whytheology

For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time running through some of the critiques of religion generally, but Christianity more specifically, that are offered by atheists today, especially those who would fall into the category of the New Atheists.
I first examined the primary historical evidence they use to say that Christianity and Science, which they claim always leads to truth, are diametrically opposed: the Galileo Affair. I demonstrated that while religion was used as a tool against Galileo, the actual source of the conflict was something else entirely and theology had been co-opted in a way that violates its purpose (you can read parts 1, 2, and 3).

Then I explored one of the other primary critiques, namely that religion isn’t even intelligible and so should be ridiculed at worst, or excluded from public discourse at least. This position, actually, is not new. I traced it back to logical positivism and demonstrated how that movement, ultimately, failed (here are parts 1 and 2 of that).
Now I’d like to revisit that critique and take it in a new direction. The argument is that Christianity can’t approach truth in the same way that empirical investigations, like science or history, can. They claim that since belief in God is necessarily the belief in something outside of nature and natural occurrence, then we can’t really know about God, because we have no way of knowing, and so we should be either atheist or agnostic because “God hasn’t provided the evidence.” Setting aside the bias for empiricism as a the sole source of authoritative knowledge (keep in mind logical positivism tried to make that claim and failed), it’s also simply not true.

Seeking Objective Criteria

For the sake of argument, let’s take this claim at face value: all human knowledge must be verifiable through objective means and is attainable through natural phenomena and interpretations of them that seem to be the simplest and, therefore, most likely. Very well then. History fits this criteria very well. The thing about Christianity that one needs to keep in mind, provided one does fall into the liberal theology of the kerygmatic theologians that dominated most of the 20th century, is that it is fundamentally historical. The bible is not a collection of things that God dictated to writers or that fell out of the sky (the Koran makes that claim, the bible does not). The bible is, rather, a record of the historical actions of God mixed with interpretations of those actions.

Let’s take the interpretations presented in the bible out of the equation, because the critic may argue that these interpretations are fundamentally biased by a priori beliefs (beliefs assumed not proven). Alright, let’s just focus on the history. Now, if we do that, it may very well be true that many of the events, perhaps even most of the events in the bible that are interpreted as miraculous could be interpreted by appeals to coincidental natural phenomena (incredibly unlikely, but not impossible). So let’s, for the sake of argument, take those off the table as well. Even if we apply this liberally and remove most of the miraculous events, there is still one event for which a purely natural interpretation is not possible: the resurrection.

Here’s the thing about the resurrection of Jesus. According to the biblical witness, prior to his death Jesus a) predicted that he would die b) claimed to be God c) stated that the primary proof of this would be his resurrection. This is certainly how John’s Gospel interprets it. The seventh, and most important sign, for John is the resurrection. Let’s also look at the things specific to the resurrection that are historical in nature (beyond what Jesus said) as the bible tells them. The bible states that a) Jesus really did live b) Jesus was genuinely dead and c) More than 24 hours later (actually 3 Jewish days later) Jesus was suddenly not dead again, but alive in his physical body. The physicality of the claim is important. If it had been merely a “spiritual resurrection” then it would not be an objectively observable event. Jesus had to physically die and physically come alive a long period later in order to meet the criteria.

If this second set (that Jesus was a person who died and then much later was alive again) is true, then the only plausible interpretation is that there is a supernatural force. If it is the person of Jesus to whom this happened, and given the claims he made (predicting his death and resurrection while also claiming to be God), then we don’t just have good reason to accept the existence of a God somewhere, but specifically the Christian message of God as recorded in the gospels.

In sum, the resurrection provides an objective historical event that can be analyzed through historical methodology. If the non-supernatural causes of the event are true, they are objectively so. If they are objectively true then the supernatural interpretation and presumed causes are the simplest way to make sense of them and thus it is true. So there you have it: the resurrection event occurred in history involving the physical person of Jesus and as such provides an objective criteria by which to judge it. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it “the truth of the Christian faith rises or falls with the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.” As I’ve heard many times in various settings, but I don’t know where the origin is from “we put all our eggs in the Easter basket.”

Next week, I’ll talk about why not only the resurrection is an objective historical event, but why we have good reason to believe it is true rather than not.

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

7 thoughts on “Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria

  1. Dear Trey,

    We meet again, but on unfamiliar ground it seems. I was disappointed in your sudden unwillingness to continue our discussion, though I cannot fault you for wanting to move it here. From reading over this post, it seems you are continuing to make the same errors in reasoning that I pointed out during our last exchange. Perhaps it stands to reason in your mind that claims such as those made in this post are logically sound and coherent. To my mind they are not. These two positions are not reconcilable, so what must we do to come to terms? I would just like to touch on a few things I saw at first glance very briefly. Perhaps we can continue from there.

