The Big Guns: Greta Answers Some Theologians


So what are the big guns of modern theology? And what do atheists have to say to them?

Fish in barrelI spend a fair amount of blogging time shooting down arguments for religion made by ordinary Joe and Jane Believers. As do other atheists. But many believers say this is unfair. They argue that we’re shooting fish in a barrel; that we’re arguing against stupid, simplistic, outdated versions of faith, and we’re not willing to take on serious, educated, advanced theologians.

I have a lot of responses to that point. (Most powerfully, “I don’t care that much about how a handful of theologians practice religion, I care about how religion is practiced by the overwhelming majority of believers.” Not to mention, “Why am I obligated to spend a decade studying your faith before rejecting it, when you reject thousands of other faiths with barely a second thought?“) But my mind has been set even more at ease on this question — by a surprising source.

LeestrobelOver at the Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant has been running a series of pieces by Christian apologist Lee Strobel. Yesterday’s edition addressed the question, “What questions do you want to ask atheists?” Or, “What argument is most convincing to plant the seeds of doubt (or, rather, faith) in an atheist’s mind?” Lee got some theologian friends and fellow apologists together, to collectively come up with a good- sized set of questions for atheists that they apparently feel are stumpers.

And I was shocked at how totally identical their arguments were to the ones I see every day, from ordinary Joe and Jane Believer arguing with the atheists. I was shocked at how unfamiliar many of these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic facts of current science; especially since some of that science sheds crucial light on the heart of their arguments. I was shocked — and oddly disappointed — at how familiar their questions were, how unoriginal… and how easy they were to shoot down.

Here’s what I mean.

Historian Gary Habermas: Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.

Conversión_de_San_PabloThese historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

First: You’re assuming one of the major things you’re trying to prove — namely, that the historial Jesus lived, and that the New Testament is an accurate description of his life and the events that followed it. Contrary to your assertion, these are questions about which there are serious scholarly doubts. Given the internal contradictions within the New Testament; the lack of corroboration of the major events described in the Gospels by contemporary historians of the time; and the fact that the New Testament was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people were themselves convinced of Jesus’s divinity and who wrote the books with the express purpose of recruiting others into the faith… none of that adds up to the New Testament being a reliable source. I see no reason to accept your “facts” as a given.

Heavens gate cultSecond: Even if I did concede the accuracy of these events… so what? Re #1-4: The followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced, too. Convinced enough to die for their beliefs. As were the followers of Jim Jones, and Charles Manson, and so on. History is littered with true believers who believed utterly wacky things, and believed them whole-heartedly — enough to devote their lives, and even sacrifice them, to their beliefs. The supposed conviction of the apostles proves exactly nothing.

As to #5: Again, so what? The “empty tomb” thing doesn’t require a paranormal explanation. Even if it happened — which again, I don’t remotely concede — there could be any number of natural explanations for it (the body was stolen, hidden, etc.)… explanations that don’t require a supernatural entity. Any competent stage magician could manage it.

Philosopher Paul Copan: Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

No.

PuddleYou’re making what I call the “puddle fallacy” (an idea stolen from Douglas Adams). A mysteriously conscious puddle says to itself, “This is an amazing hole I find myself in, it fits me perfectly — it must have been designed to have me in it!” No. The hole wasn’t made for the puddle; the puddle formed to fit into the available hole. And the same is true for life in the universe. Life developed because conditions in the universe allowed it to happen. If that hadn’t happened, something else would have happened instead… something equally astronomically unlikely. We just wouldn’t be here to see it.

An analogy: The chances that I, personally, was born, out of the billions of children my parents could have had, and the billions of children their parents could have had, and so on… it’s beyond astronomical. Does that mean I was fated to exist? Of course not. I’m sitting here rolling a die ten times, and it came up with the sequence 4632236245. The odds against that sequence are over 60 billion million to one. That doesn’t mean it was designed, or fated… or even that we need to come up with a special philosophy to explain it.

Big bangAnd very importantly, as I’ve written elsewhere: The universe isn’t actually all that finely-tuned for life. What with the length of time it took for Earth to come into being after the Big Bang, and the eventual explosion of the sun, and the ultimate heat-death of the universe, and all that, the window for life on Earth is, in cosmic terms, actually pretty darned short.

Paul Copan again: And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such “injustices” or “evils” seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

No.

Touch of evilA growing body of evidence suggests that good and evil are concepts that are hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Humans are a social species, and humans that behaved morally were more likely to be socially successful and thus survive and reproduce; humans that didn’t were less likely to win the Darwinian Sweepstakes. (This also explains why evil continues, something Christianity utterly fails to do: most people succeed evolutionarily by being more or less good, but some people will always flourish by being bad and getting away with it.) The existence of morality doesn’t require a supernatural explanation. Evolution and neuropsychology explain it quite nicely.

(BTW: The problem of evil isn’t “the major objection to belief in God.” It’s one major objection to belief in one particular god [albeit a common one]: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god of Christian theology. Your god isn’t the only one we don’t believe in.)

Talk show host Frank Pastore: Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.

Ah, yes. The God of the gaps.

SlashCircle.svgLet’s take these one as a time before we get to the big picture. Something from nothing: We don’t know that yet. That’s one of the great scientific questions of our time. (Many scientists who are working on it suspect that the answer may make us radically re-think how we conceive of time and cause/effect: the way Darwin made us radically rethink life, and Einstein made us radically rethink space and time.)

But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer that question, either. The God hypothesis merely begs it. How could God either have always existed or have come into being out of nothingness? If you’re going to hypothesize that something had to have either always existed or come into being from nothingness, why does that something have to be God? Why can’t it be the universe? (And don’t say “Because God is magic.” That’s a terrible answer.)

