50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (5 page)

BOOK: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
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Archaeological discoveries
prove that my god exists.

Archaeology testifies to this event.

-From an article about the destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah
in a Jehovah's Witness booklet.

rchaeology and paleontology have always fascinated me. I
can remember as a young child carefully excavating old
Coke bottles and fish skeletons from muddy riverbanks in Florida
while my father fished nearby. I always made sure to extract my treasures up from the earth with delicate precision, just like the real archaeologists I saw in television documentaries. It's an exciting process to
find, then hold an artifact in your hand and try to imagine it as it was
before time claimed it. As an adult I was able to relive those childhood
memories by volunteering with an archaeological project in the
Caribbean. Touching an object that was last held by people who lived
centuries ago is the closest thing to time travel. It's a real thrill. But
archaeology is no mere hobby. It's an invaluable science that offers a
way for us to learn about our past. If we only had historical documents
to go by, we would know much less about who we are and where we
came from. In many cases, only archaeology can dig up the truth. So
when somebody has archaeological evidence to support her or his
claims, I tend to listen up. Unfortunately, I have learned over the years that archaeology's good name has been hijacked by some believers
who bend the truth.

Some believers claim that archaeology has proven their god's
existence. That's a bold claim but they do make it. This is great that
some believers are willing to let science have a say on the issue of
their god's existence. The problem for them, however, is that archaeology offers no evidence for the existence of any gods. Many thousands of excavations have been conducted all over the world and not
one single artifact has ever been found that is direct evidence of even
one god. The only thing that archaeologists keep finding is evidence
that humans believe in gods.

"Biblical archaeology" is an industry unto itself today, generating
professional societies, clubs, books, magazines, Web sites, documentaries, and even archaeology-themed tours to the Holy Land.
Searching for one's god in the sands of the ancient past, it seems, is
irresistible to many believers. The truth is, however, most of the
world's professional archaeologists don't think much of anyone in
their field who tries to match evidence to a forgone conclusion that is
not open to revision. Archaeology is a science and as such it has an
obligation to accept the evidence no matter if it supports something in
a holy book or not. I'm not suggesting that all religion-motivated
archaeologists are unethical or incompetent but there can be problems
when one sincerely believes that they are digging for a god.

Despite the glaring absence of a single discovery to substantiate
the existence of any gods, some believers insist that archaeology has
confirmed their claims. I once interviewed a Mormon for a feature
article on his religion, for example, and he said he believed the claims
made by Joseph Smith were all true, based largely on archaeological
evidence. For those who don't know, Smith is the founder of the
Mormon religion, also known as the Church of Latter-day Saints of
Jesus Christ. While living in the state of New York in the early 1820s,
Smith said he was led by an angel named Moroni to "golden tablets."
He said he translated the tablets with a "seer stone" (crystal) and
looking through his hat. The translation became the Book of Mormon, the central document for the religion that now has some ten million
members. The tablets have never been found.

Although the story of Joseph Smith seems unlikely, my interview
subject confidently told me that he believes it without hesitation. He
explained that he does not need to rely upon faith to believe in the
cave, the golden tablets, and the Book of Mormon because archaeological discoveries have confirmed it to all be true. The fact is, however, no archaeologist has ever found anything that confirms any of
the supernatural claims in the Book of Mormon. Many Muslims,
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Hindus make the same claims about
their beliefs. It would seem that archaeology has discovered gods
many times over. But has it really?

Believers who claim that archaeology has revealed hard evidence
for the existence of their god are mistaken. No archaeological discovery has ever proven anything supernatural. There has never been
any find made anywhere that ever provided evidence for the existence
of one god, one miracle, one angel, one genie, or one demon. It's true,
despite all the hype and all the claims by believers, not one artifact
among millions discovered to date points to the existence of a god. So
what are all these believers talking about? I don't think they are lying
and I don't think they are stupid. More likely they have been misled
by overly eager people who are desperate to show the world that their
religion is the true one. In the cases that are not outright frauds what
generally happens is that somebody will find a site or artifact that
loosely corresponds with a story within a belief system but still offers
no evidence of a god or anything supernatural. Then a misleading
news report, written by a biased or incompetent journalist, is published exaggerating the significance of the find. Believers, perhaps
short on skeptical skill to begin with, gobble it up enthusiastically and
proceed to repeat the bogus claim to anyone who will listen.

I often end "archaeology proves my god" conversations with
believers simply by asking them to name the most impressive archaeological discovery that proves their god is real. Silence usually follows. Some Jews and Christians will say the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I have seen the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Israel Museum in
Jerusalem. To me they look like documents that were produced by
people, not gods. They do not float in the air or glow magically. They
are words on parchment, nothing supernatural about them from what
I could see. So then I ask believers how ancient writings prove anything other than ancient people knew how to write. Believers usually
respond to that with the claim that they contain prophecies that came
true. Of course that doesn't lead anywhere either. (Chapter 36
addresses prophecies.) The bottom line is that if there was just one
example of archaeological evidence that confirmed the existence of a
god beyond a reasonable doubt, don't you think you would have heard
about it? Wouldn't it be a big deal and stick around longer than one
news cycle? Wouldn't the archaeologist who found it be a household
name? But none of this has happened because archaeology so far has
nothing to say on the question of whether or not gods exist.

