Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Historical Double Standards

Historical Christians, or believers who think that the quality and quantity of historical evidence we have justifies our concluding that the resurrection really happened, are inclined to take the Bible as a reliable source of information about events in history.  There are a number of problems with the position, and specific challenges that I have outlined to the case for the resurrection are insurmountable.  But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the criteria of historical reliability that the Christian would have us apply to the Jesus case.  Now consider the conundrum that accepting some, but not all Biblical claims about historical events.  We know, beyond any reasonable historical doubt, that many other historical claims made by the Bible, such as the age of the Earth, the order and occurrence of animal life, the history of the universe, the lineage of the human race, basic biological facts about pregnancy, menstration, medicine, and other historical facts are wrong.  Given that so many other historical claims coming from the same book, with presumably the same historical virtues and lineage, are wrong, what are we to make of someone’s claims that the resurrection of Jesus is justified on the basis of the historical merits of the Bible.  

If the historical Christian acknowledges, as they should, that at least some of the many historical claims of the Bible are mistaken, but they insist that the claims about the resurrection are reliable, what exactly are the criteria that separates the categories?  Recent archeological evidence has overturned a number of important stories from the old Testament.  Many believe that the Jewish exodus from Egypt never occurred.  The existence of Moses and Abraham have come under serious doubt.  Not a bit of archeological evidence has been found to corroborate the opulent, influential, and vast reign of Solomon.  Even the use of camels in the Old Testament is reported thousands of years before there were any camels in the region.  See Daniel Lazare’s False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History, from Harper’s Magazine for a survey. 

So the dilemma for the Christian who would defend the historical resurrection is, under what circumstances, generally, can we accept Bible history and when should we reject it? The universe has existed for 13.7 billion years, with the earth not forming until about 4 billion years ago.  Life was present and evolving on Earth for billions of years before humans came onto the scene only recently.  Dinosaurs existed tens of millions of years before humans did.  There is simply no way to reconcile those clear facts with the stories about the origins of the Earth, life, and the universe in Genesis.  Humanity did not start with Adam and Eve 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, there was no great flood,  and so on.  We must either conclude that those  historical claims from the Bible are false, or perhaps they best understood metaphorically, mythically, or allegorically.  If the historically minded Christian acknowledges that they are false, then we would like to know what set of criteria of historical reliability requires that we reject one set of claims from the Bible but accept the resurrection stories?  If the historically minded Christian suggests that the origin stories are metaphorical, mythological, or allegorical, then again we want to know what are the criteria that indicate that those stories should not be taken as true, but the resurrection did occur.  And these criteria must not include any ad hoc or special pleading provisions; they should motivated by sound historical and epistemological reasoning.  

The  problems get compounded when we take these trumped up historical criteria and apply them to other religions.  The question becomes, what is the result when we apply these same criteria of historical reliability to the important books of the other religious traditions?  Will those criteria make it clear that the miraculous claims about Muhammed’s encounters with Allah are not reliable?  Will the principles that the Christian says show that Jesus’ resurrection was real also show that all of the other supernatural claims from historical sources in the ancient world were not?  I think it is obvious that without some creative ad hoc rationalizing, they will not.  

The simple and obvious fact is that the Christian cannot have their cake and eat it too here.  They cannot reasonably argue that the Bible is a reliable historical document concerning the magical return from the dead of Jesus, and then with the next breathe dismiss the host of other outrageous and false claims claims made by the Bible and other ancient religious documents.  The same criteria that lead us to reject the supernatural claims about the origins of Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various other mistaken claims about the history of the Earth and humanity in the Bible should lead us to reject the resurrection of Jesus.  And if we acknowledge that the resurrection is not justified, then the entire edifice of Christian belief topples. 

56 comments:

Brenda said...

Well the gospels are eye witness accounts handed down by oral tradition and then written down about 50 years later. If you don't accept that then you must also reject virtually all ancient and medieval history. You cannot apply modern historical standards to ancient texts because these are different fields with different approaches to their study.

Jesus was most certainly an historical person. The evidence is as good or better for his life as it is for anyone else in the ancient world. The question of the resurrection is a matter of faith.

The Bible should not be read as literal history. Only atheists and fundamentalists do that.

Ajay said...

So many errors in there, Brenda, it's hard to know where to start.

"...the gospels are eyewitness accounts handed down by oral tradition."

-- The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, nor do we know from whom the oral traditions themselves came.

"If you don't accept that then you must also reject virtually all ancient and medieval history."

-- It's one thing to consider something a historical fact about that which we can't be certain, such as "Caesar crossed the Rubicon." You can deny that based on flimsy evidence. But there's nothing supernatural about this event. The Jesus story is not normal history; it requires a suspension of disbelief. It's more like denying the 'historical' claims of ancient Greek mythology than it is the rest of ancient history.

"The question of the resurrection is a matter of faith."

--The idea of resurrection is also a scientific question, since you're making a biological claim. Plus, I thought the argument was that the resurrection was the best historical explanation of the supposed 'fact' of this event?

howerymd said...
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howerymd said...

"Only atheists and fundamentalists do that."

Sounds eerily similar to the "One true Scotsman" fallacy. All believers do it to some extent. The question is how do people decide what is literal and what isn't? And there's no solidly-defined answer. There is no epistemological standard that people consistently apply to the bible.

For the most part, it seems that people will say they believe in everything until they are challenged. Something is only true to them until challenged, then it becomes metaphorical, allegorical, or even colloquial.

The concept of faith is a non-starter. He's not discussing faith, he's discussing the people who claim the bible is a source of historical evidence.

Matthew

Brenda said...

Ajay
"The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, nor do we know from whom the oral traditions themselves came."

The same could be said for virtually all of ancient history. Nevertheless we believe those accounts in the most part and believe that the main actors existed. I think it's reasonable to doubt the resurrection, I don't think it's reasonable to doubt the historicity of Jesus.

"The Jesus story is not normal history; it requires a suspension of disbelief. It's more like denying the 'historical' claims of ancient Greek mythology than it is the rest of ancient history."