Life from non-life: This one’s easy. Life is a bio- chemical process. It came into being from a proto- bio- chemical process, which came into being from a regular chemical process. There’s nothing all that mysterious about the concept; it’s just physical cause and effect. Scientists think they’ll be able to replicate that process within a few years.

ThinkingMind from brain: Another one we don’t know yet. The science of neuropsychology is in its infancy, and the question of what exactly consciousness is and how it works is, IMO, one of the other great scientific questions of our time.

But again, this is a question that religion merely begs rather than answering. If there is a non-corporeal soul, how does it interact with the brain and make it do its bidding? How does a non- material entity affect the material world? And if the self is essentially not physical, how and why do changes in the brain affect the soul?

BrainAnd much more to the point: No, we don’t know yet how exactly the brain produces the mind. But the overwhelming body of evidence is that it does. Changes to the brain, from injury or surgery or illness or medication, produce changes in the mind, in fairly predictable ways. (As Bertrand Russell argued: Given that damage to any part of the brain will destroy that part of the mind and self — destroying the vision center makes you blind, destroying the language center makes you unable to speak or comprehend language, etc. — it logically follows that destroying the entire brain destroys the entire mind and self.) And using magnetic resonance imaging and other new technology, we can now see thoughts appearing in the brain as they happen. As far as we can tell by all the available evidence, whatever the mind is, it seems to be a product of the brain.

How our moral senses developed from an amoral source: See above, re: the evolution of human morality.

Watch the gapYour arguments are what we atheists call the God of the Gaps. Whatever phenomena are currently unexplained by science, whatever gaps there are in our understanding of the universe, those get to be explained by God. And when the science fills in a gap, religion finds another gap.

But as the gaps in our understanding shrink, God shrinks along with it.

Author Greg Koukl: Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?

See above. It’s currently an unanswered question… but the God hypothesis doesn’t answer the question, either. It merely begs it.

As to why I think a physical answer is more likely to be correct than a metaphysical one (and all my regular readers are now cringing, because I’m about to make an argument I’ve made approximately 712,522 times before in this blog — I’ll be done with it here soon, I promise):

Earth_axisBecause it always has been. Because in all of human history, unanswered questions have turned out to have natural answers thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times… and have turned out to have supernatural answers exactly never. None. Nada. Zilch. The history of human knowledge about the universe is the history of natural explanations replacing supernatual ones: consistently, relentlessly, like a steamroller.

Given that history, why on earth would I think that these two particular currently unexplained phenomena will eventually be explained by God? Why would that be the reasonable bet?

Lee Strobel summarizing philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

NIA_human_brain_drawingWell, for one thing: I don’t see how the God hypothesis answers that problem at all. If our senses and cognitive faculties can deceive us, then why should we trust that God isn’t deceiving us? In fact, it seems much more plausible that an all-powerful magical God could fool us than the physical senses that evolved in response to the physical world.

I mean: If God were real and created our minds to “deliver true beliefs about the world”… why would we even be having this conversation? Wouldn’t we all perceive him, in exactly the same way? Why would anybody disagree about religion? In fact, why would anybody disagree about anything? Either God created us with perfect minds — which is patently untrue — or God is deceiving us… which undercuts your whole argument.

And if our cognitive faculties are flawed by the shaping of evolution… then what makes you think a belief in God isn’t one of those cognitive flaws?

In any case: Science and naturalism don’t, in fact, assume that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are always correct.

Mistakes_were_madeIn fact, we know that they aren’t. We know, for instance, that our minds tend to: see patterns and intentions even when they don’t exist; amplify evidence that supports what we believe, and reject evidence that undercuts it; rationalize decisions we’ve made, even when they’re clearly mistaken or harmful; etc. (All of which atheists consider very strong arguments against religion, not for it. See above, re: religion itself being one of our biggest cognitive flaws.)

Yes, our cognitive faculties are flawed. That’s why, when we’re trying to understand the universe, we don’t just rely on our intuition and perception and personal thought processes. That’s why we rigorously use the scientific method. We do it to filter out errors and biases in our perception and our judgment, as much as is humanly possible. It’s imperfect, to be sure; but over time, it’s proven astonishingly powerful.

In a naturalist worldview, we know that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are flawed. But we also have every reason to assume that they bear some connection to reality. It makes no evolutionary sense for our perceptions to be entirely disconnected from reality. We wouldn’t have survived and evolved if we hunted for rabbits that didn’t exist, or failed to run from tigers that really were there but that we didn’t see. And we wouldn’t be able to predict and shape the world, to the mind- boggling degree that the scientific method has allowed us to do, if our senses and cognitive faculties didn’t reflect reality at all.

Shadow_of_a_doubtHistorian Mike Licona: Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?

Yes. Sometimes. Whenever I see a theist making an argument for God, I always have a brief moment of wondering, “Will this be the good argument? The solid evidence? Will this be the thing that finally convinces me?”

But this happens a lot less than it used to. Those brief moments are getting briefer. And frankly — this is going to sound snarky, and I’m sorry for that — it happens less because I see the same bad arguments again and again.

Including here.

Every single one of these arguments in this post is an argument I’ve seen before. Evidence from the Bible. The supposed conviction of the apostles, and the empty tomb. The first cause argument. The supposed fine-tuning of the world and the universe for life. The god of the gaps. What is reality, and how can you trust your perceptions. I’ve seen them all. Dozens of times. I can rebut them in my sleep. (None of these apologists cited personal intuition and experience, and good on them for not doing that… but I bet dollars to donuts that if this debate were pursued, that argument would eventually get rolled out as well. It always does.)

