that (1) is simpler than (4)?

Peace, Neil.