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Archive for December, 2007

Holiday Greetings

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Yeah, in case you didn’t know, Blackwater (the mercenary army employed by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan) is run by a Christian fundamentalist, and this is the holiday card they sent out (presumably to employees). This marriage of Republican, pro-war, capitalist, Christian beliefs in the US is always interesting. A few years ago, on a message board, there was one guy (who was French) who was a big opponent of Bush, the neo-cons and their foreign policy. Some time later, he was defending the idea that God exists and said that he was a Catholic. I was stunned. Why? Because in the US, being strongly Christian is virtually synonymous with being a fan of Bush, and being an strong opponent of Bush is virtually synonymous with being – well, anything but a strong Christian. I had to remind myself that those correlations don’t necessarily hold true when talking about foreigners – there are actually anti-war Christians, though it’s easy to forget when you’re living in the United States.

Related:
YouTube: Blackwater: Shadow Army
Bush’s Blackwater, an armed and deadly mercenary Christian army

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Scott raised a question about the “virgin” / “young woman” mistranslation in the Old Testament in one of the comments. Essentially, Christians claim that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy written hundreds of years earlier. (My response.) Christians will sometimes claim that Jesus fulfilled all kinds of Old Testament prophecies. I’ve looked up a few and found them lacking. But, the point I was getting to was this: I was listening to a debate the other night about whether Jesus existed or did anything miraculous. At the end of the debate, one of the audience members asks the non-Christian debater (Dr. Robert Price) how he explains all the prophecies that Jesus fulfills:

Audience Question: How do you explain all the prophecies Jesus fulfilled?

Dr. Price: He didn’t fulfill any of them. If you look at all of these – and I mean every one of them, they’re grossly taken out of context. Um, Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” – any fool can see it has to do with the exodus. Matthew certainly understood that. Isaiah 7:14 is has something to do with Isaiah’s son or the King’s son – certainly not something 700 years in the future. Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 are not even prophecies …

Surprisingly, the other debater (the Christian, Dr. Greg Boyd) said he agrees with almost everything Price says about these Old Testament prophecies:

Dr. Boyd (Christian): Ok, I’m going to end with a little bit of a surprising statement here. I agree with almost all of that. I do think there is some predictive element to some prophecy in the Old Testament, but it plays a very minor role. I think there are a few predictions that, in fact, do come true. But, I really believe the way most Christians and most apologists read the prophecies of the New Testament is completely inaccurate for all the reasons Bob just gave. But it presents this interesting question. Bob is right that sometimes as you look at the way New Testament authors apply Old Testament texts — “Out of Egypt I have called my son” — and things like that, it seems like such a stretch and if you go back and look at the original passage you go “What are you talking about?”

He goes on to claim a rather odd position that the awkwardness of the fit means the New Testament stories actually happened. But, my point is that it’s interesting to actually see a Christian debater admit that the big claims about Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy are very exaggerated and often depend on taking the Old Testament grossly out of context.

If you want to hear it, the complete debate is here (look for “Two examples of how dialog can and should take place – 12/12/2007”, the Dr. Greg Boyd and Dr. Robert Price debate). This is the very last question asked in the third audio file.

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< Previous: The non-believers review of “The Case for Faith” – Objection #1, Part 2

Objection #2: Since miracles contradict science, they cannot be true

I have to say that I really don’t understand how this is one of the “Big Eight” objections to Christianity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an atheist or agnostic argue that miracles cannot, in principle, happen. I have heard atheists and agnostics argue that miracles (as written in the Bible) didn’t happen, and that miracles in modern times are as elusive as bigfoot. That’s not the same as saying miracles didn’t happen because miracles cannot happen in principle. Quite frankly, when I read this objection, I can’t help but envision a stuffy, well-educated man of the early 1900s, smoking a pipe and commenting, “Dear sir, you must know that belief in miracles is simply the delusion of the uneducated man! We live in a scientific age now, and we know miracles don’t actually happen.”

Was this an argument non-believers used in the past, but it has passed from general usage – and Strobel missed that fact? Is he confusing the (real) argument that miracles are non-existent in the modern world (and doubtful in the ancient world) with the argument that miracles cannot happen? I’m not quite clear. Earlier in the book, he summarized this objection as:

If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they’re true? (p.27)

While I think certain specific miracles can be dismissed, like the claim of a global flood around 2350 BC, because human civilization would’ve been interrupted and all kinds of biological effects would be seen, but the information we have from science and archeology says that those effects didn’t happen. That’s a very different position than saying a-priori that miracles cannot happen. That’s the position he argues against, though:

If miracles are direct violations of natural laws, then how can a reasonable person believe they could ever occur? (p.80)

I wouldn’t even attempt to support someone who argued that position. Unfortunately, this is the argument that Strobel is going to shoot-down. I have a hard time believing that any significant number of non-believers think this is one of the big arguments against Christianity, though. And if there’s any doubt about what Strobel is counter-arguing against:

“It’s funny that you should ask specifically about the virgin birth,” [William Craig] replied, “because that was a major stumbling block to my becoming a Christian. I thought it was totally absurd.”

“Really?” I said. “What happened?”

“When the Christian message was first shared with me as a teenager, I had already studied biology. I knew that for the virgin birth to be true, a Y chromosome had to be created out of nothing in Mary’s ovum, because Mary didn’t possess the genetic material to produce a male child. To me, this was utterly fantastic. It just didn’t make sense.”

“You’re not alone,” I observed. “Other skeptics have problems with it too. How did you proceed?”