    1) “Atheist or agnostic”: You wrote in the second paragraph that one should be either atheist or agnostic, but these two terms aren’t mutually exclusive (as I’m sure you already know, so I’m even more curious about the tactic you’re employing here. Why pull this little semantic stunt when you know it’s crap?). For example, you should know that one can be an agnostic atheist (i.e. not knowing if God exists and not believing in one), agnostic theist (not knowing if God exists, but believing in one), gnostic atheist (knowing God doesn’t exist and therefore not believing in one), gnostic theist (knowing God exists and believing in one). I know this is semantics, but it was a careless mistake thrown into this post that I felt should, in the very least, be commented upon because it reveals, to me (and only me, perhaps) the verbal looseness you liberally employ when deriding atheism. I don’t hold this up as a point against you, I simply point out that this makes you appear less intelligent than I know you to be from our exchanges.

    2) “Let’s take the interpretations out of the equation [the Bible]”: This is a noble gesture that appears to be an attempt at removing potential bias. Problem: how can one evaluate another’s writings when a) they cannot place themselves in the mindset of that time period, b) the writings are not from eye witnesses, and c) the intermingling of history and metaphor/allegory in the writing is so rich that deciphering truth from fiction becomes an exercise in futility? The error you’re making here is that you cannot remove the interpretive aspect of the Gospels. They are pure interpretation; not objective history. That isn’t to say that certain aspects or figures couldn’t or are not historically real, in the loose sense of the term (i.e. existent), but to say that this is objective history is a falsehood. You are conveniently skipping over the historical arguments that address why the Bible may not necessarily be the best historical document, at least when it comes to the supernatural claims it makes (e.g. the resurrection). Which brings me to the next…

    3) “Let’s take those [other miracle stories] off the table as well”: This, I hate to say it—honestly I do—is laughable. I’m not trying to be inflammatory, you know that about me by now, I would hope. This is the reductionism I see happening across the Christian world, particularly among liberal and/or moderate Christians. Every piece of information that could make the Bible look faulty or silly is sneakily removed or played down to make way for just those aspects which stand absolutely no chance of being falsifiable via empiricism and/or objective historical analysis (e.g. the resurrection). If you can remove all miracle stories at will, entirely based on your own judgment and understanding of their *tentativeness*, why am I not able to simply ignore the resurrection? After all, once you start eliminating aspects of the Bible as potentially troublesome you step onto a slippery slope where it becomes impossible to determine what is truth and what is fiction (see #2 above). In other words, you remove the other miracles at your own convenience. I see this, and again, no offense is intended, as the same type of misdirect used by magicians and illusionists to get the person to take their eyes off what the performer is actually doing. You’re slipping in the assumption that God exists before ever proving that to be the case. That’s why this whole resurrection thing is nothing more than a misdirect. It’s conversational framing; placing the debate onto a platform where the assumption is that God exists right at the outset and *must* exist regardless of any argumentation or evidence (or lack thereof). You’re better than this.

    4) “there is still one event for which a natural explanation is not possible: the resurrection”: You yourself admitted this isn’t the case in our last discussion. Why are you saying it here? There are, actually, dozens of natural explanations for the resurrection that you simply aren’t willing to entertain, ranging from “it didn’t actually happen that way” to “drugs ingested which would lower heart rate to a near standstill and run out of the system several days later” to “Jesus had a twin”, among many others that fall between these outrageous options. I’m not giving any of them more or less credibility than others. I am merely pointing out that the resurrection event, if it actually happened, could have many natural explanations. The question is, then, would that matter to you? Psychologically speaking, you appear to be behaving as a person who is already convinced they are right and has decided to double down on their belief by asserting that “obviously this can’t be explained naturally.” This isn’t objective, it’s emotional. If that was how we approached questions of uncertainty we wouldn’t know the first thing about lightning strikes, earthquakes, tornadoes, disease, genetics, or mental disorder, just to name a few. Saying “God did it” does not offer an explanation, it prevents one from emerging. You aren’t willing to explore naturalistic things because you’ve already made up your mind that it must be supernatural and, despite having no way of testing the supernatural, assert that it must be the version of the supernatural that you just happen to subscribe to. How convenient. This very aspect of religious belief does bother me. I’ll even provide you with an article that goes through this type of thinking much better than I’ve done here: http://www.greatplay.net/essays/the-twelve-reasons-i-dont-believe-in-supernatural-claims-part-i.

    I would draw your attention to numbers 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, and 12 in the article as particularly relevant here.

    5) Without quoting something specific from your post I do just want to point out the type of parochial argument you’re attempting here. You have demonstrated to me that you know what you’re talking about; I’ll give you that. I don’t doubt your command of philosophy or Bible history or even the debates raging about the historicity of the Bible or biblical characters. What I do doubt, however, given what I’m seeing in this frequent line of reasoning you portray, is that you don’t seem to understand how to apply historical analysis objectively. In other words, you don’t seem to understand what objectivity is when it comes to history. I pointed out in my other critiques that you were inserting bias to which you lashed out by saying that bias doesn’t prove you’re wrong. Well, what I’m saying is that here it does. In this instance, it kinda does. The leaps and assumptions you’re making are too numerous to go through one by one in a comment section, but it all boils down to “I already believe in God; therefore, every time I look at biblical history, it must be explainable through that belief.” And that’s what you’re attempting to do here. The problem is that this isn’t objective, no matter you strongly you assert that it is, and that lack of objectivity shines through in the conclusions you’re trying to make, which are in fact tainted by your bias. No matter how compelling a case you think you can make, one would have to already be convinced that God exists to agree with you. Without that prior belief, you might as well talk about the weather.

