Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Case Against Christ--draft of a book proposal

I'm working on a book manuscript. That's why the blog's been pretty quiet. Here's a draft of the proposal. Not the most entertaining thing I've written, but important. I'll take constructive suggestions. But please don't quote the Bible to me.

The Case Against Christ: Why Believing is No Longer Reasonable

Table of Contents
Introduction: Christianity and a Dissenting Voice
Chapter 1: The History of the Jesus Story
Chapter 2: Salem Witch Trials
Chapter 3: Transmission and Reliability
Chapter 4: Abducted by Aliens
Chapter 5: Irrationality
Chapter 6: The Problem of other Religions
Chapter 7: Would God do Miracles?
Chapter 8: The “F” Word
Chapter 9: Conclusion

Projected book length is about 70,000 words. I have drafts of the Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7.

Scope of the Book

The goal of the book is to present a number of arguments and considerations that raise substantial challenges to being Christian. More specifically, it focuses on questions about the reasonableness of believing that Jesus was a divine being that was resurrected from the dead 2,000 years ago. My central argument is that believing that Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the basis of the evidence available to us—primarily a small group of testimonial stories recorded in the Gospels—is inconsistent with our other conventions concerning belief and evidence. I will present a number of other ordinary cases where we have a body of comparable evidence, yet we would reject the analogous conclusion. In fact, there are numerous cases where we have better evidence—both in terms of quantity and quality—but we would not accept a similar supernatural conclusion. Several other considerations fortify this argument: problems with the transmission and reliability of the Jesus story made clear by probability theory, modern developments in epistemology, and recent empirical research psychology also demonstrate that we have insufficient evidence to make believing the Jesus story reasonable. Additional discussions of other religions, miracles, and faith will complete the book.

Full Description

Introduction: The book begins with a two discussions to set the stage. First, I give a summary of the state of Christianity today—how many people are Christians? What types of Christianity are prevalent? And what do they believe?
Not only is Christianity, particularly in the United States, a dominant cultural, political, moral, and spiritual institution, but a set of cultural conventions have developed that suppress open, objective critical thinking about it. We are averse to directing critical evaluation at religious beliefs or the grounds on which people build them. Concerns about toleration, respect, and freedom of religion have led us to the point where even asking questions or raising doubts about the wisdom of being a religious adherent are met with protest. Our sensitivities have arisen in part from a confusion of religious affiliation with ethnic identity; raising doubts or criticizing someone’s religious beliefs feels offensive the way ethnic criticisms do, and they are wrong for similar reasons. As a result, doubters are considered angry, intolerant, spiteful, or strident. For example, the majority of the negative responses to the works of the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens—have attacked them on just these grounds. In an atmosphere where critical inquiries about Christianity are stifled, poor thinking has run amok. Unfettered religious belief thrives in this indulgent environment.

The context has made it difficult to ask and answer a vital question: do the people who are the typical believers in the United States, 21st century adults with a modern education, and with the benefits of all the knowledge at our disposal, have adequate grounds to justify our believing that Jesus, the cornerstone of the Christian religious tradition, was a divine being who performed supernatural acts? In preparation for the arguments I will give, I plead for openness about the possibility that Christianity is built on a mistake. I make some suggestions about the relationship of openness to idealized rational belief formation, and I begin to outline some principles of critical thinking. My goals are to dissuade people from accepting the Jesus story on the basis of the information that we have, instill a desire to be a better critical thinker, and outline some principles and procedures for being more rational, particularly about religion and Christianity.

Chapter 1: The History of the Jesus Story
In order to address the question of reasonable belief in Jesus, Chapter 1 will give a general summary from the mainstream scholarly consensus of the history and character of the documents that relay the Jesus saga to us. The Gospels were written 30-90 years after the alleged events of Jesus’ death. The writers based their accounts on reports from unknown verbal sources with an unknown number of links to the alleged eyewitnesses. In the next 200 years or so, these accounts were copied while other Christian writings proliferated. Eventually the book that we know as the Bible was sifted from these writings and many of the other sources were lost, destroyed, or deemed heretical. I draw on prominent scholarly works to give an accurate picture of the relevant events in the history of the information that will be used in later chapters. I also make a novel application of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy to a common view about the nature of the modern Bible.

