An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part One

There’s a new Christian blogger in town; Ted Wright, founder of a group called Epic Archaeology, who has now set up a blog called Off The Map. He’s started off with a post titled Honest Atheism, of which the summary is basically ‘Excuse me, atheists, could I just point out to you that your worldview really sucks for you? Stay tuned to hear more about the comparative joys of Christianity.’

I thought I’d write a reply, which I’m splitting into two posts due to length. Content warning for talk of death and dying.

This is the first (real) post of my new personal blog, and it will be… to put it bluntly…disturbing and to some, depressing. This is intentional. My goal is simply to get people to really THINK about what it is that they believe, and to see the logical conclusions of what they believe about ultimate reality.


Let’s say for a moment that atheism really was as depressing a worldview as you believe. (I disagree, but set that aside for a moment.) What good do you feel it would do you to rub that in? Reality isn’t going to change for our benefit regardless of how depressing it is, and I assume (I hope correctly) that you wouldn’t advise anyone to choose their beliefs based on what feels good.

But, OK, let’s go for it – let’s both look at the logical conclusions of what we believe about ultimate reality. I’ll go first, since you wrote the blog post.

First, though, we have this:

Sproul taught that when all of the various worldviews are boiled down to their basic components, there are only two in the end for us to choose from – two views of reality in which all people must put their ultimate hope and trust: full orbed Classical Christian Theism or Atheistic-Nihilism.  I fully agree with this assessment. Like Sproul, I am also fully aware how how this understanding appears to commit either/or fallacy in logic. I don’t think it does. Either there is a God and all that Christian Theism implies (including miracles, the afterlife, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead); or there is NO GOD, no afterlife, and life is completely and utterly absurd.

Whoa, there. Are you planning a follow-up post to justify that claim? I hope so, because I think that anyone who’s going to dismiss polytheism, deism, agnosticism, Judaic theism, Islamic theism, and probably a few other -isms I’m not thinking of into the bargain as being so incorrect as to become somehow functionally nonexistent for purposes of consideration should darned well justify that attitude beyond a mere handwave.

(Also – yes, I have spotted you slipping in your opinion about atheism at the end of that as though it could be stated as objective fact. I get that you believe that if atheism is correct then ‘life is completely and utterly absurd’, and you’re welcome to that opinion, but do be aware that it is an opinion and that there are many people who don’t share it.)

Anyway, on to Ted’s thoughts on how awful atheism must be as a worldview and on how bizarre he finds it that atheists don’t seem to feel that way:

What I find quite interesting is that many atheists, as well as those who are a-religious, or hard agnostics, ACT as if life has meaning, significance & value

Because to us, it does.

They conduct their affairs and live their lives as if there REALLY IS ultimate meaning and significance.

No – just as though there’s meaning and significance. Because, as you point out a couple of sentences later, there is. Meaning and significance are not things which have to be ‘ultimate’ or eternal or God-ordained to exist.

Where does the meaning come from? What exactly gives it [sic] meaning?

Very likely from most of the same places yours does. I’d be surprised if the only thing you found meaningful in your life was your worship practices; it’s far more likely that your life contains at least some out of family, friends, some kind of meaningful work, enjoyable hobbies, and the chance to make a positive impact on others, all of which are very important potential sources of meaning.

Are they brutally honest with the implications of their atheism – of there being no God? Do they look down the road to see where it leads – so to speak?

I can only speak for myself here – and I’ll be interested to hear what any other atheists weighing in on this have to say – but, yes. I’ve always been well aware that, if there’s no god, then that means that a) there’s no higher power to help out in times of crisis, and b) it’s extremely unlikely that there is any form of afterlife.

(I put ‘extremely unlikely’ because it’s technically possible to believe in a godless universe where an afterlife still exists; after all, Buddhists manage it. It’s not what an atheist would typically believe, however, and it’s not what I believe.)

Unless I’m wrong about my beliefs, the ‘me’ part of me is going to wink out completely when I die. No reincarnation, no living on in a blissful afterlife, no nothing. And the same is going to happen to everyone else, meaning that, when I lose loved ones, I have no chance of ever meeting them again. Honestly, Ted… as much as these things might suck, they aren’t deep dark secrets about atheism, or obscure points that might have escaped our attention. They’re well-known, obvious facts. I’m going to be pretty surprised if you can find many atheists who, prior to you bringing this to their attention, were blithely unaware of the fact that no god = almost certainly no afterlife = when we’re dead, we’re gone with no do-overs.

Yes, I’d certainly have preferred it if all the searching I’d done on the matter (which was a lot, in case you’re wondering, and the posts at that link don’t even include all the considerable amount of investigating I did of Christianity specifically) had led me to the belief that the world was in the charge of some kind of benevolent higher power. I’d certainly have preferred to believe that I’d get the chance to live on in some pleasant and enjoyable type of existence after my death (my personal preference would be for reincarnation, but I’d have happily settled for some kind of merit-based afterlife). Concluding that neither of the above appeared to be the case wasn’t the sort of devastating abandon-all-hope experience you seem to think it would be, but it wasn’t something I was wildly thrilled about. But… that isn’t a good reason to choose a belief. I couldn’t in all honesty convince myself that the evidence supported belief in a god or an afterlife, and I didn’t want to be someone who based her beliefs on wishful thinking.

