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.

GO, JASON!

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?”

GO, JASON!

Everyone in the room gets suddenly silent.

Dun-dun-DUUNNNNNNN……

“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!

 

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Three

On to the final ten of Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians. (Supposedly for non-Christians, anyway; as I commented in my last post, they actually seem to be aimed specifically at atheists in particular.) I notice Joel Settecase has actually put up a follow-up post letting his readers know about my answers and asking them to come over here and have polite respectful discussions, which I thought was very nice of him. (Well, all right, I’m not naive – I know he’s hoping that the result will be that I convert to Christianity – but I still felt it was a nice thought.)

On with the questions:

 

21. If no God, why is there so much good in the world?

Same reason there’s so much bad in the world; things happen for hugely varied and complex reasons that have nothing to do with any gods, and we as humans have perceptions of these things as good, bad, or indifferent according to how they affect us or other beings with whom we emphasise. I’ll add here that I’ve never seen the ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ argument as being a valid argument against the existence of a god, but I do think in fairness that the flip side of that is that this hypothetical god shouldn’t automatically get credit for the good things either.

22. If no God, how did our DNA get programmed with such incredibly complex language and instructions?

‘Get programmed’, in this context, seems rather question-begging; after all, the point is that we don’t believe it ‘got programmed’ by anyone.

As to how it happened; well, bear in mind that, according to colossal amounts of evidence from radioactive dating, this planet has been around for well over four billion years. Obviously even the simplest DNA molecule took some time to develop and wasn’t there from the start, but that still leaves billions of years of evolution. Copying errors happen now and again; some of those are actively damaging and thus die out, but some of them lead to benefits for an organism that in turn lead to it producing more offspring and to more copies of that improved gene being passed on. On top of that, every so often an entire stretch of DNA gets erroneously duplicated in the copying, meaning that there’s some ‘spare DNA’ there which has greater scope for undergoing mutations without killing off the organism. All of this, remember, is going on over billions of years – that is a lot of time, and a lot of copying of DNA, and a lot of chance for change and development, during which the unhelpful mutations die out while the useful ones get copied more and more. A few billion years of this is enough to give us vast amounts of complexity and detail in the DNA.

23. Is everything in the universe really just matter and energy?

As a couple of your follow-up questions partly demonstrate, there are also concepts that could be described as the results of matter and energy, or as descriptions of how matter and/or energy work and interact, or as categorisations. Might be others I’m not thinking of.

24. If you just thought, “Yes,” was that thought made of matter and energy?

Technically N/A, but in terms of answering the more general question of what thoughts are made of, I think it makes more sense to say they’re produced by matter (brain cells, neurotransmitters) and energy (passage of electrical impulses along nerve axons triggering neurotransmitter release).

25. The Bible says every good and perfect gift is from the Father above (i.e. God). To whom are you grateful for the good things in your life?

First and foremost, my parents. (Goodness – this is going to end up sounding like one of these Academy Award speeches. Oh, well, you did ask.) They did an amazing job of giving me a happy, secure childhood and paying for me to have an excellent education that has been invaluable in me getting where I am in life. And, although my father sadly died many years back, my mother is still in there giving me help and support. When I need it, she has absolutely got my back. That is a gift beyond price.

On top of that… let’s see. There’s my sister, who stepped up when I needed support, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Kindle ownership, and who fulfilled my lifelong dream of being thanked in an author’s acknowledgements (not to mention being an all-around pretty cool and awesome sister). There are the practice managers and work colleagues I deal with, who have been incredibly helpful and supportive with the various changes (sometimes at very short notice) I’ve needed to my work pattern over the years of juggling work with parenthood, especially given some of my son’s difficulties. There’s Aneurin Bevan and colleagues, for setting up the system that means that I’ve always had confidence that if I needed health care, I’d be able to get it with no worries about how I would pay for it (and that when I treat sick people, I don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for it). There’s the lady at the local council who’s been dealing with the difficult problem of helping us find appropriate education for my son, who’s been exceedingly helpful with this fairly thorny task. There are the people on the medical forum to which I post who have offered helpful advice on issues medical and non-medical over the years, one of them recently saving me several weeks and over a hundred pounds by recommending a decorator when the one I’d originally booked with had a very long waiting list. There’s the taxi driver who, over half a century ago, said “Aren’t you even going to ask for her phone number?” to the young man in his taxi who’d spent a long journey chatting animatedly with the young woman who’d shared the taxi with him, and thus inadvertently ensured that my parents’ relationship didn’t end with one interesting conversation but moved on to what would ultimately be an incredibly happy thirty-four year marriage.