Chapter 2: Salem Witch Trials
The general question facing us is under what conditions do we have a body of historical evidence that might lead us to conclude that some supernatural, miraculous, magical, or otherwise extraordinary event has occurred. Many Christians believe that the evidence we have concerning Jesus is sufficient to cross this threshold. The problem is that there are numerous examples in our lives where a comparable level of proof has been met (or exceeded!) but we reject the analogous conclusion. The accumulated body of evidence concerning the occurrence of witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in the 1600s is far better in quality and quantity than the evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus. At Salem, they performed careful investigations, held trials, acquired sworn affidavits and testimonies from the alleged witnesses themselves, and so on. Yet a reasonable person does not think that Sarah Goode, Rebecca Nurse, and the other accused were actually witches. The belief that something else that can be naturally explained was going on at Salem is inconsistent with the belief that Jesus was divine and came back from the dead. I consider the implications of the Salem case for our views about what sorts of conclusions are reasonable and under what circumstances. In order to be reasonable and consistent, the Salem Witch argument forces us to either accept that the Jesus evidence is inadequate, or conclude that there were real witches at Salem. The latter is not reasonable, so we cannot justify believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

Chapter 3: It has been argued many times before that the decades between the alleged events of Jesus’ death and their recording in the Gospels raise doubts about the veracity of the account. I bring several new considerations to this discussion. In order to get an intuitive sense on the scale of the doubts, I use miracle testimonies from a famous source: Lourdes, France. I roughly estimate of the general reliability of human miracle testimony at .000016. Lourdes has had millions of alleged miraculous events, but only a handful have been acknowledged as real by the Catholic church. Other considerations like a propensity to accept supernatural claims, ignorance, a lack of skepticism and scientific skills further undermine the reliability of those who claimed to have seen Jesus come back from the dead. Additional evidence from recent research in psychology on memory, bereavement hallucinations, social dynamics, and other relevant features of the human cognitive system erode any confidence we might have had in the alleged eyewitnesses.

A simple probability argument also undermines our confidence in the transmission process that would have communicated the alleged eyewitness reports to us by way of the Gospels. The fidelity of a system of information transmission can be calculated by multiplying the reliability of each link in the system. If a chain of transmission conveys information through only three links (people hearing and repeating the story) where the reliability of each link is .8, the odds that the information will be accurately transmitted through the system goes down to .51. Add in the other considerations from above and the balance tips substantially against believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

Chapter 4: Abducted by Aliens
We can bring out the inconsistency of believing that Jesus was a divine being who came back from the dead another way. I give a hypothetical example where someone, call him Matthew, tries to convince you than an alien abduction story is true. He wasn’t abducted, nor was it someone who he knows. He heard the story from some other passionate believers that someone named Smith was abducted. They didn’t witness the event either. The abduction allegedly happened centuries ago, and the people who claim to have seen it retold the story to others, and an unknown number of people then repeated the story until it came to Matthew. But he’s sure on the basis features of the story itself that the people who communicated the story were honest, good intentioned, and deeply committed to the cause. He heard it from them and now he’s trying to convince you that you should believe on the basis of this body of information.
The alien abduction example illustrates a powerful lesson about the weakness of the Jesus story. If the resurrection advocate rejects the analogy, we can alter the fictional example as much as necessary in order for Matthew’s story to cross the believability threshold. Re-engineering the alien abduction story until it is believable will reveal how far short the information we have about Jesus falls. Our acceptance of the Jesus case is ad hoc and inconsistent.

Chapter 5: Irrationality
The arguments in the book thus far have made a number of presumptions about principles of evidence, reasonableness, and the conditions for rational belief. With those arguments in mind, this chapter makes some of the theoretical issues surrounding irrational belief clear. The focus, as has been suggested so far, is on consistency. One of the hallmarks (the chapter will discuss several others) of a rational belief system is one that treats the circumstances that lead to belief with a consistent set of evidential and inferential standards. The best kind of thinking, says Jonathan Baron, “is whatever kind of thinking best helps people achieve their goals.” Ad hoc, inconsistent, or arbitrary epistemic practices undermines the achievement of one’s goals. The latitude that we have granted the case of Jesus in our adherence to it amounts to a corruption of good practices in a healthy, rational cognitive life. This chapter will also outline a paradigm procedure for rational belief formation, and with the arguments and examples of the previous chapters in mind we will have a more sophisticated grasp of the problems with believing in Jesus.