“[…]Yes, for the thoughtful atheist death must loom as a crushing catastrophe. Everything good, noble, beautiful experienced throughout life is about to vanish…

not simply for a week or two,

not for a century,

…but forever.

On the atheist’s premise death is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn” [Quoted from Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet]

Now, that strikes me as hyperbole. Yes, it sucks to know that we may well not get to do everything we want before we die. It sucks worse to know that, if a loved one dies before us, that’s it – we will never see them again outside our memories and imaginations. But‘crushing catastrophe’? ‘[N]ightmare unbroken by a dawn’? Death, from our perspective, is nonexistence. What Dubay seems to be saying here is that death itself will be a terrible experience to be endured, when, in fact, the very nature of it means that we won’t experience it (beyond, possibly, the seconds of actually slipping into death) at all. It’s not as though we’re going to be spending eternity lamenting the loss of all those good and noble and beautiful things we wanted to experience; we won’t be experiencing anything at all, and that’s that.

I also have to say that what you’re saying does seem to me to be a bit contradictory here. You’re saying (via Dubay’s quote) that the loss of existence is ‘a crushing catastrophe’ and ‘a nightmare unbroken by a dawn’. Surely, the implication of that is that existence is a good thing that is worth having. I’m… puzzled as to how someone can feel that way, value existence that way, and yet only feel able to enjoy existence if it’s going to be permanent rather than temporary.

Ted, you seem to be just as puzzled about the fact that I, and others, do feel able to enjoy existence even in the expectation that it’s temporary. (To the point where, in the comments, you’re accusing everyone who feels this way of not being ‘honest’. That, seriously, is out of order. There are people in the world who don’t share your views. That doesn’t make them dishonest; it makes them people who feel differently from you.) So, maybe, try this; think about things that we all know are temporary, but that we enjoy anyway.

What about the experience of bringing up children? While I’ll always be a parent to my two children, their time as children is not going to be permanent. The baby cuddles and the early words and the school days and all those wonderful stages of growth and development they go through… some of those have already passed forever, and all of the rest will as well. And I knew that would happen when I chose to have children. Do you find it absurd or incomprehensible that I and millions of other people choose to have children, knowing the experience of parenting children will, although wonderful and fulfilling, be temporary?

What about careers? I love my work as a doctor with a passion, to the point where I plan to go back part-time even after I retire; but, eventually, either death or sheer decrepitude will put an end to it. (And that’s true even on your worldview, by the way; I’m assuming you don’t believe that people who get into heaven or hell go on working at their careers there.) From what I’ve seen, I believe you feel the same way about your work in archaeology, which is also something you’re probably not expecting to keep doing in heaven. Do you find it strange that we both love and enjoy our work even in the knowledge that it will someday come to an end for us?

I hope that helps to give you some insight into why people who don’t believe in an afterlife can still find their lives purposeful, meaningful and enjoyable. If not… well, I’m afraid it’s simply a case of ‘agree to differ’. (In which case, I repeat; the fact that some people feel differently from you on this subject does not make them dishonest. It makes them people who feel differently from you. I hope you will, in future, be able to do others the courtesy of respecting this fact.)

I think that exhausts the logical conclusions of what I believe about ultimate reality. I’ll therefore end the post here and move on to a second post to discuss the logical conclusions of Christian beliefs about the afterlife.

Laying down the homeschooling burden

Today is the second anniversary of my move to FTB. Being offered a blog on here would have been great news under any circumstances, but, as it happened, was a particular light in the darkness at the time, because life right then was very, very stressful. My son was in his final year of what had been an extremely turbulent time at primary school, and, although he was finally settling down at the excellent school we’d managed to get him into that year, his history meant that no local mainstream school felt able to take him. The local available options for autism specialist education were not particularly good, and, in particular, not good options for Jamie. This meant that my husband and I were in the midst of a lengthy struggle with the local council as to the best course of action for his secondary education.

To cut a very long story short (which is something I wish I could have done with the reality) we eventually reached an uneasy compromise whereby I would homeschool Jamie for the next year with the help of a budget from the council which we could use to hire tutors. This had its advantages, but it was also a massive and stressful job. With an interested and involved child, homeschooling can work very well. With my son, it was a constant uphill struggle that absorbed endless hours of my time and energy in trying to come up with lessons he would do. This school year, we’ve been trying to arrange his return to mainstream education, and it has not been easy.

Finally, the struggle is over. On my second blogging anniversary, it gives me enormous pleasure to announce that we have a confirmed and funded place for my son at a specialist school for autism about a forty-minute drive away with an excellent reputation, and he will be starting at the beginning of next term. While our lives aren’t going to be plain sailing from now on by any means, one huge source of worry has just been lifted.

Having fulfilled what seems to be an unintentional yearly tradition to type up my anniversary posts in a mad rush while about to be late for dinner, I’d better go. Happy blogging anniversary to all those bloggers who started at the same time as me, and I hope all of you are having similarly good things in your lives to celebrate.

