Atheists/agnostics know more about Christianity than Christians do

The revelation that atheists and agnostics are the groups most knowledgeable about major world religions has, unsurprisingly, gone viral among atheist blogs and sites.  One interesting tidbit that seems to have been lost, however, is that they’re even more knowledgeable about the Bible and Christianity than Christians, as an aggregate, are.  If you don’t consider Mormoms as Christians, as many Christians don’t, then the knowledge gap is even larger, since Mormons top everyone, and thus skew the results in Christians’ favor.

Atheists are generally not surprised by the news, as we’ve been saying for a long time that the Bible, taken as a whole, is a powerful tool against Christianity.  To maintain faith, it has to be sanitized, processed, and effectively censored for the believing masses.  How many Christians are aware, for example, that the Bible says their god tortured and eventually killed an innocent newborn for the sins of its father?  And this is simply one barbarism among dozens of others.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, summed it up nicely:  “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people.  Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge.”

The Pope is a Pious Fraudster

Or he’s insane.  But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Speaking in Great Britain yesterday during his trip funded at the expense of the English taxpayer, Benedict characterized Nazi tyranny as “atheist extremism”.  Coming from a man who once said that condoms increase the risk of contracting AIDs, which was simply one more lie among a long string, this gross distortion of history shouldn’t shock anyone.  Who said, “We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out…We have put an end to denial of God and abuse of religion”?  Yep, you guessed it, that notorious author of “atheist extremism” himself, Adolf Hitler.

What’s behind Benedict’s misinformation campaign is not hard to discern.  The land the Catholic Church once practically ruled for so long has become increasingly denuded of followers.  Churches stand empty.  Fewer and fewer enter the priesthood.  For the most part, a sweeping secularization can take credit.  This is especially troubling to the Vatican because it can expect far less deference when its criminal activities come to light.  The aggressive police raid on Catholic churches in Belgium a few months back is likely just a taste of things to come.  Severely down in the polls, Benedict is doing what any other Machiavellian politician would do in a similar situation: sling mud, dissemble, and lie.

The sweet irony of the Pope’s fraud is that it’ll only hasten the very process he and his henchmen rail against.  I say this in full seriousness: the Pope is a godsend to secularists everywhere (and, well, pretty much anyone else who abhors the Catholic Church, which includes a sizable number of fellow Christians too).  It’s not simply his knack for offending anyone and everyone, but the clear fact he’s woefully inadequate to face the mounting challenges confronting his faith.  It’s hard to differentiate the actions this Pope and his lackeys have taken from those of someone who would actively sabotage it:

Claim the mantle of victimhood while your criminal activities are exposed – Check

Hide behind dubious grants of sovereignty – Check

Blame your troubles on invisible nefarious forces – Check

Insult the very hosts who are paying for your jaunt to their country – Check

The cumulative effect of all this just confirms one of the bylines of the so-called new atheism: religion poisons everything.  In a time when the entire edifice of faith has come under increasing scrutiny, thanks in no small part to the Four Horsemen, the last thing religion needs is a prominent liar for Jesus.  A few decades ago, the damage might have been mostly confined to within Catholicism, but I think people are beginning to agree with us skeptics that the mendacity is the inevitable product of minds beholden to magic and faith, minds which largely dwell within a “demon-haunted world”.

I wish the Pope a long life to continue his crusade.

Theistic absolute morality + invisible god = horrible relative morality

Believers of theistic religions all regard themselves in possession of a moral code that is perfect and absolute (applicable to all times and places, without exception).  These believers often further claim this moral code can only be found in their holy books.

It’s well-known that the moral codes of these believers conflict, not just across religions, but even within religions themselves, and not just in the present day within these religions, but across time as well.  That is, on almost any moral question, a different answer will be given depending on the religion you query.  And even if you inquire within the same religion, you’ll likely get a different answer.  There’s even a good chance you’ll get a different answer if you asked a believer from the same religious sect today verses one 50 or a hundred years ago.  These facts alone justify reasonable doubt in the claims of a theistic absolute morality.

