“But The Apostles Died For It!”: Religion and the Argument from Conviction


St andrew “But the Apostles believed that Jesus was God! They were so convinced that this was true, they were willing to die for it! Doesn’t that persuade you that they were right?”

Since I’ve been working my way through the “bad arguments for religion” catalog, and since someone mentioned this particular one in a recent email to me, I thought I’d take a moment and tackle it today. The argument, in a nutshell: Jesus’ apostles clearly believed that he was divine, performed miracles, etc. They believed it so strongly that they were willing to be persecuted, tortured, and killed for their beliefs. And they were there! What they believed must have been true!

Okay.

First of all, this argument is assuming one of the main things it’s trying to prove: namely, that the New Testament is a reliable and accurate source of information about the events that happened in that time and place. Which it’s clearly not. The New Testament is shot through with factual errors and internal contradictions; and it was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people with a passionate vested interest not only in believing these events but in persuading others about them. A reliable source this is not.

But for the sake of argument, let’s concede that point for the moment. Let’s pretend that the New Testament is a reliable and accurate source of information, at least about the basic historical events if not about the supernatural stuff. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there was a historical Jesus, that he had apostles who believed in his miracles and his divinity, and that those apostles were willing to sacrifice their lives for this belief.

So what?

How is that an argument for their belief being true?

Birther-god-sign People believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. People believe that President Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, that the moon landing was a hoax, that Uri Geller can bend spoons with his mind, that they personally have been kidnapped by space aliens. People believe these things with absolute sincerity and passionate conviction.

But the fact that they’re really, really convinced that these things are true is not evidence that they are actually true. The human mind plays weird tricks on us. (Read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things for a good discussion of this phenomenon.) And the more we’ve committed ourselves to a belief, the more deeply we rationalize that belief and convince ourselves that it’s true.

To the point where some people will even die for their beliefs.

Heavens gate cult Whenever someone makes the “conviction of the Apostles” argument, I want to scream at them: What about the followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult? What about the followers of Jim Jones? What about suicide bombers and the 9/11 terrorists? They were convinced of their beliefs, too. Convinced enough to die for their beliefs. Does that make those beliefs true? Does that mean that there really are 72 virgins awaiting any Muslim who dies to defend his faith? That the Hale-Bopp comet really had a spaceship following it to take the Heaven’s Gate followers to the Next Level, as long as they were wearing Nike sneakers? That Jim Jones really was God? (Yes, I know many of the Jonestown victims were murdered and not suicides — but at least some of them truly believed that Jim Jones was God and that they should kill themselves on his say-so.)

The argument from conviction is just a slightly tweaked version of the argument from popularity. Instead of saying, “Lots of other people believe this, therefore it must be true,” it says, “Some other people believe this a lot, therefore it must be true.” Which still makes for a truly lousy argument.

I think there’s an element of guilt tripping and emotional blackmail involved here as well. It’s like, “These people died for their beliefs — are you going to make their sacrifice be in vain? Or worse — are you calling them liars?” And there’s a circularity to it, too. People will readily say that the Heaven’s Gate cultists were delusional to sacrifice themselves for such an obviously nutty belief… but the Apostles’ sacrifice, that we have to take seriously. Why? Because the story of Jesus’ divinity and miracles isn’t absurd. And why do we think Jesus’ divinity isn’t absurd? Because the Apostles said it was true.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The only “evidence” we have of God or the supernatural comes from the inside of people’s heads. There is not one scrap of good, carefully- collected external evidence supporting the God hypothesis. It’s all sacred texts, or “my parents taught me this,” or “I feel it in my heart.” Or, “The Apostles believed this, and they died for their beliefs — and nobody would sacrifice themselves for a belief that wasn’t true.”

Right.

Just like the Heaven’s Gate believers.

Comments

  1. says

    There is also the little tidbit that there may have been some mistranslation along the way and it will be 72 white raisins waiting in heaven for those who have believed enough.

  2. David D.G. says

    Even C.S. Lewis, a fairly intelligent man, made this absurd argument about the Apostles dying for their faith being some kind of evidence that Jesus was God. (I think that it was part of the “Liar, Lord, or Lunatic” argument, sometimes called the “trilemma” argument.)
    Apart from the fact that the three possibilities presented in the “trilemma” are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, one of the most straightforward possibilities seems never to have occurred to Mr. Lewis — namely, that the Apostles were simply wrong. They were human (if they existed at all), and humans make mistakes.
    ~David D.G.

  3. says

    Indeed, the idea that Jesus might have been a fourth option(legend) apparently didn’t occur to him? wtf?
    I’d heartily encourage anyone that finds the ‘die for a lie’ argument interesting who wants more information to go check out ProfMTH on Youtube. He’s a college teacher/admin who has a playlist devoted to that topic. It’s somewhat lengthy, with quite a few videos, but I think it shows quite clearly how this argument is bunk from multiple angles of analysis. Link should be in my name.
    Hell, he’s got loads of other really top-quality stuff as well, check some of it out too! :)
    Glad to see you doing your bit to show how intellectually bankrupt the “die for a lie” line of apologetics is Greta :)

  4. says

    I’m always amazed that people still pull this argument out of their bag of tricks, as it’s one of the lamest ones in there.
    I never thought of the guilt-trip angle before. That’s an interesting take on it. But, what you mentioned in the OP is not even the worst of it. Assuming that Jesus was real and believed he had been chosen by God to accomplish some special mission, think how futile his sacrifice was!

