Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

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The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

If Jesus was Raised, Could the Bible be False?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.

Introduction

A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?

To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.

The Gospels as History

Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.

Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?

One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).

So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.

The Gospels as Scripture

A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.

First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.

Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.

Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.

Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.

The Role of Paul

Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?

A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.

One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.

Review of John Dickson’s ‘A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible’

In A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson seeks to provide ‘a sense of the whole biblical narrative and of the theology that emerges from it’ in a manner accessible to non-believers. An ambitious task for such a slim volume, Dickson nevertheless succeeds admirably in providing a solid, clear overview of the core themes of the bible. Shaping each chapter around a key biblical figure or event (Creation, Abraham, Moses, David, etc), he provides a tightly structured and very readable survey of how the entire bible ‘hangs together’ according to a Christian interpretive framework.

Notwithstanding the virtues of this book, there are several occasions when Dickson makes claims which I feel distracted from the book’s key message, and potentially reduce the author’s credibility with a skeptical audience. Of particular concern was Dickson’s apparent inconsistency in appealing to the authority of the ‘scholarly mainstream’ regarding the bible. Though he mentions this notion a number of times with reference to the life of Jesus, elsewhere he asserts the traditional authorship of all four gospels and also all thirteen epistles of Paul, views which I doubt can reasonably be defended as consistent with the ‘historical mainstream’. Furthermore, elsewhere he argues that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, unlike any other ancient ‘national histories’, describe their kings in a very negative light, speaking as if said books had all been commissioned by Israel’s kings and written at the time of the events they narrate – as opposed to centuries later, as most scholars believe.

Dickson also makes a number of problematic claims concerning other religions. For instance, he states that salvation through grace is a concept unique to Christianity, neglecting to mention the immensely important role that Kripa (divine grace) plays in Bhakti Hinduism, or the emphasis of grace within Islam, with one of the names of God being Ar-Rahman, meaning ‘the gracious’. Elsewhere Dickson states that besides Jesus ‘no other figure from ancient history’ has sufficient evidence to corroborate a miraculous healing ministry, a claim which left me wondering how Dickson could possibly have investigated every claimed miracle-worker from ancient history to judge the quality of the evidence. Dickson also describes it as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘miraculous’ that Christianity could ‘conquer an empire with little more than words and acts of kindness’, seemingly ignoring the fact that the same could be said for Buddhism in China and Islam in Indonesia.

Various other offhanded remarks and sloppy arguments are likely to frustrate skeptical readers. When discussing creation, for example, Dickson makes the ambiguous statement that ‘the modern evolutionary story is probably not even good science’, before proceeding to admit ‘I don’t know enough about this subject to pontificate about such things’ (so why mention it at all?). Later he makes the bold assertion that ‘an evolutionary worldview…will lead to relativism, because there are no absolute values’, totally disregarding the centuries of philosophical work on secular ethics. Particularly unfortunate and unnecessary is his comparison of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity with those of Adolf Hitler, and his dismissive retort that atheists concerned about biblical atrocities should stop ‘simply mining the text for stories to complain about’.

Despite its shortcomings, Dickson’s book is short, highly readable, and informative. Non-Christian readers who can overlook the occasional dubious claims and poorly-executed excurses into apologetics will profit greatly from this concise elucidation of how Christians understand the bible.

 

The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Eyewitness Testimony is not Enough

Apologists on the Resurrection

“There are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most scholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.'” – William Lane Craig

“The most crucial aspect of an argument for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is that the disciples were totally convinced that they had seen appearances of the risen Jesus. The community of critical scholars holds that these experiences are thoroughly historical. These same scholars nearly always recognize that natural alternative responses do not explain the data. Therefore, the impressive evidences that establish the disciples’ experiences, especially in light of the failure of these alternatives, now become impressive evidences for the resurrection ap­pearances themselves.” – Gary Habermas

“The resurrection hypothesis fulfills all five criteria for the best explanation of the relevant historical bedrock… Accordingly we are warranted in placing it on our spectrum of historical certainty at “very certain.” The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.” – Mike Licona

