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?
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. (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?pid=359)
Gallup Polls have consistently found similar results. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/109108/Belief-God-Far-Lower-Western-US.aspx)
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 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: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/texts/transcripts.html
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.
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!)
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Here's the text of a presentation I just did for a student group at UC Davis. The Powerpoint slides are linked here.