C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – an ironic postscript

In my last two posts, I wrote about my reaction to C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for the existence of God, which I encountered as an agnostic in my early twenties, and how and why I ultimately found it to be flawed. Short version:

Lewis: People all share particular moral beliefs about the importance of fairness/honesty/courage etc. This indicates that some kind of Being outside the universe instilled these beliefs into us.

Me: Great point, but in fact a better explanation is that people are capable of figuring out that the feelings of other people matter.

Longer version, part 1

Longer version, part 2

Fast-forward something in the region of twenty-five years.

Just over a year ago, I discovered Ana Mardoll’s superb ongoing deconstruction of the Narnia stories and read through all the archived posts so far, as well as all the posts she’s made since then. (Which, by the way, I strongly recommend. Also, the comments from her readers on each post, which are brilliant and contain much snarking and fanfic. Also, her Twilight deconstruction. Also, almost everything else she’s written. But I digress.)

You know what? The morality Lewis reveals throughout the story is terrible.

The Jesus-character mauls one child in a terrifying lion attack. This is justified as being wound-for-wound punishment for an incident in which, while trying to escape a forced marriage, she drugged a slave thus causing the slave to be whipped. (Actual Jesus: Hey, guys, you know that law you have about equivalent punishment on a wound-for-wound basis? That’s ending. Be extra nice to each other instead. Lewis’s Jesus: You totally get punished on a wound-for-wound basis. Deal with it.) However, a few books earlier, a (white, male) character did exactly the same thing with no indication at all that punishment would be deserved or meted out. Which isn’t the only time Lewis goes for blatant double standards in what’s considered acceptable for different characters.

The heroic Good-Guy king is quite happy to leave a ship of pirate slavers to go on their slave-taking way rather than actually try to stop them. He does try to do somet later on, when slavery briefly impacts directly on himself and his friends, but only after he’s enjoyed a fun dinner with a slave-owner (priorities, right?), and not in any way that involves rescuing slaves other than his friends who have already been sold. (It does involve striking and insulting an elderly man for doing his job.) Later on, we find that slavery – and not only slavery, but changing the slaves’ own bodies against their will just because they annoy you – is actually fine (ordained by Jesus, no less) when it’s done to a race of people who can be diminished and ridiculed in our eyes.

There’s a stack of problematic stuff in the way that the dark-skinned race in the books are portrayed, and in how women are portrayed.

Now none of this, of course, makes one whit of difference to the validity of Lewis’s arguments, which must stand or fall on their own merits. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which all this slices across Lewis’s premise. Lewis claimed not just that humans all share some basic principles of morality, but that all humans share the majority of their moral code; that, in the area of morals, we agree on all the important things, to the point where it’s a remarkable phenomenon that needs explaining (by a hypothesized deity). And yet, here’s Lewis himself being absolutely fine with all sorts of things that, when you look at them, aren’t morally justifiable at all.

It’s not news, of course – whatever Lewis may have thought – that different people and cultures have in fact had rather drastically different moral codes. It just seemed ironic to me that Lewis himself, proponent of the Moral Argument, inadvertently provided such strong disproof of its basic premise.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 2

This is the second part of my two-part account of what I made of C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for the existence of God when I encountered it in my early twenties, and why it didn’t convince me to become a believer.

Quick summary of material covered in Part 1 (statements below are summaries of positions, not direct quotes):

C.S. Lewis: We all share certain moral values which are universally agreed upon (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, etc.). The universality of these moral values is beyond what can be explained by instinct or social teaching, and hence must indicate the existence of some kind of divine being who instilled these into humans.

Me: Hang on. Surely all these shared moral values are just as well explained by our ability to understand the feelings of others and accept them as objectively important in the same way as our own feelings are? Therefore meaning that these shared moral values don’t, in fact, necessarily indicate the existence of a divine being? All very interesting; need to think about this further.


So, I thought about it further. There were questions about my hypothesis that still needed asking:

1. Did it work? Rather an obvious point to consider. Did this basic principle – our understanding that the feelings of other people are also important – actually work to explain all of the moral codes that humans shared?

I did manage to think of one exception; the universal prohibition on incest. Of course, part of this is because in nearly all cases incest is abusive, and it hardly takes much thought (snark about Duggars deleted here because I don’t want to get too far sidetracked) to see how a principle like ‘Avoid hurting other people’ prohibits both sexual abuse and the hideous betrayal of family bonds. However, it’s also true that sexual relationships with close relatives are generally viewed as wrong even in those few cases where they quite genuinely are consensual. So there it was; one example of a universal moral code that didn’t seem to derive from consideration of the feelings of others.

However, this taboo didn’t seem to require me to hypothesise a morals-dispensing god to explain it; it seemed easily explicable in evolutionary terms. Having sex with a close relative would increase a person’s chances of having a child with health problems or a severe disability, and hence (because the small subsistence-level groups that humans had lived in for most of our history weren’t really in a position to support the disabled or those in poor health into adulthood) reduced their ability to pass on their genes successfully. People who didn’t want sex with their close relatives would therefore have an evolutionary advantage over those who did. Over time, we’d evolved a powerful and near-universal revulsion at the thought of sex with close relatives that had no more to do with morality than our opposable thumbs did; it was a genetic-level survival strategy.