…”after becoming a Christian, it occurred to me that if I really do believe in a God who created the universe, then for him to create a Y chromosome would be child’s play!” (p.82)

Yeah, I think that’s a pretty ridiculous idea for Craig to believe, as well. This goes on for ten pages or so until commenting that the “‘free thought’ folks aren’t as free thinking as they would have people believe”, and “many skeptics act in a close-minded way”. I would’ve skipped the whole chapter, except that the discussion eventually moves on to related issues: evidence that the Biblical accounts are true, and then dismissing the miracles of Islam and Mormonism.

Craig begins by saying that “most New Testament critics today admit [Jesus] performed what we would call miracles. Granted, they may not all believe these were genuine miracles, but the idea of Jesus of Nazareth as a miracles-worker and exorcist is part of the historical Jesus that’s generally accepted by critics today.” (p.92) I really have no information on whether “most New Testament critics” believe that, or whether Craig is exaggerating. I think I’d be foolish to simply take his word for it. Craig then follows up his statement with a highly questionable argument:

“In fact,” he concluded, “the only reason to be skeptical that these were genuine miracles rather than psychosomatic healings would be philosophical — do you believe that such events can occur or not? The historicity of the events is not in doubt.” (p.93)

Um, what? It’s questionable that Jesus did anything that could be considered a miracle (legends of miracles could’ve been added by authors of the gospels – who, by the way, were not necessarily the apostles), and further, it’s possible to believe that miracles are possible, but the historical Jesus didn’t actually perform any (just as it’s possible to believe divine miracles occur but various false prophets and gurus don’t actually perform miracles – despite claims that they did). To claim that the *only* reason for doubting the miracles of Jesus is the philosophical presupposition that “miracles cannot happen” seems extreme and completely untenable.

Fortunately, Strobel asks him to support the argument that miracles actually happened (rather than simply claiming New Testament critics believe it – which is an appeal to authority).

“What is the specific evidence that Jesus performed miracles?” I asked.

“Part of it is that these events are found in all of the strata of the gospel sources. For example, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is found in all of the gospels, so you have multiple attestation to these events. There is no vestige of a non-miraculous Jesus of Nazareth in any of the sources; therefore, it’s very likely that this belongs to the historical Jesus. Moreover, it fits right into the Jewish milieu. There were other Jewish exorcists and miracle workers who preceded Jesus.” (p.93)

He mentions “other Jewish exorcists and miracle workers” because he’s trying to make the point that Jesus miracles were not inventions of the the Greek mind (the only ancient copies of the gospels we have were written in Greek) – rather, they were stories that must’ve existed about Jesus inside Israel. However, there were a number of “messiahs” around that same time-period, and Craig needs to either dismiss their miracles as not real (while claiming Jesus’ miracles were real), or claim that other messiahs actually performed miracles (which would raise questions about the superiority of Jesus). The fact that those types of miracles stories were common in Israel at the time raises the possibility that they were simply attached to Jesus – who performed no actual miracles – to elevate his teachings to a divine level.

Further, Craig argues that all gospels tell the same stories. Although it’s not clear that the gospels were actually written entirely independently of each other. It’s likely that the gospels were written from oral stories – which would lead to a lot of overlap and would nullify his claim that they were written by four independent observers. The gospels are so similar, in fact, that most scholars believe they were actually drawn from a single source and written as independent books. As StraightDope.com points out:

Because of this similarity, quite a few scholars posit that there was a previous collection of Jesus’ sayings and works which all three gospel writers relied on when compiling their histories. This collection, as yet just a theoretical construct, has been given the name “Q”. It’s a tempting idea. Mark is regarded as the earliest gospel and hence closest to Q. [Editors Note: Mark and Q are not the same. Mark is a bunch of narratives involving Jesus. Q is a series of saying or proverbs spoken by Jesus.] Of the 661 verses in Mark, only 24 aren’t quoted in either Matthew or Luke… Matthew borrows heavily from the Gospel of Mark. It’s hard to believe someone who was in close contact with Jesus would have had to rely on secondary sources. (Link: Who wrote the Bible?)

Strobel, of course, never raises these criticisms, and Craig goes on to make the same argument again:

“Just because several people said something extraordinary happened – like the feeding of five thousand — doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true,” [Strobel] said.

“In one sense, it’s a very individual question of what you will find convincing for yourself,” he replied. “I think we can confidently say there isn’t any reason to be doubtful about these narratives apart from philosophical reasons. In other words, if you believe God exists, then there’s no good reason to be skeptical about these events.” (p.93-94)

It doesn’t sound any more convincing the second time he makes the argument. He simply asserts that it’s true and dresses it up with “we can confidently say” while repeating the ridiculous philosophical presupposition claim: believe Jesus did real miracles, or else you’re too biased to see the truth. Further, he makes the strange assertion that “if you believe God exists, then there’s no good reason to be skeptical about these events”. But, why, if you believe in God, would you simply accept a miracle happened in a particular instance? Do Christians (who obviously believe in God) accept all the claimed miracles of all the other religions? Do protestants accept all the claimed miracles of Catholic “saints”? Even Thomas Jefferson, a Christian, took his scissors to the New Testament to cut out all the miracles – because he didn’t believe they actually happened. A number of figures of the enlightenment praised Jesus’ teachings while dismissing his miracles (sometimes seeing them as just stories to get the uneducated people to pay attention to important moral teachings). His logic seems to boil down to “if you believe God exists, then you must accept any and all miraculous claims”.