Chapter 6: The Problem of Other Religions

With H.L. Mencken’s help, I offer a roster of 500 “dead” gods—forgotten, neglected, and rejected gods from human history. It’s been argued that Christians are atheists about all of these gods already, and that they just need to take one more step (see Dawkins and Harris.) What is the attitude that the Christian should take about Gefjun, Sobek, and Thor? And what are the implications for believing that the God of Christianity (not Islam or Judaism) is real? There is an argument against Christianity to be made here, but it has not been well articulated yet. I draw out several lessons from the dead gods:
After considering hundreds and hundreds of applications for patents on perpetual motion machines, patent offices in the U.S. and Britain finally put an end to a dead end pursuit. “We are not going to waste our time pursuing some far-fetched possibilities because we are justified in concluding that the whole enterprise is based on a mistake.”
This conclusion should not be dogmatic, but the utter failure of all of the perpetual motion machines that they had considered justifies them in adopting a very high standard of proof for any further attempts to get something from nothing. The 500 gods example should teach us a similar lesson about Christianity. Furthermore, if all of those gods are not real, then wouldn’t it be fair to apply the same reasoning to the gods that are familiar, like the God of Christianity? If there are enough similarities between the Christian God and the 500 gods, and between the role that the 500 gods played for their believers and the role that the Christian God played for its believers, then the same grounds for rejection should apply.

Chapter 7: Would God do Miracles?

God, through Jesus, and independently, is alleged to have performed countless miracles in order to achieve his ends in the world. And Christianity would be nothing without its miracles. But there are a number of problems and profoundly puzzling questions about the prospect of the almighty, all knowing creator of the universe employing miracles to achieve his ends. I argue that if we understand what it would mean for a being to have all power, all knowledge, and all goodness, it is clear that such a being would not perform miracles. They would be an ineffectual, backwards, and irrational means for God to achieve his ends. Christianity is built upon their occurrence, but their occurrence can’t be reconciled with a coherent account of God.

Chapter 8: The ”F” Word

One objection that will be on the minds of many of the readers of the previous chapters will be the question of faith. “Perhaps the evidence is insufficient to make it reasonable to believe in Jesus, but belief was always a matter of faith for us. It was never about the evidence or believing only that which is dictated by it. These arguments do nothing to undermine Christian faith.”

Believing by faith is believing despite the absence of evidence or despite contrary evidence that might otherwise lead you to reject a claim. I consider a number of other non-religious and religious examples to bring out the general features of faith.

As with many of these topics, the virtues and flaws of faith have been analyzed at great length. I will present two important problems with the faith answer to the preceding arguments against Christianity.

The Public Citizen Problem: The majority of the 300 million people in the United States are Christians. Many of them read the Bible, go to church, pray, and practice Christian rituals. As a result, Christian doctrines color their worldviews. Christian beliefs influence their votes for school board members, for presidential candidates, for which bond measures they will support. They form views and vote on same sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, healthcare, and social policies on the basis of Christian values. Those values inform who they go to war with, who they will kill, who they will punish, and who they will reward in wars and in courtrooms. Christian values, for good or ill, affect almost every aspect of the public lives that they lead in a community with the rest of us. Opting out of the ordinary requirements of good reasoning and sound decision making is simply not acceptable. People cannot invoke faith to protect or justify their beliefs and actions when those beliefs and actions have such a direct and significant impact on everyone else around them. Being a good citizen and meeting one’s minimal moral responsibilities to your neighbor means that the faith umbrella cannot be used to shield Christian belief from critical scrutiny.

