Monday, March 2, 2009

Disbelieving the Believers

By and large, belief in God is a socially transmitted phenomena. People today believe because their parents, family, and friends believe. A believer’s source of information about God is acquired through other people. In the larger picture, Christians, Muslims, and Jews who believe now had their doctrines communicated to them from other believers. A belief of a Christian today is built upon the belief of Christians 2,000 years ago who first began to propagate the stories of Jesus. Some of these stories were later codified in a collection that was deemed to be canonical in the Bible, with the stories that weren’t approved being rejected and even destroyed. Nevertheless, believers today take the beliefs of some of the original followers as evidence.

The reasonableness of a person’s belief today, therefore, will be dependent upon the reasonableness of the earlier followers’ beliefs, at least to the extent to which the modern believer bases their belief on the early believers. Modern Christians base their belief heavily on the authenticity and reliability of the early followers’ beliefs. The Gospels, as well as the rest of the Bible, are the primary source of information that the modern Christian has concerning the reality of Jesus, the resurrection, God, and so on. If Jones’ belief depends upon Smith’s, then there are number of important questions that Jones’ must address if she hopes to be reasonable and justified. “I believe it because Smith said that it is true, and Smith is a reliable source of information,” would be a perfectly common and reasonable inference. That is, Jones shouldn’t accept the claim unless she is satisfied that Smith’s belief is reasonable, and that Smith’s standards of justification meet certain minimal standards.

That means the real question about the origin of the modern Christians’ belief is about the reliability of the first Christians’ beliefs.

Consider important epistemic differences between us and them, and their impact on the question of their reliability.

How disposed is a person, in general, to accept or reject claims about supernatural entities, forces, or events? Let’s call this their Supernatural Belief Threshold (SBT). If they have a low SBT, then they are more readily disposed to believe that supernatural claims are true. If their SBT is high, then they do not have a high receptivity to supernatural claims. Of course, many people will accept one supernatural claim but not another. And many supernatural claims are exclusive because accepting one requires or is associated with rejecting some others. Nevertheless, we can roughly separate people into those who would be more or less willing to accept the general notion that there are forces, events, or agents that exist and that occur that are beyond the mere physical world. A person who accepts that Jesus is the son of God, that God exists, and that the influence of the Holy Spirit is present in the lives of many people finds more supernatural propositions to be plausible than someone is an atheist or who denies those claims and claims like them. Even today, there are many people who have a low SBT and as a result accept claims that most of us would reject. Devout believers routinely go to faith healing revival meetings and witness what appear to be miraculous healings. They leave convinced that a real supernatural event has occurred. But a few questions and some simple investigation reveals that the cases are most likely the result of enthusiasm, mistakes, or, lamentably, outright fraud. Faith healers often provide complimentary wheelchairs to people coming to the meeting who are able to walk, and then in front of thousands they magically command that the person’s ability to walk be restored. When that person gets up and walks away from the wheelchair, thousands of people who don’t know about the deceit are suitably impressed.

What effect would it have for a person to have a low SBT? Their error rate with regard to supernatural claims would be higher than it would be otherwise. They would conclude that miracles were more common than they really are, for example. Suppose there were some supernatural propositions that were true and that were well supported by the available evidence. A person with a low SBT would be quite likely, we will assume, to accept and believe those claims. And if they did and then communicated those claims to you, they would be communicating something true to you. But if there were supernatural ideas circulating about that were false or unfounded, this same person would be more likely to believe them too, so he would be more likely to communicate those mistaken ideas to you too. A person with a high SBT would be the opposite sort of source. Presumably, she would find fewer false or unfounded supernatural claims to be reasonable. And if there were true and reasonable ones available, she would be less likely to believe those and to become a reliable source to you about them. She will mislead you in some cases, but in the direction of having fewer supernatural beliefs than are well-supported. The person with a low SBT would mislead you also, but in the direction of accepting more of those claims than are true and well-supported. The former is too reluctant about such claims, the latter is too promiscuous.