I’ve probably forgotten people, for which I apologise, but those are the main ones I can think of. On top of that, of course, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just plain good luck; I’ve had excellent health, fertility when I wanted it, I was born into a comfortably-off middle-class family, I’m not a member of various minority groups who face a lot of disadvantages that I don’t. I’m very happy about all this, but that’s not the same as gratitude.

26. Where do you think the laws of logic come from?

I think they’re descriptions, by human beings, of how some things in reality/thought processes work.

27. Are the laws of logic made of matter and energy?

No.

28. What evidence would actually convince you that Jesus Christ is God, the Lord, and the only Savior?

Good question. First of all, ‘only Savior’ is kind of meaningless unless you know what he’s supposed to be a saviour from, and, as I understand it, the answer to that is ‘From the afterlife of eternal torment that was originally designed by the very God of which Jesus is meant to be a part’. Even if I believed that theology, proclaiming anyone as Saviour in that context feels kind of… Stockholm-syndromish.

Secondly, when I was investigating Christianity to make my decision about it, I ended up reading the OT prophets in their entirety to see what they actually said when they weren’t being cherry-picked, and I’d already read a good part of the other bits of the OT… and, to cut a long story short, established that the teachings of the Jewish scriptures were flat-out not compatible with Christian teachings. I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a message from God (this was in my agnostic days) in which case Christianity wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a bunch of legends and wishful thinking on the part of the Jewish leaders of a few millennia ago and not a divine message at all, in which case Christianity also wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a deliberate attempt by a psychopathic God to trick the Jews into doing completely the wrong thing and ending up in hell, in which case Christianity might technically be true but this was a moot point as a God who would try to trick you like that clearly couldn’t be trusted anyway. But, given what I was reading in the OT, there wasn’t a logical way for Christianity to be a genuine teaching from a consistent, sane, and loving God.

So I suppose the answer to what evidence would convince me, would be that either Christianity would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches, or Judaism would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches. Which isn’t exactly helpful.

29. How much do you know about the heart of the Christian message, AKA the “Gospel” or good news?

Quite a lot, having spent years reading about it on and off.

30. Are you ready to learn more about Jesus?

If it’s actually something new and interesting – say, if something new comes to light about the culture of the time that sheds new light on something taught about Jesus – then sure. For example, I’ve loved Hyam Maccoby’s books because, despite their flaws, Maccoby looks at the Christian teachings from the viewpoint of a Jewish scholar who can pick up a lot of points that get missed by people without that background. If it’s just more Christian interpretations, then it isn’t anything I’d particularly trust, so no.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Two

As per my previous post, I’m writing a three-part reply to pastor and blogger Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians.

I should really have noticed this when I wrote the last post, but that post title has just hit me; it specifies non-Christians, rather than atheists. Yet, from many of the questions, it’s clear that the list itself was directed at atheists (or possibly agnostics) rather than at non-Christians in general. The two groups are not the same by any means; atheists are only one minority subgroup of non-Christians. Joel, while I’m an atheist myself, I suspect that Jews, Muslims, theists unspecified, and polytheists probably don’t appreciate having their existence overlooked like this, so, out of courtesy, would you consider changing the title?

On with the next ten questions. (By the way, I’m just checking the preview for this post, and the ad currently coming up immediately below that line is giving a numbered list of items, which is giving a rather weird effect in context. No, the questions are not in fact ‘1. Quote Of The Day. 2. Social Work Internships’ and so forth. Sorry about that.)

11. The Bible says that objective moral values are based in God’s morally perfect nature.

…..in between telling us about how God commanded such morally perfect activities as wholesale massacre, forced marriages, and killing men for having had gay sex…

Without God, what do you think they are based in?

This is one I recently discussed. Short answer: At bottom, our understanding that the feelings of others matter. Four useful general principles that arise from this are:

  • Beneficience (it’s good to help others)
  • Non-maleficience (we should avoid harming others)
  • Autonomy, including bodily autonomy (which is the answer to why we can’t, say, simply harvest one person’s organs against their will even for the purpose of helping another person)
  • Justice (people should be treated fairly and with equal rights)

Moral codes consist of figuring out how, in the complex situations of day-to-day life, these four principles can best be balanced and applied.

12. Jesus’ disciples went from being terrified of death, to being willing to die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus didn’t rise, what do you think changed their mind?