The Floodgate Problem: If disregarding the implications of the available evidence is permissible in the case of being a Christian, then what standards can there be to discriminate between all of the other options that defy the evidence? If the evidence doesn’t matter, then on what grounds can we justify or prefer Christianity? The Christian prefers her doctrine to that of any of the 500 gods on the list from chapter 6. What will the criteria of preference be if the evidence for the reality of the god or events in question is disregarded? We need criteria to judge the merits of Christianity over atheism, Jainism over Islam, or Santa over no Santa. The issues are too important for the guiding principle to simply be “believe that doctrine that I am most familiar with, or grew up learning.” Rational grounds are the most reliable, proven, and safe method we have for discerning what’s true and false, right and wrong. What’s true matters.

Justifying a doctrine by faith also disqualifies it from making any claims about reality. The Christian cannot on the one had insist that believing by faith is epistemically acceptable while on the other hand laying claim to know truths about what humans are, where we came from, what our purpose is, or what we should do with our lives. If the worldview ultimately rests on faith, then those claims are groundless.

Cross checking, tribunal, separation, discrimination, sifting the acceptable from the unacceptable, the importance of constructing an accurate model of the world in our cognitive lives.


The public citizen problem: school boards, presidential votes, taxes, neighborhoods, social and moral decisions, etc.

Need for cross checking is unavoidable.
Failing to make reasonable discriminations between alternatives is dangerous.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

This chapter will summarize the arguments: We only have a tenuous thread of evidence connecting us to the alleged resurrection of Jesus. Examples like the Salem Witch Trials and Alien Abductions with analogous weaknesses (and strengths) to the Jesus story show that we are being inconsistent and irrational when we believe that Jesus came back from the dead. Purported miracles at Lourdes and a empirical research show that human miracle testimony is highly unreliable, even more than we may have thought. The believability of the Jesus story is further eroded by problems with transmission across fallible human agents to the writers of the Gospels. Inconsistency is a hallmark of irrationality. An idealized standard of rational belief formation requires actively seeking out and balanced consideration of possibly disconfirming evidence. 500 dead gods, and many more, from human history teaches us a lesson about human religiousness and raises the bar for Christianity. Performing miracles cannot be reconciled with the acts of an infinitely powerful, all knowing, all good being, such as God. The Christian does not want to justify their belief by faith because of the ancillary problems that faith creates.

Readership

The book is pitched at the same market of readers as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies, Francis Collins, Sam Harris, John Loftus, and Dan Barker.

Book sales of these volumes in recent years suggest that a well-written, thoughtful, and accessible book about the subject has a big market.

While there are some calculations of probability, the writing is not technical and the use of powerful analogies and examples is intended to make some complicated issues in epistemology, psychology, and probability accessible and entertaining. My intention is to push the discussion of Christian belief into the 21st century, and everyone who is a Christian or who is affected by Christian belief has a stake in the arguments of the book.

19 comments:

Trancerole said...

As a recently deconverted ex-Christian, I'm eager to hear what you have to say.

However, I would sound a note of caution where probability arguments are concerned. (I love probability as much as the next guy, having majored in math in college.) You said, "I roughly estimate of the general reliability of human miracle testimony at .000016." I haven't read you book, so maybe the are more facts behind that number than I now imagine, but it sounds dubious to me. You probably multiplied "reasonable" probabilities for various things together to arrive at 0.000016. That's sound -- as long as your "reasonable" numbers are not just "guesses on the conservative side." If you haven't done so already, I encourage you to establish your probability components with facts. For example, if you say that the probability of an eyewitness accurately reporting the substance of an unusual event it 0.95, establish that number with records from courtrooms or something. Remember, people have used probability arguments to prove that God exists, too. Be sure you don't fall into the same trap they did of chaining together a string of "reasonable" numbers.

I also have a caution for you about alien abductions. If you're going to say that we have this mass of evidence that lends credibility to these accounts, yet we know that alien abductions don't happen, you might not get very far with your audience. About half of the U.S. population believes that aliens are among us so if you say "we know" that abduction stories are bunk, your audience may respond, "We know no such thing."

