Cold Case Christianity For Kids – reprise

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

This was originally meant to be the second post about Chapter Five. Then, as part of the segue into the main bit, I went back to talk about the end of Chapter Four and started writing some explanatory bits about why there was a problem with Jeffries’ last statement there. Several paragraphs later, I looked at this and thought “Actually, I seem to have just written a post”. So here is that post. Following this, I will get back to Chapter Five.

Chapter Four ended with Jason asking this excellent question:

“[…]How do you know the story of Jesus wasn’t just changed over time? Maybe the first version didn’t even contain all the miracles I read about last week. What if those parts were added later by people who had something to gain?”

…and Jeffries assuring him that he would help him answer that question in the next session.

Which is interesting, because one thing we do know for sure is that the story of Jesus was changed over time.

For one thing, Bible scholars have ascertained that the four gospels were written at different points in the first century, running from Mark as the earliest to John as the latest – which gives us a chance to compare how the stories change over time. Of course, it’s important to remember that we can expect some differences between them regardless; when four different people with four different perspectives each write their account of a particular set of events, you’re going to end up with four different accounts, due to people’s different memories and different opinions on what’s important enough to put in. It is, however, noticeable how much more remarkable the miracles seem to get in the later gospels compared to the gospel of Mark. For example, the gospel of Matthew tells us about dead people coming out of their graves and speaking to other people at the time of Jesus’s death; the gospel of John tells us that Jesus restored a man who’d been dead for four days to life. Even allowing for differing perspectives, it’s very odd that the other gospel writers wouldn’t have wanted to include stories as amazing as those… unless, of course, those stories were added as part of a natural process of embroidery and exaggeration as the accounts were passed on by word of mouth over time.

But on top of that, there also exist different manuscripts of each gospel, coming from different time periods, which allows Bible scholars to compare the different versions and see what changes have happened over time. Of course, nearly all the changes they’ve found are utterly trivial; anyone copying out a very long document by hand is going to end up with spelling errors, spelling variants, transposed words and the like, and even the most sceptical scholar is unlikely to see those as any kind of serious problem. However, here and there there are points where a scribe seems to have taken it on himself to slip something extra into the text while copying.

The two most famous and significant such known cases are a story about Jesus in the gospel of John (in which he speaks to a group of people threatening to stone a woman to death for committing adultery), and the reports at the end of the gospel of Mark of a resurrected Jesus appearing to his followers (the original gospel is now recognised to end at the point where women who’ve come to Jesus’s tomb find it empty, are told by a mysterious man that Jesus has risen from the dead, and go away too frightened to tell anyone else; the accounts of actual resurrection appearances in Mark only appear in later manuscripts). Both these sections are now recognised by scholars to have been added by someone else at a later date, not by the original gospel authors.

Apologists have pointed out that discounting these stories as later additions needn’t affect our understanding of the New Testament as a whole. After all, even with discounting the authenticity of these sections, we have plenty of other stories in the NT that the existing manuscripts agree on (including stories of resurrection appearances reported in all three of the other gospels and in one of Paul’s epistles). This is true, but it’s also missing an important point; if these invented stories could be inserted and the resultant manuscripts read and circulated as valid, how do we know that this hasn’t happened with other stories in the gospels?

When I talk about comparing earlier to later manuscripts, it’s important to remember that the earliest full manuscripts we have of the gospels still come from around AD 200; a hundred years or more after the original gospels themselves were written. If those original copies had been preserved and we could compare the earliest ones we now have to the actual originals, what other changes might we see? What those insertions tell us is that it’s possible for a scribe to insert new material – sometimes important new material – into gospel manuscripts while they’re being copied, and have it accepted and believed by the people who read those manuscripts or hear them read out.

And, of course, all of that is on top of the fact that even those very earliest manuscripts were still written decades after the original events themselves. We have no way of knowing how many intermediaries those stories passed through before being written down, or how accurate those people were in their reporting; how prone to misremember or, worse, to exaggerate and embroider for effect. If verses and whole stories could get added to the gospels after they were written down, what on earth was to stop such a thing happening before there were even written records to put a partial break on that?

It’s not even in question whether the story of Jesus was changed over time. It was. The question is whether it was changed beyond the point where we can still trust the key points of doctrine that Christians derive from it.

But, instead of addressing that question, Wallace/Jeffries is focusing on making it sound to readers/cadets as though the story wasn’t changed… and that’s just plain disingenuous.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Five, part 1

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Chapter Five: Respect the Chain of Custody: Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence!

It’s the beginning of a new chapter, so, of course, we have the obligatory bit about the skateboard. Insert Character and Hannah examine the board further and discover that the school name sticker is covering the initials ‘LB’, which are scratched onto the board. They and Daniel decide to go and see the custodian that gave Daniel the board in the first place. Which… seems like something they should have done a lot earlier in the investigation, but, as usual, bits of skateboard investigation only happen at the point where they illustrate whatever apologetics point Wallace wants to make in the chapter in question.

Anyway, better late than never. The custodian – Mr Warren – turns out to know quite a lot about what’s happened to the skateboard:

  • Lincoln gave the board to Mr Templeton, the first custodian of the school.
  • Mr Templeton then retired and told the temporary custodian, Mr Jenkins, about it.
  • Mr Warren took up the job, and Mr Jenkins passed board and backstory on to him.
  • A ‘nice, polite girl’ asked Mr Warren if she could have it, and he passed it on.
  • Some time after that, it appeared back in the shed again.
  • The shed has not actually been used for years, as the school staff now keep their tools in a storage area in the new gym.

Which all strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Why would a child give his skateboard to someone on the brink of retirement, who, even allowing for the possibility of early retirement, probably doesn’t look much as though he’s still enjoying halcyon boarding days? Why would Mr Jenkins bother remembering and passing on this much detail, including the original owner’s name, and why would Mr Warren also remember it? Why was the skateboard left behind in the shed when the tools were moved; why not just give it to someone else or donate it to whatever the US has by way of charity shops? Why was the shed unlocked on the day Daniel was there? Why is the shed even still there if it’s no longer being used; shouldn’t someone get round to either repurposing it or tearing it down? Actually, I suppose that one does make sense; lack of funding and/or inertia. I do hope we get answers to all the rest before the book ends.

Also, Mr Warren doesn’t remember what the girl looked like, but does remember that the sticker wasn’t on the board when he first saw the board. Which seems like an extremely unlikely detail to be sure about this many years later, but Jeffries doesn’t question this at all when they tell him, assuring the cadets that ‘we even know when the sticker was added’. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE STICKER WAS ADDED, JEFFRIES. I could just about buy that someone might notice a sticker on a skateboard when they first saw it and that might stick in their mind years later, but the idea that someone would make a careful enough examination of the board to remember years later that it did not have a sticker on it, as opposed to ‘well, don’t remember it, but can’t swear it wasn’t there’? No, Jeffries, that did not happen. (Sheesh! You’re quick enough to remind people about the fallibility of human memory/observation when it comes to explaining the contradictions in the gospels! But now you’ve got a different point you want to make, all that goes out the window?)