We’ll never know for sure; personally, I think the most plausible chain of events is that one of Jesus’s followers had some form of grief hallucination of the friend and leader he’d deeply loved (which is known to be a surprisingly common phenomenon among the bereaved), became convinced that Jesus had risen, and successfully fired up the other disciples to the point where they were also having religious experiences that seemed to them to be Jesus communicating with them in some way (or, if they weren’t, managed to convince themselves they were as they so badly wanted it to be true). I’ve no doubt they believed in the resurrection, but that doesn’t mean they were right.

But I do think, while we’re on the subject, that there’s an important point to be made about this whole ‘went from being terrified of death to being willing to die for their belief’ framing of the story; the disciples seem to have been already willing, at least in theory, to die for their beliefs. They were, after all, publicly following a Messianic claimant. If you got too loud about that sort of thing in Roman-occupied Judaea, it was seen as insurrection and you could be executed for it – as, of course, Jesus was. The disciples would have known there was a strong risk they’d end up dead… and they followed Jesus anyway.

If the stories about their reactions after Jesus’s execution are true, then, yes, it does seem they initially panicked when shit got real (if you’ll excuse the expression). But that doesn’t mean those moments of panic and denial were all there were to the disciples’ characters before they started preaching the resurrection. There were also those years of following a rebel who was setting himself up for a lot of trouble with the Roman authorities at a time when ‘trouble’ could get you horrendously executed. I think it’s a lot more accurate to say that the disciples went from being prepared at least in theory to die for their beliefs, to temporary panic when faced with the reality, to an ultimately stronger commitment to the thought of dying for their beliefs.

13. There are hundreds of varieties of unbelief. How do you know yours is the right one?

I’m not sure which ‘hundreds of varieties’ you’re thinking of here; I suspect this one is meant as a dig at atheists who ask believers how they know which of the hundreds of varieties of belief is the correct one. I don’t think there are hundreds of varieties of atheism, although there are some shades of agnosticism in there.

Of course, there are vast numbers of varieties of belief on all of the other subjects on which we could potentially have beliefs, so it’s fair to say that I’m bound to be wrong about many of the things I believe. (This just reminded me of Raymond Smullyan’s logical proof that people are either inconsistent or conceited; unless we’re conceited, we know that at least some of the stuff we believe is wrong, yet we believe it anyway.) In terms of how I know any individual thing I believe is true, I try to think carefully and analytically about why I believe it, and try to keep an open mind to the possibility that I’m wrong about it. That’s really as much as any of us can do.

14. Archaeology is constantly confirming the details of the accounts in the Bible. Why do you think that is, if the Bible isn’t true?

As I understand it, archaeology is also refuting some of the key accounts in the Bible, so that’s kind of a problem for Biblical inerrantists. But as for the details it confirms; I’ve never believed anything as simplistic as that ‘the Bible isn’t true’. I believe that plenty of the stories in it actually are reports of things that happened, or at least based on reports of things that happened, even though we can’t know whether the stories changed or varied before being written down. I don’t see it as in any way surprising that archaeological discoveries would confirm at least some of what we read there.

15. There is more evidence that Jesus Christ lived, died and came back to life than for just about any other event in ancient history.

Er… no, excuse me, but there isn’t. I’m not even a Jesus Myther – I’m happy that we have enough evidence to say that there was a real-life itinerant preacher by the name of Yeshu or Yeshua touring the regions of Galilee or thereabouts almost two thousand years ago and gaining a following – but that is not even remotely close to the best-evidenced event in ancient history. I’m not a historian – far from it – but even I know that we have events that are reported by named eyewitnesses rather than anonymous accounts, events that are reported by historians who show clear signs of impartiality and weighing up the evidence for the available facts, and events that are backed up by archaeological evidence. This makes very interesting reading. Or this. I’ll answer the actual question now, but I wasn’t going to let that blatant inaccuracy go by.

If God did not exist, or Jesus’ claims to be God were not true, then how would you explain his resurrection?

Isn’t that question-begging? Surely that should be “How would you explain the number of people who came to believe he had been resurrected?” As I touched on above, I think the most likely explanation is that one or more of his disciples started having grief hallucinations, formed a belief that these represented a miraculously resurrected Jesus who would come back to lead the Messianic movement they so desperately wanted, and were full enough of religious fervour and charisma that they managed to convince first the other disciples and then growing numbers of other people.