“How we interpret the above historical data depends significantly on our prior philosophical assumptions. If I am convinced that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe…then I will refuse to accept any evidence as sufficient to demonstrate the occurrence of a ‘miracle’, whether a healing or a resurrection. But those of us who don’t share this atheistic assumption…can logically conclude that, since we have exactly the kind of evidence you would expect a resurrection to leave behind, we are warranted in declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” – John Dickson

Introduction

Examining the quotes presented above from some leading Christian apologists, we see a common thread. Namely, the claim that the only plausible explanation for certain established historical facts (in particular, the claims of the disciples to have personally seen and spoken with the risen Jesus) is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Only a philosophical objection to the supernatural or miracles in general, it is said, could serve to undermine such a conclusion, for the evidence itself is strongly compelling. I have written elsewhere outlining my proposed HBS Model, a proposal for a plausible naturalistic explanation of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In this article I will not defend this account as a whole, but will restrict myself to an analysis of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

In particular, I will focus on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which he defends the position that the gospels faithfully preserve eyewitness testimony concerning the words and deeds of Jesus. For my purpose here, I am happy to accept much of the argument of the book (which I have not read in its entirety), as I do indeed believe that, in particular, the disciples (among others) strongly believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in bodily form. Whilst I do not accept every detail of the gospels as historical, that core fact I do not deny. What I want to focus on, rather, is what we can infer from this fact, particularly with reference to some of the claims made by Bauckham about the reliability of memory and testimony. My claim, in brief, is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally-charged anomolous events (e.g. the resurrection appearances as described in the gospels), is unreliable, and that therefore we cannot infer from such testimony that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Bauckham on Eyewitness Testimony

The reliability of eyewitness testimony is an issue I believe Christian apologists have for the most part not addressed satisfactorily in their arguments for the resurrection. Bauckham likewise makes a very similar claim at the beginning of Chapter 13:

Psychologists have been studying recollective memory for well over a century. There is a large body of data and interpretation available that is highly relevant to these questions about the reliability of eyewitness memories. New Testament scholars have rarely made any use of these resources, and this chapter (chapter 13) represents a first attempt to access the relevant data and theory and relate them to the gospel traditions in a systematic way.

Bauckham then proceeds with an analysis of certain aspects of the psychological literature on memory, including a discussion of the different types of memory (of which ‘episodic’ memory is the sort of most interest to us here), a comparison of the ‘copy’ and ‘reconstructive’ theories of memory, a discussion of schemas and how they are used in memory storage and recall, and an overview of some of the factors which effect the accuracy of memory. Much of the material he presents is fairly expository and as such, although I do not always agree precisely with some of his interpretations, I do not have a great deal to say about it. What is of most interest to me here is the section ‘Remembering Jesus’, in which he compares the gospel narratives against the factors mentioned earlier that mitigate for more or less reliable memory storage and retrieval. He summarises this section as follows:

The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events, unusual events that would have impressed themselves on the memory, events of key significance for those who remembered them, landmark or life-changing events for them in many cases, and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event. They did not need to remember — and the Gospels rarely record — merely peripheral aspects of the scene or the event, the aspects of recollective memory that are least reliable. Such details may often have been subject to performative variation in the eyewitnesses’ tellings of their stories, but the central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.

Although I have quibbles about some of these claims (in particular, I think the gospels do include a number of tangential details about the resurrection appearances which I think are quite questionable), overall I agree with Bauckham that the gospel accounts share a number of features which would tend to increase our credence in the testimony having been accuracy preserved and recalled. There is, however, another side to this question that I do not think Bauckham adequately addresses in this section, nor do I believe has really been dealt with in any considerable depth by other Christian apologists in their discussion of the evidence for the resurrection. This concerns the psychology surrounding memories of what I shall call ‘anomalous events’.