I… I seriously worry about the quality of police investigation that’s getting done in whatever state Wallace works in. I sincerely hope all of this is just the result of him simplifying things for the age group this book is geared at and isn’t representative of the quality of his investigative work generally.

The point of all this, as far as the story is concerned, is to open the door for Jeffries to explain the concept of ‘chain of custody’ to the cadets:

“What’s that?” you ask.

“A record of who had the evidence and when. It’s like a chain. Each person in the chain is a link who handed the skateboard to the next person in the chain.”

An insert box adds the following:

We trace the “chain of custody” for each piece of evidence to see if it was changed over time. We ask two important questions:

1. Who handled it?

2. How did they describe it?

We can ask these same two questions about the Gospels to see if the information in the Bible has been changed over time.

Wallace is leaving out a key point here; the explanation of why the police use chains of custody.

I should point out here that I’m not a police officer (nor do I play one on TV) and that everything I know about this comes from some quick googling, so if there are any actual police officers reading this who feel I have drastically misunderstood things here then I am happy for them to point this out whereupon I will humbly apologise. However, my understanding from what I’ve read is that the purposes of a chain of custody are

  1. to preserve the evidence in an untampered state, and
  2. to be able to demonstrate in court that you have done so.

The former maximises the chances of getting useful and accurate information from it, and both the former and the latter are important when it comes to being able to build a court case against the guilty party.

Now, if this were an actual police academy cadet class and not a thinly-disguised Bible class, this topic could have made for a great lesson. Jeffries could have talked about what happens when they’re trying to use forensic evidence to link a suspect to a murder weapon, or evidence to a crime site, and a lawyer challenges them on it in court by pointing out that their flawed chain of custody has allowed for the possibility of contaminated or even planted evidence. He could have taught them about how to set up a good chain of custody, and about things the police might try to strengthen a flawed chain of custody. He could have shown them the evidence lab, the tamper-evident bags, the tape used to seal the bags after the times they have to be opened for the contents to be examined. Some of this is actually in the version of this book that Wallace wrote for adults, and it’s good reading.

But we don’t get any of this. And, of course, if we did – if the readers of this book learned enough about what’s needed to make a good chain of custody – it would become immediately apparent that what we have here is a terrible chain of custody. We have no idea what happened to the skateboard between the (unknown) time that Mr Warren gives it to this nameless girl and the (unknown) time it shows up again in the shed. We know, from the fact that it did show up in the shed, that at least one person other than the custodian has access to that shed; we therefore can’t exclude the possibility that someone tampered with the skateboard while it was in the shed. We have no written corroboration of any of this; we’re entirely dependent on the memories of one person, who wasn’t even an eyewitness to much of what happened. It worked for introducing the general idea of a chain of custody to the cadets, but there’s no way this particular chain would be considered valid in a court case.

The funny thing is that the chapter subheading – ‘Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence’ – does tell us what a chain of custody is for, but that excellent principle is nowhere to be seen in the text. Instead, Jeffries assures his cadets ‘Now we know everyone who had contact with the skateboard’ when in fact we know nothing of the sort. Once again, Wallace is presenting his case to his readers in such a way as to make it sound as though he is working towards rigorous police-level standards of investigation… while not, in fact, doing so.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 4

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Obligatory quick recap: This chapter is supposedly assessing the gospel stories by criteria used by jurors to assess reliability of witness reports, and Jeffries is doing a good job of glossing over just how dismally they fail. We have, so far, made it through the first of four criteria.

‘Wow, that was a lot of work just to answer the first question’ says Daniel. More accurately, it was a lot of work to evade the first question; answering it honestly (‘No, the author of Luke wasn’t there and can’t be treated as an eyewitness report’) would have been much faster. I do agree with him about it being a lot of work, though. Time to crack on.

The cadets move on to point 2, which is, you might recall, “Can we verify what they say in some way? We look for other pieces of evidence to see if they agree with what the witness said.”

How does that play out as far as the gospels are concerned? Well, there’s an awful lot in them that can’t be verified; the words and actions of an itinerant preacher in a largely illiterate backwater are, in the nature of things, highly likely to go unrecorded. It’s therefore only to be expected that we’d have no confirmation from non-gospel sources of most of the stories in the gospels, and indeed this is the case. A couple of points actually are confirmed; the historian Tacitus makes passing mention of a ‘Christus’ who founded a cult and was executed by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and Josephus mentions that a person called James was the brother ‘of Jesus called Christ’ (and probably mentions some other things about Jesus in another passage, but that one unfortunately has been contaminated by Christian interpolations at a later stage, making it hard for us to tell for certain what he said). None of this, of course, gets us any further in terms of verifying the claims that this Jesus-called-Christ actually did perform miracles, claim to be God, or rise from the dead.

However, there are some other claims in the gospels that actually should be verifiable if true. ‘Matthew’ tells us that at the time of Jesus’s death there was an earthquake that split rocks, the temple veil spontaneously tore from top to bottom, and graves opened up, with a number of dead people emerging and going into the towns where they appeared to people. These seem like the kinds of events that historians of the time would mention, even if just to try to put a naturalistic explanation on them to refute all the supernatural claims people would have been making. From the absence of mention of any such events, we can be reasonably sure they didn’t happen. ‘Matthew’ also cites numerous supposed prophecies that were supposedly miraculously fulfilled by the events in Jesus’s life, so that’s something we can fact-check; we can go back to the Jewish scriptures and see whether those prophecies actually exist. In fact, it turns out that most of the passages that ‘Matthew’ is claiming as prophecies are vague statements taken out of context and, in a couple of cases, crucially mistranslated; so what ‘Matthew’ says about prophecies isn’t accurate, when fact-checked.

All this doesn’t mean we can discard this gospel entirely; ‘Matthew’ might well, for all we know, have also reported all sorts of truths about Jesus’s life. But it does mean that ‘Matthew’ seems to have quite a penchant for dramatic elaboration and embroidery of a story, and that we can’t simply trust this author unquestioningly; we don’t know what other claims in this gospel are also examples of this type of elaboration. Once again, the gospels do not do well against Jeffries’ criteria.

Yet despite this, Jeffries assures the cadets that “we do have a lot of ‘verifying’ evidence”. This, apparently, is archaeological evidence to indicate that the gospel of Luke contains accurate information about cities in the area and about common names at the time, thus indicating that ‘Luke’ was indeed in the appropriate area at the right sort of time. Which seems to be good enough for verifying evidence, as far as Wallace/Jeffries is concerned. I… really hope that, when Wallace prepares his police cases, he goes for better evidence than ‘This person was in the right part of the country at the approximate time of these events, so clearly we can treat them as a valid eyewitness’.