  5. says

    I’m not sure I agree with your analysis here.
    The point of the argument from the death of the apostles is not that an argument that “they were willing to die so it must be true” but rather is an argument that they believed that they had seen miracles and such. Thus, it is an argument to accept their testimony.
    You touch on this argument and its problems (such as the fact that eye witnesses are very unreliable) however comparing it to the Muslims or Heaven’s Gate members isn’t a great comparison because those people aren’t including their claims explicit observation of claimed miracles.
    There are however, additional serious problems with this argument. In fact, there’s very little evidence that most of the apostles were martyred. Most of the martyrdom stories of the apostles date to very late. So even if one did buy into this sort of argument it would have a very questionable premise.

  6. N says

    I’ve heard a variant of this argument though – its not that “the apostles BELIEVED and died from it”, but rather “the apostles (as its told in the bible) KNEW and died instead of recanting what they knew”.
    Which does make the Christian argument a little stronger, and atheist have to fall back on the “but we can’t be sure if they knew because the testament isn’t reliable” argument.

  7. says

    N and Joshua: But the followers of the People’s Temple were also there to see Jim Jones and “know” that he was God. The followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult were there to see Marshall Applewhite and “know” that he was a prophet or a seer or whatever the hell they thought he was. Does that make their conviction and their willingness to die for their beliefs any more persuasive?

  8. vel says

    N,I dont’ find theists claiming that prior theists “knew” anything to be any stronger than they “believed”. There is no evidence that there was anything to “know”. The argument that there is no reason to believe in the NT because of the total lack of evidence of any magical occurences is still just as strong.

  9. says

    I’ve seen that argument from theists (what a strangely circular one it is, too), but
    I’ve also been given the somewhat related “It’s true because *I* really believe it. No, I mean, REALLY, REALLY believe it.” argument twice.
    The first time, I was so astonished that anyone could imagine this is a worthwhile argument that I found myself unable say anything at all.
    The second time, while not as shocked, I realized that anyone that did think that way was either unable to comprehend basic logic, or was capable of comprehending it but had simply chosen to abandon it.
    Either way, it was difficult to see any point in further discussion, since all my arguments relied on the very logic that they were not going to apply, whether by accident or design.

  10. Maria says

    Either way, it was difficult to see any point in further discussion, since all my arguments relied on the very logic that they were not going to apply, whether by accident or design.
    My feelings exactly in many cases. Apparently these kind of people are also often convinced that what made me stop discussing with them was me going speechless at their brilliant intellect and arguments… :-)

  11. says

    On this topic (and sorry for self-linkage, but I think it’s pretty relevant), I find that the best way to respond to this argument is as follows:
    “How exactly did the apostles die, and how do you know?”
    This tends to stop proselytizers dead in their tracks, because the facts are that we know virtually nothing about the life or death of any of the apostles. Only a few of them are even mentioned in any detail in the Bible, and for the rest, we have nothing but late, poorly sourced, and often conflicting medieval legends.
    The claim that the apostles were willingly martyred for their beliefs is an item of faith among Christian evangelists, something they tend to repeat even without knowing any facts that would support it. When you call them out on this and ask them to provide supporting evidence, they come up blank in every instance that I’ve seen.

  12. says

    Greta,
    No because they weren’t making miracle claims. The argument as used in the version which N and I discussed is a version in which the willingness to die is used as evidence that the apostles aren’t lying about their witnessing 1) miracles and 2) Jesus making specific statements. See for example the take C.S. Lewis has on this argument in Mere Christianity. The argument is a bad one but not as divorced from logic and reality as you give it credit.
    Thus, responses like my objections or the objections of Ebonmuse become more relevant.

  13. Nurse Ingrid says

    Sorry, Joshua, but WHO wasn’t making miracle claims? Are you arguing that the followers of Jim Jones didn’t claim that he performed miracles?
    Jim Jones did many public “faith healings” at his church, with people getting up out of wheelchairs and so on. These displays were later proven to be frauds, of course, but that doesn’t mean that his followers didn’t believe they were real instances of faith healing.

  14. el cid says

    New to your blog. Your retort on this one is a few donuts short of a dozen, namely because you take cause for skepticism about testimonial evidence as cause for doubt of testimonial evidence. That’s forcing an agenda.
    No problem in remaining skeptical but active disparaging of the apostles argument just has a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality to it. It’s rather important to acknowledge that there was something to this christianity thing that made it take, even when simplistic literalist views of it don’t quite meet standards of internal consistency. You need to float the alternative for why this particular myth (if that’s all it is) took hold so well. You have to do that because there is a real phenomenon which is belief of many. When you do put together the story line for why so many could believe in something that is in fact not true, and when you subject that story to the same criticism that you subject to the arguments for belief, you wind up with — neither chain of evidence is meritless or especially meritorious. So be happily unconvinced but check the misplaced allusions to Jonestown.

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