Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Following up on EWE

In yesterday's post I made a number of assertions without a significant amount of elaboration or references. I plan to fill some of that in during the next few posts. Today I am just going to pass along a few links.

First, I happened to come across again today an essay I had read before, Richard Carrier's Why I Am Not a Christian. His essay covers some of the same points I was trying to make, but from a different angle and at somewhat greater length. It is a worthwhile read.

Second, regarding Lee Strobel's books, the Secular Web has reviews of a number of his books: The Rest of the Story, a review of The Case for Christ, The Case Against Faith: A Critical Look at Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith, Another Case Not Made: A Critique of Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator and Objections Sustained!, another critique of The Case for Faith. I have not personally read all of them, and it has been awhile since I read any of them, but I am fairly confident they will present good summaries of the reasons skeptics find Strobel's books unconvincing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evidence? What Evidence?


While I have not brought it up for quite awhile, one the major reasons that I left Christianity was that the supposed consequences for disbelief were vastly out of proportion to the evidence available and our ability to make sense out of it. That is, at least according to some common versions of Christianity, the consequence of disbelief is eternal damnation, an unending tortuous existence. Whether this is punishment imposed by God or the natural consequence of our sinful nature, either way the only way out (we are told) is belief in Jesus as the savior of the world, the one atoning sacrifice, and so on. And yet, what reasons do we have to believe that this is true? Are those reasons so compelling that only the rebellious would disregard them? Are they so solid that those who, having heard them, deserve hell for not believing?

Some would say, perhaps, that people do not deserve hell for not believing; rather, they deserve hell because they are imperfect, sinful creatures and hell is the natural or deserved result of such a state. We should be thankful, according to this view, that God provided a way of escape. But if this is so, why did God do such a poor job of providing evidence to those for whom lack of evidence is a stumbling block? Some Christians have said that, for those who don't believe, that the evidence is not really the reason for disbelief, but this is not the case. While there are certainly people for which this is true, just as certainly there are people who have honestly searched through the evidence, found it lacking, and so did not believe. The problem is not willful rejection of compelling evidence. The problem really is lack of evidence.

The central claim of Christianity, I think it is fair to say, is that Jesus died and was raised in order to save us. (There are liberal Christians who would dispute this, but my argument here is not with them.) This, like many other important aspects of Christian belief, involves a claim about a historical event. This event would have occurred nearly two thousand years ago during a time of even greater credulity than we experience today. The only accounts of this event come from those who were neither indifferent nor skeptical, and those accounts contain clear signs of legendary development as well as purposeful embellishment from the first to the last. They were written over a span of thirty to forty years, and the earliest one was written at least thirty years after the events described.

Do we have other reasons to trust these authors? We do not know who they are. The attributions to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not come (as far as we can tell) until another fifty to one hundred years after they were written, and scholars have discovered substantial reasons to doubt them. We also know that Christian forgeries were common during this era, as attested by the number of pseudo-epigraphical gospels, epistles and apocalypses that were written during this era. But perhaps the fact that these other documents were eventually rejected by early Christians gives us reason to trust the writings that they accepted? No, for we also have excellent reasons to believe that many, perhaps even a majority, of the other New Testament books were also not written by the traditionally accepted authors. These reasons are not simple guesses, but the result of years of careful study by scholars (usually Christian scholars) who examine the theological themes, language usage, external references and evident historical context to make their assessments. There is still debate over some cases, of course, but in other cases the evidence is strong and the agreement substantial.

The same sorts of evaluations place substantial portions of the Old Testament in doubt. This is not to say that the books of the Old Testament are entirely fictional. Many of the historical events described have some support from archeology and other historical sources, and in other cases we might accept the Biblical descriptions as prima facie evidence of their historicity or at least, of some kernel of historical truth. But yet, there remain significant portions that appear mythical or legendary. We have comparable writings from other ancient sources, but when these other sources describe the intervention of gods in the world, we accept that they are mythological. We can see instances where the Hebrew authors have borrowed concepts from the belief systems of their neighbors and incorporated those concepts into their own. (Examples include the Ugaritic mythology and the dualism derived from Zoroastrianism.) Do we have good reasons, then, to believe the Hebrew accounts but not the others?

