Sunday, December 23, 2007

Assessing likelihood, part 1

A new Barna group survey on how literally American take their Bible stories just came out.

To combine with the last Barna survey, amongst Christians:

75% believe a virgin got pregnant.
75% believe a dead guy rose from the grave.
69% believe water transformed into wine.
68% believe 5 loaves and 2 fish fed 5000 people.
65% believe a man overnighted with lions, uneaten.
64% believe water covered every mountain on Earth.
64% believe a sea opened to allow foot passage.
63% believe a boy killed a man using a slingshot.
60% believed a man walked on water.
60% believe the universe was created in 6 days.
56% believe in smooth-talking snakes.
49% believe strength can relate to hairstyle.

Two of these are easy enough even for a rationalist to believe; David used an unexpected weapon and was maybe a bit lucky, and maybe Daniel just didn't smell good to the lions.

A couple more could be considered 'stretchers' with a grain of truth; granting preternatural strength in the first place, it's possible to assign a psychological explanation to Samson's couture concerns, and a lot of people could be satisfied with a little food and a lot of goodwill on a one-time basis.

With a great deal of magnanimity, probably best obtained with the aid of large doses of ethanol, and a suitable disregard for the fine details of the stories, similarly obtained, one can allow for a couple more; talking snakes, while they don't appear to exist now, aren't actually incompatible with the physical laws of the Universe, and the antiquity of the Universe could be fudged a bit - rounding, you know.

That leaves seven stories which contain elements any normal rational person would consider flat-out violations of the natural laws of the Universe.

The odd thing is that the level of belief seems to have very little to do with the plausibility of the story. The Ultimate Catering Triumph of feeding five thousand people with one platter of fish sandwiches is considered less likely than pregnant virgins, ambulatory corpses, and an alcoholic's wet dream. It's considered more likely that a man could split an ocean with his mind, than that a boy could split a man's skull with a well-aimed rock.

I suppose we should be grateful that these people do consider that last story, about the superiority of ranged weapons, as being more likely than the one about guys perambulating the surface of large liquid volumes, but I still have to question their ability to assess relative probabilities.

Bear in mind that these are the folks who consider evolution by natural selection unlikely and difficult to believe.

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