    I hope you’re doing well since we last exchanged words. I’m glad to see you’re keeping up with your writing, as I’ve been trying to do as well on my site.

    Best regards,

    G

    • Well I didn’t leave the discussion per se. I simply got caught up doing other things and my response got pushed aside. In other words, it was a passive action not an active decision.

      1) I do think that this is a valid distinction. I don’t think it’s “crap.” The idea of accepting the existence of god and nevertheless refusing to have faith in God is misotheism. You can’t claim that God exists and not believe in God. That’s an oxymoron. One may not fit into a particular organized religion, but that does not mean you can create all these contradictory categories. Simply because the term atheist and agnostic are used inexactly does not mean it should be accepted. In short agnostic is simply non-belief in God. Atheism is the positive belief that there is no God. Theism is the belief (not knowledge) in God. I’m not the one employing verbal looseness, you are.

      2) Regardless of whether they are interpretation mixed with history or not, the fact remains that they are historical documents. Even if they are pure interpretation they are interpretation of historical events. One has to admit that, at the very least, there is a history behind the text. Considering the type of interpretation that is given, even if it is indulgent (something I don’t accept but am willing to entertain for the sake of argument), the level of indulgence would require some form of remarkable historical event. It simply does not bear the marks of legend stories. The miracle stories may seem legendary, but they don’t have the standard markers of legend or myth stories (i.e. they don’t describe a distant past, there are no grand cosmic battles, they occur in our space-time (not hades or elsewhere as in mystery religions), the ‘god figure’ comes across as humble and meek often hiding his true character (such as in Mark) as opposed to the more frequently found boastful gods who are more than ready to demonstrate who they are, the kings and priests are against Jesus whereas the legend stories they are usually with legendary figure, the gospels don’t attempt to explain anything about the world as other legendary stories do, I could go on, but I think I’ve made that point). Since that is the case, there must be at least some genuine history involved. The best way to arrive at what would be indisputable history would be to remove the more debatable sections (in this case I’ve suggested that we set aside the question of the miracles veracity).

      3) You misunderstand my objective. I *do* believe the miracle stories are true. However, whether or not they are true does not have as big of an impact as the resurrection. It remains that if every miracle story were made up, but the resurrection of Jesus really occurred, then the core message of Christianity (salvation by Christ who died for us and was raised ensuring we will be raised) is affirmed. Similarly if all of the miracle stories were true, but the resurrection were false, then all of Christianity would be a lie (we would have a magician not a saviour). So if we are to evaluate the Christian faith, the only relevant supernatural occurrence is the resurrection. The truth or falsehood of the miracle stories may make us more or less likely to believe the resurrection of Jesus, but ultimately the resurrection’s veracity is either true or not on its own and with it the core of the Christian message. Incidentally, I do not allow the cop out of the liberal churches that the resurrection of Jesus was a “spiritual” one. It has to have been his body or it is a lie.

      4) In the previous conversation I said that there were possible explanations for the appearance of a resurrection. But if it was not only apparent, but actual as well, then there cannot be a naturalistic explanation. It does not violate the laws of nature, but must have supernatural causes nonetheless. Next Friday’s post will address why I believe it to be actual and not only apparent. Saying “God did it” does not prevent an explanation from emerging if it *is* the explanation. To say it prevents an explanation demonstrates the inherent bias against all supernatural explanations. In other words, your position seems to be ‘Supernatural causes have never been proven’ and ‘Given any phenomenon, it is inappropriate to suggest its cause could have been supernatural.’ You’ve stacked the deck with that kind of circularity. Regarding the link, I fail to see how my claim that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event that was publicly viewable because it involved his physical body does not meet any of the objections. Possibly number 7, but, as I will show on Friday, it is not asking as much as is often claimed. I’m not going to take the time now, though, to give a detailed refutation of each of them.

      5) I also think you fail to see what I am saying. I am saying that the historical event of the Resurrection either happened or didn’t. I am suggesting that we can a) look outside the bible for some confirmation of this and b) given that the bible is a response to something, we may be able to ask questions about what viable candidates are, and c) whether or not the bible is reliable in its account (in light of external factors not reported in the bible). You are assuming I am relying solely upon the bible in the typical evangelical circularity, but I have demonstrated time and again why I am not. Incidentally I find it interesting that you use loaded terms like ‘lashed out’ and the like. It seems you have pigeon-holed me as an emotional responder and that this is the primary motivation for my actions. I assure you that is not the case. Merely pointing out a double standard does not mean that I am acting emotionally.