Perhaps we should depend on the fact that Christian beliefs have persisted for two thousand years, and Judaism for another thousand before that? Other belief systems have survived for comparable lengths of time. Christianity may be better represented in the world today, but I think a strong argument can be made that this representation can be attributed to the technological and economic growth and subsequent imperialism by European nations where Christianity happened to be dominant. Some would say that this technological and economic growth itself was dependent on Christianity, but this is hardly an uncontroversial claim, especially considering Christianity's prominence during the Western civilization's decline during the second half the of the first millennium.

What about the subjective experience of Christians? Can we not look to the improvement in the lives of believers as evidence to the truth of their beliefs? Unfortunately, similar claims of improvement can be found among the adherents of other belief systems, systems that contradict the claims of Christianity. What proves too much proves nothing at all. Additionally, when we actually look at sociological research for evidence of this improvement, the results are remarkably ambiguous, and occasionally the reverse of what is claimed. If there is evidence to be found here, right now the signal is buried in the noise.

Can we look to philosophy? Is God a logical necessity? Christians have proposed ontological arguments, the teleological arguments, moral arguments, transcendental arguments, even pragmatic arguments. None have been successful. Of course, philosophical arguments have also failed to disprove the existence of God. We must look elsewhere.

What about science? So far, science has not detected God, and I say that only partly in jest. Science has been our most reliable method of learning about the reality we inhabit, and yet we cannot look to science for direct observational evidence of God. For the most part, science has been busy explaining those aspects of the natural world that were previously thought to be dependent on God. Theists are holding out in the shelter of the Big Bang, claiming that a beginning to the universe must indicate a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover. Even supposing this might eventually turn out to be the case, given the general retreat of religious claims before the advances of science, it hardly seems reasonable to depend on our current ignorance about events so remote from us in time and outside our experience for evidence about something even more remote from our observational capabilities.

In the face of this startling lack of evidence, and sometimes contrary evidence, we are told that the consequence for disbelief is eternal hellfire. God loves us and wants the best for us, of course, but the evidence we have was the best he could do? Is there a good reason for him to withhold better evidence from us?

It would infringe on our free will, some say. Nonsense. Twice nonsense. First, because some of these same people will point to the amazing signs and prophecies performed and fulfilled by Jesus (we are told) as evidence of his divinity. If you believe that if God supplied better evidence he would infringe on our free will, but you also believe he performed those signs, then you believe he already did infringe on the free will of those who saw the signs. Why not again? And second, how does additional information infringe on anybody's free will anyway? Does learning something or observing something infringe on your will? If anything, it empowers you to make better choices. If anything, among those who would freely choose to believe if there were better evidence, withholding that evidence is what infringes on free will.

Or should we just believe without evidence? It's a faith thing, right? But how do you choose what to believe on faith? Why this and not something else? If there are no reasons to believe this one thing instead of something else, well, then there are no reasons to believe this one thing instead of something else. No, it has to come back to reasons, and I mean reasons in the sense of evidence, not in the sense of consequences — like the threat of hell.

When all is said and done, the evidence just is not there. If we were asked to believe a fairly ordinary thing with insubstantial consequences, perhaps we might believe it on the evidence we have. Instead, we are asked to believe an exceptional thing with almost inconceivable consequences. A good God would not leave us in this situation. Perhaps God does not exist after all. Perhaps he is not good. Perhaps (and some Christians do believe this), perhaps the whole hell thing was a bit of a mistake. Something has to give.

Before I conclude, I have to mention the state of Christian apologetics. The goal of apologetics is, I suppose, to defend the faith. In this, I suppose it has been successful, but not due to the evidence or arguments offered. They are successful because they give people who already believe the comfortable illusion that the faith has been defended. Some of the best examples of this are Lee Strobel's books, like "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Easter". His shtick is to play the role of an "investigative journalist" and interview various Christian scholars, but I say "play the role" quite purposefully, because he accepts nearly everything they say at face value, even when one person contradicts another. To my knowledge, he never interviews anyone who substantially disagrees with his thesis and he never challenges anyone that agrees. Similar problems exist in other popular apologetic works. They defend their arguments from strawmen. They simply omit facts that are inconvenient to their case. They repeat anecdotes in support of their case that have no basis in fact. But for those readers that are hearing just what they expect, who trust their Christian authorities to tell them the truth, who would never consider reading anything that would actually challenge their beliefs, those readers are comforted by what they read and it seems good to them. I mean, who has time to look into it themselves? Best just to leave that to the experts. And so it goes.

