The MU SASHA Blog

The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

RV and Michael the ex-atheist, Part I

Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!
First time here? Read this.

Click here to Like our Page on Facebook (or use the sidebar if you’re logged in).
Local to Columbia? Join the Facebook Group, too!

_________________________________________________________________________

So my friend RV, a Christian, and I have an interesting Facebook thread going. I’d like to go through it here on the blog, but I’m going to split this into a series of posts, because it’s quite long and goes off in a few different directions.

RV started by posting this video on her Wall (~22 minutes):

Here’s a text summary, if you don’t want to watch the whole video:

Former atheist & Mizzou philosophy undergrad, Michael, describes how he became an atheist – at 13 years old, it occurred to him to question the existence of a god. He mentions Nietzsche and “God is dead.” He makes several assertions, such as “Without Jesus Christ, there is no hope, there is no truth… there is just complete loss, there is darkness…” Later in the video he says that, from the viewpoint of a nonbeliever, there was “no point to life.”

Michael describes a three-hour discussion with a Christian evangelist at Speaker’s Circle roughly two years ago that resulted in him deciding to read the Bible. During this discussion, his objections were repeatedly met with a simple return to preaching “the good news” from his conversation partner, as far as Jesus dying in order to save us from “the reality of sin, and that’s all that she would say. There was no argumentation… what matters is Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” He says that after they parted ways, there was a “real drive to read the Bible, to see what she was talking about, if any of it was true.”

He describes trying out prayer, and how nothing happened “the first few times,” and how she encouraged him to just keep trying. He says that “eventually, it started to seem like something else was happening; I was no longer talking to my ceiling… I was being heard… Someone was listening, someone was understanding, and I was able to pour out all of these things, my animosity toward the idea of God…” He says that he decided to “test it… I will believe, just to see if anything can happen.” He realized he needed to believe first, and he says that “the more I did that, [the more] the Lord provided…”

He says it took about a week, and he describes a religious experience/epiphany while watching a sunrise (“there were these clouds in the sky, and the sky was really orange…”), and John 3:16 “suddenly became real… If Christ is real, if Christ died for me… Truth-with-a-capital-T started to come in… I just started to get huge conviction… the reality of Christ, the reality of my sin, the reality of the brevity of life… the beauty of all of creation that was testifying to God, all of it hit me at once… like a brick in the head.” He says that he was “overjoyed that Christ was a reality, but I was weeping at the same time that I had sinned against him… this huge mess of emotion…” He describes how it was like “seeing for the first time” and mentions Mary’s Room. The last few minutes of the video is more-or-less preaching.

So, in the first post in this series, I’m going to respond to the video itself, before I get into the thread with RV about it. I know my skeptical readers are champing at the bit to dig into this–clearly, there are a lot of problems with it–but, one thing at a time!

Let’s start with the assertion that “without Jesus Christ, there is no hope, there is no truth” that he lays out at the beginning of the video. There are a couple of ways to show that this is false. The presumption here, to which I don’t think Michael would object, is that with Jesus, there is both hope and truth, although he doesn’t say that explicitly. What qualifies as “truth” is a blog post (or ten) in itself, but suffice it to say that when you have two competing explanations with no good reason to buy one over the other, you can’t reasonably say that you’ve found the truth. Seeing as there are many religions that all use the same method to claim they that are the One True Religion–faith–this doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out which one (if any) is right.

Putting faith as a path to truth aside for the moment, as far as evidence, the best Christianity has to offer is the New Testament, which has all sorts of historical problems. I do a whole hour-long talk about this, but in summary, the New Testament was written by non-eyewitnesses decades or more after the fact (between 51 and 95 CE), in another geographic area than where the events took place, in another language than the one in which the events took place, and we do not have the original documents for ANY book of the New Testament, or even know, with the exception of about 6 of the 27 books, who actually wrote them. (The person who wrote the 6 books where we are sure of the author, Paul, explicitly says that he never met Jesus in person.) We know for a fact that all 27 books have been edited and changed in thousands of places (that we know about), sometimes by accident (involuntary copying errors), sometimes on purpose. The books we read today have been pieced together from fragments of copies dating to no less than 100 years after the events they describe – the earliest fragment of any part of the New Testament dates to about 125 CE, and the earliest complete copy of the New Testament to about 325 CE. Outside the New Testament, we have zero first-century evidence that Jesus even existed at all. The earliest reference to Jesus outside the New Testament is from a Jewish Roman historian named Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE) around the year 94 CE, and his reference is widely considered to be an interpolation (forgery inserted into his writings by later [Christian] editors). That’s it. There are no court records of Jesus’ trial or execution, no census records of him or his family, no contemporary historians, Christian or Roman or otherwise, even mentioning his “famous” miracles, including his alleged resurrection, or indeed mentioning him at all. The entire religion seems to be based on, surprise surprise, nothing more than legends that grew up 20-65 years after Jesus is alleged to have died.