No, that's a false equivalence. The life of Jesus, regardless of any religious claims made about him, took place in history. The lives of the Greek gods did not.

"I thought the argument was that the resurrection was the best historical explanation of the supposed 'fact' of this event?"

I'm an agnostic so all I have to do is to introduce doubt about your positive atheism. Contrary to what is claimed, you really can't prove a negative.

--

howerymd
"The question is how do people decide what is literal and what isn't? And there's no solidly-defined answer. There is no epistemological standard that people consistently apply to the bible."

Easy, no text should ever be taken literally. While I am now an agnostic, I was not raised to take the Bible as the literal word of God but rather as the inspired word of God.

Religious fundamentalists commit the heresy of idolatry by worshiping the text, the Bible, in place of God. Secular fundamentalists, the so-called "New Atheists", worship their text, their received truth of scientism, as though it were a secular god.

"He's not discussing faith, he's discussing the people who claim the bible is a source of historical evidence."

It's a source for the life of Jesus and Paul, among others.

mikespeir said...

I just got finished reading Robert Price's chapter "Jesus: Myth and Method" in The Christian Delusion, which deals in large part with this same subject. It's kinda like a bowling ball through a plate glass window. It ought to be required reading.

Ajay said...

Brenda - I am not disputing the existence of Christ as a historical person. Nor do I think Matt is doing that. We are disputing the resurrection as history. We seem to have gotten our wires crossed at some point.

Tristan D. Vick said...
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Tristan D. Vick said...

@Brenda-

You stated, "The life of Jesus, regardless of any religious claims made about him, took place in history. The lives of the Greek gods did not."

First of all, I should point out, the life of a real historical Jesus is not as firmly established as you seem to think it is.

We know nil to nothing of the real historical figure, should he have existed. We don't have anything he ever wrote, and nothing was written about him by contemporaries in the time he supposedly lived.

Any of Jesus' sayings may be entirely fabricated by early Christians pitted against each other in sectarian power struggles seeking to gain authority by having direct access to his teachings, and on this basis, can't be trusted as authentic. We know that enough of the earliest writings to be pseudepirapha, and this casts major doubt on anything else which may have been included within the canon--another dubious aspect of history not to go ignored.

I say Jesus supposedly lived, because although I agree there must have been a rabbi to the equivalent of the persona of a Yeshua from Nazareth, everything in the NT about Jesus can be traced to other OT themes as interpolation and redaction, or else, comes from external mythical borrowings such as the Odyssey, Iliad, and others.

So it's not a false equivalent, per se. The fact is, there's just no way to confirm the historicity of Jesus the Christ, and most of NT Biblical scholarship has focused exclusively on this key issue for the past 300 years.

It's precisely because most of the historical claims of the NT regarding Jesus cannot be confirmed, we can know, they are inadmissible as evidence for a real historical figure of any kind.

At best we can say Jesus *may have been a real historical person.

You have said we might be able to deny anyone else from antiquity, but this is not the whole truth. It may be hard to clarify certain historic claims about Caesar Augustus, or Alexander, Cleopatra, or anyone with a legendary status--but unlike Jesus there is enough external information, supplementary historical support, which lends valid empirical proof to the agreement that they were, in deed, real people of antiquity.

We cannot say (for certain) the same of Jesus, since any historical person is nearly impossible to discern behind the shroud of myth and hearsay.

Actually, all we have are anecdotal legends and works of fiction to work from to try and piece together whether or not any semblance of a actual person lies behind the veil of a web of myths, legends, and religious fables--all of which seemingly get intertwined, confounding matters indefinitely.

Tristan D. Vick said...

@Brenda-

You said, “Well the gospels are eye witness accounts handed down by oral tradition and then written down about 50 years later. If you don't accept that then you must also reject virtually all ancient and medieval history.”

The oral tradition you speak of is simply false. In fact, it’s because of virtually all the ancient and medieval history we have, and the light they shed on matters, that we can know this!

Most of the Gospels were written in Greek in Greece, hundreds of miles away from the Levant, and the area where the event purportedly occurred. Also, the authors of the Gospels would have had the difficulty of translation from either an early Hebrew or Aramaic oral tradition, which complicates matters further, since we would have to ask what the purpose of an early fisherman would have been to make his way all the way to Rome to tell a story which was, by this time, already fifty years old?

It is more reasonable to assume missionaries took the Jesus story with them and spread the message northward, but how much remains intact to the original goings on is unclear.

First we must consider that even if there were translators on hand, that there is still going to be information lost in translation.

Second of all, most if not all eyewitnesses would be long gone before sixty years came around. Unless they were children at the time, anyone of adult age would have died before the ripe age of fifty or sixty. Life expectancy was only around 30 years old in the 1st century. It’s highly unlikely any children would have realized the significance of the Resurrection event let alone be able to put all the pieces together in a coherent (mental) compendium for later translation.

Furthermore, we would still have to wonder how they retained all the information for so long only to make their trek to Rome to have it published. Sounds like a stretch of the imagination if you ask me. And if they were one of the original disciples, and survived to a ripe old age, then how did they manage to find translators to translate their Aramaic into Greek by a scribe who could actually write in Greek? As Richard Carrier has observed, a book in the 1st century would cost the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of dollars. I’m sure scribes were not cheap. How would a poor fisherman from Jerusalem afford to have a book made? The questions pile on and the answers become rather strained.

Even if they could afford to dictate a Gospel or two, dictating a whole string of oral stories to a native speaker, we must wonder who could be trusted to authentically translate every word. Moreover, we must ponder, whose oral stories are we taking at face value here? Some random disciple who may or may not have been an eyewitness (but probably wasn’t)? We don’t know who they may have been or if they even existed to begin with. And even if we give the oral transmission hypothesis the benefit of the doubt, there is just so much we can readily believe about these far-fetched claims of eyewitness testimony and what was and what wasn’t lost in translation before incredulity gets the better of us.

You may wish to read up on early Christianity and the complexity of the—already heavily established rival sects of early Jewish Christians, and later Orthodox Christians, and the power struggles which ensued. Bart D. Ehrman’s book ‘Lost Christianities’ is a good introductory read on these matters.