[Craig] added one more point: “And it’s important to remember that for the greatest miracle, the Resurrection, we know from historical research that there was nowhere near enough time for legend to have developed and wiped out a solid core of historical truth.” (p.95)

Craig makes the claim that “nowhere near enough time for legend to have developed”, but he seems to think it takes centuries for legends to be created. It’s worth noting that claims of miracles have developed in modern times very, very quickly. Evangelical preachers have inspired myths about being able to heal the sick (and believers can convince themselves that they are healed). And, stories about the miracle-working power of the Burmese “God’s Army” twins were created in modern times:

”Once, when Bu Joh was bathing in a stream, he shouted to everybody, ‘Look at me!’ and he jumped into the water,” said the guerrilla, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

”When he came out he was an old man with long white hair and a white beard,” he said. ”All the soldiers were afraid, but he said, ‘Don’t be afraid: I’m Bu Joh! If you don’t believe me, I’ll change back.’ And he jumped back into the water and came out as a boy again. I didn’t see this myself, but more than 100 soldiers did see it.”

Several other incidents described by the guerrilla also suggest that the boys are constantly proving their powers to skeptics.

In one incident he said he did witness, Luther gave each fighter three magic bullets but admonished them to save them for emergencies. One doubter disobeyed and shot one of the bullets at a tree. When he checked the tree, there were 10 bullet holes.

”After that, he believed,” the guerrilla said.

In another incident, Luther sent his men into battle but remained where he was, pointing his rifle silently at the ground. Afterward he asked how many of the enemy had been killed. Twenty, he was told. He then held up his rifle; exactly 20 bullets had disappeared from its magazine.

(New York Times: Burmese Rebel Cheif More Boy Than Warrior)

Modern-day gurus are also credited with performing various miracles, as well. Sai Baba is credited with miracles by his followers (including a resurrection). And Li Hongzhi (leader of Falun Gong) is also credited with miracles. Are we to believe that because there “isn’t enough time” for these miracles to be legendary additions, that we should believe they are true? Should we, as Craig argues earlier, accept the tales of the Burmese God’s Army twins as true because if you believe miracles are possible, “then there’s no good reason to be skeptical about these events”? Craig’s main line of argument seems to be: Are the reports of these miracles legendary (i.e. added years after the fact)? If no, then do you believe the miracles are true? If no, then you only disbelieve on the presupposition that miracles can’t happen.

Predictably, Strobel raises none of these criticisms. Rather than question the reality of these miracles, he says that Hume argues that miracles in other religions cancel each other out as evidence for truth. Craig then proceeds to dismiss the claimed miracles of Muhammad (they were written down long after his death, and therefore, more likely to be legendary), and Joseph Smith (whom he dismisses as a charlatan). Contrasting Islam’s miracles with the New Testaments:

“For example, in First Corinthians 15, the reports of Jesus’ resurrection appearances go back to within the first five years after the event. Consequently, this is fresh data that could have not been the result of legendary development.” (p.96)

It’s unclear how Craig comes up with the “five years” number. First Corinthians is generally thought to have been written 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and there seems to be a lot of that going on: Craig makes a bold claim, and the reader is left wondering if it’s even true. Further, the claim about the Burmese twins is both recent, and (allegedly) witnessed by a hundred men. Are we supposed to believe the stories of the Burmese twins, too? There are numerous other examples of miracles being attributed to “messiahs” in their own time, but that doesn’t mean they are true.

Additionally, the dates attributed to the writing of the gospels is around 65-70 AD, which puts them 30-35 years after the death of Jesus. The only copies we have were written in Greek – not Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus and the Jews would’ve spoken. Given time gap, the geographical distance, and language barrier, it’s possible that the legends of Jesus were developed in Greece, or that Jewish rumors were carried to Greece but the distance/language barrier prevented the Greeks from finding out what the majority of Jews actually believed about Jesus.

Strobel then asks Craig about his physical disability – a mild congenital neuromuscular disease – and why God hasn’t healed him if God does miracles. Craig responds:

God has used this disease in so many remarkable ways to shape me and my personality. Because I couldn’t do athletics, in order to succeed at something I was driven into academics. I really own my existence as a scholar to my having this disease. It’s what compelled me to the life of the mind. (p.99)

I couldn’t help thinking: (1) many people who aren’t disabled pursue academics, (2) aren’t there other ways for the God of the universe to influence Craig in other ways than a physical disability – like, say, giving Craig more interest in intellectual pursuits than athletic ones (3) now that Craig is an academic, does God heal him now? (No.) There are times like this when I just can’t help but see religious apologetics as an exercise in making up explanations for why the world is the way you would expect if God didn’t exist. In other words: if God doesn’t exist, then the sick cannot be healed by divine miracles. Reality: sick people aren’t healed. Theistic Prediction: God would perform miracles. Christian Apologist: God doesn’t perform a miracle because he has wise reasons for not performing the miracle. This pattern seems to be repeated over a wide variety of situations.

Strobel asks Craig, “Can you give me some solid reasons for believing in a divine Creator and the validity of Christianity?” (p.102), which prompts Craig to moves on to five reasons for believing in God:

Reason #1: God Makes Sense of the Universe’s Origin

“I would argue that the universe and time itself had a beginning at some point in the finite past. But since something cannot just come out of nothing, there has to be a transcendent cause beyond space and time which brought the universe into being.”

“Okay that points towards a Creator, but does it tell us much about him?”

“Actually, yes, it does,” Craig replied. “We know this supernatural cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being.” (p.103-104)

Actually, it doesn’t tell us that the Creator of this universe is an “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being”. It’s possible that our universe is the creation of a mortal, flawed being. (And I had once read an interesting philosophical argument that our universe is a computer simulation created by an advanced civilization – not that I believe it, but it is an interesting philosophical puzzle and it doesn’t presume that the universe is created by an “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being”.) Craig argues that you have to eventually regress to a creator who is an “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being” – although, even if we assume that to be true, it could be several universes away.