And a final caution: Yes, there is a market for books such as yours, but you may need to self-publish. I say that because I recently read an exceptional deconversion book by Ken Daniels called Why I Believed. I thought it was at least as good as Dan Barker's or John Loftus', which I had also read, yet Daniels was unable to find a publisher and had to self-publish it, selling it at cost. You may have better connections than Ken Daniels, but I advise you to look on this project as a labor of love. ;)

Steve said...

Sounds like a real page turner!

When that Day comes for you (as it will for all of us) take it with you...I'm sure the Lord Jesus will get a kick out of it as well.

Reginald Selkirk said...

When that Day comes for you (as it will for all of us) take it with you...I'm sure the Lord Jesus will get a kick out of it as well.

So you think Mr. Omniscient isn't already familiar with the contents of this not-yet-written book?

Steve said...

R.S.,

Maybe you're right. Maybe He does already know.

But, He might want to share a good laugh with all present.

Maybe not.

Maybe He won't care about it one way or the other.

akakiwibear said...

Matt, I offer the following as constructive, please take it that way.

Your book seems to follow a well worn path and is pitched at the same market as other ‘new atheists’. In doing so it is based on the same false premise, namely that the bible is the inerrant, literal word of God. This establishes a straw man you can beat to death when ever you are short of a valid point.

This invalid assumption strongly underpins the writing and voiced opinions of the likes of Dawkins, Harris et al.

Chpt 1. Most serious scholars, sceptics and atheists included (Loftus as an example) acknowledge that the central figure of the gospels lived.

The debate is then about the accuracy of the accounts. Given the history of the bible it would be irrational to expect perfect accuracy. Yet from your outline it seems you wish to present these variances as “proof” that Jesus is a myth.

As a scholar you should be wary of being a Texas Sharpshooter yourself.
I trust that in the interests of intellectual honesty you will discuss the style and context of each of the gospel writers and honestly address that influence on the veracity of the gospels.

In the interests of intellectual honesty, you will of course draw out the common underlying content. Nor will you ignore the impact of persecution, the destruction Jerusalem etc on the availability of records.

Chpt 2. This seems to be an exercise in futility. In order to be reasonable and consistent, the Salem Witch argument forces us to either accept that the Jesus evidence is inadequate, or conclude that there were real witches at Salem … I fail to see a valid intellectual link.

Chpt 3. Back to the straw man of bible inerrancy. You will of course present a completely plausible account of exactly how a perfect account of the events would have been available to us if they had been true.

Chpt 4. Wow, and I thought Salem was a long bow to draw!

Chpt 5. Irrationality. Seems a reasonable topic, but I detect a level of irrational bias in The latitude that we have granted the case of Jesus in our adherence to it amounts to a corruption …. .

Chpt 6. if all of those gods are not real, then wouldn’t it be fair to apply the same reasoning to the gods that are familiar, like the God of Christianity?

Guess your starting point would have to be the first of the 10 commandments “You shall have no other Gods before me” in that it acknowledges other Gods. So I presume your point is to debate the ranking order of the various spiritual beings that the majority of Christian accept.

Chpt 7. This is actually a really good question I argue that if we understand what it would mean for a being to have all power, all knowledge, and all goodness, it is clear that such a being would not perform miracles. I too wrestle with this one, but to suggest that … it is clear that … is a bit of a stretch.

Since there is strong evidence that at least one miracle has occurred. The Catholic canonisation process is just one that (certainly more so now) rigorously investigates miracles. For your argument to be credible you would have to prove that the Catholic recognition of miracles has been wrong in each and every case – if only one miracle is substantiated then your entire atheist case is lost, not just this chapter.

Chpt 8. This is old hat! In the absence of proof absolute one way or the other we make an informed choice to believe there is, or is not a god. Aside from the agnostic we made a leap of faith.

I can present as good an argument as you that says atheism requires a bigger leap of faith than theism.

I certainly see little if any originality here – perhaps around misapplied information theory – no I won’t be buying the book.

Sala kahle - peace

Avi said...

This looks like a fun read, I'd be into having some atheist pamphlets to trade with the bible-pushers.
In case this is for a pitch of some sort, I found a typo in the description for chapter 8 -- "had" instead of "hand."