All of this casts doubt on the whole eyewitness testimony and oral tradition hypothesis. As far as I know, only Christians continue to claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitness. No Biblical historian or scholar would make such an ill-informed statement.

NAL said...

27:52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

27:53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Lots of dead people walking around Jerusalem.

If you don't accept that then you must also reject virtually all ancient and medieval history.

Matt McCormick said...

I'm not sure if NAL is joking here or what. But look people, isn't it obvious that we consider the reliability of ancient people to be different depending on what sort of claims they are making? If someone in the Middle Ages asserts that the source of the Bubonic Plague, we don't treat that claim as exactly on par with their claim about a battle, or who is the Pope, or some other event. When ancient, illiterate, Iron Age people make claims about supernatural, magical, spiritual events we don't treat those the same as when they make other claims where their reliability is much higher. There are a thousand other non-Bible, historical examples where this rule applies and those of you who are sympathetic with the Jesus story would readily agree. But you have a double standard about the Bible and accept the most outrageous magical claims as authentic because of your prior commitment to Christian ideology. If we consistently applied your rule, we'd also have too accept that the Sun really did orbit the Earth, that disease is caused by an imbalance in black bile, and that magical forces were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Come on, people.

Matt McCormick said...

That sentence should read:

If someone in the Middle Ages asserts that demon possession or astrology is the source of the Bubonic Plague, we don't treat that claim as exactly on par with their claim about a battle, or who is the Pope, or some other event.

Reginald Selkirk said...

"Well the gospels are eye witness accounts handed down by oral tradition..."

1) If it's handed down, it is no longer an eyewitness account. Oops.

2) On what grounds do you assert that the (canonical, I presume) gospels are eyewitness accounts? They don't even claim to be. What about facets of the accounts which are inconsistent with eyewitness viewing, such as reports of what Jesus said after all his disciples fell asleep?

3) How do you accept some gospel accounts (the 4 canonical gospels) and reject other similar and incompatible accounts, e.g. the gnostic gospels?

"If you don't accept that then you must also reject virtually all ancient and medieval history."

Nonsense. Many other alleged historical events were recorded during the time they happened, were recorded by multiple writers (the gospels are clearly not independent), or have unambiguous physical evidence. And all other ancient and medieval accounts which include supernatural accounts are rejected.

"Jesus was most certainly an historical person. The evidence is as good or better for his life as it is for anyone else in the ancient world."

That is clearly untrue. Consider Julius Caesar, for example; this is a common comparison. We have works written by Caesar himself. Jesus didn't write anything. We have reports of Caesar written during his lifetime by others. Jesus? No. We have physical artifacts of Caesar's reign, such as coins stamped with his likeness. Jesus? No.


"The Bible should not be read as literal history. Only atheists and fundamentalists do that."

Ah, a liberal Christian view. But suppose we write off the story of Adam and Eve and the apple as an allegory. Does that mean that the death and resurrection of Jesus can also be written off as an allegory? Or does it mean that Jesus died for an allegory?

Reginald Selkirk said...

I think it's reasonable to doubt the resurrection, I don't think it's reasonable to doubt the historicity of Jesus.

If the supernatural aspects of the gospel stories, which you previously tried to pass off as eyewitness accounts, are not true, then Jesus is an entirely unremarkable person. One might as well argue over whether there really was a lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. If Jesus wasn't magic, then it just doesn't matter whether he existed. After all, Jesus was a fairly common name in that time and place.

Matt McCormick said...

THAT is a really interesting way to put it, Reginald. Thanks.

akakiwibear said...

Surely this is a straw man.

Recognising the nature of the text – what it is and what it is not -forms a starting point as to what in it is accepted and what should be treated as, in your words, metaphorical, mythological, or allegorical.

You say We know, beyond any reasonable historical doubt, that many other historical claims made by the Bible, such as the age of the Earth, the order and occurrence of animal life, the history of the universe, the lineage of the human race, basic biological facts about pregnancy, menstration, medicine, and other historical facts are wrong. Given that so many other historical claims coming from the same book, with presumably the same historical virtues and lineage, are wrong, what are we to make of someone’s claims that the resurrection of Jesus is justified on the basis of the historical merits of the Bible.

The bible is not claimed to be an authoritative scientific, biological, palaeontolical, historic and medical text. So it does not create the conundrum you propose. To claim that the larger body of Christianity faces such a ‘conundrum’ is simply a straw man.

So how should we then treat the claims of the resurrection? The bible is the record of the gradual and increasing revelation of God, over time, to His people. It is not purported to be a word perfect record and is of course subject to the failings of human nature, language and translation. But there is no reason to suspect that these imperfections have resulted in getting the major events completely wrong. Contrast this with variances in reported numbers at the Obama inauguration, do these mean the event did not happen?

Furthermore one must look at the context of the claims about the resurrection. They were made at a time when there were enough witnesses about to refute them, yet those making them at the time were prepared to die for them - pretty dumb if they had just made the story up!

Sala kahle - peace

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your input, Akakiwibear. I think you're ignoring what's going on around you, if you are in the U.S. There are currently over 100 million people in this country who think that the Bible is the perfect, unerring word of God and that all of the claims made in it are literally true. I'm glad to hear that you don't. But you've got to acknowledge the serious and scary problem we have with all the people who do.
MM

Brenda said...

Matt:
"There are currently over 100 million people in this country who think that the Bible is the perfect, unerring word of God and that all of the claims made in it are literally true."

You mean this?
One-Third of Americans Believe the Bible is Literally True

"Only about one-third of Americans today believe the Bible is absolutely accurate and that it should be taken literally word for word."

Which is about 100 million. But you know, people fudge a lot. "Literally true" doesn't always mean literally true or it means different things to different people.

and those numbers are trending down.

I think that without question one cannot hold a modern scientific understanding of the world along side a literal naive understanding of the Bible. All religions try to tell a single coherent narrative that encompasses everything this is known in that culture. But that isn't really what religion is about.