We can also think about the level of ignorance (I) that a person have regarding the issues surrounding x. If someone is largely ignorant of the important background information concerning profession football, for instance, like I am, then that ignorance should be factored into whether or not you should accept the claims that I make about it. If my ignorance about some topic is high, then my authority and my believability or my reliability about it is low. So my ignorance about it should diminish the confidence you have about one of those claims being true, all other things being equal.

We have independent evidence that there is a close connection between belief in God and education level. Numerous studies have demonstrated that as education level increases, belief in God drops off. ( This study also shows that as a person’s education level increases, their belief in survival of the soul, miracles, heaven, the resurrection, the virgin birth, hell, the devil, ghosts, astrology, and reincarnation drop off dramatically. Gallup Polls have consistently found similar results:

We can see an important parallel here. These studies show that currently across different levels of education, religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism are positively correlated with ignorance. When people have more education, they are less likely to believe. Now consider the difference between your education level, and the general level of knowledge that the average American with a K-12 education has and the level of ignorance of a simple fisherman or a beggar living in the first century in Palestine. Almost all of the information that you take for granted, the technology, and the methods for acquiring information were unavailable to them. A tiny fraction of the population would have been literate. Their mathematical abilities would have been worse than today’s average 3rd grader. They did not know that the Earth moves, or what the Sun was. They did not know that the Earth was a sphere. They did not know what caused disease, or pregnancy, or death. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the difference between the things that you know as a matter of obvious common sense and what they knew about the world. If religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism rise as education goes down, then they must have been rampant among the people who had contact with Jesus (if he was real at all.)

Let’s consider one more epistemic variable that affects the reliability of a source. Abstractly, we could think of the general level of skepticism, doubtfulness, or disposition towards critical scrutiny that a person has. If a person habitually reflects on the evidence carefully, makes a conscious and careful effort to gather the broadest body of relevant evidence, and actively seeks out disconfirming grounds for a claim, that, all other things being equal, is favorable with regard to their trustworthiness as a source of information. If a person whose skepticism (S) is high becomes satisfied that X is true, then you could be more confident that it is true, all other things being equal, than you would be if your source for the same claim was someone who is generally gullible, uncritical, and who does not reflect or seek out disconfirming evidence.

The people who are the sources of information about Jesus and his alleged resurrection--the authors of the Gospels, the people who told them the stories, the people who originally heard these stories and then propagated them--would have had a low supernatural belief threshold, at least concerning Jesus stories. They were also ignorant of the broad body of information that we have today concerning religious tendencies, religious group dynamics, psychology, alternative explanations for paranormal beliefs. They were also ignorant of the 2,000 years of examples of allegedly supernatural events that turned out to be easily explainable in natural terms. In that 2,000 years, we have learned a staggering amount about how human psychology works, errors in reasoning, problems in eye-witness reports, gullibility, mistakes, social-religious phenomena, and so on.

The people who were sources of information about Jesus and his alleged resurrection would have been much less skeptical overall than many people who are good sources of information now are. They would not have been trained or practiced or even familiar with the notions of disconfirming evidence, alternative explanations, bias, and justification. Many of these concepts as we are familiar with them in modern scientific contexts are only a few centuries or a few decades old. The multiplication rule in probability was not understood until the 1800s. The scientific principles of seeking out evidence that could disconfirm a hypothesis, or of double-blind, objective investigation protocols have only recently begun to be understood. People relaying stories about the resurrection of Jesus in 35 AD would not have known, or employed these methods.

Again the implication of lacking skepticism is that such a person would be an unreliable source of information. Failing to invoke doubt or to seek out alternative, natural explanations for allegedly supernatural events would result in their accepting and relaying more of those stories than are true or well-supported. These sources of information will be prone to mislead us towards gullibility. If we were to accept their claims, we might acquire some true, well-justified views, but we are also more likely to end up believing more that are not. Someone who is highly skeptical, however, will be a better source in that she will be less likely to accept claims that are false or unjustified, all other things being equal. The downside will be that she will also be less likely to communicate true claims to you.