Memory of Anomalous Events

Most of the studies on the reliability of memory to be found in the literature are concerned with fairly ‘ordinary’ types of episodic memory: remembering the details of a story, forgetting curve for remembered events, remembering what took place in a film, producing false memories of being lost in a shopping centre, etc. In such circumstances, Bauckham is correct in his assertion that we generally are more likely to remember the general gist of novel, unusual events when we engage in frequent rehearsal (i.e. as per the situation with the resurrection appearances). As Bauckham himself goes to some lengths in various sections of his book to point out, however, the experiences of the apostles with respect to the risen Jesus were not by any means ordinary – they were exceptional. They fall into a broad class of events which I call ‘anomalous events’, which encompasses miracle reports, paranormal experiences, mass hysterias, and perhaps also certain types of traumatic experiences (though I will not discuss these in much depth). These sorts of events have a number of key elements in common:

  • They are often experienced in groups, and so remembering takes on a very distinctive communal form, not being a purely individualistic activity of the sort most studied in psychology
  • They have very high emotional content
  • They can often be life-changing for those who experience them (less applicable for mass hysterias)
  • They often involve people reporting to have experienced or witnessed very strange phenomena quite far outside ordinary experience
  • These memories are often maintained with high levels of confidence in spite of lack of corroborating evidence or even in the presence of strong counter-evidence

These quite unique attributes mean that eyewitness testimony concerning anomalistic experiences involves distinct factors beyond those captured in investigating memory in ordinary contexts. This is not at all to say that the findings of memory research are irrelevant – they are still very relevant – but it does mean that to neglect the particular literature on the psychology underpinning these sorts of anomalistic experiences, as I believe Bauckham does, is to miss a very sizeable component of the evidence relevant to the case of the resurrection appearances.

I believe that the relevant question here is not, as per Bauckham’s analysis, ‘are memories of anonalous events reliable?’, but rather the broader question of ‘how likely are such eyewitness reports to be veridical?’ The difference between these two questions is that the former supposes that events were originally perceived in essentially a correct manner and that only later may memories become corrupted, whereas the latter considers the reliability of eyewitness testimony of such events to be a broader question incorporating a diversity of psychological and sociological processes, including the effects of expectation, group interaction, perceptual biases, suggestibility, and a variety of other such factors, many of which I discuss in my HBS Model. It must be acknowledged that the literature concerning such events and processes is not nearly as extensive as we would like, and I believe there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the psychological and sociological mechanisms behind these sorts of events.

Nevertheless, I think one broad conclusion can be drawn from the available evidence, and this I will state as follows: in the right circumstances, it is quite possible for psychologically healthy people to form confident, detailed memories of highly emotive and unusual occurrences, even when such events did not in fact occur in anything resembling the manner in which they are remembered. In some cases, something may well have happened, but very different to how it is later remembered. In other cases, such memories can be completely falsified, with no basis in reality at all. This claim will doubtless strike many as far-fetched, however I think it can be quite readily substantiated.

Examples of False Anomalous Memories

I have presented a large number of additional cases in my HBS document, and I so will not attempt a full analysis at present. Here I seek only to give a few key which I believe serve as strong evidence in support of my claim that people can confidently come to believe in having experienced or witness very strange, memorable things which they did not.

  1. False memory of Satanic abuse: ‘The Thurston County ritual abuse case was a case in which Paul Ingram…was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, by at least one daughter of satanic ritual abuse… Psychologist Richard Ofshe claimed that Ingram, because of his long-standing and routine experiences in his church, was inadvertently hypnotized by authority figures who conducted his interrogation, although no mental health professionals were present, and that the confessions were the result of false memories being implanted with suggestion. Ofshe tested this hypothesis by telling Ingram that a son and daughter had accused him of forcing them to commit incest with each other. Interrogating officers had previously accused Ingram of this, but he denied it, and also denied Ofshe’s accusation. Ofshe instructed Ingram to pray on the idea, and later Ingram produced a full, detailed written confession. Questioning the daughter who was supposed to have been involved, despite many other accusations against her father, she denied that such an incident had ever occurred. Upon being told that no such accusation had been made by either his son or daughter, Ingram refused to believe the incident wasn’t real, maintaining “it’s just as real to me as anything else”. Ofshe became convinced that Ingram’s confessions were solely the result of extensive interrogation sessions and questions being applied to an unusually suggestible individual.’ (see the wikipedia article).

