Are Atheists Trying to Have It Both Ways?

This week’s post was inspired by a point that’s come up several times in our Atheist Christian Book Club. In discussions about the historicity of the Bible, the Christian contingent has raised an objection that goes something like this:

Atheists are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re plagiarizing! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re embellishing!

The idea is that atheists won’t give the Bible any credit. When the same story is repeated in multiple gospels, atheists ignore the corroboration, and when the story is recorded in only one gospel, atheists call out the lack of corroboration! I’m going to address these two points separately, as I believe they stem from different misunderstandings.

On the point that atheists dismiss multiple accounts as plagiarism, it’s important to emphasize the difference between corroboration and collaboration. When evaluating the historicity of an event, it’s important to not just have multiple sources, but multiple independent sources. We know the writers of the gospels were not independent; Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source (sometimes quoting Mark verbatim), and a predominant theory also has them using a second “Q” source as well. If Matthew and Luke are taking stories from Mark, you don’t have three sources – you have one source: Mark.

Ideally, we’re looking for corroboration without collaboration. You have corroboration when 4 accounts told from differing perspectives tell the same story; this is evidence that the story is legit. You have collaboration when 4 accounts remix, reuse, recycle, and generally crib off of each other. Collaboration in the gospels doesn’t by itself prove that the gospels are false, but it should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why does God need to plagiarize himself?

One the idea that atheists dismiss unique accounts as embellishment, I see two separate situations where atheists may object. One is where accounts differ but can be harmonized, and the other is where accounts contradict and cannot be harmonized. Sometimes, harmonization is easy: if a story takes place in one gospel as an isolated incident and has no obvious connection to any other events (for instance, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mark 8), you can slot it into the overall narrative with no qualms.

Other times, harmonization may be technically possible, but doing so only raises more questions. The empty tomb is a classic example. Who did the women see on arriving: an angel (Matthew 28), two angels (John 20), a young man (Mark 16), or two men (Luke 24)? Reconciling these differences requires some mental gymnastics to understand what the gospel writers were trying to accomplish.

If there were only men at the tomb, whoever said there were angels is embellishing the narrative. If there were angels at the tomb, why say there were men instead? What is to be gained by diminishing one miraculous detail from an unabashedly miraculous story?

If there was one figure at the tomb, whoever said there were two is also guilty of embellishment. If there were in fact two, why say there was only one? How does reducing the number of figures help the narrative in any way?

Alternatively, if the gospel writers didn’t change these details, were they getting their information from competing oral traditions? If the original traditions were exaggerated, perhaps they’re not as reliable as apologists would have us believe. Once again, this should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why is he inspiring such crummy writing?

Even if we were to set aside accounts that can technically be harmonized, we’re still left with contradictions. I shouldn’t have to say that contradictions are never evidence for the veracity of a story, and while some atheists like to bring out long lists of “contradictions” that are really nothing of the sort, I believe some are nigh impossible to reconcile.

  • Were Joseph and Mary originally from Bethlehem and relocated to Nazareth, as in Matthew? Or were they from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for the census, as in Luke?
  • Did Simon Peter become Jesus’ disciple after being brought by his brother Andrew, as in John? Or was it after Jesus helped him catch fish, as in Luke?
  • After Jesus’ death, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem, as in Acts? Or did they proceed to Galilee, as in Matthew?

Overall, the biggest problem with the Christians’ objection is how easily it can be turned back around on their own arguments:

Christians are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re trustworthy! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re independent sources!

Similarity and dissimilarity are not both evidence for the same thing. If the gospels are independent sources, why are they copying each other? And if they are trustworthy, why are they so difficult to reconcile?

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Day Two After The Fall

There was evening, and there was morning. It was the second day after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. The disgraced man and woman have left the garden, but the repercussion of their sin still remains.

Wolves, lions, bears, sharks, and tyrannosaurs convulse in pain. Their teeth are morphing from flat to sharp. Their intestines are spontaneously shrinking, and their stomaches have suddenly begun secreting more acidic enzymes to help digest their new diet.