“But how do we know they weren’t lying about the stuff that we can’t verify with archaeology or names?” asks Jason again.


Jeffries sits down with the cadets. “Let’s jump down to question #4[…]”

This line, by the way, is illustrated with a not-terribly-skilled line drawing of Jeffries and cadets which I barely noticed but which struck Katie as somewhat disturbing. “They’re all smiling the same slightly creepy smile,” she pointed out. “It’s as if they’re all possessed by the ghost of a marionette or something.”

Did the authors have a reason to lie? What would they get for their trouble? They ended up dying for their claims and there isn’t any evidence that they got rich or successful, or even popular!

I’m wondering whom he thinks ended up ‘dying for their claims’ here. I realise that Wallace (unlike most Biblical scholars) believes that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by the apostles of that name, and that there are church legends that say that Matthew was killed for his beliefs; but even the church has never claimed that John was martyred, and I couldn’t find any such claims regarding Mark or Luke either. Even if all four of the gospels actually were written by the authors traditionally claimed for them (which, alas for Wallace, is now generally considered by Biblical scholars to be highly unlikely to have been the case), we’d still only have at most one of them killed for his beliefs, and very possibly not even that, given the doubt about the story of Matthew’s martyrdom.

Many of them were put to death for teaching about Jesus, but none ever changed his story.”

Could we please put the ‘none ever changed his story’ myth to rest? In the first place, it s based on literally zero evidence. We have nothing available on whether any of the apostles were given a chance to recant prior to death or on what they said. We barely even know whether they were put to death; most of the martyrdom stories are unreliable legends from later in church history. In the second place, it’s a reply to a strawman argument; the argument that the apostles were lying about the resurrection. I’ve not yet come across anyone who seriously believes that to be the case after studying the evidence; it’s far more likely that the apostles somehow came to believe themselves that Jesus really was resurrected. Even if we did have reliable accounts of apostles sticking to their stories in the face of death threats, that wouldn’t help us judge the accuracy of their beliefs.

And Jason, bless him (if you’ll excuse the figure of speech), has come up with a great point:

“Okay then. What about the question you skipped? How do you know the story of Jesus wasn’t just changed over time? Maybe the first version didn’t even contain all the miracles I read about last week. What if those parts were added later by people who had something to gain?”


Everyone in the room gets suddenly silent.


“Oooh,” says Jeffries, smiling at Jason. “Now you’re starting to think like a detective![…]”

He’s been thinking more like a detective than you have here, so maybe cut the patronising tone?

“[…]I’ll help you answer that question the next time we meet.”

“So he can have time to think of an answer?” I speculated to Katie. She liked this and typed into my notes, “So I can have a chance to think of another lie… I-I mean, really think about the evidence and make sure my conclusion is correct, uh…!”

So! What will Jeffries have to say about this one! Will he have good reasons as to why we should trust that a story that was passed on orally for decades, often in sites that were far from where events originally took place, remained essentially unchanged? (Spoiler: no.) Will he have a good explanation for the stories and elaborations that, indeed, do show up in the later gospels but not the earlier ones? (Spoiler: no.) Tune in next week, etc., etc.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 3

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

The beginning of that introduction doesn’t feel terribly accurate at the moment; as you might or might not have noticed, the last two posts had very little mention of comments from Katie and this one none whatsoever. This wasn’t by my choice; Katie simply felt she had a lot less to say about both this chapter and the next, as she’s never read the gospels and doesn’t know much about them, so I’m getting very few comments from her to share. Hopefully that situation will improve again as we get further into the book. In the meantime, I’ll keep going with the review.

I was hoping to get Chapter 3 wrapped up in this post, but then I realised I’d missed a major point that I should have covered in the last post. You might recall that I was discussing Jeffries’ claim that witnesses of Jesus’s life/alleged afterlife would have corrected any fallacious claims in Luke’s gospel and that we can therefore treat this gospel as reliable and accurate. This is a common apologetics claim which does not in fact hold up, for reasons which I explained. What I managed to miss, however, was that Jeffries wasn’t even answering his own question there.


Jeffries told the cadets that the first question to answer regarding witnesses was, and I quote:

1. Were they actually there? If not, they can’t help us.

And he didn’t answer that. He told the cadets why he thought Luke must have been written before 61 AD (without mentioning that Bible scholars agree that the earliest likely date for Luke is more around 80 AD). He told the cadets why he thought that the witnesses to Jesus’s life would have corrected any errors in Luke’s gospel (I’ve explained the reasons why we can’t actually assume that). But he never addressed the question he said they had to answer; the question of whether the author of Luke was actually there.

If he had directly addressed this, of course, he would have had a major problem; ‘Luke’ (whose real name is unknown) wasn’t there.

‘Luke’ has never been claimed, even by early church tradition, to have himself been personally present for the events of his gospel. He claims to have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, which might well have included talking with at least some eyewitnesses (unfortunately, we can’t even know that much, as ‘Luke’ gives us no details whatsoever on what ‘carefully investigated’ meant to him; we have no idea whom he talked to, what questions he asked, or what investigations he made to look into any contradictions in the accounts he received, all of which makes it nearly impossible to assess the reliability of his information). But, even if it did, there is no indication that he was present for any of these events himself.

The gospel of Luke fails the first test Wallace/Jeffries gives us. By Jeffries’ own assessment, the reports in these gospel can’t help us.

The same, by the way, is true of the gospel of Mark, which has also never been claimed to be a direct eyewitness report. It’s supposed to have been written by Peter’s assistant and be a report of Peter’s teachings, which would, if true, at least make it a second-hand report; unfortunately, this claim is based on flimsy evidence and is highly unlikely to have been true, so it probably wasn’t even that much. Either way, it is not a direct eyewitness report. The authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were traditionally thought to be the disciples of those names, which would, if true, have meant that those at least were eyewitness reports; however, the general consensus now of Biblical scholars is that this was not actually the case and that these two gospels were also not written by eyewitnesses. For more information on all this, check out this excellent blog post on the subject by PhD Classics student Matthew Ferguson. In short, it does not appear that any of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

This, just to clarify, does not make them useless or devoid of all evidence. They’re samples of what was being believed/taught in the decades following Jesus’s life and death, and they do ultimately go back, via some irretrievable path of who knows how much passing on and misremembering and embroidering along the way, to some kind of actual witness reports. But it does make their accuracy extremely uncertain and their reliability hopeless; and it does mean that they resoundingly fail the standards of police-investigative level rigour that Wallace is trying to make us think they pass.