Religion isn't about belief.

Religion is about man's place in the world. It asks why questions not what questions. As far as I know Matt, you have not solved the Fact vs Value dichotomy and frankly I don't think it can be solved.

The reason that many atheists are perceived as arrogant is because they want to pretend that there is no such divide or that they believe they have solved it.

Sam Harris is delusional if he thinks he can derive Is from Ought and do please spare me any moral posturing from the likes of neocon fascists like Christopher Hitchens.

There is a good deal more to life than negative proofs and atheism by definition has literally nothing to offer.

Matthew said...

"As far as I know Matt, you have not solved the Fact vs Value dichotomy and frankly I don't think it can be solved."

The fact vs. value thing is "solved" or made irrelevant by each person living a fulfilling life without religion.

There is certainly value that can come from religion. But at what cost? And is there any comfort that cannot be otherwise obtained? As a former religious person, I say no.

I am not pretending to enjoy my life.

"There is a good deal more to life than negative proofs and atheism by definition has literally nothing to offer."

That is a fairly irrelevant statement. Atheism makes no attempt to explain life. Study of philosophy, history or science may lead someone (amongst other paths) to not believing in a higher power, but that has nothing to do with explaining life. It's simply a realization that the world is grand and doesn't need any man-made deities.

"and do please spare me any moral posturing from the likes of neocon fascists like Christopher Hitchens."

This is becoming a common argument from religious folk. I'm pretty sure it's because he's right. No-one can respond to his points because they're irrefutable. The man may seem like a crass ***hole most of the time, but in fact he simply does not suffer fools gladly. His arguments are no less valid.

"Religion isn't about belief."
Correct. It's about irrational, ill-founded, illogical, "wishful thinking" type belief.

Matthew said...

Oh, hopefully there's no name confusion. It signed me in as "Matthew" vice, "howerymd" this time. I know you were speaking to Prof McCormick, but I felt like responding.

Sorry if there was any confusion.

Brenda said...

Matthew not Matt said:
"The fact vs. value thing is "solved" or made irrelevant by each person living a fulfilling life without religion."

Congratulations! You've solved the problem of induction! WhooHoo! By all means publish and collect your praise and adulation, you deserve it!

Oh, wait... you haven't solved it have you? You're just making an unsupported claim. You don't actually have an argument do you. So.... as per your statement above.... no it isn't. I am sorry but you simply cannot just say stuff and expect it to be taken seriously. You need to argue, you know, present your premises in the form of a logical argument that correctly reasons towards a conclusion.

You haven't done that.

"There is certainly value that can come from religion. But at what cost? And is there any comfort that cannot be otherwise obtained?"

I don't know the cost, I don't think you do either. Have you done a cost benefit analysis? Such things do exist you know. There are social institutions that might take the place of religion but it isn't immediately obvious to me that they really are able to. But I do know one thing, the cost of losing one's life world, one's religion, is severe. You see those Native Americans wandering around homeless and in a drunken stupor? That's what happens to you when your culture, and religion = culture for them, is taken away from you and replaced with nothing. The cost of failure seems rather high to me.

So... abandoning religion culture wide contains a cost. Secular institutions do not seem able to replace it's function. Therefore until we can be assured that the cost is not too great we should not abandon all religious belief.

"That is a fairly irrelevant statement. Atheism makes no attempt to explain life."

Yet another unsupported assertion. It would help if you could, you know, provide actual arguments to back up what you just pull from your backside.

Of course atheism cannot explain life. Atheism cannot explain anything. It has exactly zero explanatory power. Atheism, by definition, doesn't even exist. It is a null proposition formed by the logical not operator.

"It's simply a realization that the world is grand and doesn't need any man-made deities."

No, again, atheism cannot even be that. Atheism is NOT(theism), nothing more. It would be perfectly logical for me to claim I am an atheist AND the world needs deities. Do you see what I did there? I made an argument. ;)

"This is becoming a common argument from religious folk. I'm pretty sure it's because he's right. No-one can respond to his [Christopher Hitchens] points because they're irrefutable."

1. I'm not religious, I'm agnostic. 2. I am looking forward to your irrefutable argument to back up your unsupported claim. While you are at it could you also address my claim that Christopher Hitchens is a neocon fascist pig who made common cause with a holocaust denier? Because that was the basis for my rejecting any moral posturing coming from him.

""Religion isn't about belief."
Correct. It's about irrational, ill-founded, illogical, "wishful thinking" type belief."


Still another unsupported assertion without any attempt at reasoned discourse. I highly doubt that you can prove any such thing. Your plate is fairly full and my PC is acting funny. I may have to reinstall Windows (yeeecht!) so I might be a while but I'll be back with my red pen.

Please show your work. thx ;)

howerymd said...

"Oh, wait... you haven't solved it have you? You're just making an unsupported claim. You don't actually have an argument do you."

The argument is simple: Value does not give any argument for truth. A fictional story that makes someone feel good is still fiction. The "value" is artificial.

"But I do know one thing, the cost of losing one's life world, one's religion, is severe. You see those Native Americans wandering around homeless and in a drunken stupor? That's what happens to you when your culture, and religion = culture for them, is taken away from you and replaced with nothing."

Your strawman is transparent. So the implication is that atheists, or at least, former christians walk around in a drunken haze? Is this argument even remotely valid? First, how do you know that those native american's lost their religion? Second, there are many, indeed probably many more, Native American's that are just fine. Your example proves nothing. I, and many of my friends, lost my faith/religion and we love our life.

However, I don't rely on just anecdote. The recent article/study by Daniel Dennet gives credence to the idea that it's not the losing of the faith that destroys some people, but how they are treated by the "faithful" after they come out. Slight twist there, see, it wasn't the faith that sustained them and made them happy. It was people. The very same people that would shun them and make them feel like a "non-person" when they finally came forward with their beliefs.

"Secular institutions do not seem able to replace it's function."

What function?

You originally said, "There is a good deal more to life than negative proofs and atheism by definition has literally nothing to offer."