Not every Christian apologist is like that, and not every Christian reader is like that. But some are. Just read the comments on for Lee Strobel's books...


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Apocalyptic Thoughts I

The Book of Daniel, which I discussed a few weeks ago, is an example of apocalyptic literature. "Apocalypse" comes from a Greek word meaning "a lifting of the veil" or "an uncovering". Apocalyptic literature in general describes the revealing of important matters that have previously been hidden. This type of literature and the beliefs so described were common through the centuries prior to and following the time of Jesus' life and the beginning of the Christian church, and in these cases the important matters related to God and his (coming) kingdom. There were both Jewish apocalypticists (like the author of Daniel) as well as Christian apocalypticists (like the author of Revelations).

Among the various factions that existed in Palestine during the life of Jesus, the Essenes had a clear apocalyptic bent. The Essenes, who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived in communities separated from others in order to prepare themselves for the coming kingdom of God. I have also heard that the Pharisees may have held some apocalyptic views; at least, they appeared to believe in a coming resurrection, a belief not shared by the Sadducees.

This outlook can also be seen quite clearly in the New Testament. John the Baptist preached an apocalyptic message. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) To the Pharisees and Sadducees, he said "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:7) "The axe is already laid at the root of the tree..." (Matthew 3:10, Luke 3:9) It was in the context of this message by John the Baptist that Jesus entered the public eye, and Jesus soon made very similar statements. "The kingdom of God is at hand." (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17) In Mark, Jesus frequently describes the coming Son of Man (an allusion to Daniel 7:13) who will bring God's kingdom to the earth, though strangely, there is little indication in those contexts that he is referring to himself.

When will this kingdom come? The quotes above indicate a sort of urgency, but there is yet more specific guidance on the matter. All three synoptic gospels quote Jesus as saying "This generation will not pass away until all these things take place." (Mark 13:30, Matthew 24:34, Luke 21:31)

Did it happen? First, we must answer a different question. What did Jesus mean when he said "the kingdom of God is at hand"? Was he referring simply to his own death and resurrection? Was that the arrival of God's kingdom? Was it the beginning of the Christian church at Pentacost? Or is there another way we should look at the issue?

If we take him to understand that his death and resurrection or the beginning of the Christian church were the beginning of the kingdom, we quickly run into difficulties. First, in the parallel passages from Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 where Jesus said that the current generation would not pass away, the larger context is Jesus' response to a question from some of his disciples. He had just told them that the temple would be destroyed, and they ask when that will happen. He proceeds to describe the various things that must happen first: wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution by the Jews ("in the synagogues"), witnessing to kings, preaching to all nations, the abomination of desolation, tribulation, the sun and moon darkened, stars falling and then, finally, the Son of Man coming in the clouds. And it is after saying all of that that Jesus says, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." These events are clearly not related to the events surrounding Jesus death and resurrection or the beginnings of Christianity.

To reinforce this point, consider Mark 8:38-9:1 and Luke 9:26-27, where Jesus describes the Son of Man coming with the holy angels, and "there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power." Again, the Son of Man comes during the lifetimes of (some of) the disciples.

Further evidence comes from Paul's letters and to a lesser degree, Acts. Early in Acts, for instance, the first Christians are described as selling their possessions, and this behavior makes the most sense for people who do not expect things to continue in their normal course for much longer. But Paul's letters provide much stronger evidence that the early Christians were still expecting the kingdom to arrive quickly. In I Thessalonians 4:15 Paul says "that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep." The clear implication to the recipients of this letter was that some of them would still be alive when Jesus returned. In I Corinthians 15:51 he writes "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed," and again, his readers would certainly expect this to apply to them, that the events described would happen while some of them were still alive.

