Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Case Against Christ

Here's the text of a presentation I just did for a student group at UC Davis. The Powerpoint slides are linked here.

• You shouldn’t be here.
• What I’m going to say is just going to ruin everything.
• You should be in church.
• Seriously, some of you really should go to church instead.
• Ok, I warned you.

What you believe:
 The chances are very good that you consider yourself to be a Christian.
 If you are a Christian, then you believe that Jesus was a real person.
 So you probably also believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
 That is, Jesus was a supernatural being of some sort and the most important event concerning him was his execution then his magical revival from the dead.
 But believing that Jesus was resurrected is irrational for you.

Believing in Jesus’ Resurrection is Irrational for You:
 The body of evidence is small, weak, and riddled with unanswered questions.
 There are other alleged supernatural events about which you have far more substantial evidence, yet you reject those beliefs on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence.
 So by rejecting those better supported claims and accepting the magical claims about Jesus, you are employing a grossly inconsistent epistemic standard.
 You engage in an ad hoc lowering of the bar about Jesus, yet in other comparable cases you sustain a higher level of proof that would lead you reject Jesus.
 My goal: to get you to acknowledge that your continued believing in the resurrection of Jesus is unreasonable and inconsistent with your epistemic policies.
 What’s the evidence we have concerning the resurrection?

The Gospels: some history
 Jesus is thought to have been executed about 35 A.D.
 The first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are our only source of information about the events.
 Mark was written around 65 A.D.
 Matthew was written between 70-100 A.D. and Luke was written around 70 A.D. The agreement is that they were based largely on Mark and another source, now lost, called the Q source.
 John was written around 90-100 A.D.
 None of these works were written by eyewitnesses, and none of them were written by the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
 The authors of the books heard the stories from others. We do not know how many people the stories passed through from the events to their being recorded. It could have been 2, 20, or 200.

Problem #1: The Paucity of Evidence
 So if we are being careful about what we know and what we don’t, this is what we have:
 3 hearsay sources (Mark, Q, and John) written 30-90 years after the fact with an unknown number of transmissions before.
 This picture is brief and rough; the discussion of the details is vast.

#2: The 3 Stories are Surprisingly Contradictory:
 Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary (James’ mother) and other women go to the tomb, find it open, talk to two men in shining garments, and then go tell what they saw to the other disciples.
 Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salome go to the tomb, find it open, and find one man sitting there in white inside. They talk to him, then they run away in fear and they do not say “any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”
 Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb. A great earthquake opens it by rolling the stone away. They go inside and find an angel of the Lord in white. Then they leave with fear and joy and run to bring the disciples word.
 John: Mary Magdalene (by herself) finds the tomb open. She goes and gets Simon Peter and the other disciple “that Jesus loved.” The two of them go to the tomb and find it empty. They leave, but Mary stays crying. Then two angels appear to her. Then Jesus himself appears to her. She talks to him and then goes to tell the rest of the disciples.

#3: Probability, Reliability and Transmission:
 Suppose the police must escort $10,000 in drug money across the country from New York to Los Angeles.
 The money will be in police custody for the whole trip, but it will change hands between three different cops for different legs of the journey.
 There is corruption in their police departments so that the general likelihood that a given cop is honest is .8.
 If a corrupt cop gets custody of the drug money, he or she will take some.
 If an honest cop gets custody, he or she will deliver it to the next leg of the trip without taking any of it.

Question: What are the odds of all the money arriving in Los Angeles?
 Answer: .51. (.8 x .8 x .8)
 If you add two more cops at the .8 honesty rate it goes down to .32 (And that’s despite the fact that majority of cops in each department are honest.)
 That is, even if the links in the transmission chain are individually probably reliable, the cumulative effect quickly undermines the result.
 The cops here represent the people who transmitted the Jesus story from the alleged eyewitnesses to the authors of the Gospels.

How Reliable are Eyewitnesses to Miracles?
 What about the original reports of Jesus’ resurrection? (Do we have $10,000?)
 Can we determine the reliability of eyewitness miracle testimony?
 We can.
 Lourdes, France: 80,000 pilgrims a year for over a century= more than 8 million people.
 Suppose, charitably, that half experienced something they took to be supernatural.
 66 miracles have been declared to be real by the official investigating body of the Catholic church.
 Miracle testimony reliability= 66/4,000,000 or .0000165
 (A probability needs to be greater than .5 to be reasonable.)

