Episode 114: The Myth of Martyrdom (Part 2): Who Would Die for a Lie?

peterWould anyone knowingly die for a lie? Christian tradition teaches us that many of Jesus’ disciples were persecuted and martyred for their faith. But if Jesus did not really rise from the dead why would the apostles be willing to sacrifice their lives over claims they knew were false? To many Christians, the apostle’s martyrdom is compelling confirmation that the message they preached was true. But is there any reliable evidence that the apostles actually were martyred for their faith in the resurrection? Also on this episode: The Pew Research Center releases a global study on the views of Muslims world-wide. We’ll take a look at the survey and what it suggests about the source of Islamic extremism.

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Episode Links:

Pew Research Center Report: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society
Triablogue: Early Sources on the Death of the Apostles


  1. says

    Great episode as usual!

    I know you excluded some martyr stories written later on, but in those later texts is there an instance of an apostle being given the opportunity to recant his claim of seeing the resurrection to avoid death?

    Also, relating to the survey of Muslims, if the countries were voting on whether or not to support suicide bombings, then percentages in the 20s and 30s would not be disturbing. But suicide bombing is not something that will come up for an up-or-down vote. Individuals and small groups can cause a great deal of death and chaos. With 20-30% of the people thinking it is sometimes justified, It seems like you could have very many young people growing in communities where they never hear strong arguments against violence. It’s just hard for me to think of that as good news.

  2. says

    Thats a good point. I presented it as good new mostly because I thought the public approval of these bombings was much, much higher. So to me it seemed like an improvement over what I had been led to believe from other less credible sources. That being said, you are right. It only takes a handful of people to cause widespread violence and even the lowest numbers of support are way too high.

  3. BC says

    A few comments:

    – Regarding Muslims in the US: I had read a book a while back (called “My Jihad”) written by an American who converted to Islam and then went to fight in Chechnia and Afghanistan. One interesting thing in the book was that he complained about how Muslims in the US had a strong aversion to Jihad. He had a really hard time in the US trying to get them to support him or get them interested in Jihad. It was an interesting observation.

    – Also, regarding the martyrdom topic: your point on whether or not the apostles had a chance to recant is an important one. I couldn’t help but think that Joseph Smith (of Mormonism) was martyred as well. He didn’t really have a chance to recant, but if we ignore that fact, it suggests that he was telling the truth about Mormonism – something that I think would make non-Mormon Christians uncomfortable. As for Koresh, I think he was sincerely deluded. He also chose to die in the Waco fire rather than throw up his hands and admit that he was making it all up. There was also a follower of Koresh (who wasn’t present for the fire) who had a lot of guilt about “missing his chance” to die with Koresh and gain his salvation. This was someone who personally knew Koresh, but he was sincerely deluded into believing Koresh was the second coming of Jesus. I don’t doubt he’d be willing to die for his belief in Koresh.

  4. Scott says

    The PEW research from what I heard on the latest RD clearly demonstrates that even moderate Muslims have ultra extreme views on many topics. I think this research vindicates radical approaches to religions and notably Islam as Sam Harris has continually said there IS NO moderate Muslim.. I recall a prior RD episode when the show said it is not useful to be militant like Harris, I disagree. I thought you guys could have said the obvious so clearly shown in that research , religion poisons everything even the educated mind and much more so the mind of a Muslim

  5. says

    Perhaps Scott doesn’t understand how numbers work. To say there are no moderate Muslims, is to say the number of Muslims who renounce violence = 0. When we quote a survey that says 8 out of 10 Muslims say violence is never acceptable…that’s a number significantly higher than 0. Yes the fact that only 8 out of 10 (American), or 7 out of 10 (global average) say this, still leaves plenty of people who endorse violence. That is what we were so upset about–the still large number of extremists. Perhaps the number is even more than we would find in Christianity if we had a similar survey of their views. But if out of all that your take away is “all Muslims are extremists” then thats your own prejudice talking, not the numbers….


  6. Indigenous Skeptic says

    Thank you, another great episode guys, I had been waiting for some time for you guys especially to discuss the “die-for-a-lie” apologists argument.
    It was coinicental that a few hours before listing to your podcast I had subjected myself to an episode of Cliffe Knechtle’s “Give me an answer” show whereby his son was posed the question by a university student regarding the 9-11 hijackers ‘dying for a lie’; the poor lad struggled for an answer and finally drew a blank and replied with something like, ” well…I’m not going to answer that because 9-11 is still so painfull in my heart…’ :(
    His dad stepped in for him but I can’t recall what his reply was [same ol’ forgettable BS probably].