      While I have enjoyed our exchange, and will certainly allow you continue the conversation should you choose, I suspect that subconsciously I already knew this conversation had reached what appears to be its natural conclusion. I don’t think we are making progress any more, but instead talking around each other. I think we have both presented strong cases for our positions, but we won’t get much further. While we have reached an impasse in the current conversation, it has, I feel, been productive and may lead to and inform other conversations elsewhere.

      All the best

      • Dear Trey,

        Glad to hear it wasn’t an active decision to abandon our conversation. I understand the business of life all too well, although I will comment that your conclusion seems to contradict what you’re saying here.

        1) We’ve already had the discussion on the pointlessness and often purpose defeating outcome of playing semantics, but you have not only misinterpreted my point but actually wrongly defined some of the key terms we’re working with. Misotheism, hatred of God, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wrote. I was providing the basic four-square diagram of how atheism and agnostic can be combined because they are not mutually exclusive terms as you seem to have repeated in your rebuttal. Agnostic, as you wrongly defined, does not mean non-belief. “Gnosticism” refers to knowledge, not belief. Theism, as you rightly said, refers to belief. So, agnosticism is “I don’t know,” but atheism, as you’ve again misrepresented, is not an affirmative unbelief, it is a spectrum of unbelief rounding out to the simple response of “I don’t believe.” The spectrum can range from the weak agnostic position of “I don’t believe but am uncertain” to the strong gnostic position of “I don’t believe and am certain” to the militaristic “I don’t believe and will fight against it as a result,” best personified by the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins in particular. All of these positions, however, are atheism. So, your return accusatory salvo regarding my verbal looseness is not only unfounded, but paints you in a rather childish light.

        2) I did indeed say that there could be history behind the events. I have repeatedly said this and nowhere denied it. You still are not willing to acknowledge the novelty of the events described in the Bible. You wrote, “the level of indulgence would require some form of remarkable historical event.” No it wouldn’t. Asserting this doesn’t make it so. How many of the greatest myths and legends emerged from the pre-Common Era? The epics from the Greek and Roman pantheon, Gilgamesh, Hindu divinities, the Egyptian pantheon, and Zoroastrianism, just to name a few. Are these religious writings so lacking in fantastical depictions that they look tame next to the Bible? No. To the contrary; they make the Bible look tame. Yet they were written about. Shrines were built to them. Followers died for them. Rulers built kingdoms on top of them. Empires spread because of them. To say the Bible doesn’t bear the marks of legend stories is simply false. It mimics the legend stories almost exactly. It begins with Paul, whose depictions of Jesus are few and far between and always vague. It moves to Mark, ten to fifteen years later, whose depiction is only slightly less vague and includes a few miracles, and no clear resurrection. It moves to Matthew and Luke, after another decade passes, who add a few more miracles each as well as a birth and resurrection story perfectly in line with several Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Persian divinities which predate Jesus by centuries, not to mention the plagiarism of most of Mark. It then moves to John who has basically transformed Jesus into a god, in true legendary fashion. Each of these transitions was spaced by at least a decade (with the exception of Matthew and Luke who were contemporaries of each other). Not a legend? Are you kidding me? The historical evolution of the story of Jesus follows the path of legendary development to a formulaic “t”. Legends are not formed because of the aspects you outlined, legends are typically based on real characters and the story becomes more grandiose with time. That’s what characterizes a legend. It doesn’t matter if the character is loved or hated, amazing or mundane, has kingly approval or doesn’t, is humble or arrogant, “I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point,” to borrow your phrasing. A legend is made when a figure’s attributes and stories are blown out of proportion and aggrandized over time. This is precisely what I mean when I say that I don’t think you yet fully understand what it means to be objective about history. Also, you haven’t removed the more debatable sections by removing the other miracles but not the resurrection. The resurrection is probably one of the hardest parts to prove or disprove so you essentially have no case. It’s all based on the interpretation of hearsay culled from what I frequently point out to be *uneducated, pre-scientific, Bronze Age nomads who may very well have been illiterate*.

        3) See the last point I made in #2. You’re essentially focusing on the one element of Christianity you stand absolutely no chance or proving or disproving. In fact, the article I provided discusses this aspect of supernatural claims perfectly. It was #6, actually: “Supernatural Claims Have Been Redefined to Be No Longer Falsifiable.” The point the author made was that by pulling back the definition, or diverting the attention to a singular aspect of a supernatural event, in a way which makes proving or disproving it impossible, you have essentially rendered your argument meaningless. What cannot be proven or disproven is simply a piece of detritus to be brushed aside. Which returns me to the point that you must be speaking with someone already convinced of God’s existence to make this argument have any kind of meaning. Everyone else will simply point to the inherent bias and lack of historical objectivity found in this line of reasoning and dismiss it until further evidence becomes available. I suppose I can give you credit for taking a position which no one will ever be able to dislodge from your mind, but from my standpoint that isn’t a positive trait; it’s quite the opposite.