Odds on the Jesus Story?
 Now we can improve our account:
 .0000165 x .8 x .8 x .8= .000008
 That’s about 8 in 1 million.
 If we reduce the number of “real” miracles at Lourdes, as we should, to a still generous 5, and lower the reliability of the transmitters or add a few more links, then the result is
 .000000021 or about 1 in 5 million.
 The point: our confidence in the Jesus story is orders of magnitude smaller than it needs to be for us to take it seriously. Given what we know about the original reporting and the transmission of these stories it is exceedingly unlikely that they are true.

It Gets Worse
 Question: Would the early followers of Jesus have been more or less reliable about reporting miraculous events than the people at Lourdes?
 Answer: Much less reliable.

#4: You reject supernatural claims with more evidence:
 We have even more reasons to doubt the reliability of the original believers because of who they were and when they lived.
 Several important differences between them and us undermine their reliability even more:

Supernatural Belief Threshold
 How disposed is a person, in general, to accept or reject claims about supernatural entities, forces, or events?
 Low SBT = they are more readily disposed to believe that supernatural claims are true. Their error rate with regard to supernatural claims would be high: they would conclude that miracles were more common than they really are, for example.
 If there were supernatural ideas circulating about that were false or unfounded, this person would be more likely to believe them and repeat them.
 The person with a low SBT would mislead you in the direction of accepting more of those claims than are true and well-supported.

 If someone is largely ignorant of the important background information concerning a topic, then their lack of information reduces their reliability.
 So my ignorance about it should diminish the confidence you have about one of those claims being true, all other things being equal.
 That’s why you shouldn’t believe me when I insist that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl.
 And that’s why you shouldn’t get your political views from Lindsay Lohan.

Religiousness and supernaturalism are inversely related to education:
 We have good empirical evidence 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. (
 Religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism are positively correlated with ignorance. When people have more education, they are less likely to believe.

We can make the same sort of projection back across time:
 Consider the difference between your education level, or 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 what electricity, hydrogen are.
 They did not know what caused disease, or pregnancy, or death.
 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.)

Were they skeptical?
 How much skepticism, doubtfulness, or disposition towards critical scrutiny does a person have?
 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 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 Point
 The early believers would have had a low Supernatural Belief Threshold, a high level of Ignorance, and a low level of Skepticism.
 SBT: For Iron Age people 2,000 years ago, the world would have been full of mysterious forces, magical events, spiritual entities, stories about supernatural happenings. Hundreds of the events that you observe every day and know the causes of would have been complete mysteries to them. For all they knew, headaches were caused by magic. The possibility that someone could come back from the dead would have seemed like common sense to them. (Bereavement hallucinations)
 Ignorance: They were ignorant of the information that we have concerning religious tendencies, religious group dynamics, psychology, alternative explanations for paranormal beliefs.
 They were 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.
 Skepticism: They 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.
 They were deeply committed religious converts.

#5: You already reject supernatural claims with more evidence
 The early Christian stories are often defended as reliable on the grounds that:
 there were multiple eyewitness accounts,
 the story would have been too difficult to fake given the public nature of Jesus’ execution,
 the witnesses would not have had any ulterior motives about reporting something that would get them persecuted,
 the followers were so convinced that they gave up their jobs and their possessions,
 many of the events of the New Testament have been historically corroborated: the reign of Herod, the destruction of the temple, the growth of the early church.
 and so on

The Salem Witch Trials
 Between 1692 and 1693, dozens of people were accused, arrested, stood trial, and were tortured or hanged for “Sundry acts of Witchcraft,” possession by devils, and other supernatural ill deeds.
 Strange behavior in some little girls fed suspicions. They would dash about, freeze in grotesque postures, complain about biting and pinching sensations, and have violent seizures.
 Ultimately over 150 people were accused.
 William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts got involved. A court was established.
 Thorough investigations were conducted. Witnesses were carefully cross-examined.
 Evidence was gathered. Many people confessed.
 The entire proceedings were carefully documented with thousands of sworn affidavits, court documents, interviews, and related papers.
 In the end, 19 people, including Sarah Goode, and Rebekah Nurse had been sentenced and executed.
 Today, the Salem Witch Trials are a frightening example of how enthusiasm, hysteria, social pressure, anxiety, and religious fervor can be powerful enough to lead ordinary people to do such extraordinary and mistaken things. “Witch hunt” has come to be synonymous with an irrational and emotionally heated persecution.

