Maybe Things Just Aren’t Perfect

I formulated my recent post on morality in part to counter the Christian objection that, without a perfect moral standard, non-theistic morality is flawed and therefore worthless. Since then, I’ve observed a similar theme with the arguments of believers on a variety of topics. The claims include:

  • Christians have God as a dependable source of truth, while atheists depend on fallible human cognition which evolved for survival, not truth.
  • Christians can always rely on God in times of trouble, while atheists have no one to rely on except their own error-prone selves.
  • Creationism is a comprehensive explanation for the diversity of life on earth, while evolution is missing transitional fossils and the ultimate origin of life.

Setting aside the problems with these specific arguments, note that they are all designed to pit the perfect against the imperfect. The idea is to present atheism as lacking and incomplete when compared with the Christian God. And of course it will! It’s incredibly easy to set up an impossible standard, lambaste your opponent for not living up to the standard, and claim victory.

Believers employ arguments like this because it allows them to gloss over the most important step. You have to demonstrate that your all-powerful, all-knowing god actually exists. Arguing in this way is the apologetic equivalent of saying, “Your girlfriend isn’t as hot as my girlfriend (she’s in Canada — no, you can’t see a picture).”

There’s another reason why Christians find such arguments persuasive (and think that you would be persuaded also). From beginning to end, the Bible has a running theme of “perfection or nothing”. In the Old Testament, the slightest blemish made a lamb unworthy for sacrifice. In the New Testament, the slightest sin makes a soul unworthy of heaven and deserving of an eternity of hellfire.

Imperfect but existent humanity is superior to a perfect but non-existent god just by virtue of being real. I touched on this fact in my morality post. Like morality, we can wish we had a perfect, 100% reliable source of truth and bemoan our easily-fooled human brains. However, these brains may in reality be all we have to work with. A non-existent god can’t be a source of morality, truth, or anything useful. It can only be a source of deception.

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God is NOT Love (According to the Bible)

I’m pretty sure it’s now official church doctrine that every wedding must quote from 1 Corinthians 13. Nowhere else in the Bible to we get such a convenient checklist of what Christian love is supposed to look like. By the transitive property, this chapter should theoretically be a description of God himself, because God is love. And yet, anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in Sunday school will notice that God regularly fails to exhibit the characteristics Paul attributes to a loving being.

Love is patient …and God is impetuous. He forbids Moses from entering the Promised Land after decades of obedience because he struck a rock instead of talking to it. He sends bears to maul those who poke fun at his prophets. Jesus himself cannot bear the audacity of a fig tree that fails to produce fruit out of season.

Love is kind …and God destroys the life of his most faithful servant to win a bet. Is it kind to flood the whole earth and command genocide? Plus, you know, hell.

Love does not envy …and God is jealous, unable to bear even a hint of dissent. The first three commandments, prioritized even over murder, are about worshiping God alone and using his name correctly. Actually, much of the Old Testament is a record of God’s incessant attempts to stamp out his competition. Note also that the only unpardonable sin is not serial murder, cannibalism, or child rape, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Love does not boast and is not proud …and God spends whole chapters expounding on his own greatness and even made the heavens just to show off. In Exodus, he hardens the Pharaoh’s heart and inflicts plagues, pestilence, and death on Egypt so that his “name may be proclaimed in all the earth.

Love is not self-seeking …and yet, according to apologists, God allows people to be doomed to hell because he didn’t want to create “robots” forced to love him. In other words, God is willing to doom most of humanity to eternal torment just so a handful will love him properly. How self-seeking is that?

Love is not easily angered …and yet he kills people for peeking into the Ark of the Covenant, looking back at their former home, and not impregnating their sister-in-law, for a few examples.

Love keeps no record of wrongs …and God absolutely does, which is the whole reason Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary in the first place.

A better expression of love, as exemplified by the God of the Bible, would be something like this:

Love is testy, love is cruel. It is envious, conceited, and vain. It is self-centered, quick to anger, and never forgets an offense. Love does evil and declares it good. It protects its own and damns all others. Love constantly fails.

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the “minimal facts” approach to Christian apologetics and briefly touched on three events surrounding the resurrection that apologists claim are beyond criticism. As it turns out, the cases for the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus are not as airtight as apologists would have you believe. There are still a couple more “facts” worth addressing, and as you can imagine, they’re quite problematic as well.

4. Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

From the historian’s perspective, we don’t have independent sources for many of Jesus’ purported post-resurrection appearances. The Emmaus road experience is only found in Luke. The Sea of Tiberias appearance is only reported by John. An appearance to “five hundred brethren at one time” is only mentioned by Paul, as he quotes an early church creed while writing to the Corinthians.

The creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 is often cited as evidence that Christians believed from a very early date that Jesus had appeared to others after his resurrection. However, the fact that Christians believed something had happened is not necessarily related to what actually did happen. This will come up again.

Apologists will claim that this creed arose far to early for legends to develop surrounding the resurrection. Nonsense! How long did it take for nutcases to start claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, or Tupac was still alive? And that’s with the wealth of information available in an Internet-connected society! How quickly will legends spring up when all your information comes from the rumor mill buzzing around town?

Might these supposed appearances have a naturalistic explanation? We do know that grief-induced hallucinations are surprisingly common, and we also know that stories tend to grow in the telling. Maybe one or two of the disciples had such an experience and told the others. Over time, the experiences of a few disciples evolved into the experience of all the disciples, seeing Jesus at the same time. This is certainly a more plausible explanation than the dead coming back to life.

5. The disciples came to truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

How one responds to this “fact” depends on how it is phrased. I don’t know of any scholar who disputes that the disciples and earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead — but far fewer would conclude that Jesus actually did.

It should be pretty obvious that belief has no inherent relation to the truth of a proposition. People believe in the power of Jesus, astrology, crystals, homeopathy, CrossFit, Santa Claus and all kinds of incorrect ideas.

Moreover, people sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Apologists often object that no one would allow themselves to be martyred for proclaiming what they know is a lie. Agreed, but who said the disciples were lying? They may well have been sincere in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead — sincerely wrong.

So we see that, as usual, Christians have trouble getting their facts straight, but even if we were to grant apologists all of their claims, the minimal facts approach still suffers from a fatal flaw.

Think of it like a magic show, with the classic trick of the magician sawing their lovely assistant in half. Unless you’re a stage magician yourself, you might not have access to all the ins and outs of how magicians perform their tricks. All you have are a handful of facts that you and the rest of the audience have all observed.

  • The assistant is a whole person before lying down in the box.
  • The magician saws through her.
  • The assistant appears to be split in half.

If you can’t figure out the trick, do you immediately assume that the magician has real magic powers? Or do you pick from a list of unconfirmed but entirely mundane explanations? Perhaps the saw is fake. Maybe there’s a secret compartment, or a mirror. The supernatural is probably dead last on your list, right below secret alien technology.

The minimal facts should be treated the same way. We simply don’t have access to all of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath, and, barring some monumental archaeological find, we probably never will. Somehow, when communicating to humanity the most important story in history, God has left us to play connect the dots without all the dots. The information available to us is simply not enough to get the full picture of these three days in Judea two millennia ago, and certainly not enough to determine that a crucifixion victim rose from the dead.

 

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 1

The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”

At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!

It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.

Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.

1. Jesus was crucified.

This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!

2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).

So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).

It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?

Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)

3. The tomb was found empty.

Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.

Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”

Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?

For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.

No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.

But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.

Here’s Why Philosophical Arguments are Unconvincing

Photo: Pascal Müller

Let’s say we grant the cosmological, ontological, and all those other -logical arguments for the existence of God. So far, this God only “exists” in our minds; he is purely theoretical. How do we then show that this God exists in reality?

Does this God we’ve just demonstrated interact with our world in any way? How would we know if it did? How do you tell the difference between a miracle and a natural phenomenon that we simply don’t yet understand, or a miracle and a simple fraud?

So far, we have no mechanism for showing that a deity has ever been the cause of a phenomenon in our world. It’s just the default for whatever bizarre event or unlikely occurrence that people want to ascribe to it. The march of progress has always been supernatural explanations giving way to natural ones, not the other way around.

Let’s say you’re a homicide detective, and you have a string of unsolved murders on your hands. In the absence of any strong suspects, you posit the existence of the “Murder Genie,” a supernatural entity that by definition commits all murders. Problem solved, right? No, of course not! You actually need evidence connecting the murders to the Murder Genie before you can close the case!

You can’t define or argue something into existence. At the end of the day, it either exists or it doesn’t, and all this sophistry isn’t making God any more real. Proving a deist god is like holding an expired winning lottery ticket. Congrats, I guess you technically “won,” but that’s about it. Nothing has changed, nothing has been accomplished. If God acts like he doesn’t exist, I’ll act like he doesn’t exist as well.

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?

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.