That was the only exception I could think of; all the other universally shared moral codes I could think of were traceable back to a basic ‘do as you would be done by’ principle. Of those moral codes that seemed widespread enough to describe as universal, I couldn’t think of any that were so inexplicable as to require me to hypothesise a divine being to explain them.

2. Was I just not going back far enough? Our shared moral codes could be easily explained by our ability to appreciate that the feelings of others mattered – but what explained that ability? Was that something that could only be explained by the existence of a god who had endowed us with this skill?

No, I didn’t think so. Evolution had, over the millennia, shaped the human brain into a tool capable of amazing feats of intelligence and discernment. I didn’t see any reason why this complexity couldn’t also have produced the ability to understand the feelings of others. In fact – although I can’t remember whether or not I recognised this at the time – such an ability would in itself be an evolutionary advantage, since humans that lived together in co-operative groups where the members looked out for one another would have a better overall chance of survival than humans that tried to live and hunt on their own.

Two quick points here, in hopes of pre-empting objections:

Firstly, I do recognise that some people reading this may find this a sticking point; many theists believe that the complexities of the human brain and its abilities exceed anything that evolution can account for, and a small minority reject beliefs in evolution altogether. If so, then that’s outside the scope of this post to discuss, but it is worth noting that at that point you’re out of Moral Argument territory and back into Design Argument territory, which is something I previously commented on here.

Secondly, someone might well misunderstand this argument and think that I’m trying to claim that evolution can explain morality by itself and start explaining to me why it can’t. If so, you’re going to be attacking a strawman, since that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I believe is that the abilities from which we obtain this moral code – our ability to empathise with others and understand their feelings as important, our ability to think about what effect our actions may have on the feelings of others – can all be explained by evolutionary processes. We’ve then used those abilities to go far above and beyond the original evolutionary benefits they gave us, just as we’ve created great works of art with the manual dexterity that originally evolved to make us better at making the flint tools that would help keep our tribes alive; just as the Mona Lisa makes no difference to anyone’s survival, thus the moral code we now have involves far more than ‘what will best propagate our genes’. But I do believe that the original abilities that have enabled us to develop this moral code are explicable in terms of evolution and the ways in which it has shaped the brain. In other words, there is no need to look at them and see them as a mystery that only a god could have produced.


It seemed I had a solid, non-god-related explanation of why humans share a moral code. Which left me with one further important question to ask:

3. Which theory – mine or Lewis’s – was more likely to be right?

There was a simple way to assess this; I pictured the results we’d expect if Lewis’s theory were the correct one, and the results we’d expect if mine were.

If Lewis was right – if our shared moral code were a message from an interested deity wishing to let us know what behaviour was expected of us – then the first conclusion that seemed reasonable was that we’d expect to get a complete moral code. After all, it’s hard to see why a deity who’s interested enough to give us such a code in the first place would give us such a bare outline of it. Sure, we might not get every single detail spelled out; but we wouldn’t expect to have massive disputes over issues as fundamental as what did or didn’t constitute murder. If Lewis’s theory was the correct one, then we wouldn’t disagree over whether abortion or euthanasia or gay sex were OK. Our innate shared knowledge would cover all the significant issues, and that would be that.

(That, at least, was my reasoning at the time, which is what this post is meant to be about. However, an interesting logical alternative has occurred to me in writing this; we can, with just as much logic as Lewis used, hypothesise that our moral code was instilled in us by a being who didn’t include guidance on those issues because it genuinely doesn’t care about them. Which would mean that any moral beliefs not universally shared among human beings must be issues that God wasn’t bothere about either way. In other words, if Lewis’s Moral Argument theory was actually correct, then one logical conclusion would be that God isn’t actually bothered by such issues as gay marriage or abortion. I’m gonna bet today’s salary that you didn’t think of that one, Lewis.)

The other thing I’d expect if Lewis were correct would be that this shared moral code would include an innate understanding of the need to apply it equally to everyone everywhere. After all, why should this god care more about our behaviour towards people we knew or who we considered part of our in-group than it cared about our behaviour towards foreigners or other groups with which we couldn’t easily identify? Especially given that a key point of Lewis’s argument is that this code is universal among humans and that this is meant to indicate that this god cares about the behaviour of humans collectively and not just a subgroup thereof? So, if our moral code did indeed come from a god who cares deeply for all of humanity, we’d expect this code to include the same automatic care for all of humanity.

If, however, I was right about our shared moral code coming from our ability to understand and consider the feelings of others, then we’d expect to see quite a different picture. We’d expect there to be large disagreements between both individuals and societies on what constitutes moral behaviour – after all, just because we’re starting from the same basic principle of considering the feelings of others doesn’t mean we’re all going to have the same beliefs as to how this principle is best put into practice. We’d also expect that consideration for distant strangers would come with much more difficulty than consideration for people whom we perceive as being in our in-group, partly because we identify with the latter more easily and partly because, as I mentioned above, this ability probably evolved precisely because of the advantages of concentrating our energies on helping those in our in-group.

In other words… not only did my hypothesis explain perfectly well how and why humans share a near-universal moral code, it did so better than Lewis’s hypothesis. The facts of the world that I could observe all around me fitted better with my explanation than with his.