It’s possible, of course, that the actual explanation is different; barring time travel, we’ll never know. The thing is, the unknowns here don’t mean that ‘Jesus actually was miraculously raised from the dead’ is the only possible explanation for how, in a deeply religious and superstitious society in which very many people desperately wanted a Messiah, people ended up believing that the man they hoped and believed to be the Messiah had been miraculously raised from the dead.

16. What do you think makes so many Christians able to live radically different lives from the way they used to live prior to becoming Christians–even to the point of forgiving their abusers for terrible crimes?

For one thing, it’s very powerful to be able to believe that a divine being loves you, will take care of you, and forgives all your wrongs – and that’s what a converted Christian believes, regardless of whether or not it’s true. For another, many conversion experiences also involve trust and positive attention from others and acceptance into a social group, and that’s enormously important for human beings.

17. One of the most basic principles of science is ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”).

I’m a bit doubtful about that (the claim that it’s ‘one of the most basic principles of science’, that is, not the actual claim). Not that I’m a scientist, but I’ve done and/or read enough science over the course of my life that, if that really was considered one of the most basic principles of science, I’d expect to have come across it at some point. From what I can see, it’s actually a much more basic principle of science not to assume things like that but instead to investigate them. (By the way, I looked up the quote; apparently it actually comes from an Ancient Greek philosopher who was using it to argue that things had always existed.)

 Without God, how do you think everything came into being?

As I understand it, the main current theory is that the universe originated from something called the quantum vacuum. You’d find out more by asking a physicist, though.

18. The Bible says that we were created to live forever, and that death is an unnatural enemy, brought about by sin. If you are a naturalist who believes death is simply part of life, how do you explain why we feel like we ought to live forever, and why pain and death feel so unnatural and wrong to just about everyone?

As far as death is concerned, I think the main answer to that one is that, in the Western world, we’ve become very insulated from death and so it feels alien to most people when they encounter it. Most people in this society go through a large chunk of their lives before encountering death. For most of human history, that’s been very different. People have never liked the idea of death, but in most other societies throughout human history and geography they’ve been a lot more used to it than most people in our society.

As far as pain is concerned, bear in mind that the whole purpose of pain is to be an urgent warning signal; a ‘Get away from that possibly harmful stimulus NOW AS A PRIORITY!’ shriek from our nervous system. Pain feels wrong because it’s the signal our body gives us that something is wrong. (Unfortunately, it’s also a signal our body can give us even when nothing’s wrong, and also when things are wrong that aren’t particularly fixable, which sucks majorly for sufferers from chronic pain. But that’s a whole other story.)

19. If your brain is merely the unplanned result of evolution by natural selection, aimed at survival and nothing else, what makes you think you can trust your reasoning to discover the truth, rather than just whichever belief is best for survival?

To be pedantic, it’s not so much ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ as ‘whichever belief is produced by mental processes that actually evolved to optimise survival in a hunter-gatherer setting’, which is not necessarily the same thing. Either way, though, it’s a fair question. Humans aren’t naturally all that good at logical reasoning overall, and it’s important to be aware of this and to take into account the ways in which biases and logical flaws are likely to skew us. I try to consider my arguments from the point of view of ‘What would someone who disagreed with me say about this?’ and ‘If I had the opposite point of view, would I find this to be good evidence?’ (or, alternatively, ‘If this piece of evidence showed the opposite of what it does, would I feel the same about the quality of the evidence? If not, does this affect my argument?’) I think that’s important for everyone to do.

I’m curious, by the way, as to why you’re bringing this up in a list of questions meant for non-Christians’ Were you thinking that an approach of ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ would be likely to skew me inaccurately towards being a non-Christian/an atheist? If so, why? I would have thought that, if anything, the opposite would be true.

20. If no God, why would anything objectively matter?

I don’t think things objectively matter, in the sense of having some kind of quality of ‘matteringness’ that somehow exists independently of there being anyone for things to matter to. (If a tree falls in an unknown forest with no-one for it to matter to, does it still matter….) Things matter subjectively, a very great deal, to each of us. In addition, because we as humans care about the feelings of others, it also matters to each of us that things matter to other people.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part One

I love these ‘question lists for atheists‘ thingys (within reason; not the particularly stupid or insulting ones) so I was thrilled to see a new list posted; 30 Questions for Non-Christians, by blogger Joel Settecase. Given the length I’ll split it into either two or three parts, depending on how I go.