So the people who would have relayed stories about Jesus’ resurrection in the early years would have been prone to accept supernatural beliefs, they would have been quite ignorant of many of the relevant facts, and they would have lacked the skepticism. These three traits would have contributed to high error rates in their communicating information about important religious matters like the resurrection of Jesus. In general, they would have been highly prone to accept such claims even when they were not true or supported by the evidence. How unreliable? Consider the problem this way: knowing what you know now, would have trusted them for medical advice? information about nature? guidance about how to grow plants? information about the weather? Are there any topics except the most obvious and rudimentary where you would accept them as authoritative sources?

The Romans who were contemporaries to Jesus would have had a wide range of religious and supernatural views. They believed in a wide range of omens, and spiritual phenomena. They accepted the existence of a number of gods. Why wouldn’t you accept their claims about those matters? Probably because their SBT was low, their ignorance was high, and their skepticism was low. You don’t deem them to be good sources of information about such matters. There are countless people today who are much better educated and who have a much better body of background information who make supernatural, miracle, and magical claims on a regular basis, yet you do not believe them. We are surrounded by smart and skeptical people making supernatural claims that we reject as suspicious, yet we accept the most outrageous claims from utterly unreliable people in the first century.

Here is the irony of the problem here. Suppose that Jesus really was a divine being and he really was resurrected from the dead. And suppose that the people who alleged to witness the events surrounding that resurrection did see them and it happened more or less as it has been relayed to us. Even if it all happened and they got it right, their overall unreliability about such matters is so high, you shouldn’t accept what they claim is true simply because it is coming from them. Since they are the only source of information that we have, and since they would have been such untrustworthy sources, we have no choice except to suspend judgment about what they say. Imagine that a NASA astronomer with a Ph.D. from MIT tells me that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. And suppose that an illiterate tribesman from an isolated village in the jungles of Borneo were to tell me the same thing. And suppose that I didn’t have any other information about the matter that would allow me to corroborate their claims independently. The astronomer would be a reliable source of information who would justify me, but the tribesmen would not, even though what he is saying is true. We must, especially in matters where testimony is the main or only source of information, consider the source before we accept what he or she says. A group of illiterate, uneducated Iron Age religious zealots who had become deeply engrossed and invested in a religious movement are not reliable sources of information about extraordinary, miraculous events that are alleged to have happened to their religious leader. They are the people who you should trust the least for information of this sort. As a result, it is unreasonable to believe that Jesus was resurrected on the basis of the information that you have. And if that’s unreasonable, then it’s a mistake to be a Christian, particularly when you are aware of the poor state of its epistemic foundations.

The common error when modern Christians think about the early Christians, I think, is to assume to a large extent that they were like us concerning relevant epistemic criteria. If you are going to believe because they believe, then you have to adopt this stance. You can’t take their word for it, and simultaneously acknowledge that they were irrational, unjustified, or uninformed about the matter. If I think of them as being more or less like me with regard to skepticism, rationality, and information, then it would make sense for me to believe what they believe. But this projecting ignores the facts: the early Christians were from a radically different, ancient culture that did not have any of the scientific, educational, or historical advantages that we take for granted. Their background, their propensity toward supernaturalism, and their ignorance would have made them radically different, and radically worse, epistemic agents than us. And those differences make them utterly unreliable as sources of information about Jesus.

In 1911, some Californians discovered a man name Ishi who was the last living member of an isolated tribe of Yana indians who lived in the hills near Lassen. Anthropologists were fascinated with the case because he was one of the closest examples ever found of contact between a group of people who were virtually living in the stone age with people living in the modern era. Ishi achieved some level of assimilation and enjoyed some celebrity until his death from tuberculosis in 1916. Ishi was an expert archer, and he was accomplished making stone arrowheads and shooting a simple bow. But Ishi also believed a mystical Land of the Dead where the souls of the Yana had a shadowy existence. Link You might plausibly accept Ishi as a reliable source of information about making and shooting a bow and arrow, but no reasonable person would accept his views about the Land of the Dead merely on the grounds that he said that it was real. To accept the early Christians claims about Jesus, God, and the afterlife would be a comparable mistake.