I actually agree with your response to my statement. It is not a thing. So what's the point of your statement? It seems irrelevant. Of course atheism has "nothing to offer." It's not supposed to offer anything. It's a single, hopefully evidence-based belief about one commonly-held idea.

Let's change it a bit so you can understand my confusion, "non-astrology by definition has nothing to offer." -so what?

"While you are at it could you also address my claim that Christopher Hitchens is a neocon fascist pig who made common cause with a holocaust denier?"

Was the cause denying the holocaust? I think not. And you'd have to define "neocon fascist pig" before I could respond to your insult.

"Still another unsupported assertion without any attempt at reasoned discourse."

Only because I don't like repeating things. I encourage you to read some of the articles on here. All the support comes from there. The irrational part comes from the simple question asked of religious folk, "What evidence would prove to you and make you believe that there is no god?" The answer is often nothing. If you are unwilling to change your mind in the face of contrary evidence, -you are irrational.

Cheers!

akakiwibear said...

Matt, I am not in the US but if it true that There are currently over 100 million people [ 1/3 of total population = adults & children!? ] in this country who think that the Bible is the perfect, unerring word of God and that all of the claims made in it are literally true then I am amazed – and yes it is scary.

However I would have thought that you would be intellectually troubled using an acknowledged fallacy to “prove your point”.

I certainly have a problem with extrapolating the myth status of Gen 1:10 through the all collected works of the bible. Or, perhaps you believe that the whole collection are works of fiction without any element of truth.

I would appreciate it if you clarified your position – do you for example acknowledge some things, like that Jesus or say Paul or Peter lived?

Sala kahle - peace

Brenda said...

howerymd said...
"The argument is simple: Value does not give any argument for truth. A fictional story that makes someone feel good is still fiction. The "value" is artificial."

Sorry but again... that is not a valid argument. Real arguments posit two or more premises within a logical structure. You have not done this.

premise 1 "value does not imply truth."
premise 2 "fictions = fictions"
Therefore value is artificial.

This is embarrassingly bad. All you have done really is to make an unsupported claim that values do not exist. You appear to be trying to say that because you cannot find any values on the fact side of the divide that therefore they must not exist.

This is a form of philosophical extremism that is quite breath taking in its arrogance. Congrats!

"Your strawman is transparent. So the implication is that atheists, or at least, former christians walk around in a drunken haze? Is this argument even remotely valid?"

Yes, it's valid because former Christians have not had their life world taken from them. My worry is that the potential exists. In modern society we make a distinction between religion and culture but aboriginal peoples do not. So the implication I am making is that we run the risk, perhaps, of going too far in secularizing our culture.

It's just a suggestion, a concern, based on observations. Religious fundamentalism after all, is considered to be a reaction to modernism.

"What function?"

The function of religion is to provide social cohesion. One of the risks of modern multicultural societies is that they are fragile. Take what happened to Yugoslavia as a good example. When stressed, repressed social antagonisms explode in violence and authoritarian rule is the result.

"So what's the point of your statement? It seems irrelevant. Of course atheism has "nothing to offer." It's not supposed to offer anything."

Well, people are looking for something. If you have nothing to offer then it is likely they'll pass you by.

Brenda said...

[cont.]
"It's a single, hopefully evidence-based belief about one commonly-held idea."

Atheism is a belief? How can this be? Most every atheist defines it as NOT(belief). It's so confusing.

Part of my critique of the New Atheism is that it is an ideology. Atheists cry and howl and tell me that it is no such thing. Atheism, they claim, is merely the lack of belief. It is not possible they say for it to bear any features of ideological dogmatism because atheists are pure. They are all washed clean of the stain of belief.

I beg to differ and here you are confirming my critique. Atheists are in denial about the ideological character of their belief system. Thanks.

"Was the cause denying the holocaust?"

Hitchens and Irving are still friends.

Holocaust denier, David Irving:
in February 2006, after Irving was jailed in Austria, Hitchens published another defense of Irving's "free speech," this time on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. "It was very decent of him because it wasn't the popular thing to do," Irving told me.

"And you're still good friends with him?" I asked Irving. "You're still in touch with Christopher Hitchens?"

"Yes, I think it's fair to say that," he responded. "I really don't want to incriminate him."

Free speech is not an absolute. I agree with the European practice of criminalizing Holocaust denial.

"And you'd have to define "neocon fascist pig" before I could respond to your insult."

Neocons are fascist pigs. Christopher Hitchens is a neocon. Therefore Hitchens is a fascist pig.

The point being that I refuse to accept moral hectoring from the likes of Hitchens or Sam "torture the dirty mooooslims then nuke 'em" Harris.

Matt McCormick said...

Folks, it's really easy to be uncharitable and insulting in the comments forum like this. Let's try to at least understand each other's points without all the sneering contempt and vitriol.

MM

Paul said...

Brenda, I'm confused. Do you think atheism is a belief (system) or not? You wrote:

"Atheists cry and howl and tell me that it is no such thing. Atheism, they claim, is merely the lack of belief. It is not possible they say for it to bear any features of ideological dogmatism because atheists are pure. They are all washed clean of the stain of belief.

I beg to differ and here you are confirming my critique. Atheists are in denial about the ideological character of their belief system. "

but you also wrote:

"Atheism, by definition, doesn't even exist. It is a null proposition formed by the logical not operator."

and

"Atheism is NOT(theism), nothing more. "

Brenda said...

Paul
"Brenda, I'm confused. Do you think atheism is a belief (system) or not? "

I think that many of the New Atheists would like to have it both ways. On the one hand they'd like to claim that atheism as such does not exist, that it is not a real "thing" in the same way that say Christianity is, that individual atheists share no common beliefs. Yet on the other hand many New Atheists do seem to me to behave as though they belong to the "club of atheism".

"I want to have my cake and eat it too."

This is known as hypocrisy and is a major feature of any ideology.

"They do not know they are doing it, but they are doing it."

Your hypocrisy demands of me that I criticize from both ends. I point out that if you really believed as you say that atheism is the lack of belief only then you would behave differently. Or I point to your behavior when you are acting as though you belong to the church of atheism.