Nonetheless, let’s assume for a moment there is an absolute morality as conveyed by an omnibenevolent, omniscient creator, and that one of the present religions is in possession of it.  Is this progress?  No!

The reason is because this creator is invisible and interacts with us in no discriminating way.  We are thus at a loss to know whose believer’s absolute morality is the real one among all the pretenders.  Every believer’s justification to elevate their own moral system over that of their competitors is either 1) question-begging or 2) non-discerning.

A common example of (1) is “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of human life.”  But the believer is assuming the sanctity of human life is an inherent feature of the creator’s absolute morality, when in fact it may very well not be.  To better understand this fallacy, let me rephrase the example: “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of cows.”  The person is arguing for the objective superiority of their religious moral code by making reference to their religious moral code.  It’s circular and shows nothing.

Similarly, someone may denigrate the moral code of another religion as a way to prove it cannot be divinely originated, pointing to, say, death by stoning for adultery.  Same fallacy as before, but it’s also a fallacious appeal to emotion.

The other tact, an example of (2), is to stress the utilitarian results of their morality.  “Look at all the clinics, shelters, and free kitchens we run,” a believer might say. While noble, altruistic action is observed in practically every religious tradition.  It’s also observed among the non-religious, and even among non-humans.  The Islamic terrorist organization Hamas provides a vast number of social services, so does that therefore mean Islam possesses the perfect moral code we all should follow?

Holy books, revered prophets, tradition, miracles, a radically changed life—all “proofs” the Divine Author allegedly employed to definitively mark the supernatural source of a believer’s morality.  Except that, again, these are standard fare among the various theistic religions.  To paraphrase a line from a great film, “When every morality is supernatural, none is.”

Believers who claim their particular religious morality reflects the will of some divine creator are thus caught in an intractable bind.  Nothing they do or say can irrefutably, or even reasonably, prove their claim.  This is evident in two ways: first, by the protracted failure to establish a single moral framework not just among religions, but even within a particular religion; second, by ever-shifting theistic views about just what is moral and immoral.

A divine creator who wanted us to follow an Absolute Moral Law could have easily avoided this situation.  He could have poofed into existence an indestructible written codex containing all the moral knowledge we’d ever need.  Heck, he could have simply inscribed the instructions into our genetic code, such that everyone, everywhere would know, for example, never to eat shellfish or pork without it having it to be drilled into their heads by other humans.  A divine creator could do these things…or any number of other actions.  But he hasn’t…

Instead, we have a situation that reflects the worst of all possible worlds.  On the one hand, millions of people believe they’re following divine moral commands to which they stubbornly cling.  On the other, there are significant disagreements among these moral commands, with no method or means given whatsoever to establish which originate from a divine source.

The tragic consequence is that moral advancement among such individuals occurs very grudgingly, and usually after they’ve inflicted much needless suffering.  Slavery is perhaps the most infamous example.  Long was this barbaric institution upheld by the very same believers who would later repudiate it, but not before millions of lives were ground up in its brutal grip, and wars which consumed many others were fought over it.  One would think the sad lesson of slavery would teach believers to temper their uncompromising moral attitudes, but they make the same mistake with depressing regularity.

What if a believer just happens to have access to the genuine moral dictates of the creator?  They’re not much better off.  Since we’re imperfect beings – a fact believers readily admit to – moral belief and action cannot be guaranteed to reflect moral dictates.  And life doesn’t present us with easy, black-and-white moral dilemmas.  If a believer had to lie to save someone’s life, most (but, frighteningly, not all!) wouldn’t give it a second thought, despite lying being specifically prohibited in most theistic absolute moral systems.  The bottom line is that such believers have no way to know whether they’ve interpreted the dictates perfectly, particularly in morally ambiguous situations, and every reason to doubt it.