Further, Craig uses the word “being”, and there’s nothing that requires the Creator to be a “being”, as opposed to a force or an eternal universe.

“The premise is that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. In other words, ‘being’ can’t come from ‘non-being.’ Since God never began to exist, he doesn’t require a cause. He never came into being.”

“Atheists themselves used to be very comfortable in maintaining that the universe is eternal and uncaused,” he replied. “The problem is that they can no longer hold that position because of modern evidence that the universe started with the Big Bang.”(p.105)

There are various theories about origin of the universe, and there are some that describe what happened before the Big Bang. To say that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe and everything that exists isn’t necessarily correct. M-Theory, the Brane model of string theory both propose the existence of something before the Big Bang. Further, it’s still a possibility that our universe was caused by another, uncaused universe. While I don’t think those speculative theories are good explanations, I think the “God” explanation has the same problem of being speculative. Additionally, I’ve argued in the past that either God doesn’t exist or he doesn’t care – which wouldn’t make me a strict atheist. The “God exists, but doesn’t care” option could still allow for a generic, faceless Creator, and that’s one of the problems with Craig’s argument: it doesn’t put attributes on the Creator, and certainly doesn’t provide any evidence that the Biblical God is that generic, faceless Creator. (Internet Infidels also provides other rebuttals of the Cosmological argument.)

Reason #2: God Makes Sense of the Universe’s Compexity

Craig makes the universe fine-tuning argument. While I understand the strength of the argument, I am also aware that the universe doesn’t need to be as finely tuned as creationists claim. Stobel adds some quotes from scientists:

British physicist P.C.W. Davies has concluded the initial conditions being suitable for the formation of stars — a necessity for planets and thus life — is a one followed by at least a thousand billion billion zeros.

Davies also estimated that if the strength of gravity or of the weak force were changed by only one part in a ten followed a hundred zeros, life could never have developed.

Those quotes were taken from a book published in 1980. But, to quote the astronomer, Phil Plait:

Victor Stenger is an astronomer and physicist who actually tacked this [fine-tuning argument] from a physical point of view. He said: look, we know how stars form, we know how planets form. We have the equations, the physical equations that go into this. And at the end, all of these equations depend on these numbers: the mass ratios of the proton to the electron, the strength of the electromagnetic force divided by the gravitational force. All of these things we know. What if we tweak them a little bit? What if we make the proton 1900 times the mass of the electron? 2100 times? Not exactly what it is now. Would you get long-lived stars? Would you get planetary formation? Could you create carbon in a star that could get out and form new planets and form life, and all this? And it turns out, in most cases, you can. So the whole idea of the universe being fine-tuned, that these properties have to have exactly what they have now for order for it to work is baloney. You can actually change these parameters, and sometimes by quite a bit, and still get stars that live a long time.
(minute 25:10-26:10 of the podcast)

Victor Stenger’s 1995 article shows that changing four physical constants (the proton and electron masses and the strengths of the electromagnetic and strong forces) by 10 orders of magnitude from their current values allows for the formation of long-lived stars in approximately 50% of the cases.
Link: Victor J. Stenger’s article on cosmological fine-tuning

“What if there were an infinite number of other universes existing apart from ours?” I asked.

Craig had heard that theory before. “It’s called the Many Worlds Hypothesis,” he said. “Hawking has talked about this concept. Here’s the problem: these other theoretical universes are inaccessible to us and therefore there’s no possible way to provide any evidence that this might be true. It’s purely a concept, an idea, without scientific proof. The prominent British scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne has called it ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘a metaphysical guess.'”

“There’s no real reason to believe such parallel worlds exist. The very fact that skeptics have to come up with such an outlandish theory is because the fine-tuning of the universe points powerfully towards an Intelligent Designer — and some people will hypothesize anything to avoid reaching that conclusion.” (p.107-108)

I actually agree that the Many Universes idea is speculative, but the problem is that the “God” explanation is also speculative (something which he completely ignores). For some odd reason, Craig thinks he can get away with using the “fine-tuning” argument as evidence for the existence of a speculative God, but dismissing the speculative Many-Universe idea. It seems to me that the “fine-tuning” of the universe could reversed and used as “evidence” for the “Many Universes” hypothesis and then we could bash the “God” idea as completely unsupported: “There’s no real reason to believe such [a being] exists.”

But, then Craig goes and makes a poorly-thought-out argument against the Many Universes idea:

“And think about it: if [the Many Universes idea] were true, it would make rational conduct of life impossible, because you could explain away anything — no matter how improbable — by postulating an infinite number of other universes.”

“For example, if you were dealing cards in a poker game and each time you dealt yourself four aces, you couldn’t be accused of cheating, no matter how improbably the situation. You could merely point out that in an infinite ensemble of universes, there will occur a universe in which every time a person deals, he deals four aces to himself and therefore – lucky me! – I just happen to be in that universe! (p.108)

Of course, this is a ridiculous argument. There are a couple different issues here. First, Craig transitions from “many universes” to “infinite universes” to make his argument. Those aren’t synonymous, though. Second, Craig assumes that if there are infinite universes then anything that could happen would happen somewhere. While that might seem intuitive, it’s not true. Having an infinite number of universes doesn’t mean everything we can imagine will happen in some of those universes. If you believe in an infinite number of universes and you say that the basic properties of the universe vary from universe to universe, that doesn’t mean there will be any universes where high-level logical rules are in effect. In effect, Craig is saying: “imagine we have an infinite number of universes where the fundamental properties of matter and energy vary. Some of those universes will have logical rules that affect card-shuffling results”. Huh? How does random variation in the low-level properties of the universe cause a sudden high-level rule affecting card-shuffling? I would find the existence of logical rules like that in any universes to be highly unlikely. However, if we simply assume that random probability is in effect in all universes (which I think is a very reasonable assumption), then there would be some universes where you dealt yourself four aces in each of ten hands. However, the likelihood of you actually existing in one of those universes is equal to the likelihood of you dealing yourself four aces ten times in a row according to normal probability rules. (In other words, if the odds of dealing yourself four aces in ten consecutive hands is 1 in 10^100, then the odds of you existing in a universe where you deal yourself four aces in ten consecutive hands is 1 in 10^100.) This means that even if you believe in many universes/infinite universes, the odds that you are cheating is vastly higher than either of those other two options. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if Christian apologists really think through some of their arguments, because they sometimes seem clueless about what anyone else actually thinks.