The subject is split, there is a wound. The nature of the wound can be seen from either side.

Paul said...

Brenda, I'm still confused. Do you think atheism is a belief (system) or not? A simple yes or no, with or without explanation, would suffice.

Brenda said...

Paul
"Brenda, I'm still confused. Do you think atheism is a belief (system) or not?"

Atheism is a propositional attitude. It is the belief that there is no God. The claim that atheism is to theism as non stamp collectors are to stamp collectors is not credible because no atheist I've ever known behaves in a manner that would be consistent with that relation.

The New Atheists identify with each other, they form groups and clubs and even churches and have a shared set of values, dogmas and beliefs. They are a concrete, identifiable social group.

Non stamp collectors do not form groups and clubs to discuss how best to not collect stamps. Nor do they obsess about the latest issues that concern stamp collectors. No one does this because there is no such "thing" as non stamp collecting. But there absolutely IS such a thing as atheism.

howerymd said...
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Paul said...

Brenda, I agree with you as long as you would agree to the distinction between atheism as a concept (which is like non-stamp-collecting) and atheism as it is practiced, which is not like non-stamp collecting. I think there are very good reasons why atheism is not practiced like non-stamp-collecting, by the way.

But I wish that everyone would keep this distinction in mind, it would eliminate a lot of confusion.

Paul said...

By the way, Brenda, have you heard of this distinction, too? Some atheists make a claim (there is no god), and some atheists merely say that theists have not demonstrated their claim that there is a god. The latter atheists make no positive claim about god, they merely evaluate theists' claims as lacking, thus leading to no belief (in god).

howerymd said...

Paul, I think those are the same thing. The second logically follows the first if we judge all things to the same standard. That second type of reasoning is the same reasoning used to not believe in witches, Santa, ghosts, vampires, the Easter Bunny, etc. We all believe (based on that idea) that "There is no Santa" so what's wrong with believing (and saying) "there is no god?"

It seems there is a cognitive dissonance between saying there are no ghosts or yeti or Santa and saying there is no god. Why should be treat one with a different epistemological standard than the other?

Matt McCormick said...

Some of these terms as they have typically been used in the literature and their definitions are useful here. In particular, see negative, positive, wide, and narrow atheism:

Know Your Godless Heathen Positions

MM

Brenda said...

Theism is the doctrine or belief in the existence of a God or gods.

Atheism is the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

Agnosticism is a denial or doubt of knowledge of the existence of God

Skepticism is doubt about the truth of something.

Skepticism is the true default position, not atheism.

Atheism is not a lack of belief as that would include skeptics, agnostics and newborn babies in it's definition. This is clearly unworkable as it leads to multiple confusions. There is a difference between saying, “I do not believe P” and “I believe not-P.” The claim that Atheism is a lack of belief must be rejected.

In Matt's link I would say that I believe in Methodological Naturalism but I reject Eliminative materialism. The Chinese Room, What Mary Didn't Know and Blockhead effectively refute it.

Paul said...

Matt, help me out here?

I'm trying to make a distinction among atheists in terms of the burden of proof.

If someone makes a claim ("There is a god." or "There is no god."), t is incumbent upon the claimant to support the claim.

But someone is not making a claim when they determine that another has not supported their claim ("A"), and therefore there is no reason to adopt the claim. That is different from making a positive claim ("not-A") that is the opposite of the original claim. I have no burden of proof to demonstrate "not-A" if I merely notice that "A" has not been supported (and therefore there is no reason to believe "A").

Matt McCormick said...

Well, I'm not sure if I can help out. I don't really understand what, if anything you guys are talking about. It seems to me that both of your approaches to the question of the burden of proof or what the true nature of atheism are suspiciously a priori and off the mark. A negative atheist has been typically recognized in the literature as someone who lacks a belief about God or gods. That would include agnostics, in the classic sense, and positive atheists. It seems to be that it would be a perfectly reasonable starting position for someone to claim to be a NA and then not be willing to budge off of that until they heard some compelling evidence in favor of theism. Depending on their situation, positive atheism could be a perfectly reasonable starting position too. I'm a positive atheist about the existence of magical invisible elves living in my walls who produce electricity for my appliances. And the burden of proof, it seems to me, would be on anyone who claims they are real.

But the burden of proof for any claim doesn't exist in a vacuum. Epistemic standards, scientific knowledge, and the cultural background have a lot to do with who is typically expected to explain and how much. The way I figure it, it's always better to understand more, consider more evidence and counter evidence, and to be treating all beliefs as actively defeasible. And that includes the concepts you guys seem to be appealing to for authority.

MM

Matt McCormick said...

I do appreciate the thought you guys have been putting into all of this, however. For the record, I think agnosticism about God is a cop out. At this point, given all the substantial problems that have been enumerated for so many different God hypotheses, and given the overwhelming evidence we have that there are no exceptions to ontological naturalism, I suspect that the only people who still claim to be agnostics are actually closet or wannabe theists.

See:
Perpetual Motion Machines and an Argument Against Agnosticism

and

What's Left to be Agnostic About?

Paul said...

Matt, thank you, I was trying to express what a negative atheist is, and your explanation of it in your post immediately above this one matched what i was trying to say.

Brenda, however, apparently rejects the idea of negative atheism.

Brenda, what are the multiple confusions, as you say, the negative atheism leads to? Why must negative atheism be rejected?

Toby said...

@Prof M,

Certainly definitions change over time, but I think that the dictionary definition of agnostic as oppossed to perhaps a common defition of agnostic is a reasonable approach. Dictionary.com defines agnostic as "a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as god, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience."

In this sense an agnostic is an atheist. I still self-identify as an atheist because the common meaning of these words seems to vary and atheist seems to convey the closest meaning to the largest number of people of what I am. However, I agree with the defition above for agnosticism.

Brenda said...

Paul
"
Brenda, what are the multiple confusions, as you say, the negative atheism leads to? Why must negative atheism be rejected?"