    I’m look forward to Pt 3 of this series.

  7. Latverian Diplomat says

    Spoiler warning.

    Iconic finger losers (only one finger each):

    Frodo Baggins

    Lt. Norman Buntz (Hill Street Blues)

    More than one:
    The wife from the “Man from the South” episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents.

  8. BBR says

    @BC I wouldn’t consider Joseph Smith a martyr. The mob that killed Joseph largely resulted from Joseph Smith’s earlier decree (simultaneously being mayor, judge, and prosecutor in Nauvoo) to destroy William Law’s printing press, The Nauvoo Expositor, for exploiting Joseph’s practice of polygamy. Joseph fought against his assailants emptying his six-shot revolver, wounding one and killing another, only to be shot to death while attempting to escape out a window.

  9. Scott says

    Point taken I probably should have thought about the stats a bit more and I fully agree . Maybe I should have just said that yes the stats are high and disappointing,I have slowly started reading the full PEW report. But all the same a great interesting episode

  10. Lausten North says

    I appreciate your personal statements about how it sometimes feels after confronting someone with their ignorant arguments. As much as we’d all like to do it, it doesn’t always work so well in the end. However, if you do give in to the urge, be sure to record it and share it with the rest of us.

  11. Lauren says

    I love your podcast and have really enjoyed the last two episodes. When I began critically examining my faith twenty years ago, one of the many little blows to my certainty occurred in Calcutta. I took a tour of various temples and religious sites around the city and found myself at the shrine of some god-man.

    I leafed through some of their literature and discovered some very familiar stories. He had done all sorts of miracles, been killed and then all of his devotees had been persecuted and even killed because they would not deny that he had done these marvellous things. My Lee Strobel-fortified beliefs cracked a bit more from that one.

    I wish I remembered what sect this was so I could make this less anecdotal!

  12. themrchis says

    I enjoy your podcast. I am a Christian, but I appreciate your willingness to question, and the fact that you do it respectfully and fairly universally. I am familiar with some other skeptical podcasts that are just insulting, so thanks guys.

    Question for you. When talking about the death of Stephen, how are you justifying your point of view in light of the last 7 verses or so of Acts 7? The “Righteous One” is clearly Christ, and then Stephen says he looks up and sees the Son of Man at the right hand of God. His speech is admittedly long and about OT history, but it is to establish the trend of the Israelites ignoring God. Furthermore, Saul, widely known for persecuting Christians, was there overseeing the event. I agree that he was killed for blasphemy, but in the larger context, it was because Stephen was a Christian that he was targeted. If he was a Christian then he believe the resurrection happened.

  13. ForgotMyOrange says

    >> So to me it seemed like an improvement over what I had been led to believe from other less credible sources

    reasonabledoubts, can I ask what less credible sources are you referring to?

    Since Sam Harris was briefly mentioned, I remember he quoted some Pew Research studies in “End of Faith”… are they the ones?

    Also, is there anything about Sam Harris’s position, either now or in the End of Faith, that any of you find questionable in some way that’s worth mentioning?

    I find it quite difficult – at least with a proper, considered reading of his ideas – to disagree with much at all. If he’s over-emphasizing something, I’d like to know the specifics of what & how, exactly.

    I say “exactly” because there’s plenty of emotional opposition, but I’d really like to see someone identify an idea, with context, in any of Sam’s writings (so I can read & confirm it) and consider any replies he may have made as well, and point at it and explain why he’s wrong or steering wrongly.

    I find Sam so unrelentingly reasonable, and those who argue with him always – really always to my mind – fail on some kind of lack of clear/considered thinking. Seemingly requiring me to make some sort of a leap into their world before I can agree with them. Even with a concerted effort to remove my pre-existing biases (which is obviously not fully possible) I still always see the opposition arguing with Sam as failing (possibly deliberately) to properly take in the nuance of the points he makes.

    I’d really appreciate your guys views on this, as Reasonable Doubts are the only other guys (to my mind) speaking in an equally unrelentingly reasonable & considered kind-of-way that is necessary to persuade me of anything.

  14. says

    A couple of quick points:

    1. For a not-fully-conclusive (but well-known) example of someone whose death counters the whole “no one dies for a lie”, how about Alexander Hamilton? The evidence strongly suggests that he intentionally threw his duel with Aaron Burr because of ideological differences and his real goal in the duel was to destroy Burr’s reputation.