Additionally, the “fine-tuning” argument suffers the same problem as Reason #1: it doesn’t put a face on the Creator. Christians might argue, “How do you know it isn’t the Christian god?”, but lots of other religions could repeat that same claim, each inserting the deity of their choice. Further, they could all be entirely wrong because the Creator is unknown and faceless. For example, it could be a version of God identified by Einstein – who doesn’t care about human morality or providing an afterlife.

Reason #3: God Makes Sense of Objective Moral Values

Craig argues that objective moral values don’t exist unless God is there to give them to us:

“And since these objective moral values cannot exist without God and they unquestionably do exist, then it follows logically and inescapably that God exists” (p.111)

This is pretty much the same argument as Kreeft makes in the last chapter, so I won’t bother refuting it again.

Reason #4: God Makes Sense of the Resurrection

“If Jesus of Nazareth really did come back from the dead, then we have a divine miracle on our hands and, thus, evidence for the existence of God.”

He agreed for the sake of his answer to consider the New Testament to be merely a collection of first century Greek documents that can be subjected to analysis like any other ancient records.

“There are at least four facts about the fate of Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians from a broad spectrum,” Craig began. “The first is that after Jesus was crucified, he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb. This is important because it means the location of the tomb was known to Jew, Christian, and Roman alike.” (p.112)

I’m unsure why everyone would know the location of the Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. I’m also unsure about the relevance of this fact unless he’s claiming that people can verify the empty tomb themselves – but an “empty tomb” decades after the crucifixion doesn’t mean a resurrection happened.

“The second fact is that on the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. This is substantiated by Paul’s early report to the Corinthians, which implies the empty tomb, and by Mark’s very old source material. So again we have early, independent attestation… In addition, it’s reported that women discovered the tomb empty. Now, the testimony of women was considered so unreliable that they couldn’t testify in Jewish courts. The only reason to include the highly embarrassing detail that women discovered the empty tomb is that the gospel writers were faithfully recording what really happened.” (p.113)

Okay. I think there’s a mixture of fact and fiction in the Jesus story. Craig seems to want to argue that the Jesus story was all legend or all true. I think there’s an underlying truth and a whole layer of fiction attached to the story.

“The third fact is that on multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars for several reasons.

“For example, the list of eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection, provided by Paul to the Corinthians, guarantees that such appearances occurred. Given the early date of the information and Paul’s own acquaintance with the people involved, this cannot be dismissed as legendary.

“Also, the appearance narratives in the gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of the appearances. Even the skeptical New Testament critic Gerd Ludemann has concluded: ‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’ (p.113)

Well, to be fair, Gerd Ludemann argues that some of the disciples has guilt-inspired visions of a resurrected Jesus entirely within their own minds – not actual experiences. Further, I’m not convinced that people did experience appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. For one thing, the original version of Mark ends with an empty tomb – but never mentions actually meeting a resurrected Jesus (more on this later). I’m also not sure about his claim that this is “almost universally acknowledged” (another instance of Craig making a big claim, but leaving me unsure about the reality of that claim).

“The fourth fact is that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their presupposition to the contrary. Jewish beliefs precluded anyone’s rising from the dead before the general resurrection at the end of the world. Even so, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus that they were willing to die for that belief. New Testament scholar Luke Johnson said: ‘Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.'” (p.114)

First of all, Jewish beliefs do not “precluded anyone’s rising from the dead before the general resurrection at the end of the world.” Any realistic understanding of human cultures would tell you that there are minorities in every population that are succeptible to unconventional beliefs. It’s absurd to make blanket claims that 100% of millions of people would be precluded from a belief. Further, he’s undermined by the actual words of the Bible. Mark 6:14-16 says “Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in [Jesus].’ Others said, “He is Elijah.” … when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” Obviously, if Jews were claiming that (pre-crucifixion) Jesus was actually a resurrected John the Baptist, then they accepted the idea of human resurrection.

Regarding the claim that, “the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead”, I’m not sure that’s true. Yes, some of the gospels say Jesus met the twelve disciples after his resurrection (I regard that as fiction). If you ignore those reports, some of the apostles disappear entirely from the New Testament a few weeks after the crucifixion, and it’s not at all substantiated that “they were willing to die for that belief [that Jesus was resurrected]”. Most of the post-crucifixion stories of the twelve apostles are from Christian tradition (not recorded in the Bible, and the unreliability of tradition is the reason Craig dismisses the miracles of Mohammed), yet, most Christian sources act as if these stories are verified truth. The New Testament tells of only one death among the eleven remaining apostles (ignoring Judas): “The New Testament tells of the fate of only two of the apostles: Judas, who betrayed Jesus and then went out and hanged himself, and James the son of Zebedee, who was executed by Herod about 44 AD (Acts 12:2).” Simon Peter becomes the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem (and is nearly killed because of it, according to the New Testament). (Link: What happened to the twelve) Only four of the twelve are credited (correctly or incorrectly) with writing any books of the New Testament. In total, this means that one apostle (Judas) committed suicide, one (James, son of Alphaeus) was apparently killed for being a Christian, four (Matthew, Simon Peter, Luke, John son of Zebedee) went on to (allegedly) write parts of the New Testament, and the other six appear in the beginning of Acts weeks after Jesus Crucifixion, but then disappear entirely from the record. For all we know, those six lapsed in their belief and, thus, weren’t involved in the early church at all. All of this raises doubts about the basis for Craig’s claim, “the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus that they were willing to die for that belief”.