And frankly, when I have doubts, they are rarely about whether religion is correct. The fact that I’ve seen so many theistic arguments, and they’ve always been the same few bad arguments over and over again, has done more to bolster my opinion that religion is mistaken than anything any atheist has ever said.

GravestoneMy doubts are not about whether religion is correct, but whether it would be pleasant. There are times when I feel small and trivial on the cosmic scale, or get scared about death, or frustrated at injustice (I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before we could dump him in prison), and wish for an eternal afterlife where I could be with my loved ones forever and where prosperous jerks could finally suffer. (Not Hell. Hell is one of the most evil concepts humanity has come up with. But something like Purgatory… that I’d be okay with.)

But most of the time, I don’t wish for a God. Most of the time, I’m happy about the world just being the natural, physical world, and I have no trouble accepting it. The God hypothesis provides some comforts… but it also provides horrors. (Among other things: Yes, I have to live in a world with no loving fatherly creator to care if I live or die… but I also don’t have to wonder why our loving fatherly creator is torturing children.) And the naturalist worldview provides many comforts and hopes that theism utterly fails to provide.

PonyAnd even if I did sincerely wish for there to be a God… wishful thinking isn’t an argument. I wish I had a million- dollar book contract, too. And a pony. But I’m not going to live my life as if those things were true.

Sorry, theologians. I remain unconvinced. I am more than a little shocked at how unfamiliar these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic pieces of current scientific knowledge. And frankly, I’m a bit disappointed in how weak and unoriginal these arguments are. I’d expected this to be more of a challenge.

Comments

  1. Siamang says

    Well said. What’s interesting and amazing is that this is it. This is the best that the religionists have. Meanwhile as a species we’re able to clone animals, land robots on other planets, we’re approaching the ability to regrow limbs, we’re wiping out plagues and feeding the masses with some pretty fucking great science. And there’s this one corner of the world where they’re still messing about with the dumbest excuses for sit-back-in-your-easy-chair, spark-up-a-doob and blow-your-own-mind napkin-back philosophy.
    Think about this. This is the best shit they’ve got. That’s it. You and me and a bunch of nobodies on the internet can fucking PoWn the best theologians on the planet in a game of spot the logical fallacy while they shuffle the shells.

  2. Kagehi says

    Hmm. Only times I ever have doubts is usually in connection with abject fear. Something along the lines of, “Holy shit, if these crazy people are right, we are all screwed!”
    Somehow, I don’t think that is the “uncertainty” they want me to be having.. lol
    ((Hmm. And now the page is even more broken and the post/preview buttons don’t work in Firfox at all… Typepad is batting a thousands here… lol))

  3. absent sway says

    I enjoyed that debate on FA yesterday; it helps to see arguments side-by-side when I’m not particularly used to participating in them (as in, I’m used to being spoon-fed apologetics), so thanks for continuing to address arguments that you’re already familiar with. Everything sounds less threatening when I’m not completely invested in one outcome from the beginning. I don’t remember if Lee will be posting more or not but I’m curious to see what’s next if he does.
    P.S. So nice to meet you :)

  4. says

    Nice post. I kind of expected there to be more advanced arguments here too, when I saw the title. “Oooh, big guns! These must be some really in-depth theories!” And then… not. I still have this vague, lingering respect from my childhood for theologians and Jesuits and the like; I always thought of them as better and smarter than most religious folk. But now that’s kind of disappearing, if this is the best they can come up with.

  5. placebo says

    I’m sitting here rolling a die ten times, and it came up with the sequence 4632236245. The odds against that sequence are over 60 billion to one.
    Greta, I think that should be 60 MILLION to one. This undermines your entire article. Now I have to start believing in God. DAMN!

  6. will willis says

    I too expected a different class of arguments from the ‘big guns’ … until I thought about it a bit. Of course the big guns have the same arguments that the foot soldiers do. If you ask an average atheist blogger (no slight intended, Greta , you are a cut above average) a question, and then asked Christopher Hitchens (substitute your favorite atheist big gun here) the same question, would you not expect similar answers? The blogger reads Hitchens. Hitchens (I would guess) has an rss reader. Both have read Darwin (or at least the cliff’s notes). Both have spent agonizing hours defending Einstein’s holy dice to their counterparts in the theist realm. We all know the same arguments. We’ve all fought the same arguments. That’s all there is. Any modifications are merely personality. To expect the theists to have some super-duper argument only accessible to the big guns is kind of silly.
    Thank you, Greta. You have done a fine job of refuting the best and brightest that god has to offer.

  7. says

    Greta,
    Your response to Habermas was that he assumes what he’s trying to approve: that the New Testament gives an accurate account of the life of Jesus.
    But Gary does not rely at all on the inerrancy of scripture or the general reliability of the gospels. Instead, he relies only on “facts” that are well-supported by the specific evidence available to us, not on the idea that the gospels are generally reliable.
    You add that “Contrary to [Gary’s] assertion, these are questions about which there are serious scholarly doubts.”
    Not really. You merely assert this, but Habermas has actually BACKED UP his assertion by counting what every scholar he could find has written about these “facts” – in three languages and since 1975. These “facts” really ARE defended by the vast majority of scholars.
    Everything else, I basically agree with.
    By the way, I recently had a chance to use your “natural explanations have always replaced supernatural ones” argument against Mike Licona in a debate we had on the resurrection. Thanks for that.