Whether they care to admit it, theists are de facto moral relativists; as history has amply proved, their morality is contingent on time, circumstance, interpretation, or context.  But since they refuse to acknowledge this truth, correcting a false or harmful moral view is nearly impossible to them.  Until the creator of the Real Absolute Morality stands up and unmistakably presents it to us the presently living, believers with their conflicting moral absolutist codes will continue to be a drag on moral progress. Our only viable course is to apply our own human reason to discovering and establishing moral codes like secular humanism in ways that mimic how we uncover scientific truth.  We’ll make mistakes, but acknowledging mistakes are possible makes swift remedies probable.

Perhaps they should take the hint…

Whilst perusing the latest and greatest the intertubes have to offer this morning, I happened upon the site of The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), which bills itself as an “organization of lay Catholic Americans concerned about the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization”.  Appropriately enough for this collection of Catholic fundies, its online magazine is called Crusade.  Now that’s what I call tradition!

Unsurprisingly, TFP is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage.  It wrote of the ruling overturning California’s Proposition 8 that the ruling “unmasks how the homosexual movement’s promotion of same-sex “marriage.” [sic] deprives marriage of its rational end, belittles a higher moral law and disregards the majority of California who hold marriage to be sacred.”  Perhaps as a way to demonstrate just how outraged its readers are at the ruling, TFP posted a poll inviting readers to offer their opinion.  Among the choices is “It is an irrational decision denying the nature and purpose of marriage” and “It was a slap in the face of California voters”.

Web site operators should know by now the dangerous terrain they tread putting up online polls.  Over a decade ago, there was the case of Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf winning People Magazine’s online poll for its “50 Most Beautiful People” issue.  More recently, comedian Stephen Colbert topped NASA’s online poll for whom to name its new wing of the international space station.  The lesson is: never assume you’ll get the results you anticipated.  It’s a lesson TFP is probably now just discovering, for when I clicked on its poll results (so far), the following popped up:

 No wonder TFP hates democracy in the church.

Return God to the classroom!

Johann Hari tells us that Britain is now “the most irreligious country on earth…[having] shed superstition faster and more completely than anywhere else.”  He attributes religion’s – by which he means Christianity’s –  decline to “a free marketplace of ideas” that has debunked religion’s claims as rationally baseless.

Good stuff so far, but Hari strongly laments the remaining special privileges afforded Christianity in that country, such as the law requiring every school in Britain to make its pupils daily engage in “an act of collective worship of a wholly or mainly Christian nature” and the set-aside in the unelected House of Lords for 26 bishops.

So, let me get this straight.  Britain has struck on the most successful model to date for reducing religious national incidence and Hari is complaining?

To be fair, Hari is responding to British Christian cries of “Christophobia” and bullying.  How strange that is when Christianity retains such an elevated status, is Hari’s point.  I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t sound, because he’s spot on, just that, Hari may be missing the forest for the trees.  He’d no doubt say British Christianity has declined despite its privilege, but, perhaps with tongue in cheek, cannot one make a reasonable case for the opposite?  Namely, that the decline is because of the privilege?  After all, the same “free marketplace of ideas” reigns in the U.S., perhaps even more so, and yet it has not matched Britain’s secularizing experience.

I’m still a committed secularist, but Britain’s quixotic and ironic results remain intriguing…

No Rational Basis

That’s the sum of Judge Walker’s argument in his decision overturning California’s gay marriage ban (which also seem to nicely characterize the religious beliefs of the ban’s proponents, but I digress…).  To get a good sense why Walker came to that conclusion, here is an excerpt from his decision:

Proponents argued that Proposition 8 should be evaluated solely by considering its language and its consistency with the “central purpose of marriage, in California and everywhere else,…to promote naturally procreative sexual relationships and to channel them into stable, enduring unions for the sake of producing and raising the next generation.”…

At oral argument on proponents’ motion for summary judgment, the court posed to proponents’ counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.”…

Despite this response, proponents in their trial brief promised to “demonstrate that redefining marriage to encompass same-sex relationships” would effect some twenty-three specific harmful consequences. At trial, however, proponents presented only one witness, David Blankenhorn, to address the government interest in marriage. Blankenhorn’s testimony…provided no credible evidence to support any of the claimed adverse effects proponents promised to demonstrate. During closing arguments, proponents again focused on the contention that “responsible procreation is really at the heart of society’s interest in regulating marriage.” When asked to identify the evidence at trial that supported this contention, proponents’ counsel replied, “you don’t have to have evidence of this point.” (h/t Reason Magazine)

Just the clueless blathering of a liberal San Francisco judge?  Oh, wait

[R]ecommended by Ed Meese, [Walker was] appointed by Ronald Reagan, and opposed by Alan Cranston, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, and the leading gay activist groups.