What evidence do we have that the women in Salem were really witches?
 First, hundreds of people were involved in concluding that the accused were witches.
 They testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that the accused were witches.
 Furthermore, they came from diverse backgrounds and social strata.
 They included magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on.
 These people had a great deal to lose by being correct—men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives.
 The trials were thorough, careful, exhaustive investigations. They deliberately gathered evidence, and made a substantial attempt to objectively sort out truth from falsity. In the court trials, they attempted to carefully discern the facts.
 That there were witch trials in Salem and that many people were put to death has been thoroughly corroborated with a range of historical sources.

We have a great deal of historical evidence about Salem
 The trials were a mere 300 years ago, not 2,000.
 We have the actual documents; we do not have any of the original Gospels, only copies from centuries later.
 We have the actual, sworn testimony of people claiming to have seen the magic performed; the Gospel stories are retellings of stories that were passed by word of mouth through an unknown number of people.
 For the Salem witch trials, we have enough evidence to fill a truck. Some of the original documents:

Evidence for Magic in Salem >> than Evidence for Magic in Jerusalem
 By any reasonable measure of quantity and quality, the evidence we have for concluding that there were real witches in Salem is vastly better than the evidence we have for concluding that Jesus was magical.
 Yet it is simply not reasonable to believe that the women in Salem really were witches or really performed magic.
 It is obvious to any reasonable person that even though they were tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft, they were not witches and they did not perform any magical acts. You don’t think they were witches.
 Nor do I need to defend any particular alternative explanation, such as the rotten rye grain/hallucination theory, in order to reasonably conclude that they weren’t witches. I can be sure that they weren’t witches even if I don’t know all of what really happened.
 The Salem Witch Trials show that it is possible to meet an even heavier burden of proof than what we have for the resurrection of Jesus, and it remains unreasonable to believe that anything magical happened.
 No clear headed person should accept the claim that the historical evidence makes it reasonable to believe that Jesus came back from the dead.

Conclusion: Believing in Jesus’ Resurrection is Irrational for You
 The evidence you have smaller, weaker, and too riddled with unanswered questions.
 We have good reasons to think that the people who originally told the stories were not reliable. 1/ 5 million.
 If you think it is reasonable to believe that Jesus came back from the dead, you’re employing a grossly inconsistent double standard: There are many other alleged supernatural events that you have better evidence for, yet you adopt a high level of skepticism and proof and reject them. (Salem Witch Trials)
 It is unreasonable to engage in an ad hoc lowering of the bar about Jesus, and accept a tiny, tenuous group of hearsay stories from a group of Iron Age religious converts about outrageous magical events.

The Problems:
 Problem 1: Only three hearsay sources.
 Problem 2: The stories about the resurrection are contradictory.
 Problem 3: The probability of a claim equals the factorial of the reliability of all points of its transmission
 Problem 4: The early believers would have been highly receptive to supernatural claims, their ignorance of relevant alternative explanations would have been high, and they would have had a low level of skepticism.
 Religiousness and supernaturalism are inversely related to education.
 We can make the same sort of projection back across time.
 Problem 5: Your evidence for magic in Salem (and other supernatural events) is better than your evidence for magic in Jerusalem. (Reject them both!)
 Amen.


ungullible said...

Hi Matt! This is a nice summary of several good points against Christianity. However, I think it is missing one key subject that Christians almost always respond with when their logical arguments fail them.... faith. A slide or three on why the extreme form of faith employed by religion (maintenance of faith in the face of contradictory or completely lacking evidence) is wrong, unhealthy, etc would have made the presentation more complete.

However, I doubt it would have mattered. The more extreme the lack of justification for their faith, the more they seem to hold it with pride. It's like one of those sci-fi movies where the monster feeds on negative energy. The more you shoot it, the stronger it gets.

Baconsbud said...

I would like to see some of the comments that christians employ to argue against you on this summary.

Reginald Selkirk said...