  8. Maria says

    Great post!
    When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was interested in New Age and Occult stuff and so wanted many such things (that I thought sounded really cool back then) to be true!
    Now, I realized rather soon that the usual stuff, reading palms and tarot card and psychics on TV and such was not the real thing. As soon as I started to study it closer I saw how it worked and that there was perfectly natural explanations for what seemed to be supernatural.
    So I became more and more interested in reading things that debunked all this stuff, but back then I did it for the reason of “weeding out the weed” and get to the “real thing”. I fell for the reasoning that there must be something more substantial and real behind all this. It simply couldn’t just be only this simple stuff, I thought. But of course I eventually learned that there WASN’T anything more than that, and that it WAS just that silly stuff.
    I am still constantly amazed at how much noise is made by so little. Religion is the same as all the other woo.
    It really isn’t more than this!

  9. Maria says

    “To expect the theists to have some super-duper argument only accessible to the big guns is kind of silly.”
    I agree, but… if I understood it right, it isn’t actually Greta who expects this, it’s the believers who criticises her, who claim that the theologians have super duper arguments that the rest of the believers don’t readily have access to, and demand that she studies them. She did and found them the same as the rest.

  10. Jeffrey Smith says

    The sort of “experts” Strobel uses are out of touch with the latest scientific knowledge because they’re not even remotely “big guns” of theology. Run of the mill Evangelicals would be a better description. Dealing with a well-trained Calvinist or a Jesuit-trained Catholic theologian would be closer to the mark. More fun, too. Blowing their arguments out of the water is still quite possible, but, unlike Strobel’s sort, you actually have to work at it.

  11. says

    Greta,
    Great stuff. I’m also at the point where I’m no longer seeing anything new from the believers. I was at a debate at the U of Minnesota with Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Sousa. I was not impressed with D’Sousa.
    The argument I’m seeing more of is the “you atheists are not using the “right” version of god or Christianity. You are picking on your straw man version.” I just read Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God” and that was pretty much his argument.
    Nice to know that we can handle the “best” that they have with half our brains pondering a nice shag.
    Scott

  12. says

    And the endless search for the real “hard arguments” continue. I tell you, it’s like looking for a copy of the rules of Mornington Crescent. Why do I so often here “Atheists don’t answer the hard arguments” and so rarely hear “Atheists won’t answer the hard arguments, such as those presented here at the end of this hyperlink”?
    In my experience, the very hardest arguments look like this: “Here is a bunch of really quite hard problems in philosophy. Tricky, huh? Now here’s a big stream of intellectual gobbledigook that looks a lot like a self-referential game of twister. Confused? Well, God!” And people think “I don’t fully understand that, but it sure sounds good – clearly only *very clever* people can see the arguments for God!”

  13. Marius says

    What do you think of the idea that civilization itself becomes the thing which we metaphorically refer to as “god” or divinity? This leads to the idea that some ET civilizations could have accomplished this already; having reached the omega point as master or masters of time and space they could: (a) avoid the end of the universe (time travel) and (b) maximize the influence of this technological & ontological apex to manipulate or extend life and “fine-tune” the universe in ways comparable to gods, disinterested simulators, or diabolical puppet masters. If that is the case, then our traditional mythologies, as primitive and counter-progressive as they can be, might have more metaphorical import and relevance to humanity than just the psychological, poetical, and cultural value that also gets lost in all of this stress on historicity and truth (any absolute form of which seems to require naive realism anyway).

  14. yogurtbacteria says

    You know, it occurs to me that God of the Gaps could really do with a math analogy to drive the point home.
    Because essentially, it boils down to this:
    Question: What’s 7345 times 5467?
    Analogical Atheist: I don’t know; I can’t do that in my head.
    Analogical Fundamentalist: It’s four! Look, it’s right here in this book: 7345 X 5467 = 4.
    AA: No it can’t be four, the numbers are both larger than four and they’re being multiplied.
    AF: Do you know the answer?
    AA: No, but-
    AF: Then the answer could be four, couldn’t it?
    AA: No.
    AF: Four.
    Even if AF chooses an answer not as patently ridiculous as 4–say, 40 million and 3–the point is made pretty well. The fact that you have and answer doesn’t say a damn thing about whether or not the answer is right, and someone would be about as foolish saying 40,000,003 was right as they would be saying four was right, even 40,000,003 is actually pretty close, and sounds good. The fact of the matter is, you’re still going to be putting the one’s digit of 5X7 in the one’s place of the answer, which means, since 40,000,003 doesn’t end in 5, it is just as demonstrably wrong as four. And even that not being the case, it’s easy to see why it would be silly to assume that just because you have an answer, your answer must be the correct answer.

  15. says

    Good post. These are typical of the theologians I read when I was trying to hold on to my Christian belief. I couldn’t do it. This really is the best stuff they have to offer. It’s pathetic.