Unfortunately, some believers can be stubborn about their "evidence." For them, more reasonable and down-to-earth explanations
are not enough to change their minds. This is what we see with the
case of the Shroud of Turin, cited by many believers as proof that
Jesus was a god. This fourteen-foot burial cloth contains the haunting
image of a man's face that is seemingly burned into its fabric. It is
housed today in Turin, Italy, at the cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
This cloth was not dug up by archaeologists but archaeological techniques have been used to analyze it.

Is the Shroud really evidence of a god? Skeptics say no. Radiocarbon dating places the cloth's origins in the Middle Ages, not two
thousand years ago when Jesus was believed to have been executed.
They also suggest that a more likely explanation is that the cloth was
a forgery created to excite the faithful and extract money from pilgrims, a common practice in Europe at that time. The important point
about the Shroud of Turin controversy is that some believers see it as
archaeological proof that Jesus was a god. They cite it as if science has
confirmed the claim. But clearly the Shroud is not proof of anything
at this time.

A common error some believers make when it comes to archaeology is to overreach with an artifact's significance. It would take a
very special find to prove a god is real. For example, if the Shroud of
Turin had Jesus's name embroidered on it, had been found in a
Jerusalem tomb that was sealed for two thousand years, and radiocarbon dating confirmed its age, it still would not prove that Jesus was
a god! It would be like discovering golden tablets in a cave in New
York today. Even if they were shown to be authentic and somehow
linked to Joseph Smith, it would not prove that any supernatural
claims inscribed on them are true. Believers who like to stretch
archaeological artifacts to obtain maximum mileage for their religion
might ask themselves why the spectacular and numerous archaeological discoveries made in Egypt fail to convince them that the pharaohs
were gods as was claimed during their reign. A 450-foot pyramid that
once entombed a god is at least as impressive as a burial cloth with a
facial imprint, isn't it? I've been deep inside the Great Pyramid of
Khufu, spent days walking around Karnak and breathed the musty air
inside several royal tombs. Impressive? Yes. Evidence that gods, not
men, ruled ancient Egypt? Not even close.

There are many examples of exaggerated evidence. The ancient
cities of Sodom and Gomorrah may have burned to the ground but this
alone does not confirm that a god lit the fire as some say. Archaeologists may have found remains of what were once the walls around a
community named Jericho. So what? The confirmed existence of a
place that is mentioned in an ancient story does not mean the magical
claims within the story are true. Stones that were once part of a wall
are not evidence that anything supernatural ever happened there. After
all, there are stories of gods running around ancient Greece too. Do
archaeological excavations of places named in those stories prove that
Zeus and Athena are real? Of course not. When people write down
their myths it's not unusual for them to use familiar settings-real
places. But this is not a reason to conclude that the entire story is true.

The idea that archaeology supports religious claims reminds me of
those "Lost City of Atlantis Found" reports that show up in the news on a regular basis. It seems like every year some guy with scuba gear
and a lot of time on his hands announces that he has discovered
Atlantis. I agree that the discovery of an ancient city built by Poseidon
and inhabited by a race of magical superhuman citizens with advanced
technology would be newsworthy. But these stories always turn out to
be little or nothing to get excited about once the facts come out. However, this does not mean that the ruins of the Atlantis that Plato wrote
about are not out there beneath the waves somewhere, awaiting discovery. No one doubts that the oceans are filled with spectacular
archaeological sites awaiting discovery. I once interviewed Robert
Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, and he is absolutely giddy over
the archaeological treasures yet to be found. However, if there really
was an Atlantis and if someone really does discover it one day, I am
pretty sure that it will not prove anything other than a natural disaster
caused an ancient city to slide into the sea. It might remind us about
the need to have tsunami early-warning systems but it won't prove any
of the supernatural claims made by the more colorful Atlantis
believers. The confirmed existence of the true Atlantis would not be
enough to prove that Poseidon is a real god. Okay, if an underwater
archaeologist surfaces above the sunken city in possession of a
glowing trident that regenerates amputated limbs, has the cure for
cancer engraved on its shaft, and projects a hologram of Poseidon
introducing himself to the twenty-first century, then, yes, it would be
a good indication that it is time to start building new temples to the
god of the sea. Short of that, however, clay pot shards, marble
columns, and a few beads won't prove anything about gods-although
some believers would surely say they do.

To be clear, I am not necessarily against biblical archaeology,
Islamic archaeology, Hindu archaeology, Buddhist archaeology,
Mormon archaeology, or anyone else's archaeology. So long as it is
honest and follows the same scientific methods of mainstream
archaeology, dig away, I say. The more trowels in the dirt, the better.
We all benefit from more knowledge about the past. I don't care anything about the beliefs of a particular archaeologist if they can teach me something about our shared past. However, I do think that beliefmotivated archaeological efforts are inherently risky because the goal
of supporting a particular conclusion will always threaten objectivity.
This bias could lead archaeologists to exaggerate some discoveries
and ignore others. The best believers can do is read carefully and
think skeptically when they see reports about discoveries that seem to
support the existence of their god. Is the new find really evidence of
a god, or is it just another artifact left behind by ancient believers?

BOOK: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
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