  2. Mass hysteria resulting in psychogenic illness: though not exclusively a matter of memory, I think this case (and others like it that I document) is highly instructive for the social processes it illustrates: ‘In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and cause them to develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon sixty two employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized…After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria. While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was probably the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.’ (see wikipedia).

  3. False identification of rapist: ‘Donald M. Thomson, an Australian psychologist and lawyer, undoubtedly will never forget the day 15 years ago when he walked into a Sydney police station on routine court-related business and was arrested for assault and rape…The evening before his arrest, Thomson appeared on a local television program, where he discussed psychological research on eyewitness testimony and how people might best remember the faces of criminals observed during a robbery. As he spoke, a Sydney woman watching the show was attacked, raped and left unconscious in her apartment. When she awoke several hours later, she called the police and named Thomson as her assailant. The following day, after Thomson’s arrest, the woman confidently selected him as the perpetrator from a lineup of possible rapists at the police station. Thomson, of course, professed his innocence. “The police didn’t believe me at first,” he recalls, but I had appeared on a live television show when the crime occurred, so I had a good alibi.” Officials quickly dropped the charges when they realized the woman had unwittingly substituted Thomson’s televised face for that of the attacker.’ (see here for more on this).

  4. Alien abduction accounts: see for instance this excellent study ‘Autobiographical memories are often suspect. For example, a  surprisingly large number of people  report having been abducted by extraterrestrials. We offer a prototype of the abduction experience and an assessment of the frequency of such reports. These accounts are hard to dismiss on the basis of mendacity or insanity, but there are ample reasons to doubt their literal accuracy. We offer a cognitive-motivational explanation for how spurious memories of unidentified flying object (UFO) abductions can be created and maintained. The motivational roots lie in the desire to escape from ordinary self-awareness, and this explanation is supported by parallels
    between UFO abduction accounts and masochistic fantasies. The cognitive bases involve the integration and elaboration of hallucinations, general knowledge, and contextual cues into full-blown accounts, usually with the aid of hypnosis. Due to the pitfalls of hypnosis, people develop a high degree of confidence in the veridicality of spurious UFO abduction memories.’ The masochistic elements of their account have been criticised, but I think it is clear from this paper and others that many non-psychotic people confidently claim to have been abducted by aliens, and that such claims can be understood to be the product of psychological and sociological processes leading to false memories. (see here for original article).

  5. Jesus appears to a crowd in Nairobi: ‘On 11 June 1988, a man suddenly appeared before a vast crowd in Nairobi, Kenya, gathered to witness healing prayers. Instantly recognizing the tall, white-robed figure as “Jesus Christ,” the crowds fell down overcome with emotion. The editor of the Swahili edition of the Kenya Times, veteran journalist Job Mutungi, witnessed the event and took some pictures’ (see for example this article. Interested readers can contact me for additional sources I’ve collected on this, or search for their own. It is a very unusual event).

Note that I am not arguing the eyewitness testimony of these sorts of events is unreliable because we know that miracles etc do not occur, and therefore all testimony of them must be mistaken. What I am saying is rather that, irrespective of whether there are real miracles or genuine paranormal occurrences, there are a very large number of eyewitness reports of such things which we know (by corroboration with other evidence, and in some cases by direct experimental manipulation) are not veridical. That is, we know that confident, detailed eyewitness testimony can be completely mistaken. Of course, a key question here is ‘how frequently does this happen?’ I believe that there are enough documented cases of religious miracles, paranormal encounters, mass hysteria, false memories of crime, and other such things to make the claim that with respect to such anomalistic events, eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable. That doesn’t mean that it is always unreliable in such circumstances, nor does it mean that such events never actually occur. What it does mean, however, is that the mere existence of eyewitness testimony for such events is itself insufficient evidence for such events, because we know that such evidence is in general quite unreliable.