        4) I like you, Trey. I do, believe it or not. I’ll be nice here and simply point out the very obvious contradiction you’re making and leave it at that for this first part. A supernatural event is called *super*natural precisely because it is beyond the laws of *nature*; hence the use of the word *super* in its construction. To say that “it does not violate the laws of nature, but must have a supernatural cause nonetheless” is pure nonsense. If you don’t see the problem with that sentence’s construction, then you may be right, we are at an impossible impasse. Moving on to whether or not “God did it” can work, I refer you again to the article on the 12 reasons supernatural claims fail (particularly #12). The reason science/empiricists dismiss supernaturalism is because it cannot be tested and if we allow for supernatural explanations our investigation of a phenomena stops because it is an explanation that answers the question (albeit badly, most of the time) and oftentimes (see the case of Galileo you mentioned here in your post) people who allow for this kind of explanation do what they can to prevent it from being unseated. Allowing for a supernatural intervention in nature overthrows everything we know about history and science. Slipping this in cannot be a casual affair; it must be substantial, verifiable, and demonstrable. Christianity is none of these, from the scientific standpoint, nor is belief in any kind of intervening deity. It isn’t *my* bias against supernaturalism, it is the *intellectual honesty* a scholar must demonstrate to be taken seriously. You cannot allow something into your analysis which can be explained naturally, or which, itself, doesn’t really answer any questions. “God did it” doesn’t answer any questions, it raises more. As we’ve discussed over and over again, there are natural explanations for why Jesus’ divinity fails the test of science, critical inquiry, rationalism, and empiricism. That isn’t to say he didn’t exist or do the things he is purported to have done. It just means that doing those things doesn’t prove divinity. It doesn’t prove anything, in fact. I look forward to Friday’s post if you think you can present an argument to the contrary.

        5) I am also saying the resurrection either happened or it didn’t. Where we differ is that I say, “Even if it did, who cares? It doesn’t prove anything” (see #4 above). What I add to this assessment is what I added in #’s 2 and 3: you cannot prove or disprove the resurrection; you are merely running through a thought exercise that ultimately cannot convince someone who isn’t already convinced. It’s meaningless. To move ahead, you have not yet used any sources outside of the Bible or contemporary philosophers who reference the Bible, so please forgive me for assuming that you’re doing something you haven’t yet proven to not be doing. It’s a common mistake I’m sure I’ll make again until you give me reason not to. Also, “lashed out” is a loaded term and I perhaps used it in haste. But I should inform you that your reaction was not characterized as such by me, it was characterized this way by my wife and two friends (one Jewish, one atheist) who all said this to me (e.g. “Why is he lashing out at you for what you said? It seems unjustified.). But I suppose it’s unfair to characterize you publicly in a way which only my ears were privy to. Again, my apologies. As an aside, there are comments we both make which I think come from a tendency to want to sound more intelligent than we actually are. I would reference your response to my #1 here as a case in point and your contradictory statement in #4. I recognize that you probably know better than that and are just making little typos, or brain-farts. That’s fine. I do the same and have apologized for it numerous times in our exchanges, if you’ll remember (particularly when we first began). I’ll be interested to see if you acknowledge these mistakes and apologize like I have. We’re only human, after all.

        I don’t mind continuing this conversation, in many ways it makes my day more exciting, so forgive my zeal for having it. I disagree, however, that our conversation reached its natural conclusion (though it was perhaps not far off). You have indeed helped me understand a different flavor of Christianity I didn’t have much exposure to and I genuinely thank you for it. I actually feel as if my understanding has been sharpened noticeably and even other atheist writers, in a way, bug me with their simplifications of the issues.

        Take care. I look forward to Friday’s post!

        Best,
        G

        • 1) I acknowledge that there is variance in how the terms atheist and agnostic are currently used at the popular level. I just don’t believe that such distinctions are altogether valid. However, as you note, this is a mere semantic quibble (though I should note I’m not the one who brought it up nor labeled it “crap”). Still I don’t think this line of discussion is productive.