  16. says

    Greta, I posted my own answers to these questions on my own blog – I started to write them a couple of days ago and when I saw you’d done the same I quickly finished this morning. So now I came back here to check what you’d written, and guess what? Our answers are pretty much identical. Right down to the puddle analogy! I’m a little more curt, as I actually don’t try to explain abiogenesis since I don’t see how it’s got anything to do with god… but otherwise we’ve written pretty much the same post twice. I’m pretty happy about that, personally, seeing as how I enjoy your blog. ;)
    The only thing we don’t agree on is the cheating question about doubt. I have so far never doubted that religion’s a load of crazy. :)

  17. skepticscott says

    The fundamental purposes of theology are to provide a baseline for people who need to be told what to believe and to make the harshness, foolishness, illogic and contradictions of organized religion seem at least superficially reasonable, so that the flock can feel comfortable believing it. As long as someone scholarly sounding, with letters after their name, has said it’s OK, that’s enough for most people.
    What is glossed over in all the glorification of theology and the criticism of anti-theists for failing to study it deeply, is that theologians are incapable of bringing their inquiries in line with any sort of objective truth. Theology may provide a forum for debating issues, and perhaps even for declaring them decided within the framework of a particular doctrinal community, but it fails utterly as a source of anything but totally subjective understanding.
    Next time a theologian or a fawner over theology rears their illogical head and upbraids atheists, secularists and rationalists for their lack of theological understanding, ask them a few hard questions: If theology is a field of inquiry, what exactly does it inquire into, and has the understanding of whatever that is increased steadily over time? What have theologians learned in almost 2000 years? What do human beings understand as a result of theological inquiries that we did not understand 50 or 100 or 200 years ago? What can we do now because of theology that we couldn’t do in the 19th or 18th centuries? What are theologians more certain of now than they used to be?

  18. skepticscott says

    Scott-
    The “you atheists are not using the “right” version of god or Christianity. You are picking on your straw man version.” argument seems to be just an alternate version of “God of the gaps” that goes something like: “I’m going to morph my version of god into whatever form will make his purported actions immune from criticism and his existence immune from rational examination, whether it actually makes any sense or not.”
    Of course as many people (including Greta) have pointed out, these people have no more claim to the “right” version of Christianity than anyone else, and this argument only emphasizes that “god” in whatever form is no more than a human invention, with no existence outside the minds of believers.

  19. says

    I contend that the theologians are the ones who came up with the nutty arguments. The average Joes and Janes are just plagiarizing the big guns. This has been my experience. I have recieved many a letter that has turned out to be copied and pasted from an apologetic website word for word with no credit given.

  20. says

    Great response to the article. The original gave me a good laugh when I first read it and could not believe the weakness of the arguments presented. Then I passed it around work and was surprised to have some people come back to me and say “Well, person X makes a good point doesn’t he?”.
    Well that was a red rag to a bull and livened up an otherwise dull afternoon. The main point of contention was the idea of life coming from nothing, etc – one that I’d spent a lot of time arguing in the past so had no trouble explaining and managed to convince every colleague who brought it up. Score.
    The mention of doubt was trickier for some reason though. I repeated time and time again that doubt was absolutely central to a rational, skeptical mindset and that it was not something to be shied away from. This didn’t seem to sink in quite as well and I’m sure the reason for this is rooted in the utter lack of classes teaching anything resembling critical thinking in the Scottish educational system.
    For all that it was a fun discussion though, will have to post some of the resulting emails to my blog at some point if my co-workers don’t mind.

  21. says

    After seeing the quality of the arguments used by Strobel in most of his books, I can’t say I’m shocked that his best apologetics are no different from the run-of-the-mill stuff most of us encounter every week. His usual technique is to cherry-pick an expert whom he knows already holds the beliefs he agrees with, ask them leading questions, and then accept their answer without a qualm, even when it contains obvious logical fallacies or other weaknesses. Great stuff, when you’re rallying the faithful. Not so effective when you’re dealing with a knowledgeable nonbeliever.
    But as Greta said, the real virtue of this Q&A is that we can now solidly lay to rest the claim that atheists avoid dealing with the best that modern apologetics has to offer. (That claim won’t cease, of course – but we now have a strong counterargument the next time we hear it made.)

  22. says

    If these guys are the theos’ “big guns” and these questions are meant to be armour-piercing atheist-stumpers, well … please excuse me while I put my kevlar jacket back in my wardrobe.
    These questions (and their subsequent destruction by Greta and every other atheist on the web) are glaring proof of what many atheists have thought for a long time: theologians & the religionists who see their word as gospel have absolutely no idea how to construct an argument without employing presuppositionalism, circular logic, appeals to authority, Gap-God – basically, they can not make their case without tiresome cliche and trite garbage.
    Christians: D-
    Must try harder!

  23. Fastthumbs says

    It really doesn’t matter how many holes we atheists poke through these tired old arguments…
    Lee Strobel and company will claim victory to their followers.

  24. says

    Greta, I think that should be 60 MILLION to one.

    You’re right, placebo. I misread my calculator, Fixed now. Like Ted Haggard, I hope my human flaws haven’t led you astray from the path of righteousness.

    Your response to Habermas was that he assumes what he’s trying to approve: that the New Testament gives an accurate account of the life of Jesus.
    But Gary does not rely at all on the inerrancy of scripture or the general reliability of the gospels. Instead, he relies only on “facts” that are well-supported by the specific evidence available to us, not on the idea that the gospels are generally reliable.
    You add that “Contrary to [Gary’s] assertion, these are questions about which there are serious scholarly doubts.”
    Not really. You merely assert this, but Habermas has actually BACKED UP his assertion by counting what every scholar he could find has written about these “facts” – in three languages and since 1975. These “facts” really ARE defended by the vast majority of scholars.

    Actually, Luke, Gary and I did the same thing: we said “Historians say (X)” without providing any specific citation for that assertion. I will do so now.
    And as Ebonmuse pointed out in his piece on this: “most of the scholars who study the historicity of Jesus are Christians, and are unlikely to produce conclusions that deviate from orthodoxy, even if – as in this case – those conclusions are supported by no evidence outside the biblical record itself.” In other words: Strobel’s historians have no cred. His “facts” are nowhere near as well- supported as he claims.
    I agree with the commenters who say that the Joe and Jane Theist probably get their arguments from the theologians, not the other way around. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The point is that this whole “you’re arguing against the worst arguments for religion, not the best” trope doesn’t hold water. They’re the same arguments. The good ones are just worded somewhat better.