A bee flies to its favorite flower, which now closes down upon it with brand new jaws. A rabbit eats its favorite berry, which now poisons it. All through out the animal kingdom, once-benign bacteria and viruses are now causing a previously-unknown phenomenon called “disease”.

The very Earth itself is changing. The surface cracks, and regions along the edges will now be subject to earthquakes. The water cycle, which previously only wrought gentle, sustaining rains, will now generate hurricanes and tornadoes.

These worldwide effects are all supposedly caused by one man and one woman eating the wrong fruit. This single sin is said to impact all of creation, and yet the Bible does not describe a mechanism for how sin would interact with the world to create these changes. We have a cause, and we have an effect, but we have no connection between them.

Moreover, the Bible does not indicate why these changes would even follow from the first sin. Why doesn’t the fall of man only affect man? Paul says in Romans that “creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it” (8:20), but why was creation as a whole subjected to any consequences? Did the wolves sin? Did the bee disobey? Did the rabbit offend God’s honor?

God set this system up. If the rule is that sin affects all of creation, that’s his rule. If “creation was subjected to futility,” God appears to be “him who subjected it.” We’re left with a Genesis account that appears nonsensical enough that you should doubt it, but casts doubt on God’s goodness even if you believe.

God the Delinquent Dad

The Bible frequently refers to God by using human titles: King of Kings, the Good Shepherd, and so forth. No title is more ubiquitous, however, than God the Father. According to the Bible, we are the children of a loving Heavenly Father, but how does God compare to a responsible human parent?

Sometimes parents need to discipline their children to train them in proper behavior and help them grow in moral character. However, the discipline must be proportional to the offense, and a disproportionate response crosses the line from discipline to child abuse. If your child calls their sibling a nasty name, do you give them a time out, or do you exile them from your house for the rest of their lives? Which one sounds more like what God does with us? No parent worth emulating would torture their child for the remainder of their earthly life, after the opportunity to grow has long passed, for a first offense.

Discipline can be seen as a temporary suffering for a greater good, and indeed most Christians view suffering as a whole in these terms. What if our pain is momentary, and God’s higher perspective allows him to see the good which will come out of it? Bringing in the father analogy, I’ve encountered multiple writers who compare it to a child getting a vaccine. They may scream and cry when the needle goes in, but as a parent, you know the fleeting pain is worth preventing a debilitating illness.

But what if you could accomplish the same goal with no pain at all? What if you were all-powerful, and instead of taking your child in for a shot, you could cast a ward over them to inoculate them from all disease? Why would you not take this option? At that point, if you still have your child vaccinated, you are actually the one introducing undue suffering into their life.

How then is God not a monster for allowing so much suffering in the world when he has the power to prevent all of it? It’s problematic enough to introduce unnecessary suffering into our finite lives on Earth, but what about our eternal fates? How many would be going to hell since the incomprehensibility of suffering has caused them to reject God? Why would God introduce an arbitrary impediment to belief?

“But God wants us to come to him freely! It’s not a free decision unless the option is there to choose otherwise!” Okay, how does God the Father handle this?

God is not a helicopter parent. We all hate parents like this, and so we may be glad God doesn’t obsessively try and control every aspect of our lives. That said, going all the way in the opposite direction is problematic as well! Good parents don’t let their children do whatever they want, especially when they want to do something that puts themselves at risk.

Think of it this way: you’re a parent, and you’ve dealt with enough helicopter parents over the years that you know you don’t want to be like them. However, your children still act foolishly on occasion, and one day you notice that your son has gotten his hands on your gun.

What do you do? You could say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to take the gun away from him. That’s what one of those helicopter parents would do! My son should be free to make his own decisions, even if they’re mistakes.” Or, you could take the gun away! What would a good parent do?