          2) I’m sorry but the Gospels just don’t have the markers that have been identified of every other legend story. The only conceivable ones being a) God is involved and b) supernatural events occur because of God’s involvement. The other markers, which I mentioned last time, are absent. These are no arbitrary, but ones that can be found in virtually every other myth story. The closest any myth story comes to what is in the Gospels would be the mystery religions. However, the problem there is still that the myths of the mystery religions occur in the distant past, the dying and rising is done for entirely selfish reasons, the primary figure is killed by gods (not men), and there is a general support for the figure involving either a king, ruler, emperor, priest, or well-respected oracle whose authority was unquestioned (John the Baptist was not well-respected, nor was his authority unquestioned) and the action occurs primarily in the underworld (hades) not the planet earth. These aren’t trifle differences, these are markers that every single myth has. The gospels don’t have those. Further, the timeline you give isn’t exactly correct. Yes the order is right, but you mischaracterize the writings. Paul, for instance, has a very high Christology and is adamant that the Resurrection actually happened historically with Jesus’ body. The clearest expression of this belief is in 1 Corinthians, which is among the “undisputed Pauline” epistles. That means that prior to 66 we have an account of the actual resurrection. I’d dispute the lack of such a narrative in Mark (he’s actually doing something very interesting in his use of omission), but regardless he uses miracle stories all over the place. In contrast is John’s gospel which uses relatively few miracle stories. Further, the ones it does use tend to be comparatively unremarkable (with the exception of the feeding of 5000 and the resurrection). So again, the development of “legend” by that timeline just doesn’t fit. They may seem like legend at a perfunctory glance, but they actually lack any of the legend markers that are associated with every other legend story (and I cannot say this enough, those legend markers are not on the periphery, but are the essential elements that make it legend). I’d also dispute that they were “illiterate” and “bronze age”. First, the Jewish education system was remarkable for the time. So while many commoners in the ancient world would have been entirely illiterate, it is likely that most post-second temple Jews were at minimum marginally literate (and for being peasants, certainly more literate than the average peasant). Also the Roman occupation is well after the Bronze Age (even for Israel). Such a remark *might* hold water for Hebrews pre-exile, but not at this late a stage.

          3) It’s not the case that this is not falsifiable. It’s just not falsifiable in the modern scientific sense, nor should it be. I am not making a scientific claim (despite the label to the post), but an historical claim. Falsifiability in history is of a different sort than in science. We accept all sorts of historical claims from this period and prior on the basis of primarily biased accounts: see especially the history of Roman Wars. We know about Romans against Hannibal in the punic wars primarily from Rome’s perspective. Whose to say that Pompey wasn’t a construct created to inflate the Roman sense of victory? Yet his existence is falsifiable, just not in the modern scientific sense. History of pre-enlightenment events is done differently than it is for events occurring post-enlightenment. One reads the documents, then questions suspect material in the documents by working backwards. In other words, we ask, how could a falsehood have been not only entered into record, but perpetuated and copied for so long. Sometimes this is easy enough if it is taken that the myth functions as a myth (i.e. it explains something confusing about the world, or something we don’t know), the Jesus story does not have that explanatory power. Other times we would then need to ask, particularly in light of the close proximity to the supposed history and the record of it, harder questions: what motivation would the writers of the record have to create a “myth”? how would the “myth” have survived or how might it have been disproven (and if it wasn’t, why wasn’t it)? These types of questions can be asked of the historical text. One deals with probability of events in such ancient history, not absolute proofs. That’s just not how ancient historiography works. This is what I’ll cover next time. Still, it is not invalid, it is just not expected given the standard bias (which may be a generally appropriate one, but it cannot be universalized in the way it has been without assuming a priori that the divine does not interact with the world).

          4) This is not a contradiction (and certainly not an obvious one). Natural laws only describe what can or cannot occur in nature, they do not, contrary to popular belief, say everything about the causes behind these events (they don’t even say that much about causes). Causation is often times, contrary to Hume’s argument, a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. Thus what I am alleging is that since natural laws describe statistical regularities (which every current understanding of natural law will accept), a single anomaly is not genuinely a violation of said natural laws. Nevertheless, when it comes to such an anomaly, it remains that the cause of said anomaly is not within the purview of empirical study, but metaphysical study. This does not make it un-falsifiable, because metaphysical claims can be disproven. However, it does mean we can examine all possible explanations and arrive at the *best* explanation. Once the discussion moves to causes of anomalies, which such discussions must, the bias against the supernatural cannot remain.

          5) I refuse to accept that. You cannot honestly say that if Jesus really did rise from the dead on a Sunday after dying on a Friday that it means nothing. It means quite a bit. Not just from a theistic bias either. If you say that, were it to be irrefutably proven that Jesus rose from the dead (say someone constructs a time machine and you go back to those days (so we can be sure who you’re seeing actually died) and see it all happen), can you honestly say that you could honestly be an atheist at that point? If so, I don’t see how this conversation can move forward at all. I am willing to acknowledge that if the resurrection were proven to have not taken place, something which I claim would be possible if it did, in fact, not occur, then I would have no choice but to renounce my faith. Faith in the Christian God hinges entirely upon the single historic event of the resurrection. If it didn’t happen, then it’s all lies. If it did happen, though, and it is demonstrated to have happened (I’m moving beyond just likelihood), then you can’t say it means very little. That’s disingenuous at best, and delusional at worst.

          I acknowledge that I do sometimes let my rhetoric get away from me. If that has offended you then I am sorry.

          Please not that I am working an uphill battle not because I think my argument is less valid, but because there is a general assumption that smarter people are atheists and only the uneducated, or those unwilling to relinquish beliefs for perceived comfort are willing to remain a theist. Whatever the case may be, there is a general assumption (not necessarily by you personally) that I am either a) wasting my time intentionally b) being intellectually dishonest c) unwilling to see the truth of these arguments for some other non-rational reason, d) uneducated enough to really understand the arguments against God, or e) some combination of the above. It seems that, on the whole, theists are dismissed and cannot be seen as intellectually honest, intellectually rigorous, and have grasped the arguments on both sides fully. Maybe it’s because of this that the rhetoric gets a bit pointed at times from my end, I don’t know, but if I have offended, I apologize.