Ouch.  When your ideological bedfellows essentially say you’re full of hot air, that’s gotta hurt.

But…but…won’t someone think of the will of the majority?

This objection, especially when coming from people who should know better, floors me.  I can only think their intention is demagoguery.  The answer to them can be made in three words:  Bill of Rights*.  If the will of the majority is sacrosanct, then the Bill of Rights is superfluous.  Its whole raison d’être is to protect individual rights, particularly those of minorities.  If rights are subject to the whim of transient majorities, then why call them rights rather than privileges?  Coming shortly upon the heals of major decisions regarding the second amendment and gun ownership, supported by many of the same groups now wailing about the reversal of the gay marriage ban, one would think the objection would not even be raised.  The gumption that produces this sort of selective amnesia is breathtaking to behold.

Yet, as noted on NPR this morning, Judge Walker was careful not to couch his decision primarily in terms of law, but of evidence and “findings of fact.”  This makes it less likely that an appeals court will overturn the decision.  As is obvious from the completely vacuous arguments of the defendants, it was easy for Judge Walker to go that route.  It’s almost as if the defendants’ case was entirely…faith-based.

Eventually, those who argue against same-sex marriage will lose, just as they lost against interracial marriage equality decades ago.  As then, there simply aren’t any good reasons to deny any loving adult couple from enjoying the same right most everyone else does – a fact Judge Walker made stellarly clear.  But religiously-motivated action is very rarely ever founded on reason or evidence, is it?  This is what makes it so harmful, and why many seek to contain its pernicious effects to believers themselves.

*Yes, I realize Judge Walker referred to the equal protection clause, which is part of the Fourteenth Amendment, and not any part of the Bill of Rights, which is the collective name for the first Ten Amendments, but the basic principle is the same: the enumeration of rights to protect against, in de Tocqueville’s memorable phrase, the “tyranny of the majority.”

Blame, where blame is due

A shocking and sad video of a baby drowned to death from a baptism is rapidly making the rounds on the internet, particularly within the atheosphere.  My first reaction was to post a series of ways Christians would no doubt minimize the tragedy (e.g., “The baby’s got a free ticket to heaven”), but after further consideration, I thought better of it.  After all, there are vanishingly few baptisms that result in death, at least as far as I can determine.  The priest was simply criminally negligent, no different than the criminally negligent in hundreds of other non-religious fields.

Believers deserve approbation for many things, but I submit it should be based on their actions as directly derived from their faith-based doctrines that consistently result in harm—such as the withholding of medical care in favor of “prayer and anointing”.  Anyone, believer and skeptic alike, can make a tragic mistake.

A Christian makes the case for separation of church and state

Members of a society’s dominant religion often think it perfectly natural that faith and politics should overlap. Here in America, for example, Christians whip themselves into a frenzy whenever the privileged status of their religion is taken down a notch, such as when the National Day of Prayer was recently ruled unconstitutional.  To the long-standing principle of “separation of church and state,” many of them they say pffft!  Removing God and His laws from the public sphere inevitably leads to rampant immorality and invites His wrath.  This is a Christian nation, by gum!

It’s unfortunate so many are ignorant of the rationale behind the Establishment Clause of our constitution.  Efforts to circumscribe or role back Christianity’s encroachment on the public sphere are instead interpreted as a commie-liberal-socialist-nazi-atheist-NWO plot to destroy it.