It was a shame; I’d really felt that Lewis was onto something new and interesting here. But his explanation didn’t hold up, so that was that.

And that’s why Lewis’s moral argument didn’t make me a believer.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1

When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.

What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.

Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.

First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:

  1. We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
  2. This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
  3. The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.

So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?

There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.

We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.

(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)

This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.

To be continued…

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part Four

My nine-year-old 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.


*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.


(This is a longer post; we were getting close to the end of the chapter and finishing it all in one lot seemed simpler at this point than breaking the narrative yet again.)

At somewhere around this point in the narrative, according to my notes, Katie and I seem to have diverged into a brief aside about what Jesus’s death is meant to be about in Christian narrative; the belief that we’re all sinners who can’t get into Heaven and thus Jesus had to die in payment for our sins. I can’t remember how we got onto this, but remember being interested to see what she’d make of it, as it’s a theology I’ve always found quite horrifying. Katie, as it happened, focused on another detail entirely; she didn’t see why death was necessary according to this theory.

“But wouldn’t it be really, really painful?” she asked me, referring to Jesus’s death. “And wouldn’t the pain be the payment? I mean, supposing you got shot in the face for everyone’s sins – even if you survived it, wouldn’t it be really painful being shot in the face? Wouldn’t that be the payment?”

Good point. I can’t remember how I answered it. Anyway, we got back to the story.

To recap, Jeffries had been steering the cadets through the line of apologetic argument that consists of listing possible explanations for why the disciples went round preaching the resurrection to everyone, finding objections to every explanation other than ‘Jesus really did rise from the dead’, and then declaring that, since that’s the only explanation that we haven’t refuted, it must be the correct one. Katie had neatly spotted the key flaw in this; that miraculous resurrection is unlikely enough that, even if reasons make all the other explanations highly unlikely, we are still not going to be left with a situation where miraculous resurrection becomes the most likely. The cadets/Jeffries had the following list:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die – He fainted, woke up, and walked away.
  2. The disciples were so upset about Jesus dying that they imagined they saw Him alive.
  3. The disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection.
  4. The story of the resurrection was added on many years later as the story of Jesus became a legendary fairy tale.
  5. Jesus rose from the dead.

…and had got as far as refuting point 1, though not to Katie’s satisfaction. On with the story; since only three cadets ever seem to get to say anything in this class, it’s Hannah’s turn to refuting the next point.

Hannah wants to mark off one more: “I don’t think they imagined it either. We read that five hundred people all saw Jesus at the same time and in the same way. They could not all imagine the exact same thing.”

So, hang on; did she and Daniel also read 1 Corinthians? That’s an odd thing for children tasked with researching the resurrection to decide to read; the gospels, yes, but there would be no reason for them to realise that this particular letter had any information in it. Of course, what’s more plausible here is that she and Daniel just read an apologist’s work on the subject. If so, that would also explain both why Daniel’s knowledge of the resurrection evidence seemed to be helpfully structured in the form of a minimal facts list rather than referring to specific gospel references, and also why Hannah erroneously thinks that the report of the appearance to the five hundred has them all seeing Jesus ‘at the same time and in the same way’, which in fact isn’t stated in the appearance report at all.

Jeffries, having apparently not heard of the Fátima miracle, agrees that there is “no such thing as a ‘group dream’ or ‘group hallucination'”. No, but there’s such a thing as religious fervour stirring large groups up into a state of mass hysteria.

Jason speaks up now: “But couldn’t the disciples have lied about it? Or maybe somebody else lied about it years later and added the story of the resurrection to the legend of Jesus?”

“Aha!” declares Jeffries. “That’s where the fourth piece of evidence comes in. The disciples were willing to die for what they claimed about the resurrection. Awfully hard to understand unless they were telling the truth. Who would die for something they know is a lie?”

I initially thought Jason’s question was a response to Hannah’s point about the report of five hundred people seeing Jesus; that he was trying to point out that we don’t know whether five hundred people actually did see Jesus, or whether rumour and exaggeration added this particular claim on to an already-existing resurrection belief some years later. As such, it’s a perfectly valid point, and one that someone should have made, but on rereading it I realised this bit was actually meant to refer to points 3 and 4 on the original list; it seems no-one is going to take any issue with taking the one-off report of five hundred people seeing the risen Jesus at face value. Jeffries also tells us that points 3 and 4 have other problems which they’ll have to talk about later as they’re almost out of time, so I guess we’ll hear more about them in subsequent chapters.

Katie, meanwhile, was busy thinking of other possible explanations the cadets might have missed; Theft And Fraud By Persons Unknown was apparently next on her list, closely followed by Alternative Supernatural. “What if the guy who stole him decided to pretend to be him? To put his clothes on and make wounds in his hands to look like him? For the praise? Because he saw all the praise Jesus was getting and wanted some? Let’s say your best friend dies and you see someone who looks like him. You see some slight differences, but do you think you care? You’d be like ‘You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive!’ And if this reincarnation stuff is true, how do you know ghosts aren’t? He floats up to heaven, he gets absorbed into God – he’s a ghost! Oh, my god, I’m coming up with twenty different explanations!”