    2. The linguist in me couldn’t help but jump on the multiple Inuit words for snow conversation. It is true that, as a language needs a word, it will create it. An easy example today would be any new invention or any foodstuff. Gotta have some way to describe it or differentiate it from other things. So multiple words for snow in a place where it’s almost always snowing is certainly plausible. But before we judge the Inuit language for all of its words for snow, think about how many words we have in English: if it’s coming down lightly, it’s flurries. If it’s coming down hard, it’s a blizzard. Old, dirty snow is slush. Each individual droplet is a snowflake. We could probable factor sleet and/or hail as kinds of snow. When the wind blows it up against a house or other solid structure, we get snowdrifts. So I’m sure the Inuit have at least as many words for snow as we English speakers do…

  15. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @ForgotMyOrange #14:

    Also, is there anything about Sam Harris’s position, either now or in the End of Faith, that any of you find questionable in some way that’s worth mentioning?

    Well he was advocating online for special protocols in airports to scrutinize anyone who looks like they might be muslim.
    Article: Pharyngula – Bruce Schneier vs. Sam Harris

    Schneier, a security specialist, exchanged essays with him explaining why implementing such a double standard would be costly, complicated, error-prone, and lacking justification.

  16. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @themrchis #13:

    I am a Christian, but I appreciate […] that you do it respectfully and fairly universally. I am familiar with some other skeptical podcasts that are just insulting, so thanks guys.

    There’s a reason for that.

  17. says

    Sam Harris is my favorite of the living 4 Horseman. I think he understands what he criticizing better than Dawkins or Dennett and he almost always does so in a calm and straightforward manner. If we’ve criticized him on the show in the past its because of his endorsement of torture (which I think he’s changed his mind about) and his charge that liberal religion is not much better as it provides cover for fundamentalists. While in the abstract he may have a point about liberal believers perpetuating the idea that faith is a virtue (and this is counterproductive to building a society based on reason), the psych of religion data we regularly share on the show should make it clear that this notion is simplistic and misleading. When if comes to violence, discrimination, sexism–really social issues across the board–liberal religious groups appear to be a whole different beast and they actively chip away at the fundamentalist mentality rather than apologize for it. The broad brush he tends to paint believers with, especially Islam, has been another criticism. If we want to say Islam teaches intolerance towards outsiders and a violent view of reality…no objection here. It does, just like many faiths. But to say there are no moderates is overstating the matter. On the next show we can take some time out to share specific passages we disagree with. I’d like to add that I hope no listeners get the impression that we hate Sam Harris on this podcast. It’s becoming common in the atheist blogosphere to find those with egos as big as their skin is thin, engaging in chest thumping, name calling and outright character assassination–often over the most minor points of disagreement. We detest this mentality and refuse to get sucked into it. We feel we can celebrate Harris work and his courage as an author even if we find some points worthy of criticism. And we’d like to think he’d feel the same way about us if he ever listened to our show. -JB

  18. ForgotMyOrange says

    @Sky Captain

    Well he was advocating online for special protocols in airports to scrutinize anyone who looks like they might be muslim

    Well, someone would have to point me to something in the full debate here that Sam Harris says that isn’t reasonable?

    This topic certain also involves psychology & human cognition issues as well, I’m not taking a “Security Expert” as necessarily having to be the final word on this.

    I don’t necessarily want to start the debate here, but as always happens. No one can point me to something specific, without mischaracterizing, unfairly summarizing or just plain making stuff up.

    Likewise, it appears to me that Sam has never changed his mind on torture at all, just correcting the ridiculous distortions that have been made ever since – http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/why-id-rather-not-speak-about-torture1

  19. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @ForgotMyOrange #19:

    Well, someone would have to point me to something in the full debate here that Sam Harris says that isn’t reasonable?

    I linked you to the concluding summary.
    Here’s an even shorter tl;dr version for you then.

    “BS: There’s also the start-up costs of creating the procedure manual for this system, but the ongoing costs will dominate. You said, “A dollar spent on a toddler whose family does not stand a chance of having rigged him to explode is a dollar wasted (i.e., not spent elsewhere).” With this system, you’re going to spend far more than a dollar in not wasting that dollar”

    If you want the specifics, you can read the final 1/3rd of that exchange for what amounts to paragraph-long bullet points too long to redundantly copy/paste here. You’re already aware of two complete copies of that exchange (at schneier.com from the first link and samharris.org).

    I’m not taking a “Security Expert” as necessarily having to be the final word on this.

    Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts.

    This topic certainly also involves psychology & human cognition issues as well.

    So does everything else humans do. This was the argument.