Seeing as all the major religions have similar historical problems, that doesn’t really get us much closer to figuring out which among them is more likely to be correct. Instead, we can turn to a simple probability assessment using Ockham’s Razor, a.k.a. the law of parsimony (in philosophy, a “razor” is simply a mental device used for “shaving away” unlikely explanations. There are many different historical razors, named after their progenitors. This one is named after the 13th-century English philosopher, William of Ockham). Parsimony is simply the economy of assumptions in reasoning, and the law of parsimony simply says that the explanation requiring the fewest assumptions, all else being equal, is most likely to be correct. In order for Judaism to be correct, we have to make a number of assumptions, all else being equal: We have to assume, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Old Testament is correct; we have to assume that the claims of Judaism are correct. So, what are those claims exactly?

A 12th-century rabbi named Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, wrote a very famous and what I and many others consider to be excellent distillation of what Jews believe. He listed 13 general principles. They are:

  1. God exists
  2. God is one and unique
  3. God is incorporeal
  4. God is eternal
  5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other
  6. The words of the prophets are true
  7. Moses’ prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets
  8. The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses
  9. There will be no other Torah
  10. God knows the thoughts and deeds of men
  11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked
  12. The Messiah will come
  13. The dead will be resurrected

That’s a fair number of things, for which there is zero or very little evidence, that must be true, in order for Judaism to be true.

So, when trying to decide between Judaism & Christianity, just to consider two of the major religions we could examine, what do Christians have to believe in order to be correct?

Since Christianity is based on Judaism, basically, they have to believe everything that Jews believe (with adjustments to #9 and #12), plus a whole bunch of other stuff.

The New Testament gives us some clues to what Christians believe. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 lists some of the basic beliefs, according to Paul: Jesus died for humanity’s sins, was buried, was resurrected, and thereby offers salvation to all who will receive him in faith. Put another way, Christians believe that:

  1. God exists
  2. God is one and unique (or triune)
  3. God is incorporeal (except when he decides not to be)
  4. God is eternal
  5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other (Jesus is okay, too)
  6. The words of the prophets are true
  7. Moses’ prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets
  8. The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings)  were given to Moses
  9. Additional teachings were given via Jesus to Paul and the apostles, leading to the compilation of the New Testament
  10. God knows the thoughts and deeds of men
  11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked
  12. The Messiah has come
  13. The Messiah sacrificed himself for humanity’s sins
  14. The Messiah resurrected himself
  15. The Messiah offers salvation to all who receive him in faith
  16. The dead will be resurrected

Put another way, in order to believe in Judaism, you have to believe the Old Testament. In order to believe Christianity, you have to believe the Old Testament AND the New Testament. And this is not an exhaustive list of what Christians believe. The more specific you get as far as denominations, the more you add to this list.

Let’s now compare these to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). What do Mormons believe? Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate; Joseph Smith himself wrote out what are called the Articles of Faith telling us explicitly, and we have the original documents, which have zero translation problems because the originals are in English. Some of them are irrelevant to this post, so I’m just going to mention the ones that are in addition to what other Protestants & Catholics believe:

  1. God exists
  2. God is one and unique (or triune)
  3. God is incorporeal (except when he’s Jesus)
  4. God is eternal
  5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other (except Jesus; he’s okay, too)
  6. The words of the prophets are true
  7. Moses’ prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets
  8. The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings)  were given to Moses
  9. Additional teachings were given via Jesus to Paul and the apostles, leading to the compilation of the New Testament
  10. God knows the thoughts and deeds of men
  11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked
  12. The Messiah has come
  13. The Messiah sacrificed himself for humanity’s sins
  14. The Messiah resurrected himself
  15. The Messiah offers salvation to all who receive him in faith
  16. The first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
  17. The Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; the Book of Mormon is also the word of God.
  18. There will be a literal gathering of Israel and restoration of the Ten Tribes; Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, the Earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
  19. The dead will be resurrected

There are other things that Mormons also believe, but you get the picture. With each successive religion, Judaism –> Christianity –> Mormonism, we are simply stacking on more and more things you have to believe in order to be correct.

What Occam’s Razor, also called the law of parsimony, tells us is that the fewer assumptions you have to make, the more likely you are to be right, all else being equal. In other words, in the case that we don’t have solid evidence for any of this stuff, the system that requires us to believe the fewest unjustified claims is the most likely to be correct. In this case, that would be Judaism.

(Of course, the system that requires us to believe the fewest unjustified claims of all would be agnostic atheism. It makes no claims at all about who or what a god is, how many gods there are, what their names are, if baptism is necessary or not, etc. Simply lacking faith that a god exists cuts out, at minimum, more than half of the original 13 — #1-5 and #10-11 — right there).