    The sort of “experts” Strobel uses are out of touch with the latest scientific knowledge because they’re not even remotely “big guns” of theology. Run of the mill Evangelicals would be a better description. Dealing with a well-trained Calvinist or a Jesuit-trained Catholic theologian would be closer to the mark.

    The problem with that argument, Jeffrey, is infinite regress. Like I said in my piece Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument: No matter how many arguments for God you reject, they always want you to read one more. “Sure, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis?” “Sure, you’ve countered the evangelicals… but have you countered the Jesuits?” We’re apparently not supposed to stop considering theism until we accept it.
    I keep coming to the same conclusion: Modern theology really isn’t an argument for why the God hypothesis is the best one. It’s a rationalization for why it’s okay to accept the God hypothesis, for those who already do.

  25. says

    Ah, the “empty tomb” argument, always a classic. Using one story in the Bible to “prove” another.
    Come again?
    I first encountered Habermas via the thorough fisking given to him in Hector Avalos’s The End of Biblical Studies (2007), which I recommend as a thought-provoking albeit sometimes intimidatingly technical book (particularly in the chapter on archaeology).

  26. says

    Wow… I haven’t been reading Hemant lately.
    Was that really the best they could do?
    Even I have the knowledge ready to take those apart pretty well.
    You know, I think this is what theism does to people – it makes the brain so uncritical of god-apologetics that you can no longer perceive a good or bad argument at all (in connection with your particular brand of theism) — you can’t afford to let your brain engage properly there (because that would threaten the sweet-sweet god-meme), so it simply doesn’t.
    Your critical faculties there become quite disengaged.
    I find that kinda spooky.

  27. macevoy says

    my basic reaction is that religionists only ever use logic for a few specific tactical purposes — because they want to reach out to us, because they want to convert us, because they want to justify jihad against us, whatever.
    they do not expect to deal seriously with any counterarguments, because these only confirm that their logic has not fulfilled its intended purpose. they will simply try some other tactic to achieve the original end.
    it’s essential to grasp that religionists don’t care about using logic seriously because logic does not motivate their faith or their community participation. they are entirely motivated by *feelings* about the world, starting with the deep feeling of validation that comes from accepting something they’ve been told since childhood that also answers many of their anxieties and personal inadequacies.

  28. J. J. Ramsey says

    efrique: “You know, I think this is what theism does to people – it makes the brain so uncritical of god-apologetics that you can no longer perceive a good or bad argument at all (in connection with your particular brand of theism) — you can’t afford to let your brain engage properly there (because that would threaten the sweet-sweet god-meme), so it simply doesn’t.”
    Careful here. That’s less of an issue with theism itself than it is with human propensities for rationalization and confirmation bias. It’s important to remember that, lest we get so focused on the supposed intellectual faults on the other side that we forget to examine ourselves for the same faults.

  29. says

    If you’ll forgive a plug to my blog, I (inadvertently) discussed Habermas’s question in some depth here, although I think I did less in 2500 words than you did in 250.

  30. says

    Hey, Greta. I’m a theist, but I promise, I’m not a pissy one and I won’t be rude. I truly enjoy genuine inquiry into the verities of existence.
    Though admittedly still emergent, the idea that Jesus is purely myth doesn’t hold up very well by standards of historiography of the classical period. Your citation of the “Ebon Musings” fails repeatedly to take this into account. The earliest known references to other classical figures are much more distant from the lives of their subjects than the material suorrunding Jesus. The mentions of Jesus in such close proximity to the alleged period of his life are unparalleled in antiquity. I do not know of a single scholar who would disagree with that statement.
    Regardless of the accuracy of details in Paul’s writings, the proximity of his earliest letters (as little as 20 years) to the life of Jesus, means that there would be many, many individuals alive at the time of Jesus who could disprove the major natural facts Paul asserts: Jesus lived, and he was killed by authorities in Israel. That would be like everyone in your hometown saying, let’s say 10 years from now, that you had a sibling who died at 30, but who never actually existed. It would be easily disputed by those who knew your family and lived in your neighborhood.
    It also must be taken into account that Jesus is only “important” (as the “Ebon Musings” article states), in retrospect. He was not wealthy, he was not the ruler of an empire like Alexander, and he died (according to what we do have) as a common theif. Thus it is quite conceivable that he could be overlooked as inconsequential by contemporary historians.
    It is only after his supposed following continues to spread throughout the empire that mention becomes necessary. Do we find mentions of Paul or the other apostles in Pliny the Elder? Yet surely their existence and influence is much less the subject of debate, miracles aside.
    While I don’t pretend to persuade you to believe what I believe, I hope you consider refining your argument in light of the above.
    Cheers.

  31. says

    Chris: First, I’m not buying the “Jesus was only important in retrospect” argument. If the events described in the Gospels actually took place as described — not even the miracles, but just the massive following — he would have been a fairly important figure at the time.
    Second: Even if I accept that there was a real historical figure named Jesus who called himself the messiah and had something of a following (which I acknowledge is certainly possible): What does that prove? There were lots of wannabe Messiahs running around at that time. Even if one of them was named Jesus, how does that prove that he was the Son of God, performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc.?
    I think there are basically three possibilities we’re looking at (with other possibilities in the spaces between them):
    1) There was no historical Jesus — he is an entirely mythical figure, patched together from an assortment of real people and myths.
    2) There was a historical Jesus, but the Gospels don’t describe his life and actions accurately, and there’s a lot of made-up stuff in them.
    3) There was a historical Jesus, and the Gospels are a completely (or mostly) accurate description of his life and actions.
    I think 1 is most likely, and is at least plausible and worth considering. I think 2 is also plausible.
    But my main point is this: We can’t assume that 3 is true without some much better confirming evidence than we have. That’s the mistake Gary Habermas made. He’s asking how atheists explain “historical facts” (his words) that are very much in dispute. By accepting 3 without further question, he’s assuming the very thing he’s trying to prove. We have to accept that 1 is at least a strong possibility — and that between them, 1 and 2 are very likely indeed.