“Frankly, there is absolutely no naturalistic explanation that fits,” he replied. “All of the old theories like ‘the disciples stole the body’ or ‘Jesus wasn’t really dead’ have been universally rejected by modern scholarship. (p.114)

There’s a couple possible explanations here. The “disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead” explanations are two of them. (And, I have to wonder about his claim that they have been “universally rejected by modern scholarship”.) Some other possibilities include: a group of followers stole the body (and the twelve apostles were not told because they were in hiding), or that the Romans/Jewish orthodoxy stole the body. It’s hard to know if we’ve covered all the possibilities, though, because so much information has been lost to history. (Similarly, if the only information about Sai Baba existed in texts passed down by his followers, could we really figure out that he wasn’t a miracle worker?) Regarding the explanation that the Romans or Jewish orthodoxy stole the body:

The gospel of Mark is considered to be the first of the gospels written – and the oldest copies of the gospel of Mark contains ambiguous claims of Jesus resurrection. Here’s the end of the story as presented in the original book of Mark:

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)

Modern Bibles contain an additional 12 verses, which appear to have been tacked on to the book, and they unambiguously claim Jesus appeared after his death. One would think that the miracle of meeting the post-resurrection Jesus and angels (which is claimed in the other gospels) would warrant a mention by the author of Mark, but it’s not there. By the 5th century, Christians had tacked on four different post-resurrection narratives to the end of Mark – and modern Bibles continue to use the extended story. Are we seeing the evolution of Christian myth-making? First, with the addition of twelve verses to the end of Mark, and second, with the accounts in the other gospels which were written after Mark, but contain extra “evidence” of Jesus resurrection. Further, none of the gospel accounts match. In Mark, the women find the stone already rolled away and meet a mysterious man at the empty tomb who says Jesus is alive, and they say nothing to anyone. In Matthew, as the women approach the tomb, a violent earthquake occurs, an angel comes down from heaven, rolls the stone away to reveal an empty tomb, tells them that Jesus is alive, they run to tell the disciples, but before they do, Jesus suddenly appears to them and says the same thing as the angel. In Luke, they discover the stone already rolled away and an empty tomb. They are very confused until two glowing men tell them that Jesus is alive and in Galilee, so they went and told the apostles. And in John, the women discover the stone rolled away and an empty tomb. They are confused, so they go and tell the apostles. The apostles examine the tomb, but don’t understand either, so they leave. Mary Magdalene stays at the tomb, still believing someone has taken the body. Then angels and Jesus appear to her, and mistaking Jesus for a gardener, asks him what happened to the body. He tells her that he is alive. With the exclusion of Mark – which is the earliest gospel, the other three gospels go on to describe varying post-resurrection meetings between Jesus and the apostles. The stories resemble what we might expect if they were told from person to person, and finally written down after numerous retellings, embellishments, and added details.

While it’s difficult to separate fiction from fact – largely because the sole source of any information about Jesus is from his followers, my guess is that Jesus actually existed, preached, and attracted a number of followers (besides the apostles). Some stories of his miracles were developed from real events – like “casting out demons” – which still happens today, although I don’t believe it’s anything but psychological, although even modern exorcisms (which are fake) would leave an impression on people. It’s also possible that the Romans moved the body to prevent the tomb from being a rallying point for Jews against the Roman occupation. This was done in modern times when the communists killed the Russian royal family, and told no one where they were buried to prevent the site from becoming a rallying point for anti-Communists. Alternatively, maybe the Romans didn’t want to keep men stationed at a tomb indefinitely while Jesus’ followers kept showing up. Perhaps some of the followers were even irate with the Roman guards for the crucifixion, and a few Roman guards wouldn’t really enjoy being faced with a volatile mob each day. So, they moved the body and removed the soldiers. This theory would make a great deal of sense — it would mean that the apostles would find an empty tomb and some of the apostles and Christians convinced themselves that Jesus was resurrected (subsequent appearances of Jesus and angels would be fabrications designed to reinforce that belief and undermine the obvious claim that “empty tomb” does not equal “resurrected” – hence the addition of the last 12 verses of Mark, disagreement on the resurrection story in all four gospels, and the fact that later gospels contain more elaborate descriptions of post-resurrection Jesus). If the Romans even cared about rebutting the claims of the resurrected Christ, they would’ve had a hard time convincing Christians that they still had the body because: the Christians were in hiding, Christians would’ve been skeptical of the claim, the Romans wouldn’t have known about the resurrection claim for some time, and bodies decay rather quickly – meaning Jesus’ body would’ve been beyond recognition rather quickly. In this case, the apostles would’ve honestly believed the resurrection story based on the ambiguous evidence of an empty tomb. I think Jesus was a rather enigmatic character even when he was alive, and the sudden disappearance of his body might’ve been seen by the disciples as another enigmatic event and interpreted it as a ‘test of faith’.

Reason #5: God Can Immediately Be Experienced

Craig looked straight at me. “Lee, let me illustrate this concept with a question,” he said. “Can you prove that the external world exists?”

The question caught me off guard. I thought about it for a moment and could come up with not logical sequence of arguments that would incontrovertibly establish such a thing. “I’m not sure how I would go about doing that,” I conceded.