I think a fundamental difference between people who believe in gods and people who don’t is that atheists are comfortable saying “I don’t know” when it comes to The Big Questions. I’m not saying that we’re satisfied with not knowing, but we are not so desperate for answers that we’re willing to just pick one in order to have one. If we find two contradictory but equally justifiable explanations for something, we don’t pick one and call it a day. We look for reasons to rule out one or the other (or both). In my experience doing Ask an Atheist tables and chatting with theists of all different backgrounds & religious systems, I’ve found that there are, at least superficially, very sophisticated reasons available for accepting any of the major religions. I have heard Christians display exquisite, downright beautiful skepticism and historical criticism of the Qur’an, and I have heard Muslims display exquisite, downright beautiful skepticism and historial criticism of the New Testament. It’s a shame that they don’t simply put their heads together and realize that neither is without its major problems as a reliable and trustworthy account of historical events. The problem is not that religious people aren’t skeptical enough; it’s that religious people engage in an error in reasoning called special pleading, or failing to apply the same standard of skepticism to own’s own beliefs as they do to others’.

I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where Damar (a Cardassian played by Casey Biggs) and Weyoun (a Vorta played by Jeffrey Combs) are talking about the religious beliefs of the Bajorans, a third race:

Weyoun: I’m not sure how much faith I have in this, what did he call it?
Damar: Pah-wraith.
Weyoun: Pah-wraiths…. and Prophets…. all this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
Damar: You believe that the Founders are gods, don’t you?
Weyoun: That’s different.
Damar: (laughs) In what way?
Weyoun: The Founders ARE gods.
Damar: (sigh)

In Part II, I will further break down the problems with Michael’s testimony, and in later parts, get into my discussion with RV about the video.

More coming soon!

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is http://www.DanielleMuscato.com. Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at www.youtube.com/davemuscato

27 comments on “RV and Michael the ex-atheist, Part I

  1. lordburgundy
    December 31, 2011

    Concerning truth and Truth:
    I think the basic reason underling Theists who claim that Atheism has no “truth with a capitol T” is a lack of critical thinking and intellectual honesty.

    Skeptics will understand that everything they think (even their most basic beliefs) all come through filters; first there senses, then the conscious and subconscious aspects of the brain. There’s a lot of room for error there, and so Skeptics have been hard at work for a long time trying to hone in on what is the actual truth of the world we live in. However, intellectual honesty keeps up (rightfully, I think) from making too grand or too sweeping claims about what is true. We always realize our capacity for error and misunderstanding.

    It doesn’t mean that there is no “truth with a capitol T”, it simply means that we’re intellectually honest enough to admit to ourselves that (due to the sensory barrier between ourselves and the rest of the world) we are in no position to definitively claim to know *exactly* what that Truth is.

    Theists, on the other hand, can wave the magic wand of faith and dismiss things like that. They know because they have faith…they know because they “feel it in their heart”… they know because they are “convicted” that its true…circular, circular, circular reasoning. Even if they confess that they cannot know precisely whether or not God exists or what God wants, many will take the cop out answer of “But I *do* know because he specially revealed it too me in the [insert religious text]!” and forfeit the brief moment of intellectual honesty they had.

  2. Jared Cowan
    January 1, 2012

    Amateur fused Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, who very much believed in God and would have agreed with this guy’s sentiments, albeit he was back in the 19th century in Russia. Nietzsche was technically criticizing Christianity’s overly idealistic morality anyway in saying that God is dead and we have killed him. The post Christian society (of sorts) that we live in reflects that our morality lies back further than Christianity.

    And he talks like Descartes was atheist, when I’m fairly certain he wasn’t. If nothing else, he believed in God for basic reasons of cosmology, and as a mathematician back then, he probably couldn’t conceive of anything else. Pascal apparently accused him of being a deist, but that’s still better than atheist in many circles, methinks

    On his notion of faith still presenting something, I probably considered myself atheist even before I graduated high school and studying religion of any variety only reinforced my skepticism and disbelief. The only important things religion presents in study are the cultural and psychologically relevant information people present, even if fundamentally they are deluded in thinking that those things are true, such as people rising from the dead, existing in an idyllic paradise, or that there exists any such transcendent entities that are discernible by sentiments, but not by cognizance

  3. unkleE
    January 2, 2012

    G’day Dave, I was interested in what you say here:

    “the best Christianity has to offer is the New Testament, which has all sorts of historical problems. I do a whole hour-long talk about this, but in summary …..”

    What you don’t appear to say, as far as I could see, was that (1) almost all historical documentation faces similar problems to the ones you outline (and slightly exaggerate) for the New Testament, yet that doesn’t prevent us knowing history, (2) when measured against other documents of similar age, the New Testament fares significantly better, and (3) secular historians of all beliefs from christian and jew to atheist and agnostic are confident we can know a significant amount of useful information about Jesus.

    I wonder why you omitted these facts?

  4. Jesse
    January 2, 2012

    Frankly, I love how you intertwine Star Trek with philosophy and reason. I look forward to more!

  5. delightfullydoubtful
    January 3, 2012

    @ unkleE:
    1.) Yes, all historical documentation does have problems with translation, copy errors, the element of misunderstanding, the possibility of active deceit, etc. However, not all historic documents claim to contain proof of an omnipotent, omniscient deity. The moment claims that an infallible, perfect God get involved, the criteria for belief skyrocket in accordance with the increased incredibility of the claim. That being the case, if the Bible were actually true (and the sort of God it claims to represent were real) we could expect a great deal more accuracy. We could expect the original manuscripts to have been divinely preserved for all generations to see (instead of just copies of copies of copies from decades after Jesus’ death). We could expect highly accurate predictions that would concern subsequent generations experiences; really specific things that wouldn’t require ad hoc explanations.