  32. says

    Hey, Greta. Thanks for the rapid response. I guess writing is your job, after all.
    I’m not afraid to acknowledge the far-fetched nature of the debate: namely, whether or not one single person in all of antiquity actually existed and was God. That’s kind of a difficult posture to take, yeah.
    However, given an examination of the evidence that says this person existed, as compared with other figures in history and the respective extant evidence, I would say that of the three possibilities, 2 is more likely accurate than either 1 or 3. Otherwise, historiography of the Classical period kinda has to start from scratch. Like I said before, the documentation of Jesus is closer in proximity and more plentiful to his life than any other person from that period. Can you concede that point?
    I say #2 is more likely because, the claims that are made by #3 would make this one guy a singularity in all of human history. However, it is plausible and not impossible, however unlikely it may be.
    So, I ask you to answer my previous question: Is there mention of Paul in any of the contemporary secular histories? Peter? Any of the 12? I don’t think that there is, but we don’t question their existence as historical figures, nor do we question whether or not their basic claims about Jesus actually issued from their mouths, despite the lack of any epistolary autographs. Yet their influence brought Jesus’ provincial religion to the known world. Why no mention in the histories being written during their lifetimes? I argue that secular historians did not waste their time with another provincial messiahs or their followers in the outer reaches of the empire.
    I’m sure you’ve heard this question a million times (I know I’ve asked folks more than once): What confirming evidence is needed that is lacking?
    I can’t speak for Habermas (or Strobel, or any of the apologists I used to admire so much–I find myself as dissatisfied as you with their inability to deviate from ancient formulations for the existence of God–though I may be doing the same thing, but with personality!), but as for me, I do make every effort to apply reason to my belief in God. That’s why I read atheist blogs! I want to be challenged. I want to know that I’m thinking through my worldview, and not just walking blindly and irrationally through life. I get uncomfortable when there’s too much agreement in any given conversation. It says to me that there’s no refining going on and pretty soon my brain won’t be able to tolerate difference.
    Anyway, thanks again and I look forward to your respone.

  33. says

    Chriser: I’m not sure I can answer your question. I got a B.A. in religion 25 years ago, but I’m not a religious scholar or historian, and others may be better able to answer your question than I.
    What I can do is question one of your assumptions:

    Is there mention of Paul in any of the contemporary secular histories? Peter? Any of the 12? I don’t think that there is, but we don’t question their existence as historical figures, nor do we question whether or not their basic claims about Jesus actually issued from their mouths, despite the lack of any epistolary autographs.

    Actually, I do question the existence of the 12 apostles, and whether their claims about Jesus actually issued from their mouths. Paul’s existence I’m reasonably happy to accept, since we have all those letters which do have a consistent tone and seem to have been written by the same person. But given that I’m questioning whether the Jesus character really existed… I darned well am going to question whether his hangers- on really existed.
    As to this:

    …the documentation of Jesus is closer in proximity and more plentiful to his life than any other person from that period. Can you concede that point?

    Of course I don’t concede it. There are plenty of other people from that time period who have significant and even extensive contemporary documentation of their existence, written down at the time they were alive and not decades after: from Roman emperors to relatively minor political and military and artistic figures. Even some other would-be messiahs got contemporary mentions.
    Now, if Jesus existed but was a total nobody, just another wanna-be Messiah with a handful of followers who ticked off the local authorities… you might expect this lack of contemporary documentation. But if his life was anything like the events described in the Gospels, somebody would have taken notice. Forget about the miracles, the earthquake and darkness that supposedly happened upon his death: if he’d had anything like the massive following described in the Gospels, some contemporary writer almost certainly would have made note of it. As Ebonmuse writes in his Choking on the Camel piece on this very subject: “Events such as these create historians.”
    (And to me, the fact that the Jesus myth is so similar to other myths of the time makes the “real historical figure” hypotheses even more suspect.)
    Now, I do concede that my Option #2 is possible: there was a real person named Jesus or something like Jesus, upon whom a whole lot of myths and stories got grafted. But I don’t actually see that as being significantly different from Option #1. I mean, “The guy was totally made up out of whole cloth” versus, “A whole of mythology got grafted onto a real but relatively unimportant person”… what, theologically, is the difference? What, apart from historical curiosity, is the difference?

  34. Peter N says

    chriser,
    First of all, you do realize that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were not written by eyewitnesses to the life and deeds of Jesus, don’t you? These books are, at best, stories about eyewitnesses to Jesus, and quite plausibly are fiction created to make the mythical Jesus seem more real to early Christians.
    But the main objection I have to a real, historical Jesus is, if there were a god who sent his son to bring his message to humanity, why would we have nothing better than these contradictory and implausible legends and traditions, that weren’t even written down until decades after they supposedly took place? Why all the mystery? If God wanted his message to be clear, couldn’t he have found a way to make it clear? Why wouldn’t he? But obviously he didn’t.
    I know, I know. Theologians and apologists have no doubt spent centuries crafting elaborate arguments for why the proof is not to be found — the superior value of faith without evidence or something like that. How convenient. You know what? Other mysteries have been revealed, like the fact that the earth goes around the sun, and E=MC2, and there is evidence for those. It doesn’t seem to hold that important things that are true must be hidden.
    There might have been a prophet in Galilee in the early first century by the name of Yeshua, but there is no real evidence for that. There is no historical or archaeological justification to believe in a virgin birth, miracles, a single source for the familiar ethical teachings, or a resurrection. There are a few early historians who wrote, decades or centuries after Jesus supposedly lived, that there were Christians, but exactly what they believed, and how the beliefs originated, are not known.