“That’s right,” he replied. “Your believe in the reality of the external world is ‘properly basic’… In other words, it’s appropriately grounded in our experience.

“In the same way, in the context of an immediate experience of God, it’s rational to believe in God in a properly basic way. And I’ve had such an experience.

“Ultimately, the way a Christian really knows that Christianity is true is through the self-authenticating witness of God’s spirit,” he said. “The Holy Spirit whispers to our spirit that we belong to God. That’s one of his roles. Other evidence, though still valid, is basically confirmatory.” (p.114-116)

As a former Christian, I dismiss this notion. Personally, I never had a “religious experience” or experienced a “self-authenticating witness of God’s spirit”. And, at the end of my belief, prayers to God felt as real as prayers to a brick wall. A number of Christians have come to the same conclusion. But, if that isn’t enough, I could also point to Mother Teresa’s problems with “experiencing God” (something that wasn’t known until after her death and after “The Case for Faith” was published). She said: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Even referring to Jesus as “the Absent One“, and this state of God’s absence was felt for decades.

My opinion is that Christians have fooled themselves into believing God is there. The power of ‘suggestion’, various psychological mechanisms, and the church community helps reinforce that illusion. It reminds me of the widespread belief that people are aware when other people are looking at them. Studies into this phenomena show that people aren’t actually aware of being watched, but they simply believe they feel it. Similarly, people believe that God is watching over them or leading them. I’ve also seen a number of Christians who, after prayer, believe that God is leading them in a particular direction. I disagreed with their feeling based on rational reasons, and watched things go bad because they made the wrong decision. It just seems to me that people imagine that they feel God, but it’s all just feelings.

Because of my own experience with God after years of living in the mire of immorality as an atheist, I knew he was right.

Based on how God has transformed my life, my attitudes, my relationships, my motivations, my marriage, and my priorities through his very real ongoing presence in my life, I realized at that moment that miracles like manna from heaven, the virgin birth, and the Resurrection — well, in the end they’re all child’s play for a God like that. (p.117)

I’m sure believers in other religions would attest to similar transformative experiences. Does he think converts to Buddhism and Islam can’t report similar testimonies? Rather, the simple belief in God and the desire to “do the right thing” in their religion’s eyes, even in the absence of God’s existence, can lead to these kinds of results. Parents often use the myth of Santa Clause to get children to behave (“because he knows if you’ve been bad or good”), and I don’t think religion is any different in that it can produce a change in behavior even when the deity doesn’t exist. Further, I think when people live selfish lives, they reach a point when it all seems hollow. They look for something bigger to devote their lives to, and that thing is sometimes religion. They then erroneously credit religion or belief with their transformation.

Next: The non-believers review of “The Case for Faith” – Objection #3, part 1 >

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Be Fruitful and Multiply

This post about Jim Bob Duggar (Christian conservative, former state legislator who served in the Arkansas House of Representatives, father of 17 children) reminded me of a similar story about some friends of my parents. This couple are messianic Jews (i.e. Jews that converted to Christianity), and they had two children. After that he had gotten a vasectomy. But, after their two children were grown and left the house, they decided that Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply” meant that they were supposed to have more children. So, he had his vasectomy reversed and they had three more children. After my dad told me that, I asked him if he thought maybe that scripture was meant specifically for the ancient humans? (Of course, I don’t believe the scripture was divinely inspired at all, but if I’m going to speak to my parents, I have to do it within their own belief system. Telling them the verse wasn’t divinely inspired would simply end the conversation.) I asked him if maybe it was a bad idea to continually add more and more humans to the planet – without ever taking account of how many people were already here. He just kind of shrugged. I suppose many Christian fundamentalists think Jesus will return before any of that happens. (I recall one Christian fundamentalist saying that Global Warming isn’t happening because God wouldn’t allow us to harm the planet that badly.) It’s difficult to do any real long-term planning when so many fundamentalist Christians think Jesus will return in their lifetime, or will intervene before anything too terrible happens. This kind of logic seems like a setup for a train-wreck. Now, I wasn’t arguing that we already had too many people on earth, but I find it hard to believe humans can add more people to the planet on an indefinite basis and not run into trouble. And their interpretation of Genesis 1:28 is simply “multiply indefinitely”.

I could’ve also pointed out Paul’s recommendation in the New Testament:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. (1 Corinthians 7:27)

Paul’s advice – which, according to Christian fundamentalists, is 4,000 years more recent than Genesis 1:28 – is to avoid getting married, and being entangled with all that marriage and children stuff so that Christians can preach. And in an example of the Bible’s inaccuracy, he says this is because the end of the world is near – so those things don’t really matter anyway (“the time is short” and “For this world in its present form is passing away.”)

That’s one of the hard things about religious people – they seem to cherry pick the words of their religion with alarming regularity. Even if we assumed Christianity were true, it would be the equivalent of a few billion people navigating their lives by holding a map upside-down.

I remember reading an article a while back about falling birthrates in developed countries, and how fundamentalist religion acts as a buttress against those declines in birthrates. (Case in point: Mormons have the high birthrates in the US. Palestine and the Saudi Peninsula have some ridiculously high birthrates. The fundamentalist country of Yemen has an average birthrate of 6.7 children per woman. Fred “God hates fags” Phelps had 13 children. His daughter followed in his footsteps with 11 children, and her children are crazy fundamentalists, too.) Unfortunately, upbringing is probably the best way to indoctrinate people. And higher birthrates means they’re increasing the percentage of fundamentalists in the world (although that’s mitigated by the fact that children do leave the fundamentalist religions of their parents – like I did).