    Indeed, all those proofs (and more) would be possible for the sort of god the Bible claims exists; the sort of god the Bible claims inspired it. However, the Bible doesn’t deliver in any of those regards. It falls back, therefor, to the pile of other religious texts ancient humans produced.

    2.) Your second claim doesn’t have any other claims backing it up, so I don’t see much worth responding to within it.

    3.) There is a growing number of historians who highly doubt (if not outright dismiss) the historicity of Jesus. They reach this position by way of the fact that contemporary historians of Jesus’ time would have undoubtedly taken interest in his alleged activities and written about them *especially* if hundreds or thousands were actually seeing him work miracles.

    As it is, many historians only find casual mention of Jesus in other writings; and these occasions usually wind up mentioning Jesus the same way a non-Hindu writer would chronicle the beliefs of Hindus. They writer might mention Jesus as the messiah that a group of people believed in, but that doesn’t verify his reality any more than if I wrote “Many Hindus believe in the god Vishnu.”

  6. unkleE
    January 3, 2012

    G’day delightfullydoubtful, I presume you are not Dave the original poster, so welcome to our discussion.

    “However, not all historic documents claim to contain proof of an omnipotent, omniscient deity. “
    But surely before we discuss the metaphysics of whether a deity exists, we need to establish the basic facts, would you not agree? And that is what I was trying to do.

    And the historical,evidence is good. That is why a sceptic and genuine expert, Prof Bart Ehrman can say (in this interview): “I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.” Prof James Charlesworth, a world renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls says similarly (in his book “Jesus Within Judaism”): “Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.”

    “Your second claim doesn’t have any other claims backing it up, so I don’t see much worth responding to within it.”
    I’m sorry, Dave said he was very familiar with the material, so I just assumed he knew what I was referring to.

    Historians use various criteria to make judgments on the historical value of ancient documents, including (i) whether the events appear in several independent sources, (ii) how long after the events the documents were first written, (iii) how many copies of the document we have (to test whether there are many copying errors)and (iv) the time gap between the original and our earliest copy.

    It turns out that the gospels come up significantly better against these criteria than almost any document of comparable age. (You can see more details about this in Are the gospels historical?.) Thus the impartial experts (not christian apologists) can say:

    “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.” John A.T. Robinson

    “Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… The only surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages, but the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.” Helmut Koester

    “There is a growing number of historians who highly doubt (if not outright dismiss) the historicity of Jesus.”
    I was interested in this, because my reading suggests exactly the opposite. Can you name any historians (genuine experts, not just people who write on the internet) who hold this view please? I only know of one, Robert Price, perhaps two if you count Richard Carrier as an expert (he would not yet be recognised as such by his peers). But I can name dozens of expert historians who don’t doubt that Jesus was a real historical person and we can know significant amounts about him. This includes non-christians like Bart Ehrman, Geza Vermes, Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox and EP Sanders (some of the most respected names in historical study today or recently) as well as those who may be christians (they don’t always say) such as JD Crossan, NT Wright, P Fredriksen, J Meier, J Bauckham, C Keener, J Dunn, M Hengel, R van Voorst and G Thiessen. So I’d be interested to see your list.

    ” if the Bible were actually true (and the sort of God it claims to represent were real) we could expect a great deal more accuracy. We could expect the original manuscripts to have been divinely preserved for all generations to see “
    I think we need to settle the historical issues before we get into this, but as a preliminary, perhaps you could explain please the basis of your expectation and why you think your expectation should be our guide on this matter? Thanks.

    So I say to you as I did to Dave, some views have been expressed here which don’t seem to be based on the historical realities as determined by competent research. So I am interested to see whether you agree with my approach of gathering the historical facts first, and whether you have any different views of what those facts are.

    Thanks, and best wishes.

  7. Jared Cowan
    January 3, 2012

    Even if we granted the remote reliability of the NT, what does it really prove fundamentally? Heck, even if Jesus rose from the dead, what does it really prove ultimately? Not God, not souls, not any of the superstitious and supernatural nonsense that many claim it would if it could be proven. What value is there in any moral, ethical or philosophical ideas within the NT that couldn’t be found elsewhere?

  8. unkleE
    January 4, 2012

    G’day Jared, how are you going?

    We are discussing historical evidence, and I asked David why he didn’t present the majority view of historians. I am not sure from your comment what you are saying about the historical evidence.

    Do I take it from your comment that you concede that there is indeed good historical evidence for the basic facts about the life of Jesus? Or are you saying that you are not interested in historical evidence?

    Once we can establish what you accept as the evidence, then perhaps we can discuss the points you raised.

    Thanks and best wishes.