  35. Brent says

    There is no reward for you in this, so why do it? It’s obvious Greta, you spend a lot of time thinking on these things in general…diligently trying to disprove God for your self and others..why does He get so much of your attention? Get real with yourself . It’s because He is trying to get yours and your heart knows this, but you choose to harden it. Most always people that do that for a prolonged period, are fighting conviction and do so from a callused heart that has been hurt or betrayed by a Christian somewhere or misled about who God really is. Only you can decide to open your heart and receive what you know is the truth. You harden your heart and then try to justify it all with reason, that at the end of the day leads you nowhere…with no answers…only speculations and more searching for truth. It’s not intellectually found my friend. Your smart, but not even close to that smart! God is called God fo a reason. If we could “figure it all out”, what kind of God would He be? It’s a heart thing man. Receive it or reject it.
    I respond for different reasons. Usually it is to defend truth as you plaster lies all over this blog and I sometimes feel the unction to expose it with truth. Sometimes it is from a heart of compassion for you, though after so many discussions like this, I usually don’t give you the time of day, because your heart is too heard to receive it and I know my time is better spent praying for you and ministering to those ready to receive. I can only spend so much time in your meaningless toil. Again, I will respond to your last posts when I get some free time. I haven’t even read them yet. Until then, listen to that small still voice inside you and convicts you….I’ll leave you with this:
    Proverbs 29:1 A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.
    I’d listen to that conviction Greta…You’re playing with fire!”

  36. says

    Sigh.
    Brent, I have been a believer in the past. Believe me, my heart was open. It was the fact that my heart was open, and that I cared about whether the things I believed were really true, that led me to change my mind, and to let go of my religious beliefs. (And I’d like to point out that “You just haven’t opened your heart enough” is an entirely unfalsifable assertion. No matter how hard I’ve tried to believe, no matter how hard I searched and continue to search for the truth… as long as I don’t agree with you, you’re going to say that it wasn’t hard enough.)
    If you have evidence for God’s existence, I’d be interested in seeing it. But if all you can say is “Open your heart”… for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, that’s a terrible argument for God. And even if I found it convincing, why should I open my heart to your god? Why shouldn’t I open my heart to Allah, or to Ganesh, or to the Goddess, or any of a thousand different gods that people believe in?
    As for why I care so much about religion: I’ve explained that at length. I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, and I think it’s one that, on the whole, does significantly more harm than good. I do the same with any ideas I find mistaken and harmful.

  37. says

    Thank you for a well written and civil post. I identify as a religious nontheist, or an atheist who likes the cultural aspects of compassionate inclusive relious experiences.
    I’m always happy to read caring atheists who answer concisely, without aires or snark theistic arguments. Thanks! Ryan McGivern

  38. says

    I think your reply to Brent was far more civil than he deserved, given his not-too-veiled threat at the end. “Scorn bribe of Heaven or threat of Hell.” – Tom Paine.
    “you plaster lies all over this blog”? A bold (and rude) assertion it would be easy to prove if it were true, but no, rather he concern-trolls.
    You say “we have all those letters which do have a consistent tone and seem to have been written by the same person [Paul}”.
    According to Wikipedia (with all that that entails), “Authorship of the Pauline Epistles” as at 20:36:37, 2010 09 27: “Seven letters are generally classified as “undisputed”, expressing contemporary scholarly near consensus that they are the work of Paul: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Six additional letters bearing Paul’s name do not currently enjoy the same academic consensus: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus. The first three, called the “Deutero-Pauline Epistles,” have no consensus on whether or not they are authentic letters of Paul. The latter three, the “Pastoral Epistles”, are widely regarded as pseudepigrapha,[2] though certain scholars do consider St Paul to be the author.[3] ”

  39. Maxx says

    Good evening;
    And we all know that Wikipedia is the absolute authority on all things and at all times.
    Then why don’t my college professors accept Wikipedia as a valid reference on all the papers they keep assigning me in the university?
    Just thinking
    Thank you

  40. Maxx says

    Good evening again;
    Sorry, but I missed the whole conversation between Ms. Christina and Brent.
    “I have been a believer in the past…”
    Believer in what, exactly?
    Just curious
    Thank you

  41. UnclGhost says

    I saw Alvin Plantinga give a talk about how evolution wasn’t compatible with naturalism, and his whole reason was the paraphrased argument above. His main reasoning seemed to be that saying that you can’t trust your own reasoning is a “self-defeater,” which may be true in philosophy or somesuch, but does becoming aware of your own biases really invalidate every aspect of your thinking? No. He also seemed to think that “ideas” were apparently generated at random by the same processes by which genetic mutations occur, instead of brains using more or less useful algorithms.
    (In his next talk, which was about miracles, he refused to even consider the possibility that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is correct, because he didn’t really like the idea of it all.)

  42. says

    Hi Nice blog. Would you like to visitor submit upabout my own someday? If so you should inform me by way of email or perhaps reply to this remark since We subscribed to notices and can realize if you do.

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