I asked her if she wanted to hear my thoughts on what they were saying, and she agreed she did. I explained about the Bible not, in fact, saying that all the five hundred people who were supposed to have seen Jesus saw him ‘in the same way’ – we don’t have any details at all on what they thought they saw. I also explained that I’d read one historian saying that grave robberies were common in those days.

“Well, that makes sense,” Katie said. This is, I pointed out to her, a disturbing thing to hear from your child in response to information about people stealing bodies from graves; to my relief, it turned out that this was because she’d learned about grave robbing when studying Ancient Egypt last year. She agreed that this could account for a missing body. (It wouldn’t on its own account for the claims of resurrection appearances – I still think the most likely explanation is that these started as grief hallucinations and went on to some kind of religious fervour-induced mass hysteria experience – but that’s a bit complicated for a child and, as it was late and Katie wasn’t seeming desperately interested in getting more details, I don’t think I went into that at that point.)

Back to the book; Jason admits that the empty tomb is harder to explain away than he thought, but when Jeffries asks him “Explanation #5, that Jesus rose from the dead, seems to be the simplest explanation, doesn’t it?” Jason replies “Maybe, but I’m still not sure.” Good answer, Jason; this side of the story sounds convincing when it’s all you’ve heard, but it’s a great idea to find out more about the other side of a story before you make your mind up. (Yes, I know my headcanon is that Jason is secretly an evangelical Christian plant placed in the group to steer the conversation to religious issues. If he is a skeptic, though, good on him for not falling for the first superficially convincing argument he hears.) Chapter ends.

Katie, two chapters in, declared herself unimpressed with the arguments so far. “I’ve been able to disarm every single thing they throw at me,” she said, “so, unless they’re stepping up their game… I’m thinking that they’re probably not going to be able to convince me.”

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part Three

My nine-year-old 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.


*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.


When we left our intrepid cadets, they had just been writing a list of possible explanations for the resurrection story. For those who don’t recognise it, Wallace is here using a line of argument used fairly commonly among apologists, which goes like this:

  1. Make out a list of several purported explanations for the resurrection story, including the possibility, merely mentioned as one theory among several at this stage, that the whole thing is true and Jesus really rose from the dead.
  2. Go through each point on the list apart from the ‘Jesus actually rose from the dead’ suggestions and point out all the reasons not to believe it happened.
  3. Conclude that since the only remaining not-disproved explanation is that Jesus did really rise from the dead, this must be the reason, and therefore the resurrection has been proved. QED.

By the way, for anyone interested in an discussion and takedown of the points normally covered in this line of argument I would recommend Richard Carrier’s extremely detailed and comprehensive essay Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story, which goes through the arguments in vastly more detail than I’m going to be able to manage here. Anyway, my last post covered the part that dealt with stage 1 – writing the list of explanations – and the chapter was now moving on to stage 2 of the argument.

I asked Katie what she thought. (As I said before, I wish I’d done that before reading her the list of suggested explanations the book gives; it would have been interesting to hear what a child of this age who wasn’t a fictional mouthpiece for Christian apologetics might come up with of her own accord. As it was, I asked what she thought of the list.)

“I think the possibilities are,” Katie told me, “1. that they imagined him alive – but, since he apparently touched them, that doesn’t make sense unless they were all crazy people on drugs or something. So, I think the most likely thing is that he just fainted. I mean, why do you die on the cross anyway? Do you just die from having nails through your hands?”

I briefly explained the causes. “So… blood loss and lack of oxygen. Wouldn’t that cause someone to faint?” Katie mused. “And when you faint, you look a bit dead and a bit asleep.”

Which, I suppose, does at least answer my longstanding inner question of ‘Swoon Theory? Who the hell believes in Swoon Theory anyway these days?’, which is what I always think when I read these arguments. My nine-year-old daughter under the influence of a Christian apologetics book that was meant to have the reverse effect on her, that’s who. (Seriously, though… could I just point out that every time I remember ever reading this argument, the List Of Possible Explanations has included, and nearly always started with, Swoon Theory – and yet, in years and years of checking every counter-apologetics work I could find in any of the major or minor libraries I frequented during this time, which included a lot of libraries, I can’t remember ever seeing a single counter-apologist actually put this forward as an explanation. So, strawman much?)

Anyway, back to the story, which is now in the second stage of the argument; offering refutations for all the non-‘rose-from-dead’ explanations. Daniel votes against Swoon Theory. For purposes of narrative convenience, he apparently knows the facts that Wallace needs someone to put forward in order to refute this one; he tells the others that crucifixion was a ‘long, terrible way to die’ and that Roman soldiers were experts in checking that their victims were really dead, so he sees no chance that Jesus could have survived this process and done so undetected. (The narrative does not go into how a nineish-year-old happened to know so much about crucifixion).

Katie was unswayed by this argument. “Uh-uh,” she told me firmly. “You know about this stuff. Do you think there’s any chance he could live?”

Despite not actually being a proponent of Swoon Theory myself (personally, I go for Hallucination with a heavy coating of Legend, but that’s a post for another day), I had to answer ‘Yes’ to this one. Fluke survivals of significant trauma happen (especially when you consider that Jesus’s crucifixion seems to have been considerably shorter than the usual). And, while I’ve no doubt the Roman soldiers were good by the standards of their time at checking for signs of life, that’s still relative; ‘the standards of their time’ would have been less rigorous than the standards now. Undetected survival of a crucifixion would have been massively rare, but… any chance? I had to say yes.