    • Jared Cowan
      January 4, 2012

      Historical evidence is only so relevant in regards to the metaphysical, ethical and other truths involved. Epistemology is key to this discussion. Historical evidence for Jesus is one thing, since all it would prove is that he existed and that his cult grew to power through other influences that are purely secular in nature. If we had historical evidence that pointed to the likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection, it would only prove that “something” was involved, but not that it was even supernatural in nature.

      Virtually any historical evidence is secular in nature, so any explanations of it can be boiled down to secular origins and causes without any real logical difficulty, since even some Christians, Kierkegaard comes to mind, would admit that the historical truth of Christianity is irrelevant. It is your relationship with God through Jesus’ example and teachings that matters, though that obfuscates the whole thing in personal experience instead of any sort of reliance on the bible, which creates heretical issues, I imagine.

      My basic point is that historical evidence would only take you so far in defending anything about Christianity, since fundamentally, the appeal lies deeper than the surface and you’d have to convince people that Christianity presents something nothing else does, which is much harder than the more secular task of bringing up relatively corroborating historical evidence, likelihood, etc.

      I personally don’t care so much about the historical evidence, even if there is some fairly strong signs on one side or another. If Jesus doesn’t exist or if he does, that’s not what primarily concerns me. Try philosophy for me, I suppose. More up my alley.

  9. unkleE
    January 4, 2012

    G’day Jared

    I’m a little surprised at what you say, concluding with “I personally don’t care so much about the historical evidence”, for two reasons.

    1. If our concern was simply to enjoy the intellectual stimulus of a debate, then of course you might want to limit your debates to a particular topic. But we are talking about life and reality and the truth, one way or the other, about God, and those things are so important, to me at any rate, that I wouldn’t want to close myself off to anything that might add to my understanding. Philosophical proofs can get us a fair way, but they are only a part of the evidence offered by believers.

    2. If there is some credible historical evidence of a unique person who (it is claimed) acted as if he was divine, healed people miraculously and even was raised from death, then I find those claims so amazing that I’d want to check them out. If there was such evidence, I can’t see how it would remain secular in nature, and perhaps it could prove more than your statement suggests.

    Best wishes.

  10. Jared Cowan
    January 4, 2012

    I didn’t say the historical evidence was completely useless, but in terms of the primary claims you’re making, especially extraordinary ones at that, there isn’t a reason to use historical evidence as the primary source for something that you would admit is supernatural in nature. If God bringing people back from the dead, doing miracles, all that sort of thing, is not something natural, then history’s admittance of it would contradict the notion of a miracle being a superseding in a sense of the laws of nature or at least an alteration beyond what is normal behavior. I’d find it far more fascinating to look into the natural explanations of such an event if it were proven more conclusively that it happen than accept one mystery to explain another. Ignotum per ignotius, if I remember my Latin phrases right. You solve one mystery/miracle by positing something more mysterious/miraculous to overshadow it.

    Life, reality and the truth are not always proven by historical evidence in the slightest. Some things are discerned without recourse to a posteriori considerations. Admittedly, it has its use, I said nothing of the sort.

    Historical evidence is by nature secular, since it doesn’t explicitly relate itself to any supernatural source, origin or cause. If Jesus claimed to be God, but was instead a prophet of God or someone made an adoptive Son in a higher sense, then the theological implications would throw everything into disarray more than they already are. It seems ridiculous for Christians who believe things by faith first and foremost in terms of God’s relationship with them, promises, etc, to try to grasp and find secular evidence or arguments for the truth of their supernatural and transcendent beliefs.

  11. unkleE
    January 5, 2012

    Jared Cowan :
    I didn’t say the historical evidence was completely useless, but in terms of the primary claims you’re making, especially extraordinary ones at that …..

    G’day again. Actually, if you check, I haven’t made any extraordinary claims – you have assumed this. My original comment was about historical matters – whether the NT merited the rather dismissive statements Dave made about its historical value. I have consistently tried to focus on the historical matters, because if they were important enough for Dave to mention them, they were important enough to get right. I’m still not clear whether you accept what I have suggested is the scholarly consensus on this.

    “If God bringing people back from the dead, doing miracles, all that sort of thing, is not something natural, then history’s admittance of it would contradict the notion of a miracle being a superseding in a sense of the laws of nature”
    My understanding is that most historians don’t go beyond the natural, because they adopt methodological naturalism in their study. Thus Graham Stanton can say of Jesus’ miracles: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.” and EP Sanders can say of the resurrection: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know”

    With the resurrection, there are only two possibilities, either it happened supernaturally or it didn’t happen at all – any “natural explanation” has to involve it not actually happening. If we preclude the possibility of a miracle, then we have no option but to disbelieve, and historical investigation is not very helpful, which seems to be your position. But if we are not so constrained, we will have to judge according to the historical evidence, which then becomes very important. But it will not be ultimately a historical decision, but a combined metaphysical-historical one.

    But either way, disparaging or understating the historical evidence isn’t helpful or accurate, and that was what I was raising with Dave. I’m not sure if we are getting anywhere?