Eyewitness Testimony in Courts

In concluding his section on the reliability of memory, Bauckham makes some comments regarding the use of eyewitness testimony in courts:

An important problem for the use of eyewitness testimony in court is that, as we have noticed, recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details. But it is often precisely the latter that a court needs: exact words of a statement made long ago, exact times of day, voice recognition of a person met only once, faces of people merely glimpsed fleetingly. Witnesses may have been wholly uninvolved bystanders who had no reason to notice or remember the details required…Interviewing techniques, especially leading questions, may serve to feed information to witnesses who come to think they remember it. But these aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not come easily to mind.

I think Bauckham here is somewhat understating the degree to which the evidence points towards there existing very considerable limitations and distortions to memory in legal and courtroom settings. Consider this extract from a very useful review article on the subject:

Sixty-four psychologists were asked about their courtroom experiences and opinions on 30 eyewitness phenomena. By an agreement rate of at least 80%, there was a strong consensus that the following phenomena are sufficiently reliable to present in court: the wording of questions, lineup instructions, confidence malleability, mug-shot-induced bias, postevent information, child witness suggestibility, attitudes and expectations, hypnotic suggestibility, alcoholic intoxication, the cross-race bias, weapon focus, the accuracy–confidence correlation, the forgetting curve, exposure time, presentation format, and unconscious transference

Furthermore, I do not agree with Bauckham that all of these courtroom factors are of limited relevance to the resurrection appearances. Clearly some of them are not relevant, such as mugshot-induced bias or lineup instructions, however others I think are of immense relevance, such as unconscious transference, post-event information, and hypnotic suggestibility (note I am not claiming that the disciples hypnotised each other explicitly, but there is nothing mystical about hypnosis – its just a form of heightened suggestibility, and suggestibility may well have played a considerable role in shaping their experiences, as it has been documented to do in other cases of miracle and paranormal reports). Even something like the recognition of faces is of potential relevance, as in some of the accounts Jesus is not first recognised by those who seem him, but they only realise who it is later on, which to me is possibly indicative of later memory distortion (though of course we cannot say for sure). In any case, I think the literature on the problems with the use of eyewitness testimony in courts is both more extensive and more relevant to the gospels than Bauckham admits in this section, and I believe it is something Christian apologists should address in more detail.

Conclusion

People will doubtless infer from this article that I am saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Indeed, people have even characterised my HBS model as stating or implying that the disciples invented their stories, or engaged in conscious deception in some way. I am not making any such claims here. The disciples and others claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. They believed what they said, and were sincere enough to suffer persecution for their claims. These claims were made by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, and are not (at least in their essentials) the later accretions of legend. All these facts notwithstanding, the claim I have defended is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally charged anomalous events is unreliable, and therefore we cannot infer from the testimony of the apostles that Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to them.

I therefore am in disagreement with the Christian apologists quoted at the beginning of this piece. I do not believe it is the case that the only reasonable interpretation of the historical facts is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and nor does a reluctance to assent to this explanation require philosophical predispositions against supernaturalism. Rather, my reluctance to accept such an explanation stems, first and foremost, from my belief that the available literature shows clearly that memory and eyewitness testimony about such occurrences is unreliable, and that people can and do make confident eyewitness reports about such things even when the events in question demonstrably did not occur. Bauckham, despite his commendable efforts to engage with a body of literature heretofore largely ignored by Christian apologists, has nevertheless in my view failed to address this fundamental point. For this reason, I do not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evidence to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe he did rise from the dead, but the historical evidence and eyewitness testimony we have is by itself insufficient evidence to warrant such a belief.

The Wisdom of Christianity and the Foolishness of Atheism: What Atheists Consistently get Wrong

Introduction

I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.

Atheists and Scientism

“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss

“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking

There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.

I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:

  1. Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
  2. Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
  3. Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
  4. Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the  strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.

Atheists and Jesus

“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian

“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins

In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).

Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.

Outright False Claims

  1. Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
  2. The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
  3. The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
  4. The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.

Irrelevancies and Distractions

  1. The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
  2. There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
  3. There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.

Conclusions

My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.

The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.