How did it go over?

nomad said...

Sometimes I think that being irrational is precisely the objective of the believer; to take that day of rest from rationality; to escape into that blissful cloak of religiosity.

nomad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I have one quibble. You ask "So for the visitors at Lourdes, what is their reliability for reporting miraculous events?", and then calculate on the basis of 4 million reports. But clearly there are not 4 million reports in existence. Your 4 million is a guess at how many believed they had seen a miracle, which is different. It's also possible that the Church's criteria for a miracle are too strict - they don't want to be laughed at, after all.

Matt McCormick said...

The talk went well, RS. Thanks for asking. I didn't hear any comments that I thought were serious challenges to the basic points here.

They did bring up faith, predictably. As they always do.

But here's a mistake that non-believers often make that I'm not going to. When someone invokes faith as a justification for their belief, they are, I take it, stating that they are going to believe despite the fact that the evidence overall weighs against believing, or that the evidential situation is ambiguous, as they see it, about believing. We have heard this so many times and so many people say it that I think non-believers feel like there's really a point here that needs to be addressed. But if someone invokes faith as their answer, I see that as an open admission of their being patently irrational. They''ve just conceded that yes the argument you're giving is devastating to the reasonableness of belief, but I don't care, I'm going to believe anyway. I don't know what answer I could give to that, other than to point out that they've just disengaged from rational, intellectually honest discussion about something of vast importance. I've commented here in a number of places about the dangers of thumbing your nose at what's true and reasonable like this. But people persist, and we seem to be so used to hearing it that we think they've got a point.

Consider what the faith response amounts to in this context. I have argued with sound empirical research and substantial evidence that we should assign an astronomically low probability to the truth of the reports about Jesus resurrection. The resurrection is the single most important, foundational claim for the whole edifice of Christianity. So if this argument is right (it is), then the entire Christian religion is based on a mistake. In response, they say, "Well, I'm going to believe anyway because I don't care about the facts or being reasonable."

Those of us who don't believe should be completely intolerant of this sort of response. Everyone has a moral, social, and epistemological responsibility to hold up their side of the social contract here. If I have to live with you, vote with you, be subject to your laws, put my kids in your classrooms, or generally share citizenship with you, you don't get to just check out on something so important, believe what you want, and ignore science, the facts, and the evidence. "I have faith" = "I am irrational and dangerous."


Anonymous said...

As long as you insist upon rationality in the believer you will continue to beat your head against that wall. Irrationality is precisely the point, as I alluded to before; and precisely because they believe its okay to be irrational in this one isolated area. It is what I take it to mean when said that the non-fundamentalist believer has compartmentalized his mind. He can be the most rational person in the world in every other aspect of life -he can be the head of the Human Genome project- and yet still feel the need to be irrational in this one, unique, compartmentalized area of his mind. Why such people feel no cognitive dissonance, I have no idea.

Anonymous said...

previous comment by nomad. somehow cannot enter as.

Teleprompter said...

Good summary.

This information could be useful at some point. I'm going to remember this post.

Chuck said...

Too bad they don't teach critical thinking in high school.

Ketan said...


You wrote:

"Those of us who don't believe should be completely intolerant to this sort of response" (with regard to believer invoking faith as basis for belief).

I'm asking this doubt absolutely in the earnest, what can the nonbelievers really do? In what form do you propose to allow "intolerance" to become manifest?

One can maybe consider faith as inadmissible basis for belief in academic debates, but what about day-to-day life? As ungullible pointed out, and so did I in my comment on one of your posts, the more you prove theists to be wrong, firmer their belief seems to become.

On the whole, nice summary! Can be used as a "template" to prove all the religious scriptures wrong ;) Congratulations!

Take care.

Anonymous said...

Officially atheistic governments murdered over 100 Million people in the 20th century alone.

The key leaders of all these governments were atheists...Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and thousands of their assistants.

What are the odds that an atheistic leader in the 21st century will murder millions of people.

At least Three Million to one in favor of that proposition.

Math Whiz

Anonymous said...

Loved the presentation at UCD!
Thank you!

Carbon Based said...

"Officially atheistic governments murdered over 100 Million people in the 20th century alone."

No totalitarian governments killed those people for political ends. Because they were TOTALITARIAN.