‘Were they actually there? If not, they can’t help us.’ Wallace/Jeffries is, frankly, being downright misleading and disingenuous here. He’s presenting this to the cadets as a thorough investigation performed according to appropriate police standards, while completely glossing over the fact that the evidence does not meet these standards.


Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 2

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

In the first part of this chapter, we had some stuff about witnesses and how to assess their reliability, and Jeffries asked the cadets to apply these principles to the ‘witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’, conveniently ignoring the fact that the only information we have on ‘the witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’ are some reports, from unknown people, an unknown number of decades later, telling us that some people (the reports don’t always entirely agree on which people) witnessed the events reported, with no information on how these reports were verified or passed on to others. In a situation like that, not only have we got no chance of assessing the reliability of the witnesses, but it’s a moot point as we also have no idea how much their reports might have been changed/embroidered/misremembered in the process of being passed from one person to another prior to being written down.

Sadly, no trained skeptics are there to point any of this out, so Jeffries gets to go on making his approach sound like thorough and appropriate investigation.

Jason, as instructed, starts to work through the list of questions Jeffries has given them for assessing witness reliability, starting with ‘Were they actually there?’. Jeffries tells them they should ‘use our detective minds again’, which, as always, means ‘go along with Jeffries’ leading questions’. Back to the skateboard investigation as an example; in this case, an example of how to draw unwarranted conclusions about when something was written while making it sound as though the evidence backs you up. Here’s how it works:

If Daniel had written a report on the skateboard investigation yesterday, argues Jeffries, it wouldn’t have included the information he got from his sister or the shop owner today. (Today? When did they have time? I thought they went to the Bible class police cadet academy straight after school. Oh, well, maybe it’s a school holiday.) Therefore, Jeffries would have been able to tell it was written yesterday purely from the fact that those things were omitted.

If you’re looking at an official report meant to include all known details, this is probably fairly reasonable (of course, in that case the report would also be dated and it would be a moot point, but that’s by-the-by here). However, what Wallace/Jeffries is trying to do here is to extrapolate this to accounts that aren’t that official; to work on the assumption that the only possible reason for not including X is that it hadn’t yet happened at the time of writing the report. but doesn’t mean that you can extrapolate that to anyone’s account of anything and assume that if they didn’t include X then the only possible reason is because they wrote the report before X happened.

Thus: Because Acts doesn’t include the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) or the deaths of Peter, Paul, and James (supposedly from 61 – 64AD, although Wallace doesn’t explain how Jeffries thinks he knows the dates of death of Peter and Paul, since all we have on those are late legends; I suppose we might know when James died, since that famously gets mentioned in Josephus), Jeffries argues that Acts was written before 61 and thus the gospel of Luke was written even earlier than that. QED.

I’m not an expert, but I do know that there is a general consensus in Biblical scholarship that the gospel of Luke is thought to have been written around 80 AD at the earliest. (There is a lot of uncertainty around the dating of all of the gospels, but this is thought to have been the earliest likely date for Luke.) This, it is worth noting, is despite a heavy preponderance of conservative Christian scholars in the field of Bible studies, who would love to be able to date the gospels as early as possible and would be delighted with evidence supporting an earlier rather than a later date. I don’t know the details of how Biblical scholars reached the conclusion that the gospel of Luke had been written in the 80s AD or later, but I’m willing to bet that the answer is not “Because we never thought of this point about Luke not including those events! This changes everything! Thank you, Wallace, for coming up with this!”

But… even if Wallace/Jeffries is right here, how much would that help? We’d still be looking at this gospel being written potentially as much as a quarter-century later, which is enough time for a lot of embroidering of a story to happen as it passes from one person to another. But Jeffries doesn’t see that as a problem, because…

“[…]This gospel was written early, while people who really knew Jesus were still alive. If the Gospels contained lies, the people who knew Jesus would have spotted them. It’s hard to fool people who were there and knew the truth.”

….because of the ‘Disciples As Perfect Proof-Checkers’ fallacy. (That isn’t an official name for it, by the way; I just came up with that one. Has a good ring to it, though.)

This fallacy is a common one; the idea that inaccuracies or legends couldn’t have been written into the gospels while the original witnesses were still alive because they’d have called the gospel-writers out on it. It sounds superficially persuasive, until you start looking at the assumptions required here:

  • That the church founders would even have heard or read the gospels. That becomes a heck of a large assumption when you figure in that we don’t know where the original gospels were written; that by that time, Paul and others had travelled around setting up some pretty far-flung communities of believers, in an age where travel was difficult and uncommon, especially amongst the poor; that we don’t know whether these gospels were being read aloud regularly to their communities, or whether the church founders could themselves read; and that it’s now recognised that the gospels were written in Greek while Jesus’s original followers would have spoken Aramaic as their native tongue.
  • That the gospel authors would, if called out on errors, be happy to correct their works.
  • That it would, at that point, be possible to retrieve and rewrite all copies that had so far been written. (Remember that none of this was being done via formal publishing. If a copy of your work had gone off to a far-distant community, then the only way to change that would be to send or take the corrected copy yourself and hope the community would be willing to make the switch.)

“Let’s face it,” I said to Katie, “Luke wasn’t going to rewrite his gospel just because someone pointed out there was a mistake in it.”

Katie immediately spotted the relevance to our current project. “Like, I’ve spotted a lot of flaws in the story already, and so have you, as we both know. But that doesn’t mean this guy is going to rewrite the whole thing, does it?”

Of course, it’s not an exact parallel; the disciples and other witnesses to the events around Jesus’s life should, in theory, been able to speak about their situation with more authority than I daresay Wallace would consider we held on his opinions. But still… how likely is it that Luke would have been willing to, say, arrange for the ending of all existing copies of his gospel to be rewritten just because some guy turned up at the church meeting claiming to be a disciple and saying “No, actually, that bit about Jesus sharing our food never happened”?

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 1

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Chapter 4: Test Your Witnesses: Don’t Get Fooled by Your Witnesses!

Chapter Four! Six months after I started this, we are actually onto Chapter Four! Storming along here! It felt pretty exciting to slide that Kindle page across, I can tell you. And, hey! We may have solved the skateboard mystery! I know you must be all on the edges of your seats.

Daniel has a sister called Lacey who is ten years older than him, which immediately makes me wonder what the backstory to that one was. Large family? Fertility difficulties? Accidental late pregnancy? Whatever the reason, it means that Lacey might have been at their school at the right time to have known the skateboard owner. Daniel realises this and asks her, and she was! And she thinks she can remember him! That’s impressive – I sure as hell wouldn’t remember seeing a particular skateboard with a particular person, ten years later. Or ten minutes later, for that matter, so probably it’s just that I’m not very observant about skateboards, but… seriously, would someone remember this? Oh, well, maybe Lacey loves skateboards and so it stuck with her.