  12. Jared Cowan
    January 5, 2012

    What claims have you made? Scholarly consensus only goes so far because of practical limitations in terms of what we can claim is true based on pragmatic evidential restrictions. Even if we found historical evidence of the resurrection or Jesus’ existence, they would only prove certain things with relative conclusiveness. If you go from proof that Jesus existed to proof that hr was resurrected to proof that he was God incarnate, it’s not only ludicrous, it’s logically fallacious.

    Methodological naturalism is not a blinder so much as a failsafe for stopping ridiculous claims of the existence of transcendent deities or other such superstitious things.

    A resurrection could happen with a three day old body without the need for supernatural intervention. You can’t seriously claim Jesus rotted away to nothing in the span of a weekend, right? I am not disbelieving, I am skeptical of extraordinary claims of bodies coming back from the literal dead instead of swooning, as one hypothesis goes. If Jesus was indeed dead, we have no reason to believe he came back from the dead or that he actually was dead if we apply the swoon hypothesis.

    Even if I accepted your scholarly consensus, I ask what it really demonstrates beyond that there was some person called Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary, alleged Messiah, etc. Does it really compel me to accept any other claims from believing Christians? You’ve failed to give me any reason why.

  13. unkleE
    January 5, 2012

    Jared,

    You are jumping ahead too far, I’m sorry. Let me say again, I have not made any supernatural claims here, I have simply queried a historical assessment Dave made. I’m still interested to see what your view is on the truth of the historical matters. This paragraph of your sums up my dilemma:

    “Even if I accepted your scholarly consensus, I ask what it really demonstrates beyond that there was some person called Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary, alleged Messiah, etc. Does it really compel me to accept any other claims from believing Christians? You’ve failed to give me any reason why.”

    I have failed to give you any reasons for what I believe, or even any statement of what I believe, because I am trying to establish the historical basis we are working from. Until we understand that, the argument based on the accounts can’t go anywhere, but you so far haven’t told me what you think. So let me ask you directly:

    Do you accept the verdict of the consensus of secular historians about the life of Jesus, or do you not?

  14. Jared Cowan
    January 5, 2012

    Only in the barest notions of some person like Jesus existing, but I’m still somewhat skeptical in terms of an argument as to how the historical evidence demonstrates Jesus in secular writings contemporary with him as opposed to after the fact.

  15. unkleE
    January 6, 2012

    Jared Cowan :
    Only in the barest notions of some person like Jesus existing, but I’m still somewhat skeptical in terms of an argument as to how the historical evidence demonstrates Jesus in secular writings contemporary with him as opposed to after the fact.

    That means you are not accepting the findings of historians, because they generally say that if we apply the same methods as we do to any other historical analysis, we can know quite a bit about Jesus.

    It means you are not accepting the evidence as we have it, which makes it a bit pointless discussing further, I’m sorry.

    Best wishes.

  16. Jared Cowan
    January 6, 2012

    You’ve failed to present compelling evidence to me as of recently, so that is why I remain skeptical. And I wonder what is the extent of knowledge you think we have about this person called Jesus, which was, from what I remember, a common enough name in those times. Do we have evidence he was crucified by the Roman pontiff, for instance? Do we have evidence he was buried in the grave owned by one Joseph of Arimathea? Do we have evidence of any of his so called miracles apart from his cult devoted followers?

  17. unkleE
    January 6, 2012

    Jared Cowan :
    You’ve failed to present compelling evidence to me as of recently, so that is why I remain skeptical.

    This is why I asked you whether you accepted the conclusions of expert historians. I’ve never been to the Middle East, I can’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, I don’t have access to original documents, I haven’t made a study of first century language, history and culture, so I cannot possibly, on my own, know very much at all about the period beyond what I can read in the New Testament. I would guess you are the same.

    So we can either base our ideas on ignorance, or we can read and believe the opinions of some self-appointed expert who is only a little less ignorant than we are, or we can rely on the real experts. I find so many people, believers and unbelievers equally, rely on biased writers rather than the real experts, but I choose to try to get an understanding of the best scholars. Unless we both have that basis, discussion would go nowhere, but be an unresolvable argument about what are the true facts.

    But I will try to give brief answers to your questions based on the experts.

    what is the extent of knowledge you think we have about this person called Jesus, which was, from what I remember, a common enough name in those times.
    The experts say we know a lot about Jesus. Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina: “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.” Prof James Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary: “Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.”

    Do we have evidence he was crucified by the Roman pontiff, for instance?
    Of course we do. The four gospels all record it. Do you not understand that to the historian, the gospels are sources just like any other document. They don’t treat them as holy scripture or anything, but simply as writings. They are not disqualified because they have a point of view, because pretty much all documents have a point of view – the historians take this into account. But in addition, we have corroborating evidence for the crucifixion from Tacitus and Josephus (the passage in Josephus has probably been added to, but the consensus of historians is that significant parts of it, including the crucifixion, are genuine).

    Do we have evidence he was buried in the grave owned by one Joseph of Arimathea?
    Yes, in the gospels. I think historians generally accept that evidence.