1. Are you certain that God does not exist, or that you can’t know whether He exists?

I’m as certain that God does not exist as I am that, say, fairies or werewolves do not exist – in other words, I recognise it’s theoretically possible for me to be wrong about this, but none of the supposed evidence for the existence of God/fairies/werewolves stands up to examination and so for practical purposes I think it’s fair to say that God/fairies/werewolves do not exist.

I’m not quite sure whether the second half of the question is meant to be read as ‘Are you certain that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which would fit with what it actually says, or as ‘Do you believe that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which seems to make a bit more sense contextually. Either way, I suppose that technically the answer is ‘Yes’, as we can’t absolutely know whether or not some sort of god exists, but it’s still the case that I feel sure enough that no gods exist that I count myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic.

2. How do you know that?

Again, I’m not quite sure how to read this; it seems to be asking how I know that I’m certain that God doesn’t exist, in which case the answer is because my certainty is part of my mind and thoughts and hence is something I know about. However, I think it’s meant to be ‘How do you know that God doesn’t exist?’ in which case the answer is that I:

  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the reasons of people who believed in God vs. those who didn’t, and found that the former (unexplained questions about the universe, religious experiences, our moral sense) all seemed to have fairly straightforward alternative explanations
  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the Bible to see how Christianity held up (haven’t yet blogged about that, must do so some day, but the short version is that the OT isn’t consistent with the NT without a lot of cherry picking)
  • Also realised that the particular type of divine being you’re probably talking about when you refer to ‘God’ is normally described as having a) a deep interest in the belief state of each individual human and b) the capacity to communicate directly and unambiguously with each of us, and hence it seems reasonable to deduce that if that particular type of God existed then He would be communicating directly and unambiguously with, at the very least, anyone who showed an interest; and that, since this is clearly not happening, we can logically conclude that, at the very least, no divine being combining those particular attributes exists, meaning the particular God you refer to does not appear to exist.

3. Did you use your five senses to come to that decision?

Just my sight, as I use that to read and hence to absorb the arguments of others.

4. Given that God is by definition a Spirit, how much sense does it make to decide whether He exists using your five physical senses?

I don’t think there’s any logical reason why a god should necessarily be expected to be experienced via the five physical senses. However, as I said above, a god who combines overwhelming power and ability with a genuine desire to communicate with each individual human (both of which are attributes which the Christian god is meant to possess) would surely be expected to communicate with us in some way that’s at least as clearcut as the information we receive through our five existing senses, even if that means designing humans with an extra sense for receiving God-messages. While enormous numbers of people do believe themselves to have received messages from one god or another, these messages are (aside from being pretty contradictory) typically received in a way that’s much less clear-cut, and much harder to distinguish from our own internal experiences, than the messages we receive from our senses about the world all around us. This doesn’t make sense if we’re hypothesising a very powerful god who has both the ability and the desire to communicate with us, but makes perfect sense if we hypothesise that humans are very good at imagining that that particular type of god exists when in fact He doesn’t.

5. Did you use your reasoning to determine God does not exist?

Yes, as above.

6. How do you know your reasoning is working correctly?

While I can’t ever know for sure that it’s correct, the ways in which I’ve tried to check it are 1. by focusing on asking myself “Could there be any other explanations for this/ways to look at this?” and 2. by reading the arguments of many people who disagree with me, as well as those who agree with me, to see how those hold up (and by looking for flaws in the arguments of those who agree with me as well).

7. Did you use your reasoning to determine your reasoning was working?

Yes, in the ways described for the previous point.

8. Do you see the problem with that?

Sure. But as far as I can see, it’s still the best we can do. If you can think of a better method, I’m all ears.

9. The Bible says that skepticism about God is the result of a mind suppressing what it knows to be true.

Then the Bible, on that point at least, is wrong.

Have you ever tried doubting your doubts about God?

Sure. It didn’t get me very far, since my doubts were there for good reasons that weren’t addressed just by doubting them.

10. The Bible contains hundreds prophecies fulfilled hundreds of years after they were written. How would that be possible without God?

See, I disagree with you about this. When I started checking out Christianity, one of the things I did was to look up the OT verses that were, according to my Bible copies, supposed to be prophecies of things that happened in the NT. I also, as time went on, learned more about Jewish scriptures and the context and translation of many of the verses that Christians have interpreted as prophecies.  And I found, over and over, that the verses that were supposed to be a prophecy that such-and-such would happen had actually been taken completely out of context, and occasionally even poorly translated in ways that made them look as though they said something they probably in fact didn’t.. A couple of the prophecies I was directed to actually did seem to be intended as prophecies of future events (the Messiah coming from Bethlehem, the Messiah being descended from King David) but, in both of those cases, the NT accounts were so contradictory it seemed more likely that someone had simply made up those details in Jesus’s life to fit with the prophecies. I didn’t find anything (and I eventually reached the point of reading the Biblical prophets in their entirety to check this) that appeared to be a miraculously fulfilled prophecy that could only be explained by magic or divine intervention.

I haven’t made nearly as detailed a study of OT prophecies not related to Christian claims, but, from what I have read, I understand there’s a lot of doubt about those; apparently many just flat-out haven’t come true at all, and, although at least one in Isaiah does appear to have been fulfilled, there’s enough doubt about when the original was written that it’s easily possible that it was in fact written after the events.

There just don’t seem to be any cases in the Bible (or out of it, as far as I know, but that’s another story) where a prophecy was demonstrably written before the event it prophecied, with detailed enough description that it doesn’t appear to be just a coincidence that later seemed to match it, predicting events that couldn’t be predicted through sheer common sense or good luck, and was then shown to have come true in ways that couldn’t be people following the instructions of the prophecy in order to make it come true. Since that’s what would be needed to say that a prophecy’s fulfilment actually was miraculous, I can’t agree that the Bible contains hundreds of fulfilled prophecies.

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

(This is – as people can probably figure out – the second part of my reply to a post by Ted Wright. This post, to be exact. The first part should be listed at the ‘previous post’ link at the top and bottom of this post, so I won’t bother to link it separately.)

So, Ted, the last post was my reply to your thoughts on the logical consequences of atheism. This, as promised, is my thoughts on the logical consequences of what, to borrow your term, we can call ‘classical Christianity’ (I do recognise that Christianity covers a wide range of beliefs and that there are many Christians – possibly including yourself, for all I know – who don’t share the beliefs I’m about to discuss below.)

The teaching of classical Christianity regarding the afterlife is that, while Christians spend eternity in a wonderful heaven, everyone else is doomed to go to hell and suffer eternal torment.

As I say, specifics of belief on this vary. (I recall a line I liked in Antonia White’s ‘Frost in May’; a Catholic says to a Protestant who laments the awfulness of this doctrine, “It’s only a dogma that Hell exists; it isn’t a dogma that there’s anybody in it.”.) There are many Christians who don’t believe in hell at all, and, among Christians who do believe it, there are differences of opinion on, for example, which of the following groups would end up there:

  • People who, for reasons of where or when they live, simply never get to hear about Christianity at all.
  • People who reject Christianity because they have, from childhood on, been taught a different religious belief that includes the teaching that Christianity is false and that God would be heartily displeased were they to convert to it, thus meaning that they sincerely believe that they are better pleasing God by avoiding Christianity altogether.
  • People who reject Christianity because, having carefully investigated it, they conclude it to be false.
  • People who never really get as far as accepting or rejecting Christianity because they believe the important thing is to lead good lives and help others, and hence focus their energies on this rather than on investigating the details of religion.

By Christian teachings, at least some of those people are, in return for no very great sin or crime, doomed to be eternally tormented in hell. According to Christian beliefs, good and kind people are facing this fate not for any wrong, but simply for being imperfect humans who either genuinely disbelieved in Christianity, or simply happened to miss out on whatever twist of chance and circumstance might have led them to Christian belief. This is happening as a direct result of the grand plan of the Being supposedly in charge of the universe.

That is a crushing catastrophe. That is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn.

That is also, I recognise, not a point that affects whether the Christian faith is true. I told you in the last post that I’ve striven to form my beliefs as honestly as possible, based on evidence rather than desirability, and that applies here as well; just as I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the desirability of other forms of afterlife to lead me into religious beliefs that I couldn’t honestly back up with evidence, so I tried my utmost to avoid allowing the horror of Christian teachings to put me off. I investigated Christianity in detail, as fairly as I could, and only rejected it once I truly felt I had enough evidence that Christian beliefs were incorrect. I knew that, if the evidence was that the universe really was run by such a monster – that life really was that hopeless – then I wouldn’t be able to change that reality, and would have to do my best to accept it. I tried my best to keep an open mind as I investigated, and I do believe I managed that.

But I hope the above explains why I’ve always found it rather ironic when Christians try to tell me what an awful worldview atheism is.