Because there is no such thing. Non non-theism is theism. The theist/atheist debate is over ontology. Agnosticism is about epistemology.

"If someone makes a claim ("There is a god." or "There is no god."), t is incumbent upon the claimant to support the claim."

That is ontology. The dispute is over what exists or does not exist.

"I have no burden of proof to demonstrate "not-A" if I merely notice that "A" has not been supported (and therefore there is no reason to believe "A")."

And that is epistemology. The dispute is over what we can or cannot know. Someone who rejects a knowledge claim for insufficient evidence or invalid argument is agnostic about that claim. My failure to prove A is not proof for not-A.

When I argue against theists, and I do, I tell them that their argument is invalid or their evidence is lacking. I do not tell them they are wrong because people cannot be wrong. I do not tell them their argument is false because arguments cannot be true or false. Truth is a property of statements only.

Matt
"A negative atheist has been typically recognized in the literature as someone who lacks a belief about God or gods."

Then the literature is wrong. I blame Gordon Smith as you can trace a lot of this "lack of belief" nonsense back to him. Smith was raised a religious fundamentalist and when he lost his faith he merely substituted the cult of Objectivism and Libertarianism for his fundamentalist faith. I think he was influenced by Objectivism's delusional epistemology and that this influence infected his thinking about how to categorize his atheism. He may not have originated these terms but I think he's been highly influential and that his errors have propagated out from him. Greenspan is another influential former Objectivist who dragged many down into his little cesspool too.

If I could go back in time I think I would skip strangling the infant Hitler in his crib and look for Ayn Rand.

"I do appreciate the thought you guys have been putting into all of this"

Yours is the first blog where I have been able to state my position without being abused by the filth that calls itself atheism these days.

I've been called a cunt, a bitch and a whore. I've had my name, address and phone number published. I've had my sexuality mocked and smeared and spat upon.

By Atheists, not theists.

I'm a little ticked off about that.

Paul said...

Brenda, this is just getting down to semantics and definitions. What Matt calls a negative atheist you are calling an agnostic.

The word "negative" in the term "negative atheism" does not have a negating function as you imply when you reject the idea of a negative atheist because "Non non-theism is theism." "Negative" is merely one part of a two-word label, the entirety of which defines what you call an agnostic.

Thanks for the conversation, I think I will end my part for the time being.

Matt McCormick said...

Brenda,
Sorry to hear about the abuse you've been through. I've gotten a lot of it too, although primarily from theists. I work very hard to separate the personal emotions that that stirs up from my consideration of the merits or faults of arguments. I hope you'll do the same.

Let's be careful not to condemn by association. Greenspan, Gordon Smith (whoever that is), and Rand aren't part of the scholarly, philosophical literature on this topic. See Flew, Nielsen, in particular, and Mackie, Draper, Drange, and Martin to a lesser extent on this topic. Here's the best bibliography of atheism sources around now:
Atheism Bibliography

Again, thanks for your thoughts.

MM

Brenda said...

My response to "What’s Left to be Agnostic About?"

"To be honest, I think that what happens for a lot of agnostics is that they started out believing in an OG. They were raised religious, participated in religion with their friends and family, and they even enjoyed it or found it fulfilling. But as they explored the question intellectually they came to acknowledge that really what’s entailed by those religious doctrines can’t be true."

I don't think that anyone loses their religion in that way. Religion isn't about belief, science is about belief, it's about faith. I tend to agree with Hume on this. The passions come first, only later do we find the reasons for our beliefs.

I became an atheist in the true sense when I was a child, about 17 or 18, and my reasons for it had nothing to do with intellectual doubt. It had everything to do with my father, about feeling unloved and wishing to rebel against "The Name of the Father". I then sought for and found reasons for my rebellion, but those reasons were not it's cause.

God is "The Big Other" and it is generally presumed that it does not exist (I have my doubts) but that doesn't mean that we can just abandon our need for a big Other. We aren't made that way, it does work like that. If we reject the big Other of religion we are just setting ourselves up for a different one. Many atheists today reify science as their big Other and then acting on behalf of their new God they become the very thing they fear.

Atheists gaze into the mirror of theism and become the monsters they see there. This is not theory for me, I have personal experience of the phenomenon. But the monster is not "out there", it is in you.

That is how Sam Harris can calmly propose that torture is a moral good and if it should fail we would be justified in a nuclear first strike against Iran. That is how Christopher Hitchens, Trotskyite neocon and former Marxist, can claim that waterboarding isn't torture until he directly experienced it. That is how Pat Condell can spew his spittle flecked racist tirades on YouTube and still think himself moral man.

It's called denial. What is being denied? Your relationship to your big Other. That evil monster incarnate dressed in black that you wage battle against is your Father. You've always know this is true, you have only to search your heart to see that it is so.

Brenda said...

[cont.]
This is how religion is "true". It correctly represents your inner life. This is why atheism is and should be rejected, because it invites monsters to fill the void.

Or put round another way. Religion isn't about epistemic truth or ontological beliefs, it's about how to relate your inner psychic economy with the greater world. If that means that some people believe in a real big Other that's ok because it doesn't really affect the hunt.

"Are there phenomena, experiences we have, or other evidence that could be explained by an SF? Here the SF agnostic may say yes. She may point to internal phenomena: human consciousness, feelings of the sublime, transcendent experiences, our moral facilities, or religiousness."

I have already pointed to the sublime object of ideology as a mystification of our inner life. Now I'll take a look at consciousness.

Contrary to eliminative materialism consciousness cannot be reduced to the activity of neurons in the brain. Nevertheless, it is wholly dependent upon and arises from the brain. There is no ghost in the machine, no dualism. The mistake that dualism makes is to count the things in the world and they get to two. Materialism counts to one and I believe that Daniel Dennett counts to three (not 100% sure). The mistake is to count in the first place.

And if consciousness is non-reducible then there may well be other instances. Climatology is one I think. The claims made by climatology are non-falsifiable and if the climate denialists had half a brain, they do not, they would focus their attack there. James Lovelock goes too far I think in his strong Gaia hypothesis but that doesn't mean he is wrong. He is just elevating a non-reducible non-falsifiable feature of the world to the level of the sublime. It's is a very human impulse.