    Do we have evidence of any of his so called miracles apart from his cult devoted followers?
    Historians generally accept that he was known as a miracle-worker. They don’t generally comment on whether we should believe those stories because they say that is a matter of metaphysics more than history. G Stanton: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.”; E P Sanders: “I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.”

    All of these are world recognised scholars, not christian apologists (some would be christians, some would not be). To sum up, here is the view of EP Sanders, not a believer, and perhaps the most respected NT scholar of the past 30 years:

    “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”

    If all that comes as a surprise to you, it may be that you have been reading and believing the writings of biased atheist apologists instead of the best historians. (It is worth noting that what Sanders and other scholars understand about Jesus is not always exactly what believers and unbelievers think.)

    I hope that helps.

  18. Jared Cowan
    January 6, 2012

    I think a problem remains with taking the gospels as even remotely reliable historical sources because of implicit contradictions in descriptions of events and historical accounts of events that we can corroborate or discredit with secular sources, such as the issue of Qurinius or Herod being in power around the time of Jesus’ birth and the conflicting genealogies, among other issues.

    Not to mention we don’t necessarily have evidence that suggests the gospels were written by the writers they claim to be. And if that is the case, we have, at the best, second hand accounts written by people who were contemporaries with the disciples, which amounts to the disciples’ own distinct cult follower bias coming into the issue. They would remember Jesus in idealized ways and not in any sense in realistic terms.

    But even if we accepted Jesus’ existence and some basic truths about his life, this proves little in terms of the metaphysical claims that would come with the package inevitably in terms of apologetics about whether what Jesus said was true.

    There is always the difficulty of those 20 odd years where we have nothing about Jesus’ life that is very much a telling problem in accounting for Jesus’ life in any significance. At most, we have the alleged beginning of his life and the alleged end. Tacitus and Josephus have been demonstrated to be either primarily insertions or not remotely contemporary with Jesus in Tacitus’ case. If all you’re taking is the gospels, there are far more difficulties that exist there than if you’re trying to find corroborating secular historians, many of which are not contemporaries with Jesus or would only have admitted of the most basic facts instead of accepting the spreading delusions of his crazed followers.

  19. unkleE
    January 7, 2012

    I really think you need to read some of the genuine historians, for most of you objections are just not a problem if you understand history. You are making judgments based on 20th century expectations.

    1. If you were talking to a fundamentalist, then finding some part of the NT that seems wrong might be a telling point, but I have never presented a fundamentalist view – I have simply presented what the historians say, and most of your points don’t apply to them.

    “the issue of Qurinius or Herod being in power around the time of Jesus’ birth and the conflicting genealogies”
    Most historians accept the birth stories as non-historical or only loosely historical. It was not uncommon for otherwise historical biographies to have a fanciful beginning to make a few points. For example, there were many legends recorded about Alexander the Great’s birth, but that doesn’t mean the rest of his life was a legend.

    “we don’t necessarily have evidence that suggests the gospels were written by the writers they claim to be”
    The evidence suggests that the gospel stories were passed on mostly by word of mouth, and only written down when the first generation of eye-witnesses was getting thin on the ground. The names probably relate to one of the sources that were compiled into the gospels, but not necessarily all the sources. So what?

    “we have, at the best, second hand accounts written by people who were contemporaries with the disciples”
    You need to learn a bit more about oral cultures. Some study has been done which suggests that they were very good at preserving the main parts of a story, but that the story-tellers were encouraged to be creative about the minor details and the way they told the stories. Which is exactly what we have.

    “even if we accepted Jesus’ existence and some basic truths about his life”
    As long as you won’t accept the evidence of the experts, you are basing you conclusions on something other than evidence.

    “There is always the difficulty of those 20 odd years where we have nothing about Jesus’ life that is very much a telling problem in accounting for Jesus’ life in any significance.”
    This is just unimportant.

    “If all you’re taking is the gospels, there are far more difficulties that exist there than if you’re trying to find corroborating secular historians, many of which are not contemporaries with Jesus or would only have admitted of the most basic facts instead of accepting the spreading delusions of his crazed followers.”
    You are still avoiding the facts that (1) we have more sources closer to the events for Jesus life than we have for many other ancient histories, and (2) the experts conclude differently to you. Again I say, if you ignore the evidence you are basing your conclusions on something other than evidence. But what???

    I know it is hard for you to accept, but your conclusions are contrary to most of the scholars who have made a lifetime study, and if you believe the sceptical books atheists often like to read you are probably being misled. Your choice: to read and believe the best evidence, or be a faith-based atheist.

    Best wishes.

  20. Jared Cowan
    January 7, 2012

    So you openly admit that these stories could be embellished in many ways about Jesus’ life? This would include the likelihood that his resurrection and miracles, as well as his state of existence as a scapegoat for sins could’ve been exaggerated or interpolated by the followers instead of coming from Jesus’ mouth in any sense.

    You haven’t enumerated the evidence from the experts and what it tells us. You’re giving me cryptic answers about it instead of a point by point list of what we allegedly know through these experts. What are the things we’re uncertain about, for example?