The site Religion Dispatches today runs the perfect rejoinder to these loons.  Not only does it compellingly make the case for separation of church and state, it does so by recalling just why the Founders regarded it as so critically important for the protection of believers themselves:

For the historically minded among us, the reasons for not bringing our spiritual authority into political campaigns are blood red. For nearly 2,000 years our faith fore-fathers were persecuted and oppressed, not always by the irreligious, but more often by competing tribes within Christianity. Clerics would jockey for favor in the kingdoms of men, then use any clout gained to suppress the views of their theological enemies.

Over and again we stamped out those who did not fit into our au courant idea of orthodoxy and we entrenched ourselves into division, using the steel of our ruler’s swords to proclaim our theological certainty. Christians have killed and tortured more of their own than any other group in history, and this was possible solely because of the unholy union of church and state. Pastors gave rulers their blessing, and rulers returned the favor by silencing the pastor’s critics, a fantastic deal for the pastor who courts the powers, but a dangerous and painful reality for those who do not.

Best of all, the article is not authored by one of the usual suspects but by a Christian believer and alumni of Liberty University (RD calls him a “conservative Christian,” a label I cannot confirm), which makes him a tad more difficult to dismiss.  My only quibble with the piece is that it could reinforce the point by citing examples of American intra-Christian killing, thus proving how readily “blood red” history can repeat itself even here.

It’s sad to think such an outstanding article from an unimpeachable source will likely have no impact on the views of the Christian theocrats, for in my experience they’ve largely immunized themselves against reason and sound argument.  I would not have them be reminded – the hard way – why they tread a dangerous path.

Debating Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ

More than blogging, I enjoy a good online discussion, which I’ve continuously engaged in since the days when Usenet was pretty much the only game in town for that sort of thing.  In fact, I probably post more on other peoples’ blogs than I do my own, simply for the debate.

A couple months ago, I came across a Christian, Ron, who apparently found Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ so undeniably compelling, he decided to give it a fuller airing on his blog. Unusual for a Christian, however, Ron practically invited skeptical responses to his posts.

A little background: Lee Strobel is very popular among some Christians who are not entirely comfortable taking their religion’s claims wholly on faith.  His books, which have sold very well, provide a seemingly solid rational defense of Christianity.  Skeptics and freethinkers, acknowledging this popularity, have reviewed Strobel’s works and have come away…less than impressed.  Their main criticism is that, while Strobel strives to position himself as a skeptic by posing questions to experts a skeptic would allegedly ask, the fact of the matter is, Strobel is an unabashed advocate who’s presenting his case on its best possible terms.  This is crystal clear by the soft-ball questions he asks – and doesn’t ask – but also by the “experts” Strobel interviews, who almost without exception share the exact same beliefs he does.  An excellent recent demolishing of an example of the Strobel façade was recently concluded by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism.

I don’t think Christians are aware of how poorly Strobel’s works are viewed by outsiders.  They’re often recommended to us by Christians who cannot see the works’ inherent fallacies and obvious bias.  Demonstrating this to Ron, it seemed to me, would be a worthwhile pursuit.

Although for various reasons it’s taken Ron a little longer to respond than he intended, he’s finally posted a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to my first set of brief objections to The Case for Christ. Because Ron has obviously put in a significant amount of time and effort into his rebuttal, I think it only proper I respond in kind.  My conclusion is that Ron doesn’t significantly refute or materially address my objections.  He’s also mistaken on more than a few matters, as I will show.

My first objection was to note that the omission of full disclosure about Strobel’s first expert, Dr. Blomberg.  I regarded this as important information in assessing Blomberg’s credibility.  For instance, say someone recommends you buy a new product.  Very well, lots of people – from friends to strangers – do this.  But then you discover this person is a paid salesman for the product’s manufacturer.  This information will naturally cause you to treat that person’s recommendation with heightened skepticism.  You know that person has special motives, in this case, a financial interest, in you following their advice.  Further, you highly suspect that person will give you only the most positive information about the product and not any negative.  This is why full disclosure is so important.

I noted to Ron that Dr. Blomberg is an evangelical Christian (as is Strobel), and this should have been mentioned.  Why?  Because evangelicals stress “conversionism” and “activism”, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.  Essentially, they’re Christianity’s aggressive salesmen.