Russ said...

"Imagine that a NASA astronomer with a Ph.D. from MIT tells me that Mars is the third planet from the sun. And suppose that an illiterate tribesman from an isolated village in the jungles of Borneo were to tell me the same thing."

They would both be wrong!

Earth is the third rock from the Sun.

Matt McCormick said...

Good point, Russ. I guess that indirectly makes my point about choosing who you trust and their areas of expertise. I'll change that.


M. Tully said...


What a great a post. And what a great idea for a more in-depth exploration of the topic.

How about this one, "Why Jesus Won't Return: Time, Geography and Culture and the Epistemology of Supernatural Belief."

I have often asked the question of what evidence a Christian would accept today of the second coming and then asked why they don't apply the same rules of evidence to their current beliefs about two thousand years ago. I've never received an answer.

I think this post gets to the heart of it.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks dude. This one's going in the book, I think.


M. Tully said...

And you duded me again.

Make sure you post when the pre-orders are available.

Eric Sotnak said...

I have a Roman Catholic acquaintance who is a very determined global warming denier, but who believes in miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary. Apparently a low SBT but high NBT.

Steve Martin said...

I have a friend who believes that global warming is true even though the earth has cooled over the last ten years.

Teleprompter said...

Steve Martin:

How has the Earth cooled over the last ten years? Evidence?

Eric Sotnak said...

Steve Martin wrote:
"I have a friend who believes that global warming is true even though the earth has cooled over the last ten years."

Well, your friend could look at the following for a start:

But you know, it could turn out to be true that the earth has cooled over the last ten years. It could even turn out that global warming isn't really happening, or that it isn't as serious a threat as many have thought. But if this is established, how will it be established? Won't it be by the careful compilation and analysis of evidence?

Now consider the belief that the reports of Jesus' resurrection are trustworthy. What is the evidence offered in support of that claim? Notice that Matt points to evidence that seems to weaken the credibility of these reports. Well, that evidence could also turn out to be flawed, but if it is, it will be by other psychological and sociological studies. Or, I suppose, it could be outweighed by the Second Coming.

By the way, the acquaintance I mentioned denies global warming on the grounds that the scientists who say it is happening are "liberals". Not exctly an evidence-based position.

Russ said...


This is an extremely well put together piece. Thank you for the effort you put into your posts here.


Steve Martin said...
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Steve Martin said...
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Steve Martin said...
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Steve Martin said...

I am going to highlight your blog on my blog.

I will explain how you delete my comments that go against your 'faith' in Global Warming.

You don't want people to see the truth do you?

Why then do you not put up those articles (and I have dozens more from a wide variety of credible sources)?

The left really is afraid of the truth..isn't it.

Carbon Based said...

"I will explain how you delete my comments that go against your 'faith' in Global Warming.

You don't want people to see the truth do you?

Why then do you not put up those articles (and I have dozens more from a wide variety of credible sources)?"

There is no "faith" in Climate Change Science or in science in general. Science does operate on "faith" science relies and requires evidence. And there is a standard of evidence for science, (all branches). If you want to play with the big dogs you have to play by the same rules. Your "evidence" has been refuted and debunked by most of the worlds scientists that are involved in climate change science. But you may still have "faith" in that belief but your standards of evidence are far less than the norm.

Religion operates on faith, which is the belief WITHOUT evidence. Not so much for science. No matter how many times you say it.

Steve Martin said...

It never ceases to amaze me how the left censors what it does not like.

The totalitarian streak in the academic left (and the left in general) would boggle my mind if I were not getting so used to it.

The university is one of the most closed minded institutions that one could find.

So much for intellectual honesty.

Matt McCormick said...

Wow, do you think you're overreacting a little bit? "Totalitarian"? "the Left"? If you want to blog about global warming, or the lack thereof, go for it. Write volumes and volumes about it. It's just getting too far off topic here. Do you have anything interesting or thoughtful to say about the epistemic issues surrounding believing 1st century Christians and Jesus?

Reginald Selkirk said...