Atheism is not a political philosophy dontcha know.

The communist government power structure was overlaid on top of a totalitarian christian culture, they were more like a religion than not. With a rigid hierarchy and a cult of personality much like the orthodox christian religion it replaced.

I can't believe you actually brought that tired old canard up in this discussion, sheesh stay on topic will ya.

Baconsbud said...

Anon. where did you get that number. Christian lead governments still have those bet. I wouldn't be surprised if you could say 1,000,000,000 have died due to christian government actions and still be short. Of course it is all how you define what a christiain government is, just as you are defining those governments. I could use some numbers from different groups and say that the christian government of the USA killed over a million Iraq people. Am I right in this?

Chuck said...

I wish people would stop bringing up these tired arguments. It doesn't matter how many Stalin killed. How people behave when they hold a certain claim, has no relevance on the truth of the claim.

Chuck said...

That goes for the Spanish Inquisition too.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Officially atheistic governments murdered over 100 Million people in the 20th century alone.The human population of Earth has grown greatly since science and medicine have been increasing the human lifespan. Therefore I suggest that it might be useful to look at the percentage of the population killed rather than raw numbers. Using this measure, Cain was a great criminal for having killed 1/4 of humanity. But that pales in comparison to Yahweh, who killed the entire human population of the planet except for eight or so people; Noah, his wife, their kids and the kids' spouses. So it really doesn't work in the Christian's favor to paint mass murder as a bad thing.

Beachbum said...

Hello Matt, Great presentation;

I would like to add to your commentary and train of thought; with the consideration of the witch hunts, timeline, comparable ignorance, etc. Can I "invert" your line of reasoning? That is, what if the commentators of antiquity had our current understanding with respect to the sciences, history, myths, etc. I would like to think there were some honest men among them. Which means that at least some of them would have had the scruples to conclude that the Jesus myth was just unsubstatiated rumor.
Which brings me to my point, our current exemplars of religiosity are, in the course of legitimate debate, basically stomping their feet and in the most adolesent vitriol proclaiming that they refuse to eat their peas - priceless! And I am (with this rhetorical device) graphically portraying how this "argument" should be received in any logical debate. Besides the best evidence I know for a lack of faith is the Pope Mobile and lightning rods on churches -- go figure.

Matt McCormick said...

Interesting ideas, BeachBum. I'm not sure exactly where you're going with it. There probably were some doubters in Jesus' time about the stories they were hearing. But since the fox has been watching the henhouse for all of these centuries, I seriously doubt that even if any of these doubters had tried to write down their concerns they would have made it through the centuries to us. The almost sole guardians of the texts upon which modern Christian belief is based are also the people who have the greatest vested interest in seeing modern Christian belief spread. So they would have never let us see any serious challenges to the orthodoxy. I'm surprised, actually, that we still have non-cannonical works like the Gospel of Peter and the Gnostic Gospels at all.

However, there are lots of people who practice religion, even the Christian religion, who would simply accept my argument and acknowledge the sketchiness of believing in a real, literal resurrection. They find my literalness and fundamentalism, as it were, odd and off the point. Being religious for them probably isn't about believing that the resurrection claims are true. It's something else. I can't see, however, why they would engage in all this play acting and going along if they don't really believe. I mean, what the hell are you doing singing, praying, going to church, doing rituals, teaching your kids Bible stories, and so on if you don't really believe all that stuff. So as I see it, you're crazy if you don't believe it but act like you do, and if you do believe it, then you're being starkly irrational.



The Invisible Pink Unicorn said...

Math Whiz = Piece of Meat
People with a Brain = Group of Hungry Alligators
The only bad thing about an e-feeding frenzy is
there are no pictures...

Anyway, I'm sorta new here and would like to take a moment
to say that the presentation was well put together, a real
home run! Subscribed.

精神年齢 said...


Chris said...

Hi Matt,

The points regarding Lourdes France are good and could be expanded to include the Black Stone of Mecca. The issue of faith can be shown to be fallacious when we learn that you are more likely to be trampled to death in the hordes that visit Mecca than you are to be helped or healed. In 2004, for example, 244 people were trampled to death on the Hajj for throwing stones at stone pillars resembling the Devil. Was the Devil stronger and therefore able to retaliate? Was he Devil mocking a weaker god? Or, is it more likely that large groups of people in a confined space creates an atmosphere of chaos?