Anyway, Lacey tells Daniel that she thinks the owner was a boy called Lincoln Singleton, who was three years older than her, moved away about five years ago, and always wore what I initially read as ‘blackboard shorts’ but was actually ‘black board shorts’. Which was not much less confusing to me as I’d never heard of board shorts, but my daughter figured out they must be something you wear to go skateboarding, which sounds logical. Daniel and Insert Character go back to the skateboard shop (‘back’ because they went there in the last chapter; it was so boring I don’t think I bothered writing about it) and the owner thinks he remembers seeing a boy who fits Lacey’s description.

But! We have a discrepancy! Lacey remembers this boy as being very tall, but the shop owner doesn’t! Fear not, readers; when they report back to Jeffries, he assures them that eyewitnesses never agree entirely. He also points out a logical answer for the discrepancy here; a boy who looks very tall to a short child three years younger than him is not necessarily going to look tall to an adult. More generally, of course, the point is that we don’t expect eyewitnesses to agree on every point.

You know where this is leading, don’t you? If your answer was “To an assurance that it’s quite all right that the gospel writers disagree with one another” then well done; you are quite correct. We get another of those grey insert boxes, reiterating the point about witnesses disagreeing and then giving us this gem:

So, when you see that two gospels describe something in a slightly different way, don’t panic.

Because, of course, panicking is exactly what a child is going to do when seeing a contradiction in the gospels. Thank goodness we have Wallace to reassure us, is all I can say.

Meanwhile, before we get to discussing the gospels, Jeffries lists four questions we need to ask to find out whether a witness can be trusted.

“The first question,” Katie declared, “is if they are evil. Because if they are evil, I don’t think they can be trusted!” Not a bad question, actually, but the actual four questions were:

  1. Were they actually there?
  2. Can we verify what they say in some way?
  3. Have they changed their story over time?
  4. Do they have some reason to lie?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Jeffries has to say about the gospels as far as those last two items are concerned. I’m also curious as to whether this is based on any sort of official list of police or legal guidelines, or whether Wallace made it up. It does seem to be missing a couple of important points; how accurate were the witness’s observations in the first place (i.e., was this event something they spotted in passing and had a vague impression of, or did they check lots of details, or what) and how well does the witness remember them (including the question of how long a time period elapsed between the event and the witness’s report)?

There is a brief discussion of the two witnesses of the elusive Lincoln Singleton, in which Jeffries and the cadets agree that it is fair to conclude that these reports of memories of something unimportant to the witnesses that they saw approximately ten years ago can indeed be counted as trustworthy. It’s at times like this that I feel really reassured as to the quality of the investigative efforts going on in the US police forces.

Back to ‘the case for Jesus’; Jeffries apparently asked Jason to do some research last week, and Jason read the gospels. (All of them? That’s pretty impressive, especially for a child to manage in one week’s worth of spare time.)

“I read the four Gospels and I see there are places where the stories don’t seem to be entirely the same. But now that I understand what eyewitnesses are like, I guess that’s not all that surprising.”

I wonder what he thought about the places where they’re entirely different? Or the places where one of them mentions something so amazing (a man being raised from the dead after four days, a nationwide darkness with the dead rising out of their graves and walking) that you’d expect all four gospels to put that one in, and yet none of the rest do?

Jeffries, of course, agrees with Jason, and then says:

“Now let’s ask our four questions to see if the witnesses mentioned in the Gospels pass the test.[…]”

…except that we have absolutely no direct reports from any of the ‘witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’. (In fact, when it comes to the resurrection accounts the Gospels can’t even agree on who exactly the witnesses were.)

So this situation is simply not equivalent to assessing the validity of a witness statement. All we know here is that four (unknown) people have reported that various people witnessed Jesus do various things, including getting killed and turning up again a day and a half later, and that one of them (Luke) assured his readers that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning‘ (Luke 1:3) but without giving us any further details of what reports he received from whom, what measures he took to check their accuracy, and what ‘carefully investigated’ actually means to him here in terms of how much care, and more importantly how much impartiality and analytical thought, he brought to the investigation. With this sort of knowledge base, asking these kinds of questions about the witnesses’ trustworthiness is meaningless.

This seems like a good place to split this chapter. Back soon with more!


Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 3

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. All posts in the series are collected at the end of this post.

Quick recap: This is the chapter in which Wallace presents his evidence for the existence of his God. In the first part of my review of this chapter, I discussed at some length the problems with the lack of direct evidence for God and how this lack is actually strong evidence against the Biblical god. In the second part, I wrote some not-very-consequential stuff about Jeffries’ drawings, and Katie invented potato-worship. In this part, I hope to actually answer the points put forward. We can dream…

The rest of the chapter consists of Jeffries going over the evidence for God’s existence, which he divides into four categories:

  1. The need for a First Cause
  2. Fine-tuning
  3. DNA
  4. The moral argument.

Here are my thoughts on each of those (I don’t have much from Katie; she was still focused on potatoes).


1. First Cause argument

“First, we’re in a universe that began to exist, just like we talked about before. What made it begin? Whatever it is, it would have to be something outside of space, time, and matter. We know that God fits that description.”

This… is about as logical as saying “We need an explanation for crop circles. Whatever created them would have to be something with great technological abilities. We know that aliens fit that description, so this counts as evidence for the existence of aliens.”

You can’t demonstrate the existence of a hypothetical being by simply declaring that it could have been responsible for such-and-such. If you want to go down that road, you have to demonstrate that this being was either the only thing that could have caused such-and-such, or, at the very least, that it was significantly more probable than any other possible options. I’m going to add here that Wallace is a police officer; I assume he knows full well that you can’t prove someone committed a crime purely by saying that they could have done it, and still less can you solve an unsolved case simply by hypothesising the existence of someone who could potentially have done it.

Wallace may of course have meant to argue that there are no other possible causes for the universe. If that’s what he was getting at, however, it’s on him to show that this is the case.


2. Fine-tuning

“Next, scientists tell us that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for the existence of life.[…]”

Whoa there, cowboy. For years I was reading apologetic books assuring me that one reason I should believe in God was the utter unlikelihood of life having developed on this planet without someone to create it, and now suddenly an apologist is trying to tell me that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life? Get your stories straight here, guys.

The fine-tuning argument, for anyone who hasn’t previously run across it, is based on the finding that various physical constants of the universe (gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong atomic force, weak atomic force) all need to fall within a very narrow range in order for a) the universe to continue to exist at all, and b) stars and the different kinds of atoms to come into being. All these constants do in fact fall within the necessary ranges (as you can probably deduce from the fact of our existence), and apologists will often use the odds against this to argue that it’s incredibly unlikely that our universe could have come into being without being deliberately designed and created.