Ron dismisses this objection on the following grounds (summarized):

1)      It’s irrelevant

2)      Everyone has an agenda

By raising this objection, Ron accuses me of committing the fallacy of “Circumstantial Ad Hominem”.

Referencing that last link will show why Ron’s rebuttal is invalid.  To be a true fallacy, I would have to dismiss Dr. Blomberg’s claims based on his background, but this is not something I ever did.  Instead, I merely noted that he’s not a neutral expert, but “one who’s trying to put the best possible spin on the  evidence, by both highlighting certain things, and also not disclosing other things.”  As the nikzor.org citation states:

There are times when it is prudent to suspicious of a person’s claims, such as when it is evident that the claims are being biased by the person’s interests.

And this is precisely the basis for why I object to the failure to disclose all of Dr. Blomberg’s background.  He has a personal commitment in getting you to believe what he believes, and therefore we should greet his claims with some suspicion.

Moving along, I charge that Strobel is either ignorant of New Testament (NT) gospel problems, or does not raise them because he’s an evangelical, primarily due to the failure to raise the synoptic problem.  To the second charge, Ron repeats the accusation that I’m committing the fallacy of circumstantial ad hominem. I already dealt with this accusation, showing that it misunderstands what the fallacy actually is.  As to the first charge, Ron dismisses it as “just a baseless personal attack”.

Why is the failure to address, let alone discuss, the synoptic problem significant?  Because Strobel and Blomberg attempt to bolster the credibility of the gospels by claiming they’re based on eyewitness testimony.  Yet, if eyewitnesses actually wrote the gospels, then why do the synoptic gospels “share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words”? (emphasis mine)  This is extremely strange – inexplicable, in fact — if they’re truly independent, eyewitness accounts as Blomberg and Strobel would have us believe.

Curiously, Ron includes a lengthy, meandering discussion of the synoptic problem—not so much what it actually is, mind you, but over whether the synoptic problem is a problem in and of itself.  That Ron felt the need to discuss the topic in depth, of course, only demonstrates just how important the question is, thus supporting my point that to exclude it bespeaks an agenda, not scholarship.  Perhaps Ron didn’t read carefully all of what he posted, but the conclusion of his discussion practically proves this.  As he quotes from a Christian scholar:

The issue is not a matter of believing or not believing the Bible; it is a matter of believing, and then seeking to understand as best we can that which we believe (“faith seeking understanding”).

In other words, don’t follow the evidence to arrive at a belief, but believe first, and then find the evidence to support your belief.  This, I submit, is the real purpose of The Case for Christ: to provide that “understanding,” no matter how flimsy or biased, to bolster a pre-existing belief.

Next up, I noted a rare, critical concession by Blomberg.  As he admits, “strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.”

Perhaps after his long discourse on the synoptic problem, it was getting late and Ron wasn’t thinking clearly, because he replies, “While it is true the gospels are strictly speaking anonymous, it does not logically follow we do not know who wrote them.”

Sorry, but not knowing who wrote something is the very definition of anonymous.  He cites another source explaining how we would know, say, the Gospel According to Matthew was in fact written by Matthew (Levi).  But if true, that would no longer make the gospel anonymous, would it?  Thus, Ron’s own authorities are in disagreement.

Continuing on the subject of authorship, I’m not impressed with Blomberg’s claim that there was “unanimous testimony” in the early church that the gospels were written by their putative authors.  The question of authorship didn’t arise until well into the second century (long after their real authors were dead), and when it did, just how the church fathers ascribed authorship shows how much it was based on guesswork and conjecture.  Perhaps Ron overlooked it, but on his own blog, in a reply to someone who challenged my objection, I linked to an article by Dr. Richard Carrier titled “Ignatian Vexation” showing how truly muddled the question of authorship and dating of the gospels actually is.  Blomberg actually weakens his argument by noting the uncertainty over the authorship of John, but falls back on the “unanimous testimony” defense.  What he doesn’t mention – and Strobel fails to follow-up on – is that this uncertainty is a result of historical critical scholarship of the NT conducted over the past couple centuries.  Clearly, then, the early church was more interested in attaching names to works than finding out just who its authors were.

To my point that, even if assuming the gospels were written by their putative authors, Mark and Luke are not eyewitnesses, and so their gospels would in truth be hearsay, Ron concedes.  But he says I imply by this that “second hand information or hearsay should not be admitted to the conversation or is not worthy of belief”.

Not really. My real point is to undercut the whole notion that the gospels are “eyewitness evidence,” which is the chapter heading in Strobel’s book.  Second, I mention it to attack their credibility, that we should treat their claims with greater suspicion.  After all, they were not at the scene of the events they described.  They relied on someone else’s recollections, which, in the case of the gospels, were finally written down many decades later (can you remember with any specificity a conversation you had last month, must less 40 years ago?).  This hardly makes for accurate history.  And then there are the problems with poor copying, redaction, embellishing and so forth, which we have indisputable proof occurred over many centuries. For a riveting elaboration of this subject, I highly recommend the Evans/Ehrman debate on whether the New Testament misquotes Jesus.

I realize Ron is simply repeating an old Christian chestnut when he references the ancient documents rule in support of gospel reliability.  This rule, which modern NT scholars, even Christian ones, no longer reference, holds that if a document is “at least twenty years old; in a condition that makes it free from suspicion concerning its authenticity; and found in a place where such a writing was likely to be kept,” it is deemed authentic.  Only the first condition applies to the gospels.  There is no single document of any of the gospels.  The earliest versions of the gospels are fragments.  These fragments are copies, of copies, of copies, etc., of the originals.  And finally, the originals don’t exist.  In other words, the ancient documents rule cannot possibly apply to the gospels.

On the topic of dating, I fault Case for glossing over just how unsettled the subject is among scholars, and reference the site earlychristianwritings.com for a more balanced discussion.  Ron, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree, but then launches into an attack on this website.  For example, he says that some documents are dated to 30 AD, which “can not possibly be correct” because 33 AD is the actual year of Jesus’ death.  Also, some of the documents are “not Christian at all” but heresy.

I mention these objections because they show critical gaps in Ron’s understanding of some basic history.  The reason for the 30 AD date is because NT scholars cannot precisely pin down the year of Jesus’ death, due to an irreconcilable dispute between the gospels of Matthew and Luke over just when Jesus was born.  This comes out in Case (pg. 42), where Blomberg says, “If Jesus was put to death in A.D. 30 or 33…”  Also, it’s indisputable that early Christians were utilizing a wide variety of gospels and other writings that didn’t make it into the canon.  Calling them “heresy” is an ad hoc charge from the perspective of the victorious Christian sect which had eliminated all its rivals after many centuries.  See Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities for more.

Ron doesn’t like that I called the mention of “hostile witnesses” in the discussion about gospels dating a red herring.  First, Ron says Blomberg actually stated “hostile eyewitnesses”.  True, he does, but “hostile witnesses” is the phrase that Ron used in his original post.  No biggy.  To the meat of my objection.  Inclusion of hostile eyewitnesses in the subject of gospels dating is irrelevant because there’s no evidence provided such eyewitnesses existed.  It’s also irrelevant because the presumed existence of hostile eyewitnesses is germane to the topic of gospels accuracy, not dating.  Blomberg and Strobel would likely answer there’s no record of hostile eyewitnesses because the gospels were accurate; thus, such witnesses would have nothing to write about, presumably having verified the accuracy of gospel “facts” ( then wouldn’t they have written that too?).  But I have a better explanation: history doesn’t record any hostile eyewitnesses because no one cared about such a tiny religious sect, among the thousands of others existing in that part of the world.

Ron replies that of course some cared: local Jewish authorities opposed Christianity from the beginning; within 30 years of Jesus’ death the Romans were persecuting it, putting to death Peter and Paul.

Putting aside the accuracy of these claims, Ron is sidestepping the issue.  Our discussion is about gospel accuracy.  When I say no one cared, I mean, no one cared about the veracity of a tiny religious sect’s theological claims.  Political and religious authorities of course would care if citizens went around spreading “heresy” or undermining the official religion—which was the basis for Christian persecution.