    The gospels don’t necessarily count as contemporary sources. You admitted yourself that there were issues in oral culture even if they kept the bare basics of the story intact. But let’s assume I accept this evidence tentatively as a skeptic. What does it prove about associated metaphysical and theological claims about Jesus? Nothing.

  21. unkleE
    January 7, 2012

    G’day Jared,

    May I begin by saying a really appreciate your persistence. I seem to be saying things that are new to you, yet you are grappling with them and trying to understand them. But you are not there yet, I’m sorry. Take this statement:

    “So you openly admit that these stories could be embellished in many ways about Jesus’ life?”
    Let me say again, I have tried not to present any of my views yet. I have made it clear that before we present and discuss views, beliefs or opinions, we need to establish facts as best we can. I have said the starting point for that must logically be the historical conclusions of the expert scholars. Then when we have established those, we, and they, can go on to develop our opinions, and there we may legitimately disagree with the historians.

    For example, before we can make a judgment on whether Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, we need to understand Jesus in his first century Jewish context, whether he made such a claim, how people of his day would have understood it, etc. For that we need the historians and scholars, because we don’t really know all that much about that. Once we have read the conclusions of the scholars, then we can say whether we think he really was the Messiah, or just a deluded fanatic, or whatever.

    So, yes, the scholars consider whether the stories could be embellished, and consider with an open mind all the questions you have raised here.

    “You haven’t enumerated the evidence from the experts and what it tells us. You’re giving me cryptic answers about it instead of a point by point list of what we allegedly know through these experts. What are the things we’re uncertain about, for example?”
    These are all good questions, but how can I answer them here? I have developed what I think are the answers elsewhere, and I suggest you read Jesus in history and some of the other material that page links to.

    ” let’s assume I accept this evidence tentatively as a skeptic. What does it prove about associated metaphysical and theological claims about Jesus? Nothing”
    If you are looking for “proof” in history, or in metaphysics, or in life generally, you are doomed to disappointment. Even science rarely “proves” anything – it generally establishes things with statistical probability, which isn’t proof, and the only things that can be proved are mathematics and formal logic. But I am willing to have a go at showing what the historical evidence shows to be likely. My concern is that you are accepting the historical evidence only “tentatively” so you can test first whether you like the outcomes.

    I challenge you again to be a real rationalist and commit yourself to the evidence whether it leads you in familiar or strange directions. Go on, be daring! : )

  22. Jared Cowan
    January 7, 2012

    I don’t think I considered myself such a strict rationalist in that sense that you seem to be quoting Antony Flew from. I consider myself a pragmatist in that I consider practical benefits of something more valuable than abstractions. If it makes you feel better that doesn’t make it true in any significant sense of the term. If we put the history into practical terms, then honestly, you’d only have convinced me at the most that Jesus existed, but that’s probably about as far as it would go, since there is a tinge of religious cult following when invoking the more incredulous associated ideas with Jesus that are claimed to be historical. I can’t say I trust your supposed source, since it seems like it already has its presuppositions and seeks to find any grasping for evidence to fit its conclusion that God exists and Jesus is God.

    I’d rather be practical than take unnecessary and irrational risks to being philosophically inconsistent and otherwise believing in things for cultural conformity’s sake, since the world tends to regard Jesus in various ways as someone worthy of respect, which I’m skeptical of as well.

    • unkleE
      January 8, 2012

      That wasn’t my source, it was my summary of the best historians. None of them are part of some “religious cult following”, and most of them (e.g. Ehrman, Grant, Sanders) are not believers at all.

      But I’ve said all I can. You won’t accept the findings of the world’s most respected historians. I don’t find that pragmatic or avoiding unnecessary risks, but rather the opposite. But that is your choice. I just hope you don’t ever again pretend that you are basing your views on evidence.

      I don’t think I have any more to say. Thanks for the discussion.

      Best wishes.

  23. Jared Cowan
    January 9, 2012

    I never claimed the historians were part of the religious cult following, but if they use sources that are admittedly of people who are religiously devoted to Jesus, I’m terribly skeptical in terms of whether those sources are dependable even in terms of whether the person they speak so highly about existed, or if he did, if he did any of the ludicrous things they claim he did.

    Apparently you think pragmatism is based purely on game theory, but I don’t weigh evidence the same as benefits in terms of economic gain. Pragmatic evidence is not so skeptical it denies the evidence if it doesn’t meet with super strict standards, but holds it tentatively as holding some kernel of truth until it demonstrates otherwise in terms of new evidence or arguments brought up to the contrary.

    If you want to base your views on hearsay, speculation, probability and intuition instead of practical and logical benefits to those beliefs themselves, I think withholding some belief or being skeptical about the truth of certain beliefs is more reasonable.

  24. Pingback: A quick update, and my response to a comment on Jessica’s victory « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

  25. Pingback: An excellent example of what’s wrong with the fine-tuning case for a creator-god « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on December 31, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, Web Links & Videos and tagged , , , .
%d bloggers like this: