“Religion Under Examination”

A good sized crowd of about 90 people filled a ballroom at the Crown Plaza South in Cleveland on Saturday 25 Sept 2010 to participate in “Religion Under Examination” – the Center For Inquiry Northeast Ohio’s biannual Conference.
After registration and introductions, the program compromised presentations from John Shook, Ibn Warraq, and, after a lunch break, Robert Price.  A round table Q/A discussion then followed to draw the conference to a close.
“Why Be Skeptical Toward Religion?” was the title of the talk by John Shook, PhD.  He is director of education at the Center for Inquiry and heads the CFI Institute, and is a research associate in philosophy at the University of Buffalo.  He has authored and edited more than a dozen books (including The God Debates , available in bookstores October 1st). Dr. Shook is a co-editor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.
How might we have a reasonable, rational discussion with a dogmatic Christian, he asks?  One can use simple, common sense arguments – we don’t need a PhD.
Common notions we might challenge are: why compartmentalize religious beliefs, and why demand exception for religion?   We must reject: mystery; contradiction; circular reasoning; mysterious causes;  arbitrary justifications; and special exceptions.  Explanations must reduce mysteries, and involve cause & effect.
He proposed that scientific hypotheses can be far more counter-intuitive than religious ones; that  religion relies on reasoning failures; and that religion can deliver net benefits – otherwise it would never have survived Evolution, which REQUIRES net benefits.
All current religions are “Intelligently designed religions”, and our primary task is to prove humanism can provide answers, and replace religion.
The next speaker was Ibm Warraq ,  an Islamic scholar and leader in Koranic criticism, who is a Center for Inquiry senior fellow. He is the author of several books on Islam and the Koran, including Why I Am Not a Muslim; The Origins of the Koran ; What the Koran Really Says ; and Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism . His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and he has addressed governing bodies throughout the world, including the United Nations Office at Geneva and the Dutch Parliament at The Hague.
Mr. Warraq -a serious scholar –  of Islam, spoke on  “The Current State of Islamic Studies”, and observed that Middle East Scholar Bernard Lewis observes that our current environment of Post Modernity, Political Correctness, multi culturalism, is dangerous because it makes any serious study of Islam difficult”.  Mr. Warraq gave us detailed examples of language problems with Aramaic, and observed that much of what is in the Koran could have not been in a document published in the seventh century.  As an example, one meaning of the “70 Virgins” would be 70 Raisins.  He proposed that not all of the Koran could have originated in the seventh century.
Robert Price spoke on  “Now Accepting Implications: Thorough-Going Skepticism as the Inevitable Result of Biblical Criticism”.  He
is professor of theology and scriptural studies at Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary, host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, founder and fellow of The Jesus Seminar and The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, research fellow at the CFI Institute, and host of The Bible Geek webcasts. His books include Beyond Born Again The Reason Driven Life The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man and Inerrant the Wind.

His definition of ‘Apologetics’ is: start with answers, then read scripture – it is a defense of faith.  In interpreting scripture, he suggests using an analogy with present day experience as a truth filter.  E.G.: do we see people arise from the dead, convert water into wine, etc?  He suggested using form criticism to the New Testament  legends (i.e., they follow a similar form).  Dr. Price concluded by observing that those writings could not date from the early first century CE – because of the many anachronisms  – and that the chances of the gospels being accurate are slim.
The roundtable discussion was entertaining and informative, and it was an enlightening and informative day: we learned why we should be skeptical of any religion in general, and of Islam and Christianity in particular.
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