M. Tully said...

Matt,

I'm assuming your target audience is the on the on-the-fence Christian in which case I think the material you selected matches the target audience well (I'll grab a copy anyway even though it's been decades since I was even near the fence).

There is one thing that you don't mention in chapter 3 that I think would be helpful and that is the rate of the Catholic Church's acceptance of Lourdes miracles. I'll give the Church it's due for putting the cutoff at beyond the natural world, but with that came the consequences of humanity's increased understanding of the natural world. It's to the point now where even though they have in recent years lowered the acceptance bar, the miracles have still gone down.

I would have considered the rate data a powerful argument back in my fence sitting days.

Good Luck, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Tully

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the input, folks. Keep in mind of course that there's a paragraph or two here representing a whole chapter that will be 20-40 pages long. So objecting to what you perceive to be the argument on the basis of what you see here will probably be uninformed. There are lots and lots of earlier blog posts, especially from the "Problems for Christianity" posts down on the left where I give longer versions of some earlier accounts of these arguments. I'm not going to take up a defense of the arguments here beyond that--that's what the book is for.

And yes, I know that I am tilting at windmills. Going after the Big J can seem pointless because so many people have had their minds corrupted by it from such an early age. But we've got to try at least.

MM

Anonymous said...

Can you add a chapter de-bunking those "near-death experiences?"

My religious friends always use that as proof.

Here's a recent CNN argument against it:
http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/10/16/cheating.near.death/index.html

Matt McCormick said...

There's really nothing to debunk on that, Anonymous. There is no evidence that there is anything like life after death, and even if there were, it wouldn't give us evidence in favor of Jesus or Christian doctrine. But look at the numerous posts I've made on this. They are linked down on the left under Problems for Immortality.

MM

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt McCormick said...

Interest or constructive comments are fine, transparent book plugs and spam are not. Make an argument, anonymous.
MM

J said...

Looks promising, though many of the neo-atheists seem more interested in debunking Christianity than in debunking God, and both Old and New Testaments--and toss in Koran as well.

Moreover, some believers will grant that the bible may not be inerrant. Some might go so far to question the literal reading of the Resurrection. We could perhaps do worse than live with Jefferson's Abridged New Testament on our bookshelves, a wisdom book resting next to the sayings of Socrates, or the Buddha, or RW Emerson...

A sort of selective atheism can be seen on various sites, like Loftus's or Pz Myers. I don't usually disagree, even when they flush the eucharist, or burn an effigy of Jerry Falwell--but you won't likely see them flushing a Koran, or mocking jewish symbols.

So, like, maybe engage in some equal opportunity a-theism, and diss orthodox jews and muslims, along with the xtians.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the input J. There are nearly 200 essays on this blog with the vast majority of them dealing with arguments for a wide, positive atheism. The book is about Christianity. You don't really think that I could tackle both topics in a single book, do you? The next book will be on wide atheism.

I need to check that draft of the proposal because several people have mentioned this issue of the infallible, inerrant word of God in the Bible. That's not a presumption that I make in the book. I'm treating the manuscripts on the New Testament the same way that historians and Bible scholars do, as a collection of human produced documents that should be treated like other historical objects.

SamW said...

It would be cool if you could arrange a formal debate with Gary Habermas. He'd probably be the best person to challenge your case. I think Habermas is also reasonably open to doing debates on radio, etc. So perhaps you could manage to set up something.

Ian said...

Having nicely got into Bart Ehrman's excellent book, 'Misquoting Jesus', I look forward to the completion of your endeavours.


the more weapons in the armoury the better it will be.

magnumdb said...

Steve,

Maybe The Flying Spaghetti Monster will laugh at both you and Matt when you die.

Derek said...

This will be a very interesting read when completed. Unlike most writings by the New Atheists, I think your book effectively hits moderate Christians who are casual in their faith. By this, I mean those that hedge their bets by going to church on Christmas Eve and occasionally praying. The trick is getting those people to pick up the book in the first place. It appears that you made an effort to reach that audience rather than preach to the atheist choir like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett do (albeit in a very intriging manner). I'll definitely make a trip to Barnes & Noble when it comes out.

gatogreensleeves said...

Congratulations!