“So there you go,” Katie agreed. “There’s a chance he could live. A doctor says that, and you’re very wise.” (Can I just add: Hooray! After all these years, finally one of my children thinks I’m actually wise!)

“And besides,” Katie mused, her thoughts off and running, “these people think he’s magical, so couldn’t we stretch the truth a tiny bit? And the Roman soldiers – maybe there are a group of them who feel bad for this guy, and they’re the ones who check whether he’s really dead. And they say “OK, let’s set him free” because they don’t want him to die. And maybe they’re the ones who open up his tomb.”

I was proud of her for thinking of possible explanations, but an apologist could probably pick half-a-dozen holes in that one, and I didn’t want to leave her with conclusions formed on shaky arguments. “Hang on. That explanation sounds like it’s getting complicated…”

“Still,” Katie declared, homing in on the main weakness of this particular line of apologetic argument more accurately at nine than I’d previously managed at twice that age, “we’re not looking for the simplest explanation. We’re looking for the most likely to be correct. So that one,” she waved vaguely at my computer to indicate the ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ explanation, “is the most simple… do you think it’s the most likely? Have you ever seen someone die and then been like oh, hey, how’re you doing?” She spread her hands in invitation of a non-existent refutation. “I don’t think so. And since you’re a doctor and you know about this stuff, then… cross that one off the list, ‘cos it’s impossible!”

And that, of course, is the biggest flaw of this particular line of apologetic argument. No matter how much apologists might argue that miracles/the supernatural are theoretically possible, the fact remains that, in practice, they have a probability effectively indistinguishable from zero. Over and over and over again, claims of miracles have been investigated and found not to stand up to investigation, Even where problems with the other explanations that we can think of make them unlikely, that isn’t going to make ‘It was a miracle’ the likeliest option.

In the previous chapter, Wallace/Jeffries tried to pre-emptively circumvent this problem by arguing that a God who could create the universe could also do miracles, and therefore we shouldn’t rule that possibility out. The problem with that, though, is that there is a vast chasm between “It is theoretically not impossible that this could have been done by a divine being” and “The likelihood of this having being done by a divine being is high enough that we should consider that as the default explanation if others are ruled out”. We can’t theoretically rule out miracles, in the same way as we can’t theoretically rule out alien visitations or fairy magic; but, in practice, they don’t stand up as a default explanation for the unexplained. If that wasn’t the case, after all, Wallace’s own job as a cold-case detective wouldn’t exist; in any case where other obvious explanations for a murder were ruled out, this same logic would lead us to the conclusion that the victim had actually been miraculously smote dead by God.

As one of my commenters aptly put it a few posts back: ‘Kaas’ Law: “When you have eliminated the impossible, what remains may be more improbable than that you made an error in one of your impossibility proofs.”’

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part Two

My nine-year-old 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.


*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.




Chapter Two: Learn How to Infer: Learn How Detectives Find the Truth

Aaaaaaaand time for Bible class again, cadets and readers!

Jeffries asks who investigated Jesus ‘and the claim that He died and then returned to life’ (so at least now he’s referring to it as a claim, which is an improvement – at the end of the last chapter, he was referring to the resurrection without any acknowledgement of the possibility that it might not have actually happened). Hannah and Daniel say that they did. Hannah says that they ‘read that part in our Bibles’ and found out that there are four books in the Bible called Gospels that describe what Jesus did.

Jeffries replies that the Gospels were written by ‘men who knew Jesus, or were friends of those who did’ and thus contain eyewitness testimony, which is a very important form of evidence. Jason promptly asks how we know that these are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something?’ Yay, Jason! Exactly the question to be asking here! To which Jeffries’ answer is:

“Great question as usual. We’ll take a whole session to talk about that – but not today. We’re going to start with the evidence we have and see if it holds up on its own. If it does, then we will check and see if we can trust the testimonies.”

So, hang on… what? Surely the evidence they’re looking at is the testimonies. How the hell can they see if those hold up as evidence before knowing whether they can be trusted in the first place? Surely that’s backwards?

(I do note that Jeffries now doesn’t even seem to be pretending that this supposed police cadet class has been organised as anything other than an evangelical Bible class. ‘We’ll take a whole session to talk about that’, but no sign of him having planned any actual police-related activities for the sessions?)

So, Daniel is asked to make out the list of evidence he found out about the resurrection of Jesus. To which the normal response, I’d have thought – bearing in mind this is a child who’s supposedly read the resurrection accounts for the first time – would at best be a slightly confused list of semi-remembered appearance reports (“Well, Matthew said this, and then Mark said this… wait, was it the other way round?”) Since Wallace’s main aim is apologetics rather than realism, we instead get what seems to be a simplified version of Habermas’ minimal facts approach:

  1. Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  2. Jesus’s tomb was found empty. His body could not be found.
  3. Jesus’s disciples said they saw Jesus – alive (resurrected).