At Ebon Musings:

Dating the Good News
When were the gospels written?

Anonymous said...

"These studies show that currently across different levels of education, religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism are positively correlated with ignorance"

Can't atheism be considered superstitous? Or any other faulty reasoning for that matter?

M. Tully said...

"Can't atheism be considered superstitous?"

No more than an abigfootist could be considered superstitious.

Superstition: : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.

Since the the definition of the word superstition begins with "a belief" and atheism is defined as a "lack of belief," the two cannot be synonymous.

Even though some atheists may hold superstitious beliefs.

An person described as an atheist simply lacks a belief in gods. Atheism never defines anything a person may believe.

Anonymous said...


Atheist have a disbelief in God. Thus they can be in error of reasoning of their disbelief. They can also base such a disbelief on ignorance. For example, lets say I do not know that the twinkle of a star is due to cosmic gases and rather believe that it is magical. I could have a disbelief that cosmic gases cause stars to appear to twinkle based on ignorance of the gaseous state, which may be the case if I were a junglemen. Obviously this disbelief is also supported by the junglemen's superstituous beliefs (note a positve belief preceeded a negative).

Also, an atheist's disbelief can be a case of false cause.

Don't you need a reason for disbelief just as you do for belief?

Oddly, a negative belief seems to carry a belief in a sense since its false propositional value is not the center of attention due to its inherent absence. This may explain why we have so much trouble with the liar's paradox (Russels soluton works).

Superstition: : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation

M. Tully said...

Simple answers to simple questions.

"Don't you need a reason for disbelief just as you do for belief?"

NO! I don't believe anything unless there is sufficient reason to.

Anonymous said...

Um tully you believe "God does not exist" and you also disbelieve "God exist" so yes atheist do have a negtive belief in God. Maybe in a couple of years you have this down...

M. Tully said...


"Um tully you believe "God does not exist" and you also disbelieve "God exist"

Same with unicorns, your point?

Anonymous said...

Oh tully...

Wasnt my point obvious?

You claimed atheist had no belief attached to their position. Yet they do - they believe God does not exist. They also disbelieve God exists.

Atheist have a negative belief in God. I as a theist have a negative belief in Santa Claus.

Anonymous said...

Principle of sufficient reason?

"NO! I don't believe anything unless there is sufficient reason to"

Well do you believe in the reason for Principle of sufficient? and what about the reason for that reason? And on ad infinitum...

You must stop somewhere where you'll have no reason to believe in having a reason...

逆円助 said...


精神年齢 said...


メル友募集 said...

最近仕事ばかりで毎日退屈してます。そろそろ恋人欲しいです☆もう夏だし海とか行きたいな♪ 連絡待ってるよ☆

家出 said...


aniaeeram said...

Hello people! I'm a devoted Catholic from a third world country. It is obvious that atheists from first world countries think that most of the inhabitants here are primitive due to the fact that almost all of us are Christians. I am a nurse and I am also taking up BS Physics as a second course just so you know that I am an "educated person." Just to explain why my being an educated person doesn't affect my faith is because of my own experiences as an individual and not just because of the influence of my ancestors. One could easily become an Atheist when one faces difficult problems and would later on have disbelief in God because of unanswered prayers but for my case it is more stressful to think of it that way. I don't know if you've noticed how high stress levels are in First World countries. More suicides. It's like a psycho movie wherein morbid cases of problems usually arise. Here in our country, people just laugh problems off and of course PRAY. All the negative emotions go away. People in First world countries usually think that they are more educated... Atheists I suppose?

Anyway, I'm just saying my point of view. I am also a very logical thinker. I do not believe in everything right away unless it is proven. But when it comes to faith... . that we cannot control everything and because of that there must be a higher being that is in control, That is one thing that science cannot prove... Until Every Atheist in the world can prove the science of what science cannot prove, let me know, and I will surely review my views on my faith.

Let me leave you people with a link to a more scholarly view on Believing the existence of God by St. Thomas Aquinas:

Just contributing to the educational debate about this blog...

Peace out! No Hard Feelings! Smile <3