Ah yes, the reply will be that it is “God’s will” and that we cannot understand his divine plan. I’ll leave that for another commenter.

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...


Anonymous said...

If your right and we return to nothing what difference does all this make? You win!

Matt McCormick said...

I'm not interested in winning or anything else. Just trying too figure out what's true and reasonable.

Baconsbud said...

"Anonymous said...
If your right and we return to nothing what difference does all this make? You win!"

Are you so small minded to think that without some creator that nothing matters. I find meaning and purpose without belief in some god because I know that there is always the chance my actions will make life better for someone else. Yeah someotimes mistakes are made and harm is done but many christians do the same things even with their beliefs. I don't see that believing in a god makes anyone better but in many cases it makes them worse.

Anonymous said...

Matt, thats exactly what your trying to do. Don't care, because my arguments wouldn't matter on this site. You win! Baconsbud, you should try to recognize sarcasim when you see it. God bless us all. Tiny Tim

Anonymous said...

Matt, after reading your very fine article proving that christians are nothing more than inferior dimwits. I have no choice other than to except that your superior unsinkable arguments are of course completly correct. You see going against what you have said here is like peeing up wind and expecting nothing back. So,
You win! One thing I'd like to see is if you would exspend as much energy talking about Islam and their Moon God Allah. Of course being dimwitted I would just have to hope. God bless us everyone. Tiny Tim

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for reading the posts, anonymous. Your tone suggests that you're angry, so I have a question: why is it that my skepticism about Jesus' resurrection has made you so upset? Wouldn't it be better if people could reflect on the issue without so much personal anxiety?

Take a look at these posts for details of the argument:

And on the topic of Islam: If you're suggesting that similar concerns undermine the historical reliability of Islam, you're absolutely right. Many of the same sorts of doubts apply. The history of the Koran is different, however, so the details differ. But in general, we should be highly skeptical about the truth of supernatural claims coming from ancient religions because of the level of education of the people making them, the unreliability of transmission across the centuries, and alterations of the texts by people with vested interests. That's one of the reasons why it's a mistake to be a Muslim too. For the moment, I'm just concentrating on Christianity in my book.


Anonymous said...

Matt, Im not angry. It's just that you have made your arguement that anyone who believes in what the bible proclaims can't be very educated. My purpose is to point out that when you start by downgrading some one. Anything said after that is of no value. From the side of the ones you say are unknowing. By the way I have a PhD in Biblical studies [new testimant]. No anger, it's just that if you truly want all sides you have to consider not telling people from the beginning that their beliefs are not important as far as your concerned. Thats why I keep telling you, that you win. I won't comment here anymore just wanted you to know what your projecting.

Matt McCormick said...

You're not reading very closely, anonymous. My claim is very specific: the first followers of Jesus were not educated, mostly illiterate, and they would have had an Iron Age world view that was heavily populated with mysterious supernatural forces, spiritual events, and magical happenings. This isn't a controversial claim, it's just history. And this "uneducated" worldview would have significantly affected the sorts of things they would have believed about their religious figures. In considering what they said was true, we have to consider the source. You wouldn't have accepted medical advice from them for the same reason: they simply would have had no clue about the existence of heart disease or dietary factors that cause it. Likewise, they would have thought a lot more events in the world were magical, mysterious, or supernatural in origin than is accurate. If you've got a Ph.D. in Bible history, then you'll know that more than anyone.

What does that imply about the modern believer? There are lots of educated believers now, but my argument is that they should not believe on the basis of the early followers beliefs.

Do you have any constructive criticisms to make of the argument, or just irrelevant comments about me and my method? Give us some plausible reasons to think that when a superstitious, illiterate Iron Age peasant who is a religious zealot thinks he saw a magical event, WE should believe him?

Baconsbud said...

Sure I can always tell when something is sarcastic by the body language as you type. Oh that's right I can't see though the screen while you are typing. If you read enough of these blogs you see this type of comment not as sarcasm but as actually views people have. Most people meaning for something to be sarcastic either end the comment with lol or sarcasm.

Peter said...

An excellent, wonderful, succinct review. This is coming from someone who recently left the faith. Thank you for this well argued post!