          • Dear Trey,

            1) Agreed, let’s move on. Although, if you don’t think these distinctions are valid, then you aren’t up to date on current atheist literature. Just as I am not as “in” on theistic arguments as you are, you may not be aware that this very distinction is a central aspect of the rising New Atheist movement, not to mention an altogether dislike of the term atheist in general by most of those in the movement itself. The distinctions I make are precisely those made by almost every atheist I know, making them valid even if you don’t see it that way from the theistic standpoint. You don’t get to just label us in whatever way suits you.

            2) Here you are equating the terms “myth” and “legend.” They’re not the same thing. Again with the semantics? I know… ugh. You’re right, the story of Jesus does not bear the markings of the *myths* of that time period. However, the evolution of the story does bear the markings of all *legends* throughout history. Have you heard the one about the fish? My friend Jim went on a fishing trip and caught a bass “this big”. If the width I hold my hands apart is smaller than it is when the next person repeats that tale, and that width grows with each telling, then the fish eventually becomes *legendary*, not *mythical*. The tem *legend* relates to a figure whose story has been aggrandized even though the real events may have been somewhat more mundane. *Myths* relate to stories that do indeed fall within the structure you’re laying out. Jesus’ story may not fall into the *myth* category, but it does fall into the *legend* category. This is an important distinction that you’re not making and helps me understand why this point doesn’t seem to be getting across.

            3) If you are saying that a human being can die and resurrect on his own three days later, you are indeed making a scientific claim, not an historical claim. Whether or not this happened is an historical claim, you’re right, but that it *can* happen is a scientific one. Therefore, sorry to say it, you’re not allowed to just state, “Hey, this isn’t scientific so don’t scrutinize it using scientific methods.” It is scientific. This is also why we can accept the potential non-existence of Pompey (or Alexander, to reference our other discussion) because his existence, however tentative, doesn’t invalidate what we know about human life and biology. It’s fine if you want to talk about historic events in a way which is tentative and based on a compiling of evidence and plausibility based on what we know, but even that can only go so far as to list what is probable, not what is true. Science is a part of history whether you want it there or not. You can’t just make claims that are contrary to what science has proven, and then claim they are beyond scrutiny, telling science to back off. I have never intended to impugn on your intelligence, Trey, I recognize (and have recognized publicly here in these comments) that you are very intelligent, thinking, and generally a caring person. So when I say something like “I don’t think you understand” it isn’t meant as an insult, it’s merely a way of drawing your attention to something that you may want to take another look at. So don’t be offended when I say that I don’t think you understand this aspect of historical analysis and objectivity. If supernatural claims hadn’t failed miserably throughout history, I would say that you might have a case. But supernatural claims have almost unanimously failed closer scrutiny and, in some cases, a simple logic test. Religions are no different, including Christianity. It’s one thing to talk about the supernatural things you want your deity to be able to perform; it’s another thing to assert them with no valid scientific way of showing that a supernatural event actually has occurred. And, even if you could prove beyond doubt that something supernatural occurred you cannot, no matter how strongly you believe otherwise, prove beyond doubt that it was divinely caused. So even with miracles, even with resurrections, even with the casting out of demons (let alone the *existence* of demons), even with an ability to walk on water, and so on, you still have not proved anything divine exists. You’ve merely pointed to something we can’t explain. That’s it. To say otherwise is a logical fallacy. Sure, you can claim that you have an explanation for it, that doesn’t mean you have one that’s valid (it doesn’t mean it’s invalid, either, but you can’t prove one way or the other. That’s why it’s meaningless).

            Also, you keep referring to this “standard bias” as if it were something intentionally constructed to thwart Christianity. It wasn’t (I know you probably don’t actually think this, so bear with me). The “standard bias” against supernaturalism is not a bias against a religion or religious claims. It is a bias against things that cannot be proven or cannot be demonstrated to have any meaning to our way of understanding reality. It’s a way of eliminating explanations from our discourse that lead to dead ends. Religious conversations (like political ones) are loathed by most people for this very reason. There is no convincing or persuading because what a person clings to as their philosophical anchor on unsolvable questions will differ from everyone else involved (often despite evidence to the contrary). To help standardize knowledge and to prevent pseudoscience from being validated, we develop objective, unbiased checkpoints that prevent junk ideas from entering the intellectual marketplace. The “standard bias” you’re referencing is the product of that intellectual development. It’s there for a reason and if you’re trying to overthrow it you’ll have to do better than the resurrection (i.e. an event that will never be 100% proven either way, sans a time machine).