Did Jesus and Paul really mean the people living then when they said "this generation" and "we who are alive and remain" and "we will not all sleep"? Or did they really mean this to apply to whoever happened to be alive when the events did finally take place? The wording and intention is clear enough. The only reason to ask the question is that the events described clearly did not occur within the lifetimes of the first century Christians. Apart from this inconvenient truth, the teaching of both Paul and Jesus himself clearly anticipate the arrival of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God, as well as their dramatic precursors within the lifetimes of the earliest believers. Alternative explanations (including those found within later writings of the New Testament) are best understood as post hoc rationalizations intended to rescue Christian beliefs from the evident failure of the clear predictions of Jesus and the early Christian spokesmen.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Truth or Consequences

I am concerned about what is true, and as is clear from my writing here, I do not think that the central claims of Christianity are true. Anyone concerned about discovering the truth needs to be aware of fallacies. Fallacies are arguments (or types of arguments) where the premises do not actually provide logical support for the conclusion. You can find whole catalogs of fallacies around the Internet.

One type of fallacy is an argument from consequences. While there are several variants, a typical form goes like this:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Q is good (desirable)
  3. Therefore P is true

Alternatively, it can be framed as an argument against some proposition:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Q is bad (undesirable)
  3. Therefore not-P

Neither of these arguments is valid; in neither case does the conclusion follow from the premises, regardless of whether or not the premises are actually true.

Of course, people do not normally express themselves using this form explicitly, and in fact, some of the premises of an informally expressed argument may not even be stated. When this is so, the fallacy may be harder to recognize. Nevertheless, the fallacy is still there.

A pretty typical example in the context of a discussion about the truth of Christianity would be "Without God my life would have no meaning (or purpose, or hope)." This single sentence is usually the informal condensation of the argument:

  1. If God does not exist, my life would have no meaning (or purpose, or hope)
  2. Lack of meaning (or purpose, or hope) is bad (undesirable)
  3. Therefore God exists

Stated in this way, it is clearly an argument from consequences, and so the conclusion does not follow from the premises, even if the premises were true. If God does not exist, and if it were true that meaning, purpose and hope were dependent on God's existence, well, then there would be no meaning, purpose or hope, no matter how much we might want those things.

Another example concerns morality. The claim is frequently made that without God, there would be no grounds for morality. In this case, the argument could be refined in several ways. If the hidden assumption were "Having no grounds for morality is bad", then the implicit argument would be fallacious because it would be an argument from consequences. On the other hand, the unstated assumption could be that "We have grounds for morality." In this case, the argument would not be an argument from consequences, but it still fails, for if the only grounds for morality were that God existed, the argument would be circular, since the conclusion is contained in one of the premises. On the other hand, if the second premise stated that we have grounds for morality that are independent of God, then the second premise would contradict the first premise (that without God, we have no grounds for morality) and the conclusion again would not be supported.

The existence of God or the truth of Christianity cannot be decided on the basis of how much you like or dislike either alternative. Not liking the perceived consequences of God's non-existence presents an emotional barrier to disbelief, but it has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of that claim. Further, if your hope (or meaning or purpose) is dependent on God's existence, but God does not exist, then your hope is false, your meaning fake, your purpose illusory. All of that might make you feel better, but it will not be real.

But what if, in addition to the arguments being fallacious, the premises are wrong? What if there can be hope, meaning, purpose and morality without God? If you believe in God because it gives you hope, you would be trading real hope for false hope. If you derive your morality from a non-existent God, but grounds for morality do exist apart from God, you may end up acting immorally. Your ill-founded purpose may be misleading. I think all of these are the case and these all contribute to the harm caused by Christianity.

The particular fallacious arguments that I described are fairly common, and their repetition is harmful because they raise an emotional barrier to proper belief, that is, belief based on true premises and valid arguments. In these cases, the premises are false and the arguments unsound. They do have emotional impact. People appear to fear the consequences they imagine or have been told would follow from God's non-existence. If so, disbelief might and probably will require some courage. But that fear cannot be allowed to prevent us from finding the truth, whatever it might be.