Anyway, Jeffries adds one item:

4. Jesus’s disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it. They never changed their story.

No queries this time from Jason as to how we know this; maybe he’s got the message that questions like that are just going to be brushed aside with a ‘great question, but we’ll put it on a ‘Deal With At Unspecified Later Time’ mental list and just proceed as though we can assume this point is true’.

But… that said, I am actually going to give Jeffries at least the first part of this point. While the actual martyrdom stories of the disciples are based on pretty shaky evidence, the fact does remain that, in Rome at that time, being a Messianic claimant or a follower of a Messianic claimant could be seen as insurrection against Rome. After all, the Messiah was meant to be a Jewish king who would rule over an emancipated Jewish people whose enemies had been roundly defeated and kicked out – fighting talk, as far as the Romans were concerned. Going round publicly preaching that you followed a Messianic claimant who had already been tried and executed for sedition against the Romans? In that time and place, that was a pretty good way to get yourself into nasty trouble with the law and, yes, potentially executed. The fact that the disciples were willing to do this meant that, whether or not they actually did end up dying for their testimony, they were clearly willing to – either that, or they had so much faith in the rightness of their cause that they believed God would protect them. Either way, one point I do agree with was that the disciples themselves weren’t lying; whatever had convinced them, they genuinely believed that Jesus either had risen or would rise.

Back to the list. Time for the cadets to make a list of possible explanations for the evidence, which is written by Jason in consultation with the others. I missed an opportunity at this point, and regret it; I wish I’d asked Katie for her thoughts on possible explanations before giving her the ones the cadets came up with, as it would have been interesting to see what, if anything, she thought of. Anyway, the cadets came up with – surprise, surprise – pretty much the list that Christian apologists usually come up with at this point so that they can debunk it, although it’s been appropriately simplified for the target age group:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die – He fainted, woke up, and walked away.
  2. The disciples were so upset about Jesus dying that they imagined they saw Him alive.
  3. The disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection.
  4. The story of the resurrection was added on many years later as the story of Jesus became a legendary fairy tale.

“With a capital H for some not-good reason,” Katie commented, indicating the ‘He’ and ‘Him’.

Good catch, daughter mine. Why would a skeptic non-Christian character be capitalising Jesus’s pronouns?

Well, yes, obviously the answer is that Wallace forgot this list was being written by a skeptic non-Christian character and wrote the pronouns the way he himself normally would. But I amused myself by coming up with an in-story reason; namely, that Jason is a plant. He’s secretly an evangelical Christian from Jeffries’ church and Jeffries has asked him to attend the course and pretend to be a skeptic so that he can steer the whole course into becoming an evangelising group. Think about it; although this supposed police academy course has in actual fact effectively been an evangelising Christian course from the minute Jeffries had an opening to steer it onto that track, it was Jason (by bringing up the subject of his churchgoing neighbours) who gave him that opening in the first place. If Jason hadn’t happened to ask that question, what on earth would Jeffries have actually taught them for the course, since he seems to have no actual police-related experiences prepared for them at all? If Jason’s a plant, then that wouldn’t be a concern; Jeffries would have been able to plan all this. I’m onto you, Jeffries and Jason.

Anyway, that’s the list Jason comes up with. Whereupon Jeffries adds ‘5. Jesus rose from the dead.’ because they ‘need to be fair and include every possible explanation’. Hoooooold on a second. Just a few pages back, Jeffries was telling us:

“…We’re trying to separate what’s most reasonable from all the stuff that’s just possible….Remember, many explanations may be possible, but not every explanation is reasonable. For example, it’s possible that little ‘tool-shed gremlins’ crafted the board to make it look old, but that’s not reasonable.”

So what happened to all that “it’s possible but it’s not reasonable” stuff, Jeffries? His/Wallace’s Christian faith happened, is what happened. Sorry, Jeffries/Wallace, but if you get to be skeptical about theoretical tool-shed gremlins, why don’t non-believers get to be skeptical about people rising from the dead?

(To be fair, I suppose one could reasonably argue that nobody is seriously putting forward the existence of skateboard-aging toolshed gremlins as a claim or as an explanation for anything, whereas there were at least many of Jesus’s followers who genuinely believed him to have risen from the dead. Trouble is, that isn’t actually much of a criterion for moving something from the ‘not reasonable’ to the ‘reasonable’ category of explanation. Many people genuinely believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena; do we have to include those as possible explanations for unexplained occurrences in order to be fair?)

This seems to be plenty for one post, and it’s about time I posted this instalment anyway. Discussion of the cadets’, Katie’s, and my reaction to the list will therefore be left to a subsequent post. <chirpy Stampycat tone> Byeeeee!


Sorry – I meant to post the obvious needed follow-up to my last post on the same day, but held off to check I had the middle name spelling correct and then completely forgot to hit ‘Post’.

My sister gave birth to my third nephew, Abraham Wolf Levine, on the 17th of December. Mother, child, father, and both older brothers doing well. Hello and welcome, Abe! My sister and her family were thrilled to have one more for the Christmas celebrations this year.

Nephew incoming

Just had a call. My third nephew is shortly to arrive slightly sooner than anticipated (36 weeks 4 days). My sister lives in the USA so I can’t be there, but so excited and just waiting to hear more. Ruth, we’re thinking of you and glued to the phones.