Various problems with this argument have been raised. The main one, from what I’ve read, is that a couple of other well-established theories in physics seem to point to the likelihood that our universe is actually part of a multiverse containing unlimited numbers of ‘pocket universes’ with infinitely varied physical laws. However big the odds against any one universe having a workable combination of physical constants, in a multiverse with infinite pockets there are going to be universes that hit the sweet spot.

(Some versions of the fine-tuning argument also include claims about the incredible improbability of finding the correct planetary conditions to support life. The flaw in this one is hopefully even more obvious; this universe contains colossally vast numbers of stars and planets, so it really isn’t that unlikely that at least one of that mind-boggling number of planets happens to have a combination of qualities suitable to allow the development of life.)

Scientists have no idea why this is the case,

That, as per the links I included above, is just flat-out false. Scientists do indeed have ideas as to why this is the case. They have an entire detailed theory – the multiverse, as briefly described above and described in more detail in the above link – as to why this is the case. You may of course disagree with the ideas/theories they have and want to argue against them in some way, but denying that those ideas and theories even exist is not accurate.

unless of course, the universe was designed for a purpose: to be the home for human beings like you and me.

The second part of that quote does not follow logically from the first half.

Let’s, for a moment, suppose that the fine-tuning argument was absolutely correct. Let’s suppose that the reason why our universe has physical constants that fall so precisely within the ranges they do was because it was deliberately designed this way by a god who wanted a universe that would last for billions of years and contain multiple different forms of atoms which would be able, eventually, to develop into solar systems. It… would also still be a universe in which it took hundreds of millennia to form the first atoms, nine billion years to form our planet, and over four billion years more to get to the point where humans developed.

A god who would deliberately design a universe in such a way is not a god who appears to be showing any particular interest in humans whatsoever. While it’s very natural that we want to think of ourselves as being the primary focus and concern of a divine being – his reason for having created the entire universe, no less! – this belief is not something that can be backed up by what we observe in the universe around us. Even if the fine-tuning argument is correct and this universe was designed for a purpose, it does not look as though this purpose has anything whatsoever to do with ‘human beings like you and me’.


3. DNA

Scientists also see signs of design in biology.

Er, no. Scientists see signs of evolution in biology. A small minority of scientists – usually those with pre-existing religious ideas regarding the existence of design – do believe there are signs of design there, but it’s very misleading to talk as though scientists as an overall group were looking at what they could see in biology and saying “Wow; signs of design there”.

Your body is incredibly designed

A flaw in one of the genes that code for Vitamin C, putting us at risk of scurvy when we don’t get enough Vitamin C in our diet and hence causing the suffering of countless people who could have easily synthesised the vitamin they needed if only that gene was working correctly.

A blind spot in our vision due to retinas that face the other way from what even basic common sense would suggest.

Incompatibilities in head and pelvis shapes that not only make childbirth horrendously painful for women, but have led to millions of babies and mothers over the centuries dying in childbirth or suffering severe lifelong injury.

The human body is indeed incredible. I’m a doctor; I’ve learned a great deal about just how incredible it is. But it also has important flaws that provide very good evidence that we were not designed by a loving God aiming to get everything just right for us.

and you even have information in your body called ‘DNA.’


(Edited to add: In fact, it seems Wallace is in the clear on this one; I hadn’t realised that the US and UK not only have different spelling, but different punctuation rules as well. Thanks, brucegee, for the heads-up.)

Anyway, Jeffries goes on to explain to them that DNA is ‘an instruction manual for your body’, and tells us:

It contains more information than all the books in your school library, and information is a sure sign of intelligence.

No, it isn’t. To take an example that Wallace will be familiar with from his own working life; sometimes police officers will get called out to a death that turns out, on inspection, to have been due to natural causes. In those situations, the police officers will collect information from things like what position the body is in when it’s found and whether there are any signs of injuries. The information they get from these signs wasn’t put there by an intelligent being; if it’s a death from natural causes, then things like the position of the body also happen due to natural causes. It’s still information.

(To pre-empt a possible objection; Yes, in this example it takes intelligence to decipher the information. There are other situations where that isn’t true; for example, one-celled creatures can respond to different food sources in their environment, so they’re clearly detecting some type of information from the food sources and processing it in some kind of automatic chemical reaction that can take place without intelligence being required. More importantly, however, this wasn’t Wallace’s analogy here. He isn’t trying to argue that your cells are intelligent because they can read and act on the information in your DNA; he’s trying to argue that only an intelligent source can put any information there in the first place.)

We get another of Wallace’s grey insert boxes, this one giving us an unusually narrow definition of the term ‘information’: ‘A series of symbols, objects, or letters that describe a specific idea or request’. None of the dictionary definitions I looked up included a requirement for information to be expressed as ‘a series of symbols, objects, or letters’ in order to meet the definition, so Wallace seems to have manufactured a definition that fits with the belief he wants to get across.

Back to the skateboard, this time so that Jeffries can show the cadets the words ‘Made in USA’ printed on the base of the board as an example of information that couldn’t have got there by chance. Of course that information couldn’t; it’s expressed in a specific human language using a code (the written word) worked out by humans. Wallace seems to think that the coded groups of nucleotides in DNA that specify particular amino acids in proteins are analogous to this, as though the cellular machinery that manufactures proteins had to learn and check code books in order to do so.

Needless to say, that’s not actually how it happens; in fact, transcription of the DNA code is mediated by complex molecules of what’s known as ‘transfer RNA’, each of which links to a specific group of three nucleotides at one end and a specific amino acid at the other, meaning that, as the tRNA molecules link on to the chain of nucleotides, the amino acids carried by each of them will line up in a specific order. (It’s more complicated than that, involving messenger RNA and ribosomes just for starters, but that’ll do for purposes of this post.)

Of course, apologists will often then argue that this system is so complicated it can’t possibly have come about just by evolution, even given millions of years to develop (alternatively, a subset of apologists known as young-earth creationists will try to argue that our planet has only been here for a few thousand years and thus this system can’t have had millions of years to develop, despite truly colossal amounts of evidence to the contrary). However, this argument runs into the usual two problems:

  1. If you want to use this as an argument for the existence of a divine creator, you first have to prove that there is simply no way at all that this could have happened through natural causes. In other words, not just handwaving and talking about how it’s all just too complicated, but coming up with every possible pathway that could have led to the development of this system through natural causes, demonstrating why every single one of them couldn’t work, and demonstrating that there is no possibility that there might be another pathway that we just haven’t thought of yet. So, good luck with that one, guys.
  2. Even if you were to manage to do that, coming up with proofs so watertight they could survive being poked and prodded by the minds of the collective world of biology and biochemistry, you would still run up against the problem I mentioned above; that all you would have done would be to prove the existence of some type of divine creator, not the particular type of divine creator with a deep interest in and love for humans.