    “BS: It turns out designing good security systems is as complicated as I make it out to be. Witness all the lousy systems out there designed by people who didn’t understand security. Designing an airport security system is hard. Designing a passenger profiling system within an airport security system is hard. And I’m going to walk you through an analysis of your security design.”

  20. Dan says

    Reasonable Doubts,
    I’m curious what you mean when you say you think Harris understands what he criticizes better than Dennet? I can see saying that about Dawkins and Hitchens (whose writings I really enjoy, but think they oversimplify sometimes). I’m not as familiar with Dennet’s writings, having only recently read Freedom Evolves and half of Breaking the Spell before getting swamped in graduate school, but I’ve also seen several of his recorded talks and read some of his shorter articles. It seems to me that Dennet is the deepest thinker of the 4 Horsemen on the topic of religion, but I’m curious to know what you guys think about him.

  21. scott says

    Hi Reasonable Doubts

    I have listened to most RD episodes many times over. I think you guys do a great show, its informative, topical and fun, I always seem to chuckle, cant wait for the next episode

  22. Andrew Ryan says

    @Jim Phinn, even if the whole Innuit thing is nonsense, at least it led to Douglas Adams writing this:
    “Eskimos had over two hundred different words for snow, without which their conversation would probably have got very monotonous. So they would distinguish between thin snow and thick snow, light snow and heavy snow, sludgy snow, brittle snow, snow that came in flurries, snow that came in drifts, snow that came in on the bottom of your neighbor’s boots all over your nice clean igloo floor, the snows of winter, the snows of spring, the snows you remember from your childhood that were so much better than any of your modern snow, fine snow, feathery snow, hill snow, valley snow, snow that falls in the morning, snow that falls at night, snow that falls all of a sudden just when you were going out fishing, and snow that despite all your efforts to train them, the huskies have pissed on.”

  23. BradC says


    The primary question with regard to Stephen is not whether he believed in the resurrection (I’m sure he did), but whether he was a firsthand witness to the resurrection. If he was not (and we have no scripture that says he was), then he isn’t that much different from any later (or modern) Christian martyr.

    And by that I mean, we have plenty of ancient and modern examples of people of all faiths who are willing to die for their sincerely held beliefs. That, by itself, doesn’t prove the truth of those beliefs. The specific Christian claim at issue is the apologetic argument that the martyrdom of the early apostles, because “they wouldn’t have died for something they knew was a lie”, is evidence for the resurrection.

    So Stephen falls into the category of someone who still had to take the word of the (original) disciples about the resurrection, and therefore can’t be used to support this argument.

    I think the comment in the podcast about the content of Stephen’s speech was more of an aside, that even if Stephen was a witness to the resurrection, its not at all clear that he was killed because of that belief, as much as he was killed for directly accusing the Sanhedrin of murdering Jesus.

  24. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Jim Phynn #15:

    The linguist in me couldn’t help but jump on the multiple Inuit words for snow conversation.

    Article: Wikipedia – Eskimo words for snow
    Article: Straight Dope – What are the nine Eskimo words for snow?

  25. Don Birren says

    Alaska wasn’t the first non-contiguous state. Technically, the fourth state, Georgia, was the first non-contiguous state. Outside the original thirteen colonies, the first non-contiguous state was Louisiana, followed by California, then Alaska, and lastly, Hawai’i.

  26. deltmachinery says

    How we won the James Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge



  27. gordie says

    I just went to the Florentine Renaissance show in Toronto after listening to your podcast and had to notice how gory the paintings were. I mean besides every Christ picture with his blood spurting from his side you should have seen the martyr pictures.
    Saint Agatha was shown having her boobs sawed off in one picture and presenting them to the viewer on a dinner plate in the next sequence. Saint Ursula was shown getting hacked to death by Huns. These are R rated pictures.
    Regarding the survey you mentioned about honour killings: I read a Massey lecture by Margaret Visser called Beyond Fate. She made an interesting point I’ve never heard discussed. Honour and revenge were the mainstays before Christianity and are still the mainstays in much of the world well before Islam. Christianity’s great idea on a practical level, beyond the supernatural mumbo jumbo, was that it encouraged love, guilt and forgiveness. We might have honour killings here in the west if not for Christianity. That change in worldview alone could have been a factor for the zeal of the early christians. In a sense, they might have died for the personification of that idea, Christ. I’m an atheist but I always thought that would explain some of the power of the religion.

  28. says

    This time I mostly agree with you guys and generally don’t care much for the emphasis that apologists place on resurrection arguments. These arguments have their place for someone already inclined to believe but don’t have much value to a skeptic.