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities of the air.

Atheists make the same error that fundamentalists make in taking this literally.

I live in a galaxy of 400 billion stars, in a universe of 80 billion galaxies, in an infinite multiverse. In this multiverse my consciousness cannot be reduced to the mere activity of particle moving in lines of force. And if that is true for me then what else may there be in this vast cosmos?

I believe I have sufficient reason to doubt the atheistic materialist narrative.

DM said...
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DM said...
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James said...

why are we trying to prove Jesus simply from the texts? shouldn't we be considering the movement he started? the "Chrestus" movement? the empire overthrown by his followers (if we follow Gibbon)?

@howerymd: it's the "no true scotsman" fallacy.

Matt McCormick said...

James, the texts are just about the only thing we have to determine if any of these claims about Jesus are true. The fact that there is a movement that zealously followed him doesn't tell us anything about the truth of the supernatural claims any more than thousands of overwrought Star Wars fans in costumes at a convention shows that Star Wars really happened.

MM

akakiwibear said...

Matt not sure if you are right that the movement does not add to the case that Jesus existed and did what is claimed.

At its inception the movement was persecuted including eye witnesses to the events.

Hard to drum up life threatening support from those who were there when ... it did not happen, and they saw it ... not happen ??

Brenda, I have to disagree with you dismissing But as they explored the question intellectually they came to acknowledge that really what’s entailed by those religious doctrines can’t be true.". My experiences are different.

I see Christians who grow up with a simplistic Sunday school level theology finding that it does not stand up to sceptical scrutiny.

Their situation is similar to that of a primitive tribe that eventually figures out that the giant rock they worship as god is not actually god. They have a choice, either to conclude that therefore there is no god or to conclude that god is not a rock.

My observation is that many atheists pick the former option perhaps because as they were naive in not questioning the Sunday school Christianity as they grew up, they continue to be naive in accepting the simplistic “therefore there is no god” option.

The intellectual case for God is more robust than the atheist case which requires among other things the sort intellectual slight of hand we see in this post where Matt has by his own omission used an acknowledged fallacy as the basis of his case.

It is easy to attack Sunday school fundamentalist Christianity - it is a lot harder to defend the lack of intellectual rigor in the atheist case.


Sala kahle - peace

pensiveblake said...

I apologize in advance if these points have already been brought up in previous comments (which I haven't read):

Matt McCormick: "Historical Christians, or believers who think that the quality and quantity of historical evidence we have justifies our concluding that the resurrection really happened, are inclined to take the Bible as a reliable source of information about events in history. [...] for the sake of argument, let’s accept the criteria of historical reliability that the Christian would have us apply to the Jesus case. Now consider the conundrum that accepting some, but not all Biblical claims about historical events. [creationism, flood, exodus etc.]"
Matt, wow. Assuming you're referring to "Crit. of Multiple attestation", "Crit. of Palestinian Environment", "Crit. of Dissimilarity", "Crit. of Embarrassment", these aren't criteria that "Christians would have us apply". These criteria are the *standard tools* of Christian and non-Christian historians alike! For example, let's focus on the first one: "The Criterion of Multiple attestation". This isn't Christian -- the radically liberal Jesus Seminar emphasizes items “attested in two or more independent sources.” [Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 26.]; Withingergon adds "[M]ultiple attestation is seen by almost all scholars as a key criterion for establishing authenticity." [The Jesus Quest, (InterVarsity, 1997) 96.], along with the liberal Paul Maier "Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable. [In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991) 197.]

pensiveblake said...

Matt McCormick: If the historical Christian acknowledges [...] historical claims of the Bible are mistaken, but they insist that the claims about the resurrection are reliable, what exactly are the criteria that separates the categories?

But Matt, name one peer reviewed publication in Christian philosophy or Biblical historical studies which makes such an argument for Jesus' resurrection "on the basis of the historical merits of the Bible" (whatever that means; "the Bible" is not one book, its a collection of 66 books all with different degrees of historical credibility.) It seems you presume that the case for the Resurrection is: "The historical claims of the Bible [66 books] are true etc., therefore the claims surrounding Jesus' death burial and resurrection are!". But Matt, of all the Christian professors who debate at Universities with other professors, name one who uses an argument *anything* like this. Even popular level Christian apologists don't argue this way, so what are you talking about? So far on your blog I've seen you discuss William Craig, N.T. Wright, and Gary Habermas and *none* of those guys argue anywhere close to this way. Even the guy who debated with you recently almost certainly didn't use this kind of argument. So what are you doing?

pensiveblake said...

Matt McCormick: "If the historical Christian acknowledges [...] many historical claims of the Bible are mistaken, but they insist that the claims about the resurrection are reliable, what exactly are the criteria that separates the categories?"
Well Matt, ask the non-christian historians who agree with you in rejecting creation, the flood, the exodus etc., but nevertheless grant without hesitation many of the historical claims under-girding the argument for Jesus' resurrection.

E.g. Gary Habermas writes "On the state of Resurrection studies today, I recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the resurrection of Jesus published since 1975. I studied and catalogued about 650 of these texts in English, Ger­man, and French. Some of the results of this study are certainly intriguing. For example, perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something." (See details in Gary R. Habermas, "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?" Philosophic Christi.)

Bart Ehrman (a NT scholar/historian at UNC) seems to be a favorite of yours (uncoincidentally, like you, he is an extremely ouspoken critic of Christianity... but no matter); here's what he says regarding the facts surrounding Jesus' resurrection.(cf. my next post)

pensiveblake said...

(a) Regarding the genuinely convinced eyewitnesses, Ehrman writes "[w]e can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that he soon appeared to them [...] Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus' resurrection, [...] it is a historical fact that some of Jesus' followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. [Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 231.]

(b) Regarding the empty tomb, and still focusing on the Crit. of Multiple attestation, Ehrman writes "We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. As so I think we can say that after Jesus' death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb [From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: "Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus" [The Teaching Company, 2003].]"