4. The moral argument

At this point, it’s mentioned that ‘some [of the cadets] look like they are ready to head out for the day’. Yes, I’ll bet they are by now. Jeffries gestures to them to keep paying attention and brings up the example of stealing being wrong:

“[…]Where does that kind of moral truth come from? Is it just a matter of opinion? Does it come from the state where we live?”

He gets them to conclude that stealing wouldn’t be OK even if there weren’t a law against it, and then gives them what is known in the logic trade as a false dichotomy:

“All right then,” continues Jeffries, “the truth about stealing seems to come from something other than my personal opinion or the state where I work. It’s bigger than all of us. God is also bigger than all of us, so God is the better explanation for the source of truth about stealing.”

…and, if you take the trouble to think about it instead of opting straight for ‘God did it’, our ability to empathise with others is a still better explanation, which Jeffries is completely ignoring.

Katie had wound down somewhat by now on the subject of potatoes, so I asked her what she thought about this argument. She was exceedingly unimpressed with it.

“Well, it’s kind of obvious,” she told me. “What if you’d just bought something for £50? If someone else steals it, that’s like £50 that’s been given to someone without their permission.”

I asked her why she thought this would be a problem. “Because it’s just like you’ve worked hard for that and they’ve done nothing to get it. It’s not nice at all.” I pushed her a little further, curious as to whether she’d be able to put any form of the ‘we wouldn’t like it if someone did it to us’ argument into words. “Basically I’m not happy about it because that makes no sense. It’s not my personal opinion that it’s wrong to steal. You literally just agreed with it! Either I’m missing something or these people are idiots!”

Jeffries, meanwhile, has finished his argument and his diagram and sums up, assuring the cadets that as long as you put only the most minimal effort possible into searching for other options clearly ‘God is the best explanation for all this evidence’.

“And science is the best explanation for all this other evidence,” Katie told me. “And the best explanation for all this evidence which makes sense for it is THE POTATO. BOW DOWN BEFORE THE POTATO! HE IS THE LORD AND SAVIOUR OF THIS WOOOORRRRRLLLLLLD!”

The chapter ends, we’re told, with the cadets looking around at one another and considering what Jeffries has just said. (“Did they think it was silly?” Katie asked me. I like to think that they were wondering when the hell they’d get to the bit of the course where they got to learn about fingerprinting.)

And that, dear readers, is not only the end of this chapter and of this probably excessively long blog post, but also of the bit Katie and I read together last October when we started this! Whoopee! We have finally caught up! It is no doubt a sad comment on my life to admit that I’m excited about moving on to the next chapter after all this time. I’ve been a lot more in my stride with blogging these past few months, so I’m hoping that getting through subsequent chapters won’t take nearly as long (for what that’s worth). We’ve already read the first part of the next chapter last night and I’ll start writing it up as soon as I can.

Why FOSTA might do far more harm than good

FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, is yet another example of a bill that was created with excellent intentions – to reduce the harm caused by sex trafficking – yet is likely in actuality to have a potentially very damaging impact on the lives of sex workers. It’s going to make it significantly more difficult for sex workers to advertise safely or to exchange safety information on dangerous clients. Here’s an article by Melissa Gira Grant, writer and former sex worker, on the problems it may cause sex workers:

Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento, said her phone had been ringing off the hook since the seizure of Backpage: “The fear is astronomical.”

One woman told her she was forced to return to an abusive client due to the lost income, she said. Others have resorted to taking on “managers” who have leverage over the women and their income and could exploit them, she added. “Very easily, you can lose control of your own life.”

“This bill is creating an actual market for pimps,” Calida said, adding: “People don’t know if they are going to be able to pay rent … how they are going to afford food.”

Another endeavour that, due to lack of consultation with the very group it’s meant to be helping, risks backfiring horribly and making life worse for them rather than better.

(This article is written in honour of one sex worker’s call for people to use Friday the 13th as a day to speak out in favour of decriminalising sex work. I didn’t have time to write a proper post, but this article is timely and was worth linking to. Meanwhile, as before, I support decriminalisation of sex work in the interests of sex workers themselves, who typically end up suffering more under paternalistic laws that are aimed at helping them without consulting them.)

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 2

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. All posts in the series are collected here.


Jeffries is about to explain the indirect evidence for the existence of God. Which he illustrates with diagrams. This cues a joke about ‘Better to be an artist than a con artist!’ which Wallace seems to have written so that he can put in one of his little grey inset boxes with the question ‘Some people think the disciples of Jesus were con artists, but is this a reasonable conclusion?’ No, Wallace, I do not think they had any good motivation to try a con that would have put their lives on the line and I do agree they believed what they were saying about the risen Jesus, but that does not mean they were right.

“You know,” Katie said thoughtfully of Jeffries “I think he might be a con artist, because he’s trying to trick them into being Christians.”

I…. couldn’t actually counter that. As previously mentioned, one probably unintentional effect of Wallace’s writing format for this book is that Jeffries is in effect presented as running a fairly blatant Christian evangelising class disguised as a police cadet class. I don’t think Wallace deliberately meant it that way – I think he’d probably be quite shocked if he heard it described that way – but that still is what the description in his book comes down to, and it’s really not OK.

Anyway, Jeffries assures the cadets ‘”This won’t be difficult to sketch out”‘ and proceeds to draw a line of falling dominoes (to indicate First Cause), which sounded quite difficult to sketch out as far as I was concerned. Katie, the family artist, assured me that for someone who was good at art it wouldn’t be that difficult, but pointed out that drawing it on a whiteboard, as Jeffries was, would be pretty difficult; whiteboards are hard to draw on. Jeffries goes on to illustrate his other points with pictures of a designer’s compass, a DNA molecule, a – you have got to be kidding me – a microscope, and two Ten Commandments-style stone tablets, so, excuse me, but I do not really buy this “This won’t be difficult to sketch out” line. #overthinkingit #seriouslysidetracked

Ahem. The indirect evidence? Ah, yes. Back to Jeffries’ speech:

“First, we’re in a universe that began to exist, just like we talked about before. What made it begin?

“A potato,” Katie suggested.

Whatever it is, it would have to be something outside of space, time, and matter. We know that God fits that description.”

“No, no, no, it’s a potato. But it’s a very lonely potato, so it made a whole universe so it can have friends.”

Jeffries draws a set of falling dominoes on the board….


HE IS THE LORD AND SAVIOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


…all of which was actually typed by Katie, who grabbed the computer from me to type about her new religion of potato-worship. I clearly wasn’t going to get much insightful conversation about the book that evening.