    Something that you missed is the text in 1Cor. 15:6 which states that it was actually a large number that saw the resurrected Jesus. The idea is that a pretty large number of people chose to live a persecuted life (even if not martyrs) for something they all knew to be false. It would seem that a good number of these people would eventually realize that no matter what good comes out of it, it just isn’t worth living a lie.

    But of course, since none of this can be verified, it still doesn’t make for a very good argument.

    On another note, have you guys ever considered having a Christian cohost?

  29. says

    Hey, guys, thanks for another great episode. I was pleased to hear Justin reference J. Warner Wallace’s book “Cold Case Christianity”, I follow Stand to Reason’s work as well. What’s your impression of the book? It’s an interesting setup, and knowing them it’s going to be more rigorous than Lee Strobel’s work, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m also curious what Richard Carrier would say about it.

  30. Justin says

    Ryan, I have not been able to read the entire book – I read only the portion relevant to the episode. If I recall he gave absolutely no evidence other than an argument for silence to support his claim regarding the Martyrdomof the disciples. He just asserted a list of the disciples and the ways they were claimed to have died. If I recall, his list contained claims about the deaths which suggest he had no qualms against using late 2nd, 3rd and even 4th century works to support his claims.

    It’s definitely a more interesting read, more stylish too from what I can tell. I would however hesitate to call it more rigerous than Strobel’s book if I am to judge by the little I’ve read of it.

  31. BradC says

    Mike M:

    Something that you missed is the text in 1Cor. 15:6 which states that it was actually a large number that saw the resurrected Jesus. The idea is that a pretty large number of people chose to live a persecuted life (even if not martyrs) for something they all knew to be false. It would seem that a good number of these people would eventually realize that no matter what good comes out of it, it just isn’t worth living a lie.

    But of course, since none of this can be verified, it still doesn’t make for a very good argument.

    Right. There is no detail about who those 500 supposed witnesses were, nor are there specific, detailed stories about those witnesses later being martyred (for their belief and not for, say, inciting rebellion), which is what would be necessary to support the argument.

    And since the idea that these people “chose to live a persecuted life for something they all knew to be false” is, in fact, the question at issue, we can’t just assume that is what happened.

    The best response, in my opinion, to the claim that there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection is “no, there is a single story written years later by a single writer claiming there were 500 witnesses. That’s not the same thing.”

  32. joszef says

    This is unrelated to the topic but I’ve an honest question to any or all the atheists. Someone asked me what kind or kinds of proof SPECIFICALLY an atheist must have in order to believe in the christian tradition. Oh and you can’t say “show me god” or “Show me Jesus” or “Satan” etc. So my question to you is the same…what would you say as an atheist speaking for atheism and for yourself personally? thanks.

  33. Barefoot Bree says


    I heartily second Greta Christina’s post linked to above by BradC.

    But I would also add to it the requirement that a good, convincing explanation be given for the lack of obvious evidence that convinced everyone for all the millennia of human existence up to the point when this fantastic, falsifiable, undeniable evidence was given. “Free Will” doesn’t cut it.

  34. Peter Waine says

    I always wondered what went through the minds of Japanese kamikaze pilots (apart from their wind screens that is)

  35. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Peter Waine #37:

    I always wondered what went through the minds of Japanese kamikaze pilots

    Article: Wikipedia – Kamikaze

    The tradition of death instead of defeat, capture, and perceived shame was deeply entrenched in Japanese military culture.
    Pilots were given a manual which detailed how they were supposed to think, prepare, and attack. From this manual, pilots were told to “attain a high level of spiritual training,” and to “keep [their] health in the very best condition.” These things, among others, were meant to put the pilot into the mindset in which he would be mentally ready to die.

    The tokkotai pilot’s manual also explained how a pilot may turn back if the pilot could not locate a target and that “[a pilot] should not waste [his] life lightly.” However, one pilot who continually came back to base was shot after his ninth return.
    While commonly perceived that volunteers signed up in droves for kamikaze missions, it has also been contended that there was extensive coercion and peer pressure involved in recruiting soldiers for the sacrifice. Their motivations in “volunteering” were complex and not simply about patriotism or bringing honour to their families.

  36. axegrrl says

    Haven’t listened to this ep yet (but looking forward to), but just wanted to ask you boys…….


    Have you read the FAB piece on this issue written by The Atheist’s Experience‘s Tracie Harris? If you haven’t, I HIGHLY recommend it……to everyone. Here’s the link:

    Why Martyrs?

    I’d love to hear your comments/reaction to it :)

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