Someone else who didn’t seem to care much about gospels “facts” is, ironically enough, the Apostle Paul himself.  Nothing in his epistles references any of Jesus’ supposed sayings, miracles, travels, parables, key sermons, prophecies, exorcisms, his divine birth, or even the location of his crucifixion and resurrection!  Ron, argues that this objection is a fallacious argument from silence, since Paul’s silence is taken as evidence of his ignorance.  What Ron doesn’t realize, however, is that the argument from silence is valid when two conditions are met: “the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.” (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, pg. 149).  To use one of Ron’s own examples to show the many instances in which these conditions were met, when the Thessalonians inquired of Paul as to the timing of Christ’s return, it was not for wont of Jesus’ own predictions on the question that Paul cited none of them (cf. Mark 13:24-31, Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27).  How better to reassure the Thessalonians than to harken back to the words of the Son of Man himself?  Earl J. Doherty has compiled a list of 20 compelling silences which provide even further validity to this argument from silence.

A favorite Christian apologetic is to claim there wasn’t enough time for legendary development to occur from the time of Jesus’ death to the writing of the gospels, thus supporting their historical authenticity.  I objected that’s bunk, because history records other indisputable examples of legendary development which occurred even faster.  Ron chides me for providing no such examples, and true enough, I didn’t — at the time I wrote that.  But in a follow-up post on his own blog, before Ron crafted his lengthy reply, I did provide such examples:

Alexander the Great – Within 30 years after his death, “remarkable” legends appeared.

Sabbatai Sevi – A “dizzying whirl” of legends appeared in the very first year of his seventeenth century messianic movement.

The Angel of Mons – WWI legend developed over a period of just months.

These are a few examples of mythical growth from the book Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box?

I’m not at all clear about Ron’s point in his mention of verses from the Pauline epistles 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Colossians.  It’s not my contention that Christianity emerged from a completely blank slate, nor is it my view that theology requires legendary development.  Yes, some things mentioned in the gospels are also mentioned in the epistles.  So what?

Ron seems not to appreciate my point about how much the NT authors relied on the Old Testament (OT), for he merely replies that they cited it insofar as to show how Jesus fulfilled prophecy.  No, no, no.  It goes much deeper than that.  There is so much of Jesus’ “life” that has an  OT parallel or reference that some scholars, such as Robert M. Price, wonder whether any of it is authentic at all (see esp. his book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man).

I thank Ron for taking such effort to advance the debate and answer criticisms.  I’ll continue to post objections to Case on his blog and defend my views here.

The turn of the tide

The New York Times recently reported that Belgian officials have raided offices of the Catholic Church in search of evidence related to allegations of sexual abuse.

Coming on the heels of months of ever-more sickening revelations about the church’s sexual abuse cover-up campaign, one can only say, “Finally!”  Finally, the hands-off, “let them take care of it themselves” bullshit has been dispensed with, which has only served the church’s interest in shuffling its sordid affairs under the rug and denying justice to its victims.  Finally, law enforcement has aggressively acted to uncover the full extent of clerical crimes, a wholly justified response against an organization with such a history of illegal activity.

I think this represents the turn of the tide  against the Catholic church.  A taboo has been broken against it.  The church has long claimed sovereign immunity as a “state,” a privilege largely respected.  But as the steady stream of sexual abuse allegations became a flood, as it was undeniable efforts to hide the abuse reached to the current Pope himself, as the horrifying and gruesome detail of Ireland’s exhaustive report on clergy sexual abuse and torture of children rippled across the world, whatever vestige of deference given the church  has evaporated.  And perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I can’t help but think that the efforts of the so-called new atheists — notably, Christopher Hitchens — contributed to setting the stage for the shift in attitude.

Exceeded perhaps only by the Workers’ Party of North Korea, there exists no other organization whose lofty rhetoric is so far removed from reality.  The Vatican should be placed in the category of rogue states — and dealt with accordingly.