Having thus covered nothing whatsoever of use in this post, I shall end it here and move on to – I hope – actually answering some of the points properly in my next post.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Three, part 1

My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.


We’re on to Chapter 3! The full title of this one is ‘Think Circumstantially: Examine an Important Kind of Evidence!’ (exclamation mark Wallace’s). It begins with the reader’s insert-character clearly influenced by the classes;

During the week, you find yourself thinking “big” thoughts – thoughts about God and whether He is real.

Though not ‘about Gods and whether They are real’, I notice. Logically, the possibility that multiple divine beings exist should be one we consider just as seriously as the possibility that one specific divine being exists (however seriously that is). But apologetics books will frame these questions as being solely about whether their God exists; other possibilities are left unexamined. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll continue to use the term ‘God’ throughout the rest of this post.)

You wonder if Jeffries might be able to help answer your questions,

Now, wherever did you get that idea?

but when you meet the following Tuesday, he’s more interested in the skateboard.

You’re missing your chance, Jeffries!

Anyway, the bit about the skateboard doesn’t actually move the skateboard investigation any further forward. (Of course it doesn’t; we’re only on Chapter 3 of an eight-chapter book and this skateboard investigation is obviously going to have to last us the full book. I’m guessing we’ll have a Big Reveal in the final chapter?) This particular skateboard investigation section is used to illustrate the difference between witness evidence, which is known as ‘direct evidence’, and indirect or circumstantial evidence (such as the evidence the cadets used last week to figure out the skateboard was old). Jeffries gives the example of a colleague who came in with drops of water on her hair and clothes, thus providing him with indirect evidence that it’s raining. (“She’s just had a shower. It’s sunny outside,” Katie quipped.) All this is, as usual, setting things up for the religious topic of discussion this week, which is – as you may have gathered from the chapter beginning – the does-God-exist question.

You speak up: “Can we talk a little more about the Jesus case? I was thinking about God and miracles this week. […]”

It’s a little ironic that Wallace starts this character’s query off with a request to talk about ‘the Jesus case’, because, in fact, this chapter isn’t going to mention Jesus at all; it’s going to be a general chapter about whether to believe in ‘God’. The particular God under discussion is of course the one broadly described in Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism rather than any other possible concepts of deities, but there’s no specific mention of Jesus, as as such. I don’t think Wallace could see past his own religion here to notice that theism and Christianity aren’t actually synonymous.

Jeffries is, of course, delighted to be asked this, and assures them:

“This is a perfect example for this week’s lesson. Indirect evidence can be powerful, and we do have indirect evidence for God. A lot of it, actually.”

I didn’t notice this on my read-through with Katie, but this raises a very interesting point. Is there a reason that Wallace/Jeffries feels he can’t offer direct evidence for God?

What would such evidence look like? We’ve just been told that direct evidence is the testimony of a witness, so, in this context, direct evidence would be the testimony of someone who has actually witnessed God in some way. There are, of course, plenty of people who believe that God has spoken to them, so it’s interesting that Wallace/Jeffries doesn’t offer this here as an example of direct evidence. I don’t know, of course, why Wallace made this choice; but I wonder if possibly he recognises that these claims are actually very poor quality evidence when properly examined. These supposed communications from God

  • typically feel very similar to our own internal experiences and thoughts (compare this to our experience of seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing things around us; we experience those sensations as coming to us from external sources)
  • are often flat-out contradictory in terms of what different people interpret as being God’s message to them.

The claims of communications received from God actually look like what we’d expect if people were very good at imagining that a divine being was communicating with them. And that’s fairly poor evidence.

There’s a point here so obvious it frequently tends to get overlooked; namely, that it is of course perfectly possible to communicate with human beings in such a way that we can clearly sense these communications as coming from external to ourselves. This describes all the communications that we, as humans, have with one another. When someone speaks to you, or you read a note that they’ve left you, or a book that they’ve written, or a comment they left on the Internet… then you’re not normally in any doubt about the fact that you’re receiving a communication from someone who actually exists. Most of the people reading this have never met me, but I’m guessing you’re not in any doubt that the words you’re reading were written by a real person.

So… suppose that a divine being actually did communicate with us in such a way that we experienced the communications as clearly coming from some external source. (This could be the traditional Voice booming out or letters of fire in the sky, but it could just as plausibly be via an extra sense other than the five we know about. All I’m hypothesising here is that we would clearly experience this communication as coming from a source external to our own minds, just as we do when someone speaks to us or we read something they’ve written.) If that were so… well, Wallace wouldn’t have needed to write this chapter in the first place, because everybody would believe in this god already.

While believers sometimes complain that atheists would just refuse to believe no matter what evidence was offered, in actual fact people generally do believe the evidence of their own senses. It’s also worth noting that there are many people who desperately wish they could get this sort of communication from God – they feel abandoned by God, or alone, or on the brink of losing their belief, or don’t believe and would very much like to – who would find it wonderfully comforting and satisfying to have such definite communications. Which means the next question needs to be why, given the benefits of communicating universally with humans in such a clear-cut way, a god would choose not to do so?

Well, there are a couple of fairly obvious possible reasons:

  • A god might have some kind of limitation in ability rendering him/her unable to communicate with us that clearly.
  • A god might have no interest in communicating with us. It’s a big old universe, and quite possibly even a multiverse; while we quite naturally tend to think of ourselves as the most important beings in it, it’s not hard to hypothesise that a divine being might have no interest in us whatsoever and have created the universe for completely different reasons.

So our lack of direct and clearcut communication from a god certainly doesn’t automatically equate to the non-existence of any god.

However, the problem here is that Wallace isn’t trying to argue for the existence of any god. He’s trying to argue for the existence of his God; the particular divine being described in the Bible. This God’s salient features, as described, most certainly do include a) vast abilities that do indeed include the ability to communicate with any willing individual (and arguably with unwilling ones, but I’ll keep it as willing individuals for simplicity) and b) a strong desire for every single person on earth to get to know Him.

It therefore makes no sense whatsoever that, if the God described in the Bible really exists, he would not communicate with humans in such a clearcut way. He has the ability; he has the motive. He has devoted followers who are, in at least some cases, begging him to do so; some of those followers will lose a previously strongly-held faith when they get no answer. The fact that we don’t get any such clearcut communications is, therefore, compelling evidence that the specific God described in the Bible does not exist.

Jeffries believes he has indirect evidence for the existence of (a) God. It will hopefully not be too much of a spoiler at this point if I tell you that I was not very impressed by the evidence, but that’s a subject for another post. The thing is… even if Jeffries had compelling indirect evidence for the existence of a divine being, the very fact that he can’t offer direct evidence is actually strong evidence against the existence of the particular god he wants to demonstrate.