According to the Bible, we are staring down the barrel of an eternity in hell, and God seems content to sit back and see how everything plays out. If, as a Christian, you want to say that God actually did do something about this by sending his Son to die for our sins, I would point to this as God’s ultimate failure as a father. A good father wouldn’t let things get so out of control that the only solution was for his own son to die.

 

 

Damnation: To Infinity and Beyond!

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for ex-Christians is the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. The notion that a single lie, a lustful thought, or a covetous desire is enough to doom a soul to an eternity of torment seems at odds with a loving and merciful God. Christian apologists have an answer, which I usually see phrased as analogous to earthly royalty:

  1. Offenses become greater with the honor due the offended, e.g. stealing a penny from the king incurs a much greater penalty than stealing a penny from a commoner.
  2. God is due infinite honor, therefore offenses against God incur an infinite penalty.

This seems to make some intuitive sense, but the problem is that the same analogy can be used to support the exact opposite point. Doesn’t a king’s greater power and status also bring with it a greater ability to brush off minor offenses? If a peasant steals a penny from a king who has millions and millions of pennies in his coffers, and the king issues the death penalty for the offense, wouldn’t the king be considered a tyrant? Or, more appropriate to the Christian God, if a peasant lusts after a woman, or tells a white lie to his neighbor, or covets another man’s fancy hat, must he pay the ultimate price?

If you want to use the royalty analogy and claim God has infinitely greater honor than an earthly king, one should also be able to say that God also has an infinitely greater capacity to forgive. The Bible itself even gives examples of rulers who deliberately set aside their disciplinary powers and instead offered clemency. Did Joseph use his authority over Egypt to exact revenge on his brothers, who sold him into slavery, or did he extend an olive branch? Upon becoming king, did David exterminate the line of Saul, who made multiple attempts on his life, or did he seek out Saul’s grandson and grant him Saul’s lands?

What lesson are we to glean from these stories? In Sunday school, these stories were used to demonstrate that there is no transgression too great to be forgiven. But isn’t this the opposite of how God acts? The Bible’s own models of magnanimous rulers make God look like a divine dictator by comparison.

Christmas Isn’t Logical, and For Once I Don’t Care

Even the most rational, relentlessly logical people have their moments of weakness. This month, I’ve been struggling a bit with my enjoyment of Christmas. This time of year has certainly been secularized to a large extent (the “war on Christmas” has seen much success), but I’m still not sure if my atheism should impact how I have traditionally celebrated the season.

Is it wrong to enjoy carols about the birth of Jesus while arguing that the birth narratives are wholly contradictory? Is it problematic to elucidate the merits of critical thinking and reason while singing about flying reindeer and magical snowmen?

I don’t know! I’m still new to this whole atheism business. Like it or not, my upbringing is part of who I am, and if that’s left me sentimental for Christmases past, is it necessary for me to deny this? Can I permit myself just a bit of nostalgic nonsense?

I will probably watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and quote Linus’ scripture monologue from memory, while acknowledging that it’s bullshit. I will listen to carols about Santa Claus and Jesus alike, even as I know they’re mythology. I will enjoy one time of year when people feel compelled to be generous and thoughtful, even if it’s for fundamentally flawed reasons.

I don’t even really care if a cashier wishes me a non-inclusive “Merry Christmas!” I might even say “Merry Christmas” in return! Does this make me a bad atheist? Do I need to turn in my badge?

I suppose there’s a time and place to raise objections, and I’m not exactly sure yet where to draw that line. My brain tells me that we atheists must vigilantly stand against every religious encroachment, no matter how small, but my gut tells me that it may not be worth looking like a stodgy asshole during the one time of year when people are actually being pleasant to each other.

Is this me admitting a potential flaw in my own thinking? Hallelujah, it’s a Christmas miracle!

Book Review: Unbelievable?

I really like the idea of Justin Brierley’s podcast “Unbelievable?” Bringing together opposing viewpoints for reasonable discussion is exactly what we do in the Atheist Christian Book Club, so when we read Brierley’s book, also titled Unbelievable?, I felt legitimately optimistic. Surely Brierley’s ten years of mediating between theists and atheists would refine his own beliefs, weeding out the weakest arguments and leaving only the sturdiest pillars of faith for his readers to consider. Sadly, I found that Brierley’s arguments were oddly focused on unquantifiable inklings and hunches, and not enough on hard evidence.

A big theme of Unbelievable? is what I call the argument from “there’s just got to be more!” I’m sure there’s a more formal name for this fallacy, but Brierley continually assumes that, because mankind searches for a higher power or a greater purpose, this indicates there is a power or purpose to be found. In chapter 2, Brierley says that, despite scientific discoveries regarding human origins, he “can’t escape a conviction that the order, elegance, and majesty of the universe and our existence within it is crying out for an explanation beyond itself.” He quotes a psalm where David stands in awe of the vastness of the universe, but rather than being humbled by mankind’s seeming insignificance on the cosmic scale, Brierley promotes David’s “sense of purpose” and “belief that he was made in God’s image” – as if believing it makes it so.

Some of Brierley’s support for his faith comes from feelings so vague they could be used to prop up almost any belief. He recounts the stories of people who found God in pop music and poetry, rainbows and romance. He treats childbirth, one of the most well-studied areas of medicine, as pure magic. Has no one pointed out to Brierley that, even if we grant his “evidence”, they don’t point to any particular religious persuasion, or perhaps not even to God at all?

At times Brierley shows plain, unadorned ignorance, presenting fallacious arguments and patent untruths that I can’t believe have gone ten years without being corrected. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics would inhibit evolution, ignoring that the Earth is not a closed system so the law does not apply. He seems to believe that anything that provides hope is good by default, but he doesn’t make the connection that not everything that provides hope is true. He adds “legend” to C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, Lord” trilemma, but he applies this only to mythicism, never addressing the idea that Jesus’ exploits could have grown legendary after his death. At one point, in two sentences Brierley manages to confuse weak and strong atheism and assert quantity over quality for theistic arguments:

Atheism … has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

In this respect, I’ve often felt that the weight of arguments in favour of theism is frequently underappreciated by sceptics. They may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God.

It’s confounding statements like this that make me lose any respect I may have had for Brierley at the outset. He touts his impartial debate moderation, and this may be the case, but his book shows all the confirmation bias and bad-faith arguments I’ve come to expect from apologetic authors.

Free Will Isn’t Free

You get up on a Saturday morning, get dressed, and throw open the front door. How are you going to spend your day? You can keep things small and routine: visit a friend, go shopping, watch TV. You might also do something epic: take a spontaneous road trip, withdraw your savings and give it to the homeless, start that novel you’ve been talking about for years. The possibilities are seemingly endless!

But they aren’t endless. There are somethings that you are simply not allowed to do, at least not legally or easily. You can’t throw hand grenades at pedestrians. You can’t declare yourself a police officer and start fighting crime. You can’t drive your car onto an airport tarmac.

Is your “free will” restricted by not having every theoretical activity available to you? Perhaps, but is this really a problem? We generally agree as a civilization that, as a whole, we’re better off if individuals don’t have certain options on the table. We might argue about what those options are, but few advocate anarchy as the ideal state of affairs.

Now let’s get into a specific example. Let’s say you’re a young man with a history of violence, and you really have it out for your mother-in-law. You decide to spend your day of endless possibility by going to her church and shooting up the place.

Would anyone have a problem if this man wasn’t given this particular option? If God placed an invisible wall around the church, preventing the man from entering or firing through, would we be any worse off? Indeed, wouldn’t this in fact be a powerful testimony of God’s protection? Imagine if someone got a video of a gun-wielding madman smacking into absolutely nothing!

Instead, in the aftermath of yet another gun massacre, we are forced to assume that God must have his reasons for not interfering – just like in Columbine, Paducah, Killeen, Austin, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Charleston… and on and on.