I remember a friend of mine commenting that she would tell people to have lots of children if she created a religion — because they’re converts by default. And that would mean more and more believers as time went on. So the Catholic churches’ policy against contraception means more and more Catholics each generation. Mormonism explicitly says that a person’s rank in heaven will be partly determined by the number of children they have. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a reason the religion of the Shakers is virtually extinct (hint: they believe in strict celibacy and never getting married).

The difficult part is that responsible people know its not a good thing to continually add people indefinitely to the planet, but if they have fewer children, then the planet will be made-up of the children of fundamentalists – who will disproportionately reflect their parent’s backwards views on religion and birthrates.

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This story is just odd. I can’t help but wonder if the youth minister has a diaper and/or infantilization fetish. (Yes, they exist.)

A skit at a local Christian youth group meeting had teenage boys taking off some of their clothes, wearing adult diapers, bibs and bonnets and being spoon-fed by girls as they sat in their laps.

Some say it’s just crazy, goofy teenage fun. But others, including one boy’s mother and the Mt. Lebanon School District, aren’t comfortable with it.

The skit took place during the Nov. 29 meeting of the Mt. Lebanon Young Life club, a nondenominational Christian youth group directed by youth minister O.J. Wandrisco.

Laurie Metz, whose 14-year-old son was one of the boys who took part in the skit, said she found it inappropriate, demeaning and sexually perverse.

Mr. Wandrisco and a national spokesman for Young Life say the skits are all in fun and meant to be used as “icebreakers” at the youth group meetings.

Ms. Metz said at the Nov. 29 Young Life meeting, after her son and two other boys were selected to take part in the skit, they were taken to a rest room by an older teen and given adult diapers, bibs and bonnets and directed to take their clothes off and put the diapers, bibs and bonnets on. Her son took off his pants, but kept on boxer undershorts, his shirt, shoes and socks.

The boys returned to the group, where they were asked to sit in the laps of three girls. The girls spoon-fed baby food to the boys and then gave them baby bottles filled with soda pop. The first boy to finish was the winner.

Mr. Wandrisco, in an interview, acknowledged that the Nov. 29 skit had taken place as Ms. Metz described and that the group had also participated at an earlier date in the skit that involved eating chocolate pudding out of diapers.

(Story: Police expect no charges in youth group diaper skit)

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In an exclusive report from the Niger Delta, in the deep south of west Africa, Tracy McVeigh hears the extraordinary stories of children who have been ostracised by their families and communities, and visits the parents who have abandoned and abused their own children because they believe they are witches.
See the Video: Child ‘witches’ in Africa

Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities.
Read the Story: Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt

Related Link: Ex-Christian.net

While most Western Christians would perceive this the same way atheists do – as a tragedy, there’s nothing un-Biblical about it. The Bible promotes belief in witches, demons, demon-possession, and magic. But since the Christian God doesn’t exist, He can’t warn Christians of when they’re picking innocent targets. A few Bible verses that promote primitive beliefs:

That magic is real:

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. (Exodus 7:10-12)

That demons are real:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. (Matthew 12:22)

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. (Matthew 8:16)

(Interestingly, demons don’t really appear in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, they’re all over the place and have to constantly be “cast-out”.)

Other Biblical references to demons

How to deal with witches:

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Exodus 22:18)

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in [a] the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. (Deuteronomy 18:9-11)

Further, there’s also an evangelical impetus to promote belief in witchcraft: nothing makes people cling to religion like fear of an imaginary threat. John Wesley (1703-1791), famous evangelist: “Giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible”

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Urban Dictionary: Atheist

The definition made me laugh. Atheist – according to the leading definition in the Urban Dictionary:

atheist

A person who does not believe in a supreme being. Most of these may be classified under the following definitions:

1) Aggressive atheist: attacks other religions and is often intolerant to the follower of other religions. Often brings up the insensitive fact that faith is the “complete acceptance of a God without proof,” somewhat equatable to ignorance, which, among other things, is the “complete acceptance of an idea without proof.”

2) Passive/Tolerant atheist: does not believe in a supreme being but accepts that others do. Does not usually bring up the above fact unless attacked for being an atheist.

Not to be confused with taoism or confucianism, which are philosphies and do not mention gods or the afterlife. Atheism is a state of nonbelief. One can be a Taoist Atheist, which would be a person who seeks to understand and learn from nature and does not believe in a god.

1) “Hahahaha! You believe in a God! You’re one stupid fucker!” (Bad way to be an atheist)

2) “You’re a Southern Baptist? That’s cool. I’m an atheist. Please don’t shoot me. I’m not criticizing you… no! STOP! PLEASE! I’M NOT INSULTING YOU!” (Good way to be an atheist… or… maybe not…)

And a few more definitions:

Most popular definition of Baptist:

A member of one of several hundred Christian denominations who all agree that the the Bible is the literal word of God, but don’t agree with each other. See fundamentalist, fucktard

Q. What religion are you, Reformed Baptist?
A. No, they’re going to Hell(tm). I’m a Sovergn Grace Baptist.

And the second most popular definition of Southern Baptist:

A sect of Protestant Christianity in the south east United States that are known for their very Caucasian congregations, believe in the absolute word by word truth of the King James version of the Bible, and perpetuate themselves by having their deacons find replacement preachers that will not disturb their fundamentalist and far-right theology. Sect is characterized by rampant hypocrisy, prejudice, racial intolerance, bigotry, small-mindedness, and an unenlightened view of the world and social change.

Waspish country clubs without the tennis courts.

My uncle was a Southern Baptist preacher. He hated Jews, blacks, gays, and anyone on welfare; but he preached that Jesus loved everyone.

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