            4) I could just refer you to the above two points, but I’ll go one further. This point of yours is an attempt at redefining science to suit your own ends. That’s not meant to be inflammatory; it’s just a direct statement of what I see. You have conveniently changed what science is about in order to fit a narrow interpretation of one historical event which you can’t prove or disprove definitively. The way you’ve phrased this entire paragraph would make me respond with: “How convenient. I think my many professional scientist friends would disagree, however.” To address your other point about causation I would say that you’re right; causation is a tricky realm of debate mainly because you can never ascertain the true cause of anything. One could say my entire life was caused by the absorption of a pre-Cambrian amoeba by one with slightly greater complexity millions of years ago; therefore, my entire life is “out of my hands.” This is nonsense, of course. But it serves as a placeholder for the bigger point I’m making. You might say that Jesus’ resurrection was the result of a divine intervention that was simply abnormal. I could say it’s the result of several electrons bouncing off each other at high speed sometime around 15 BCE, causing a chain of chemical events that led to the instantaneous resuscitation of whoever was buried in one specific tomb on a specific day in history about 50 years later, it was just coincidentally some guy named Jesus in Ancient Israel who was recently killed. Who’s to say I’m wrong? You have no way of proving either more true than the next. You could say, even if mine were taken as a possibility, that obviously God could have caused those electrons to collide. I have no way of refuting that except to point out that you cannot possibly know that or prove that. And that’s my entire point. You’re in no better position to prove divinity through the resurrection via your metaphysical/historical (and apparently “non-scientific” scientific) claim as you are via God making two electrons collide fifty years prior. It’s all speculation and pseudoscience that you’re hiding under the umbrella of “metaphysics,” with the more academically sinister notion that this is all beyond scientific scrutiny. I’m pretty sure, and I hate to keep referencing this article (but it really does explain these exact points), the article I provided about the 12 reasons supernatural claims fail addresses this. Check out #s 1, 2, 6, 7, 10, and 12.

            Apology accepted. And I hope mine have been as well. Something my father once told me (actually he said this to me very recently while we were skyping), “subjects like religion and politics are more often emotional than rational so if you’re going to try to enter such debates, do it nicely and with a calm mind, and don’t hold grudges of people who cannot abide by this sentiment.” You and I have done a wonderful job, in my opinion (though I’m hesitant to judge myself in this case), at approaching this maturely and intelligently, and for that I am most thankful.

            I agree that theists face an uphill battle in debate. I would even agree that the stage is set in a way which disadvantages them from the outset. For that reason I don’t fault you for your references to things like the “standard bias” against supernaturalism, and the like. It seems normal that theists would attempt to reclaim the high ground (or even level ground) in debates using such tactics. The problem is that intellectualism and history (again, this is just my opinion) are moving away from supernaturalism and religion. People are too connected, too informed, and too educated to willingly accept something that contradicts what they see and experience. I welcome this but also fear it. A part of our creativity comes from imagination, wonder, self-transcendence, and an appreciation and willingness to look to what may be best called the numinous. I welcome the time when mankind ceases to look to the heavens for answers and instead looks around to their fellow man and the planet around them. But I worry about what gets lost when we start doing so. This is why I don’t offer a counter claim. I don’t say my worldview is better or worse than yours. It’s just different. I feel wonder. I feel curious and creative. I feel happy and I enjoy life and the wonders it brings me, but I can only speak for myself. Who’s to say the loss of the religious worldview wouldn’t pull back on our creative sides, our wondrous sides, collectively? It’s an interesting question, I think.

            I’m still looking forward to Friday 🙂

            Cheers,
            G

  2. Hey, I’ve enjoyed reading this back-and-forth between you two. I (almost) never indulge in this particular form of debate because, as far as I can tell, there is no way to cross the divide. Besides, I’m not as smart as you guys!

    No matter how much one wishes to justify Christian faith from an intellectual, historic or scientific basis, it can’t (in my opinion, by design) be done. It is interesting to note that the bible repeatedly states that it is by faith that we are saved. There is no mention of salvation by means of scientific study or philosophical pursuit. I suppose the best “logical” defense of Christianity is provided by Paul in his speech to the Athenians (Acts 17) and it still requires faith to accept his position.

    At its heart, Christianity is a relationship with the living God through His son, Jesus Christ. This is a mystery and there is no scientific proof of this relationship of which I’m aware. However, I do enjoy a good, learned debate, so I look forward to the next salvo!

    Atheistletters, I will pray for you (Or, as you might think it, waste some breath in a meaningless, but good hearted, wish for your enlightenment!). Perhaps a questing mind such as yours will have a need for faith in Jesus down the line. I’ve seen a number of people who were “devout” atheists and who argued effectively (as you have) for their views come to Christ over the years. As Jesus is reputed to have said to Saul in a vision while on the way to Damascus, “It’s hard to kick against the pricks.” So it is.

    Trey, I will continue to pray for you. May God’s grace and inspiration be yours as you prepare these thought-provoking and informative posts.

    Thank you both for your thoughts.

  3. Pingback: Does the Resurrection provide an objective criteria for Christianity? « whytheology

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: