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Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Don't Blame Atheism for Stalin!" Why Michael Sherlock is wrong

Image result for stalin cartoon
"Jesus made me do it!"
The New Atheism has a lasting grudge against history.  Sometimes that grudge is expressed overtly by atheists who try to diminish the discipline ("history is bunk") in comparison with science, to which the New Atheism falls collectively prostrate.  But as even so radical an atheist as Richard Carrier pointed out, in the end science is a province of history, since all knowledge obtained through experiments or other observation is in the end knowledge of events that happened in the past.

But the New Atheism burst onto the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11, when western intellectuals like Richard Dawkins sought to tar the Christian faith with the same brush with which they more plausibly painted Islam.  (Though Dawkins now admits that Christianity has reformed, in the kindly afterglow of the Enlightenment, so the real problem at the moment is an unreconstructed Islam.)

The reason the New Atheism arose at just that moment, I think, is because a new generation of ignorant young skeptics had been taught the purported evils of the Christian past, but left ignorant of the far greater evils that radical atheism (and Islam) had much more recently visited upon the world.  They are like the rabbit in the Chronicle of Narnia that sits next to a great waterfall (of blood), yet hears the drop of a pin a hundred miles away.  Often the brainwashing inflicted upon our children involved  straightforward historical falsehoods.  The New Atheism probably couldn't have arisen in 1989, just after the Wall had come down: the world would have laughed.  But give public school teachers a couple decades, and such ignorance of history that an outspoken socialist like Bernie Sanders could gain traction in a major party without a word of explanation or apology, and the New Atheism can appeal to a generation that knows nothing of the Gulag Archipelago or the most basic facts about communism.

So both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris relentlessly reminded readers of the Inquisition, which happened most of a millenium ago, but talked about "Joseph Stalin" as a mere apologetic "debating point"  (as Dawkins put it) that needs to be refuted.  Christopher Hitchens also tried to shrug off the fact that atheists had just murdered a hundred million innocent people a few decades before, in his popular book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  These gentlemen argued that atheism had nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of Stalin.  (Who alone they mentioned, being apparently ignorant of the fact that Stalin was merely one of many cruel communist dictators.)  Some New Atheists have even dared suggest that Christianity was to blame for Stalin's crimes, because he attended a religious school as a young man.

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I responded, in part:

"This isn't just a 'debating point' to me.  I researched faith and communism under Donald Treadgold, a leading historian of Marxism-Leninism.  I've eaten meals with people who lost loved ones or spent decades in prison for their faith . . . Stalin wasn't the only atheist of modern times.  Nor did he emerge from a vacuum."  

And so as an historian -- which none of these gentlemen can claim to be -- I answered their counter-arguments over several pages. David Aikman also focused on this issue in his response to the New Atheism.

I'm not going to defend my arguments in that book, or my more thorough explanation for "Why Marx Went Wrong" in my earlier Jesus and the Religions of Man, in this post.  So far as I know, no one with any relevant knowledge or credentials has ever challenged my arguments.

But as the New Atheism continues its free-fall into historical ignorance, new expressions of the bigotry that follows in the train of that ignorance arise, as winter follows autumn.  In this post, I will answer one of those expressions, by an Australian grad student named Michael Sherlock.  Michael is worth answering not because he is knowledgeable or a skilled logician -- his talent lies in purple prose more than reasoning, in history least of all -- but because he has written a lively post on this subject which some silly fools seem to take seriously.

The article is called "The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy -- Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot."

Sherlock begins with a lively three-paragraph rant against apologists who make the argument he wants to refute.  (Without, of course, addressing my rebuttal of the first crop of New Atheists, nor that by other historians like Dr. Aikman.)  Half his paper (7 1/2 pages of my printout) then argues that Adolf Hitler was a Christian, not an atheist.  Sherlock devotes a little more than two pages to asserting that while Stalin was a "confirmed atheist," Christianity, not atheism, was to blame for his crimes.  He devotes a bit less space to showing that Pol Pot was a Buddhist, not an atheist, and his atrocities "parallel" and should be blamed on Theraveda Buddhsim.   Then he "clinches" his argument by describing five fallacies that we apologists allegedly commit in blaming atheism for these crimes, before ending with an appeal to the Problem of Pain which he deems clever.

Sherlock's article is a target-rich environment.   Let us start with the introduction, then examine his claims about Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler, in that order.   We won't need to say much about Hitler, since the subject (like the man) has been done to death, and most informed Christians don't claim Hitler was an atheist, anyway.  But this paper represents many common confusions, on all levels.  While the writing is lively and skillful, the thinking is muddled.  And the paper shows just how desperately modern atheists need to begin making peace with history, before that is what their movement rightly becomes.  (After becoming a laughing stock.)


Opening Rant and its Problems

"Religious apologists, particularly those of the Christian variety, are big fans of what I have dubbed, the atheist atrocities fallacy.  Christians commonly employ this fallacy to shield their egos from the harsh reality of the brutality of their own religion,(1) by utilizing a most absurd form of the tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy, mingled with numerous other logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies.  Despite the fact that the atheist atrocities fallacy has already been thoroughly exposed by Hitchens and other great thinkers (2), it continues to circulate amongst the desperate believers of a religion in its death throes (3).  Should an atheist present a believer with the crimes committed by the Holy See of the Inquisition(s) (4), the Crusaders (5) and other faith-wielding misanthropes (6), they will often hear the reply; “Well, what about Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler? They were atheists, and they killed millions!”" (7) 

#1 Whereas atheists shield their eyes from the painful truth that the Gospel has liberated billions of people, and cultures around the world, changing our planet for the better.  No one who has not read at a large proportion of these books and articles should even try to deny it.  

#2 Christopher Hitchens was a "great thinker?"  I concede he was a pithy journalist who thought for himself and wrote entertaining and sometimes insightful screeds.  But he was not a historian, nor a scholar of the religion that he attacked.  His views about communism are no match for those of scholars who know something about the movement.  Hitchens didn't lay a finger on my argument, nor those of David Aikman, Michael Burleigh, Donald Treadgold, or for that matter the views of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who summed up the core problem of Marxism by saying, "Men have forgotten God."  

However "bright" Hitchens may have been, insights based on inadequate knowledge most often lead one into error. 

#3 Christianity is not in its "death throes."  There are more followers of Jesus today than at any time in the past.

#4  The Inquisition?  Small potatoes.  Joseph Stalin used to kill about as many innocent people before lunch some days, as all the inquisitors combined, killed over several centuries.

#5 The Crusaders are why we are writing in English, not Arabic, and using computers, not toilet paper in outhouses behind mud huts, so our masters don't see and whip us, or take our children away to serve as slaves.  I don't apologize for the fact that the West finally responded to four hundred years of Muslim imperialism: I am grateful.  (While, of course, recognizing the sins of some Crusaders, including both pogroms and one outbreak of cannibalism.)

#6 "Faith-wielding misanthropes?"  Sherlock apparently refers here to the myth, taken on blind faith by all New Atheists worthy of the name, that Christian "faith" is meant to be irrational.

#7 One does not "often" hear the claim that Adolf Hitler was an atheist, at least not from informed Christians.  This is not entirely a straw man, but most Christians who write on the subject seem to know better, as most educated atheists know better than to call Hitler a Christian.

"Given the obstinate nature of religious faith and the willful ignorance it cultivates in the mind of the believer, (8) I am quite certain that this article will not be the final nail in this rancid and rotting coffin.(9)  Having said this, I do hope it will contribute to the arsenal required by those who value reason, facts and evidence (10), in their struggle against the fallacies perpetually flaunted by those who do not value the truth above their own egocentric delusions, delusions inspired by an unquenchable thirst for security, no matter how frighteningly false its foundation." (11)
"Before addressing the primary weaknesses of the atheist atrocities fallacy itself, I would like to attend to each of these three homicidal stooges (12); Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, who are constantly trotted out to defend a religious worldview. (13) I will lend Hitler the most time, as the claim that he was an atheist represents a most egregious violation of the truth." (14)

(8) Sherlock here confirms my suspicion mentioned above that he buys into the ignorant New Atheist doctrine that Christianity recommends "blind faith."  We refuted that error in True Reason, and indeed I already refuted it in Jesus and the Religions of Man and The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  It is what Larry Hurtado calls a "zombie argument."

(9) "Rancid and rotting coffin."  Nice alliteration.  But coffins, being made of wood, rot without becoming rancid -- it is the corpse inside that gives offense to the nostrils as it decomposes, like rank historical cliches such as the "Blind Faith Meme."

(10) Because, of course, Christians like Augustine, Aquinas, Occam, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Descartes, Locke, and the whole pious crowd that invented modern science, placed no value whatever on "reason, facts and evidence."  It is hard to decide whether the Trumpian self-praise or the gratuitous implicit slur against so many of the world's greatest thinkers is the more obnoxious and ridiculous over-generalization, here.

(11) Let me again give Sherlock credit at this point for cadence and alliteration, however falsely the affected facts may be fixed onto the face of genuine and verifiable phenomena.

(12) Stooges?  In what sense?  Whatever else one may say of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, all three do seem to have been fully in command of their horrid movements.

(13) These villains are trotted out to attack an atheistic worldview, not to attack a so-called religious one.

(14) It is suspicious that Sherlock focuses so intensely on Hitler, since the man is seldom called an atheist. (I have never done so.)  It is also suspicious that Sherlock fails to mention Mao Zedong, who may have killed more innocent people than any of the others (he ruled a larger country).  Not to mention Marx or Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Khrushchev, Beria, Brezhnev, Ho Chi Minh, the ever-lovable Kim Clan in North Korea, Enver Hofha, Abimael Guzman, the Castros, or the rest of the bloody crew that ruled Eastern Europe.  But more on the chasms in Sherlock's historical consciousness later.

So Michael packs fourteen errors into three short opening paragraphs, some of them egregious.  Way to go, Sherlock.  But he's only getting warmed up.

Now let's look at the three examples Sherlock attempts to refute.


Was Pol Pot a Buddhist?

Sherlock thinks so:

"Pol Pot, possibly not even an atheist, but almost certainly a Buddhist, believed in the teachings of the Buddha, no matter how perverted his interpretations may or may not have been . . . Not only was Pol Pot a Theravada Buddhist, but the soil in which his atrocities were sewn was also very Buddhist.
"In Alexander Laban Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide,’ Hinton drew attention to the role that the belief in karma played in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, particularly with regards to the cementation of a docilely accepted social hierarchy, not too dissimilar from Stalin’s ready-made Russian religious tyranny, as well as highlighting the Buddhist origins of Pol Pot’s ideological initiatives.
"Hinton remarks:
"This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further , contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes…  [30]
"I have only presented a small snippet of the available evidence that points to religion’s role in Pol Pot’s crimes, and there is not one single piece of solid evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, so let us once and for all dispense with that speculative piece of religious propaganda."
The fact that Sherlock thinks he has presented any evidence at all that Pol Pot was a Buddhist in these paragraphs, ought to embarrass the Australian teachers who educated him.  (Whereas the "work" of Raphael Lataster ought to make the whole continent cringe: Sherlock can, at least, write.)  "Pol Pot was a Theraveda Buddhist" is a mere assertion, not "evidence."  The fact that communist Cambodia accepted a hierarchy is not evidence that it was "really" Buddhist Cambodia, either -- after all, the alternative to listening to party bosses was death.  Wolves are not Theraveda Buddhists, I don't think, yet they also accept hierarchy.  That one can find further parallels, such as the concept of "consciousness" (not unique to Asian Marxism, or Marxism at all -- Jung mentioned the idea, did he not?), or that the Kmer Rouge retained teachers (who doesn't?), or even asceticism (here America is the outlier, in having cast this perennial and universal notion aside so completely), is not evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, either.  Military service BY DEFINITION involves renunciation of pleasures.  (And notice that Hinton offers four or five synonyms for asceticism --"detachment" as well as "the elimination of attachment," for instance, as if the two didn't mean the same thing, with barely an attempt at rewording -- apparently hoping the reader will mistake mere repetition for a cup of evidence that runneth over.) 

But there is not the faintest hint of any real evidence that Pol Pot was a Buddhist who "believed in the teachings of the Buddha," in all this.   Not one word from Pol Pot here about the Four Noble Truths, about the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, about reincarnation, about the Buddhas -- not a word.  
In fact, Pol Pot was a communist and an atheist.  He may have taken up a few of the cultural trappings of Buddhism, which had after all been the dominant faith of his country for many centuries.  But as Loyola professor of Religious Studies Catherine Wessinger notes (my emphasis):

"Democratic Kampuchea was officially an atheist state, and the persecution of religion by the Kmer Rouge was matched in severity only by the persecution of religion in the communist states of Albania and North Korea, so there were not any direct historical continuities of Buddhism into the Democratic Kampuchea era."  

Or as the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University explains:

 It is estimated that of more than 65,000 monks and nuns living in 1969, less than 3000 survived the civil war and genocide of the 1970's. Estimates of the death toll during the Khmer Rouge Regime are that about 1.7 million people (of a 1975 population of 7 million) were killed or died of starvation. Buddhism was a special target of the Khmer Rouge; in addition to killing the monks and nuns, most of the 3, 369 temples in existence in 1970 were destroyed, as were Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Monastery buildings which were not destroyed were used for storage, prisons, or torture chambers. By 1979, Buddhism in Cambodia was virtually destroyed.


What do you think?  Murdering someone is often considered good evidence that one does not like that person, isn't it?  If you close all the Buddhist temples and kill nineteen out of twenty monks, can that be taken as evidence that Pol Pot was not really a believing Buddhist?  Maybe even that he disliked Buddhism?  Or is that crazy talk?

But no, Sherlock tells us that Pol Pot was a zealous Theraveda Buddhist.  The sheer historical ignorance it takes to make that claim about the founder of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who learned his ideology from communists in Paris, was supported by Mao's China, murdered 95% of the Buddhist monks in his country, and destroyed the religion to which he allegedly belonged, without offering a speck of anything but the most subjective and vague evidence to support it, is astounding.

Meanwhile, the name Mao Zedong is not so much as mentioned in Sherlock's article.  But Mao invented and perfected the innovative doctrine of encircling the cities with the countryside.  During the Cultural Revolution (which started in 1966), Mao persecuted teachers, and sent young people out of the cities to work in the farms.  That's exactly the strategy that the Kmer Rouge followed, only on a larger scale.  Coincidence?  Sherlock does not even raise the question.


Was Joseph Stalin an (honorary) Christian?  

Sherlock's attempt to protect atheism from the bad name of Joseph Stalin is just as ridiculous.  Since errors fly thick and fast here, let me revert to my earlier form of quoting his remarks at length, while marking points for rebuttal below.

"Of these three characters, Stalin was the only confirmed atheist, yet Hitchens thoroughly dealt with the religious nature of Stalin’s dictatorship in a manner that has left religious apologists without sufficient reply.(1)  Notwithstanding the fact that Stalin was raised as a Christian under the religious influence of his mother, who enrolled him in seminary school (2), and that Stalin later took it upon himself to study for the priesthood (3), as Hitchens and others have pointed out, Stalin merely stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny (4), constructed by the Russian Orthodox Church and paved with the teachings of St. Paul (5).
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.                                           Romans 13:1-2
(1) Since Sherlock shows no sign of having read my, or Aikman's, rebuttal, "apologists can't reply to Hitchen's smashing of their lame position" is just an empty boast.  
(2) Christians provided the only available education.  "Stalin went to a Christian school, so Christianity is to blame for Stalinism" involves some pretty grotesque historical shortcuts.  Should we then blame Secular Humanists for Fred Phelps, since he apparently went to public schools at times?  Christian teachers have educated billions, without making all their students Christians.     
(3) Stalin was given a scholarship, but became an atheist as  first-year student.  (Paul Vitz suggests his poor relationship with his father might have had something to do with that, as I recall.)
(4) "Stalin stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny?"  Baloney.  The Bolsheviks completely remade society, from the top down.  Old institutions were abolished, as clean a sweep as the world had seldom seen.  Leninism, then Stalinism, were vastly more cruel than late Tsarist Russia, as Solzhenitsyn, for one, often pointed out in his examination of how prisoners were treated.  In fact, late Tsarist Russia had been liberalizing for some time: the Bolsheviks' competitors were far more liberal than they were, and Peter Stolypin instituted needed reforms that showed real promise, in a period in which Russia was modernizing quickly.  The period before World War I was one of rapid economic progress and an artistic golden age.    

And in that era, said Solzhenitsyn:

"By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened."


The Bolsheviks used the sickle of Enlightenment materialism to cut the blossom of a developing Russian culture, and the hammer of Marxist ruthlessness to pound the garden in which it grew into a parking lot for Uncle Joe's tank.  Far from "stepping into" ready-made "religious tyranny," Stalin actually took over from Vladimir Lenin, an ardent atheist bigot who had already murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  Sherlock never even mentions Lenin, strangely enough.  The sheer historical ignorance of the man, or his willingness to take remarkable historical shortcuts, is astounding.  
(5) Stalin learned political subservience from St. Paul?  This is a bizarre claim, indeed.   Joseph Stalin became a political revolutionary in seminary, read Lenin, then sought to overthrow all existing social and political structures through violent revolution.  That means shooting, stabbing, or bombing the authorities.  And St. Paul is to blame for that, because he told Christians to obey the government and pay taxes?  Sherlock does not seem to realize that after Joseph Stalin studied in seminary, he became an atheist and a COMMUNIST REVOLUTIONARY. 
Of course, as I explain in Jesus and the Religions of Man, once a revolution occurs, power-hungry revolutionaries will come to desire obedient subjects.  That is a constant of human history: one can find the same trend in ancient Greece.  Read Polybius, for instance.  Or George Orwell's Animal Farm.  
So was Christianity to blame for the fact that the Russians submitted to an atheistic regime?  If you want to try that line, then how about crediting Christianity in America for resisting communism so vigorously?  (Which it did.)
In fact, Christianity inspired resistance to Marxist revolution and oppression around the world.  (Which is probably one reason the present crop of communists in China is so anti-Christian.)  Lech Walensa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Pope John Paul II were just three of the heroes who helped overthrow communist tyranny.  It was atheists in America (like Joy Davidman, who would become C. S. Lewis' wife!) who converted to communism, far more often than the Christians.  In fact, to this day, some four fifths of atheists in the world were tutored in unbelief by obediently listening to top-down communist propaganda.  (One meets them all around China -- many of my students!)

So if Sherlock's claim refers to Joseph Stalin, it is bizarre.  If it refers to Russian peasants, it is historically uninformed and ignores far too many facts.   
We trek on through the thicket of errors, a machete now stationed permanently in our right hands.  
"Such teachings were the inspirational well from which the Russian Orthodox Church drew their justifications to support this new Tsar, causing the more sensible fringe of the Church to flee to the United States in contravention of St. Paul’s teachings.(6)
"Here then, the central premise of Hitchens’ argument is worthy of reiteration.  Had Stalin inherited a purely rational secular edifice,(7) one established upon the ethos espoused by the likes of Lucretius, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Einstein (8) and other free thinking and rational secularists, then the apologist’s argument would hold slightly more weight, but such wasn’t the case.  Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian Inquisition,(9) the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy, the Crusades, the praising of the priesthood, (10) messianism, and Edenic ideas of a terrestrial religious-styled utopia,(11) and re-branded them with the red of communism.  Had this Christian machine not been in place, then it is more than likely Stalin wouldn’t have had the vehicle he needed to succeed in causing so much suffering in the name of his godless religion (12), Communism.
(6) St. Paul told Russians not to emigrate to the US?  What version of the Bible is Sherlock reading?  Oddly, though, Samuel Adams found in those same Scriptures abundant justification to help establish the US: the highly religious country that proved the "fortress of democracy" and freedom in the 20th Century, again and again.  
(7) Sherlock is conflating ideas ("secular") with values ("rational").  This is a hidden form of the True Scotsman fallacy.  The Soviets were "irrational" (from Sherlock's point of view), so they don't count as pure secularists.  But Sherlock argues that atheism does not come with values attached.  
(8) Einstein wasn't old enough to influence the Russian Revolution. 
(9) "Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian inquisition?"  What nonsense.  The inquisition was in France and Spain, most of a millennia earlier, and didn't resemble communist persecutions except in the fact that they were persecutions.  This is just hand-waving assertion, without any real attempt to support a wild historical claim with historical evidence. 
(10) Joseph Stalin praised the priesthood?  He joined the communist party, which was Lenin's instrument of oppression and control that killed and imprisoned priests.  The communists were not monks, or much like them.  And if we're going to talk about the communist party, shouldn't we at least mention Vladimir Lenin, who established it?   
(11) Marx wanted to set up an earthly paradise, or at least a "dictatorship of the proletariat."  By contrast, Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world."  Marx, in his focus on the City of Man, was a disciple of Plato, not Jesus. 

(12) "Godless religion?"  Isn't that a contradiction in terms?  I thought religion was to be defined as involving belief in supernatural beings or gods?  Actually Sherlock doesn't define religion.  Perhaps that because sometimes, he needs it to mean "belief in supernatural gods."  At other times, as here, he needs it to mean "strongly held fundamental beliefs about reality, whatever they may be," or as Paul Tillich called it, an "ultimate concern."  

I prefer this latter definition, precisely because of the kind of shell game that atheists like Sherlock try to play.  Communism insisted that there is no God in heaven.  But socially, communist ideology and leaders often played roles similar to those played by Messiahs, gurus and divinities, and the ideologies they inspired.  In short, Sherlock is guilty of equivocation, of playing on two meanings of "religion" to confuse his readers.  On the usual atheist definition of religion, "godless religion" is a contradiction in terms.  But if our goal is to somehow blame religion for an atheist mass movement, then we expand the meaning of the word "religion" so that it can justify so patently bizarre an accusation.  
"To quote Hitchens:
"For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. (12) “How many divisions,” he famously and stupidly inquired, “has the pope?” (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, “More than you think.”) Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma (13), by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of specially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church (14) that could attach its traditional appeal to his. 
(13) Speaking of power, it's odd that the name of Friedrich Nietzsche never comes up in Sherlocks' exposition, either.  Hasn't he heard of that famous atheist, either?  Nietzsche famously blamed Christianity for being too weak, for not busting skulls with sufficient vigor.  
Jesus was famous for giving up his power, and dying on the cross.  Nietzsche hated that weakness.  So to whom should we trace Stalin's attitude, if we don't ascribe it to human nature?  

Marx and Engels (two other key historical figures whom Sherlock oddly never mentions) wrote that communism "abolishes all morality," as well as "all religion."  This connection between abolishing religion and morality, then, is not one which Christians impose on the communists, it is one the communists very deliberately and emphatically made themselves.     
(14) Science under the popes was, in fact, generally remarkable free, despite a few obvious contrary examples.  (Which is why we always hear of Galileo's spell of house arrest.)  For a more balanced view, see, for instance, James Hannam's The Genesis of Science, or Allan Chapman's Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith.
(15) Stalin didn't "maintain" the Church, he constrained it, by theft, murder, torture, mass enslavement, propaganda, and persecution.  The Church didn't need Stalin's help!  But after Hitler invaded, Stalin realized he might need the help of the Church, and backed off temporarily.  
How perverse to portray a mere lull in persecution as if it demonstrated the guilt of the harassed, tortured, and murdered victims who welcomed that lull!  (Not that there were no genuine quislings, of course.)

So Was Atheism to Blame for Stalin? 
Sherlock is quite adamant in denying any relationship between the tens of millions of murders committed in or by the Soviet Union, and the atheist component of the official communist ideology.  In fact, RELIGION (here meaning "supernatural" religion) was to blame!   
"Hitchens was not alone in seeing the parallels between Russia’s old supernatural religion and its new secular one.
"In Emilio Gentile’s ‘Politics as Religion,’ Gentile describes the sacralizing of Stalin’s regime in the following words:
"The sacralization of the party opened the way to the sacralization of Stalin when he became the supreme leader.  After 1929, the political religion of Russia mainly concentrated on the deification of Stalin, who until his death in 1953 dominated the party and Soviet system like a tyrannical and merciless deity. 
"That vast and seemingly bottomless “reservoir of religious credulity,” as Hitchens so eloquently phrased it, which served to subdue the servile Soviets for hundreds of years beneath the yoke of an equally brutal supernatural religion, was the very fountain of boundless unthinking acquiescence that Stalin, having adorned himself in the Tsar’s clothes, utilized to send countless innocent Russians to their deaths.  Where would Stalin have found such docile servitude, servitude that fed the flames of his secular religious tyranny, had Lucretius, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson bestowed upon these poor religious Russians, their intellectual legacy?  To answer in a word, nowhere."

Being historically ignorant, and not apparently having read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (though this is hard to believe of Hitchens), these gentlemen are apparently unaware of the rich vein of  "Enlightenment" thinking that permeated the Russian intelligentsia long before Vladimir Lenin and others brought the holy books of Marx and Engels to Russia.   To this day, in a Chinese textbook my students use, the Chinese communists present their beliefs as a fusion of Greek humanism, western Enlightenment thought, and parallel Chinese strands of post-religious Enlightenment thinking.  

Thomas Jefferson was not an atheist, why does Sherlock bring him up?  Neither were Einstein or Paine.  Sherlock appears to be conflating "atheism" with "liberal democratic thinking," here.  

But the confusion Sherlock maintains about the impact of atheism becomes "clear" when he brings up Stalin again in the "logical fallacies" section of his piece. 

"False Analogy Fallacy
"This fallacy depends upon the existence of an often minor analogous factor, in this case, the belief in god versus a lack of belief in god, god being the analogous component, and extrapolating from this minor analogy, conditions that are alleged to affect both positions, when the truth of the matter happens to be, the two (religion and atheism) are not analogous at all. [34]
"For apologists to overcome the existence of this fallacy, they must show that atheism is a religion, but the very definition of atheism circumvents any such attempt.  Atheism, although encompassing varying degrees of disbelief, is not a system of beliefs, but an unsystematic absence of god-belief, that is all.  It has no doctrines, traditions and most importantly, no beliefs.  Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."
The problems and contradictions here are many: but also the opportunity to finally understand what "religion" is, and how it relates to "atheism." 

(1) Sherlock has just been telling us that Stalinism was a "godless religion."  Has he forgotten?  Because now he seems to think there are no godless religions.  

(2) Most dictionaries do not define atheism as an "unsystematic absence of god-belief."  Many more properly define atheism as the positive rejection of belief in God.  (Not gods, which may be merely ghosts or spirits.)  And it is hard to see how atheism could be merely an absence of belief.  Babies are not "atheists" in any normal sense of the word.  Rocks are not atheists.  People who have never thought about the subject are not atheists.  

(3) Even a lack of belief can be deadly, though.  If an airplane pilot lacks a belief in gravity, all hands may perish.  So Sherlock's argument fails.  It may well be that Stalin lacked some key belief -- "communism abolishes all morality, all religion" -- which resulted in or encouraged his cruel acts.  And again, it wasn't just Stalin who tortured, murdered, and destroyed priceless works of human heritage.

(4) In fact, as Richard Wurmbrand relates, communist torturers and jailers often goaded Christians with the absence of God.  As even George Orwell's anti-hero, Big Brother's little torturing brother, O'Brien, says to Winston Smith in the torture chamber: "Do you believe in God?  Then what will stop us?"  For O'Brien, the absence of God was highly significant -- as Dostoevsky put it, "If there is no God, then everything is permitted."  That was precisely O'Brien's logic.

(5) In a sense it is true that atheism in itself has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs," aside from "There is no God."  In the same way, theism has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs" aside from "There is a God."  Religions (in Tillich's sense) are developed systems of belief and practice in which theism or atheism may be a single element.  Therefore Communism, Secular Humanism, and Christianity, may all be seen as religions.  One can compare atheism to theism, or Communism or Secular Humanism to Christianity.  One cannot compare atheism per se to Christianity, not because atheism does not impact how people act for good or evil (it does, as atheists often testify!), but because it is only one element in more developed religions or (if you don't like that word) ideologies. 
(6) What is truly shocking, and bizarre, in Sherlock's comments here, is this strange sentence, which displays no hint of historical understanding whatsoever:

"Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."

"Secret atheist Bible?"   How can anyone who dares write on the subject, fail at this point to even mention the vast cataract of published secular propaganda that formed, informed, and transformed the Marxist-Leninist movement around the world, including in Russia?  Communism was an Enlightenment project.  As David Aikman shows in consummate detail, Karl Marx was deeply inspired by the stories of Faust and Prometheus, as interpreted for modern Europeans, for instance by the English poet, Percy Shelley.  Marx even quoted Prometheus, "In a word, I detest all gods!"

Secret atheist Bible?  Well no, there was not one atheist Bible, any more than there was one theist holy book.  But the Enlightenment movement was a highly bookish one, and it could not be any clearer (Aikman shows this in great detail) that early communism drew its inspiration from numerous strains of Enlightenment writing -- Feurbach, Hegel, Bauer, Tylor, and so on.  (Marx was also influenced by friends he met at the University of Berlin, and Engels of course by Marx.)  

That the communists' virulent rejection of God "had to do with" their "maniacal behavior" is, again, crystal clear from their own writings.  It is not a Christian apologist who linked "communism abolishes all religion" to "communism abolishes all morality" -- these assertions lie smack dab in the center of the most famous communist book ever written, The Communist Manifesto, penned by Marx and Engels.  

Is it really so absurd to suppose Joseph Stalin read that book, and was influenced by it?  

What is absurd is that Sherlock does not seem to have heard of the book.  

True, as I showed sixteen years ago in Jesus and the Religions of Man (in a chapter that the historian Dr. Donald Treadgold, founder of the Slavic Review, read and recommended), communist morality was complex and self-contradictory.  I argued that communism did not only fail to actually abolish morality, in truth it instituted not one but three separate new moral systems.  My argument in that book describes the reality of communist experience, and the contradictions between Marxism and human experience pretty well, I think.  (The book has gotten great reviews.)  

But the Hitchens-Sherlock take on the same subject, is ill-informed, adolescent, apologetic twaddle.  Sherlock has, apparently, not even heard of Karl Marx, still less The Communist Manifesto.  Nor has the term "dialectical materialism" passed his ears.  Of course he has not witnessed the "graveyards and transports" of Christians who died have "cast a light" around them in the Gulag, as Solzhentisyn put it.  (Having met such Christians, it was in the Gulag that Solzhenitsyn turned back to Christ.)

Sherlock thinks, or wants to believe, that Joseph Stalin was some sort of anomaly, an aberration, who having gone to a seminary, somehow imbibed both revolutionary fervor and the doctrine of political quiessence in the face of tyranny at one and the same time, from Saint Paul.  (Whose teachings, in fact, he rejected in his first year.)  He wants to think that atheism must always be held innocent, because it is a mere absence of belief, which can never harm anyone ("I'm not a killer, I merely lack a belief in maintaining life?"), but that at the same time Stalin's real fault was he didn't read "atheists" like Jefferson and Einstein and Paine.  (Who were not atheists, actually.)  Sherlock has never heard, it seems, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Castro, the Kims, Hofha, Guzman, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, or Xi Jinping, nor yet of the French Revolution, or the Marxists in Mexico.  

I refuted much of this nonsense in Jesus and the Religions of Man in 2000, already.  This is why being an apologist provides life-long job security: those who say they care deeply about facts and evidence, never seem to learn them.  So the hydra presents new and ever-more silly faces to the Christian knight, and the job of chopping them off never ends.  

I was going to end by debunking Sherlock's false claims about Hitler (no, he was not a Christian, nor an atheist, though he was deeply influenced by atheist thinkers), but I've run out of both time and, I suspect, the reader's patience. 

A poster below notes that Richard Weikart is coming out with a book on Hitler's religion later this year.  Good news!  Weikart is an historian who teaches at California State, and has studied this issue for many years.  I expect his book will help to settle this issue. 

But let me also note how amusingly weak Sherlock's main argument on the subject is.  (Aside from the fact that he again excludes contrary evidence, no doubt because he has not read enough to know of it.)   

"X says Y, so Y" is an Argument from Authority.  Some arguments from authority are strong, many are weak.  Generally speaking, "X says he believes Y" is a fairly strong argument from authority.  If a man doesn't know what he really believes, then who does?   And we generally do people the courtesy of accepting their self-descriptions (even, absurdly, "I am a woman!" to a person whose plumbing is male).  

But when "X=Adolf Hitler," the argument "X says Y, so Y" loses its force, to put it mildly.  Hitler was known to OCCASIONALLY disassemble for political reasons.  And certainly, Hitler had strong motive to lie about being a Christian, running for office in a political climate in which the communists had pretty much cornered the market on atheists (many of whom, in the Germany of the time, were Jews).  That he WAS lying, is obvious, if you read Mein Kampf and the story of the Third Reich in general, as told for instance by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes.  It is also possible, in addition, that Hitler only had a vague notion of what Christianity was. 

Michael Sherlock is a talented ranter.  If only he would desert the ranks of New Atheists who are waging war upon History, and then begin to straighten out the kinks in his logic, he might learn a few things, and ultimately gain something worthwhile saying.   













Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The New York Times, Barack Obama, and Racial Conflict

It is important to realize that the conflict now convulsing our country is entirely manufactured by the Left, and is based on rock-solid lies. People are dying, again, because of Left-wing lies -- and the deaths you hear about, are only the tip of the iceberg. When the police are forced out of a poor neighborhood through hostility, who will surge into the power vacuum? Who will become more brazen, more oppressive? Drug dealers.  Pimps.  Thugs.  Why do you suppose the murder rate has soared since Ferguson, a series of riots whipped up from lies, like meringue on a pie, made from one broken egg and lots of empty air? Read this and understand what is going on.

Why is the Left trying to whip up racism and create hatred against whites and against the police right now?  No doubt motives vary.  But what is clear is that the presidency of Barack Obama has failed, and failed badly: war, not peace, has broken out around the world, our radical enemies have become more active not less, America is being attacked by terrorists, the National Debt has grown, the economy has not, America is being surpassed as we speak by China, Iran hates us all the more, for all Obama's generosity.  And, of course, the Democratic Party (like the Republican Party) has offered an utterly obnoxious candidate for the next president (along with a socialist even to the left of Barack Obama!)

See what Vladimir Putin did when the Russian economy collapsed: demonize America, manufacture a few local enemies, and his approval ratings rose to 80%!

Nationalism doesn't work for the Left, but hatred and divisiveness does.  

Never mind that if you demonize police officers, innocent people will be oppressed and sometimes killed.  Never mind that an unpoliced neighborhood is a neighborhood that business does not want to invest in.  Never mind that all these cities where conflict is occurring, have been run by the Left for decades now, or that the stats show the police are actually doing a pretty good (and very difficult) job.  Never mind the lessons of Detroit.  

Demonize "the pigs."  Blame Whitey.  

And our Nobel-Prize winning president, in his diffident and snarky way, cheers Black Lives Matter on, surreptitiously throwing kindling onto the fire of the very racial conflict he was supposed to solve.  

But solving conflict and making peace is the job of the police, not of left-wing radicals like Barack Obama and the New York Times.  

Friday, July 08, 2016

Two Mormons Pay a Visit

Image result for mormon missionaries bicycles cartoonMormon elders just keep getting younger.  Are they aging backwards?

These two seemed like such youthful sprites.  Let's call them Elder Smith and Elder Jones.  I had to ask them about their age: one was about five feet two, with blond hair and freckles perhaps.  One was from Idaho Falls, the other from a town in Utah a couple hours south.

They camped outside my fence as I was washing the garbage can before dinner, and introduced themselves in the usual Mormon way.
We began with the usual dance about names.   No matter how young, Mormon missionaries are trained to demand that total strangers call them "elder."  I never accept this, because for a man in his 50s to call a child "elder" is self-debasing, and a debasement of the English language.  I ask for their first names.  (Note to self: next time, insist that they call me "Dr. Marshall."  But I still won't call them "elder." :- ))

Still, they seemed like nice enough kids, and I am always friendly to Mormon missionaries.  As usual, I asked questions about their schedules, their missions, and so forth, to get to know them as human beings, first.

Here are some snippets of our conversation about religion:

"So, what do you know about the Mormon Church?"

"Let's see.  Begun by Joseph Smith, then Brigham Young.  Started in Upper New York, moved to Illinois, then on the Utah.  The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants -- you guys usually start with the Book of Mormon, not quite as, uh, extreme . . . What, twelve million followers now?"

"Fifteen million."

We went over a few more basics, and they gave me a grade of 90% on my knowledge of Mormonism.  But of course, I was eager to learn more:
 
"So here we have Joseph Smith, and behind him the Angel Moroni, and behind him God, going to all the trouble to send a new revelation to Planet Earth.  I'm curious.  What important new moral teaching did God give the world in the Book of Mormon?  What is lacking in the teachings of Jesus, that Mormonism supplements?"

"You misunderstand.  Mormonism doesn't contradict Christian morals . . ."

"But what I mean is, Jesus adds something new to what the Old Testament tells us.  Look at the Sermon on the Mount, for instance.  And I think Muslims would say that the Islamic community holds to a higher standard of morality than Christians, from their point of view.  So what important new moral teaching did God send the world through Joseph Smith?"

"Well, there's authority.  We believe that God has given authority to the Church."

"That's a dogma, not a moral teaching."

"We also believe that babies are morally innocent, that they don't need to be baptized to be forgiven of their sins."

"Baptism was quite an issue in the 19th Century -- Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists -- that was in the air at the time. There's nothing new about saying babies don't need to be baptized, lots of Christians believed that already."

Of course these were just kids.  But I found their inability to tell me what moral teaching Mormonism could offer beyond Christianity interesting, because from my dippings in the Book of Mormon, I'd never noticed any  innovative and worthwhile moral teachings.  Young as they were, they had read their holy scripture far more than I had, and it was fascinating to hear that implicit confession from the horses' mouths.

When backed into a corner, these kids are trained to appeal to power of self-delusion:

"How do you know what is true?  We believe that if someone wants to know what is true, they . . . "

"Yeah, they pray to God, and He gives them a 'burning in the bosom.'  I've heard the same story from a high official in the Unification Church who sat next to me on a flight to Seoul.  I heard the same thing from a follower of the guru Muktananda, who's a complete scoundrel.  I've even heard it from some Christians.  Seems a little subjective . . .

"So how can you know the truth?"

"I think God gave us brains, for one thing."

"So how do you figure out what is true?"

"Read the Quran and the New Testament, for one thing.  You read the Quran, and you find Mohammed starting wars, raping, and telling the women in his harem that they need to accept the beautiful new girl, the wife he stole from his foster nephew.  It's pretty obvious that God would not affirm that sort of morality or the person who represents it.   I personally don't know how anyone can read the Quran without seeing it. . . . Then read the gospels.  As Jesus said, 'By their fruits you will know them.'"

"What kind of fruits do you think Joseph Smith had?"

"Do you really want me to say?"

I looked at them, and they didn't say 'No," and seemed to expect an answer, so I went on.

"Well, to his credit he didn't go around killing a lot of innocent people like Mohammed.   But when it comes to abusing women, and when it comes to telling the truth -- to be honest, I don't have a very high opinion of Joseph Smith."

They wound up asking me about my books, and I introduced "Jesus is No Myth" and some of my other writings.  I honestly didn't feel like poking holes in Mormonism that day.  So they listened, and I gave them an outline of my argument for the historicity of the gospels.

The two young men seemed to want to continue the conversation, though most Mormon missionaries realize by about this time that their seed was falling on stony ground.  Maybe they thought a Christian historian would be a big catch.  But I did have a garbage can to clean (they kindly volunteered to help, but it was a one-man job), hands to wash, and dinner to eat.  So they left me with a piece of propaganda, which I took to make them feel better, and went on their ways.

I don't mind if they come back, but I will insist on their putting their religious masks off and talk to me with "their real faces," as C. S. Lewis put it, as much as their training will allow.


Saturday, July 02, 2016

Thirty-Two Bad Arguments by Godless in Dixie

Thirty! 

Last year I played a game with my students. One handed me her copy of their short Chinese world history text. I scanned the contents briefly, and estimated that I would find thirty errors in the book. That proved very close to the final count, though I was surprised where the errors were concentrated . . . Mostly in attacks on Medieval Christianity, and gross oversights about modern Chinese history.


Today someone brought to my attention a popular on-line argument by Godless in Dixie, or Neil Carter, entitled "Seven Bad Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus."  The article is written as a critical review of Tim Keller's The Reason for God, an excellent and positive popular-level statement of the case for Christianity.  


After scanning bits of this article, I think I'll play the same game and shoot for the same section of the fence. Given the quality and length, I'll make a preliminary guestimate of thirty errors. Though I suspect afraid I'm playing this one too conservatively. 


The game will be somewhat hampered by the fact that while I've read Keller's book, I don't seem to have a copy on hand, anymore.  So I won't be able to point to any errors of representation, which often pad the score in these sorts of games. 


Given the over six hundred comments on this article, it may be worth responding, despite my flippancy.

Seven Bad Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus

easter01Well, it looks like I spoke too soon. Contrary to my previous declaration that Tim Keller was done trying to build a logical case for Christianity and had just moved on to sermonizing, it turns out the second-to-the-last chapter in his apologetics work The Reason for God really did contain one last shot at arguing for the legitimacy of the Christian faith.
In Chapter 13, Keller rehashes the story of the resurrection of Jesus, arguing that it must have actually happened, not so much because he has positive proof for it besides a collection of stories in an ancient book, but more because until you can definitively explain how this story came to be in the first place, you are supposed to assume that it must be true.
I suspect a misrepresentation here, but cannot confirm it.  
This is what we call “shifting the burden of proof.” Ordinarily a person engaging in counter-apologetics (which is what I suppose I am doing in this series of posts) has to carefully break down the other person’s logic order to expose when and where this sleight of hand occurs in the other person’s argumentation. But Keller just comes right out and states his bias in plain language:
Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. That is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. (p.210)
(1) At least, this statement does not support Carter's original representation of Keller.  Keller says it is "not completely the case" that the burden of proof is on the Christian.  But this does not at all support the claim that Keller says it is "more" because "you are supposed to assume the story is true" until you can explain it.  It is like confusing, "Mr. Keller did not eat all the chocolate ice cream: Mr. Carter ate some, too" with "You must believe that Mr. Carter ate most the ice cream."  There are two changes in meaning, here: "some" to "most," and the appearance of the imperative.  
Um, why, exactly? That seems a rather facile assertion on Keller’s part. Why am I obligated to explain why a religious community or tradition exists? Must I give an adequate explanation for why Islam exists? Or Hinduism? Or Mormonism? Or Scientology?  Each of these religions makes claims upon which the rest of their beliefs are based, and I fail to see why we are automatically obligated to accept them by default until we can first definitively prove that those claims are false. Or does Keller mean that only his religion should be privileged in that way? I wonder why, exactly?
(2) Even if Keller didn't explain that (didn't he?), many other apologists have, so Carter need not wonder so.  
Hinduism is the religion of India, named thousands of years after it appeared, which grew up in native soil and came to include a number of ideas over those millennia, such as reincarnation, caste, the importance of the guru, and a set of gods and goddesses. 
Hinduism is easily explained in such general terms.  It does not depend on any historical action by any historical person.  If Krishna did not speak to Arjuna, Hindus can take the story metaphorically, or ignore it and attend to any of the millions of other Hindu gods.  
Christianity, by sharp contrast, grew up in a hostile environment (both Jewish and Roman) proclaiming two things (see Acts): the death of Jesus for the sins of the world, and his resurrection.   That Christians were hated and killed for their faith, is certain.  That they preached Christ risen, is clear throughout Acts.  That Jesus died shortly before the Gospel spread out from Palestine, is clear, historically.  
Since Christianity is founded on the resurrection of Jesus, a recent event to those preaching it, and since Jesus' first disciples would have known whether they really did meet Jesus or not, the truth of Christianity is supported by the early spread of that faith, in a way that is not paralleled by Hinduism or these other religions.  (Some attempt has been made to find a parallel with Mormonism, but I think unsuccessfully.)
(3) We have not been given any evidence that Keller said we should believe Christianity "by default." 
A resurrection is an extraordinary claim, and as notable skeptics Sagan, Hitchens, and before them LaPlace have all said in various forms, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” 
(4) And before them, David Hume.  
But in the full context of background facts to the Gospel, I have argued that in fact, the resurrection of Jesus (but only Jesus -- let us not imagine there are valid parallels) is really not so "extraordinary" in the relevant sense.
It would mean very little for someone to simply argue that a peasant rabbi amassed a following in ancient rural Palestine only to fall in with zealots and get himself killed by the Roman authorities.  
(5) The Zealot Party probably did not exist in Jesus' time.  Anyway, all the evidence is against Jesus having been a precursor, so that argument would not really work.  
We have evidence of that occurring on more than one occasion. But it’s another thing altogether to claim that, after a weekend in a tomb, one of those rabbis came back to life, walked through walls, ate breakfast, and then flew away up into the sky. Those are extraordinary claims, and yet Keller says it’s on you to believe them all unless you can prove they never happened.
(6) Oh, and doesn't Tim Keller offer any positive reasons to believe in those claims?  Of course he does.  
Given other "reasons for God," the claim that God acted on behalf of not some random rabbi, but the central figure in human history, who has changed the world more than anyone else, and offers the world it's most luminous teachings, simply is not "extraordinary" in the sense, or to the degree, Carter facilely assumes. 

Why Are We Still Debating This?

Arguments for the historicity of the Gospels wear me out, I have to confess. Like apologetics discussions in general, I find them tedious and repetitive. It seems to me that after people slog their way through all the details (and that can go on for days, weeks, or months) they come away believing the exact same things they believed going into the discussion. 
(7) This impression should be seen as a gross over-generalization and corrected.  In fact, converts both to atheism and to Christianity often cite their study of the historicity of the gospels as key to their conversions, in both directions. 
I would also suggest that if the subject bores Mr. Carter, he not post on it.  Work that bores one, is often done poorly.  
My own personal feeling is that the whole preoccupation misses the most important point of all:
If the resurrection of Jesus really happened, we wouldn’t be still debating its historicity today. The present-day evidence for the other claims of the Christian faith would be overwhelming, and all around us. They would leave little room for doubt.
(8) This is non-sequitur, and ignores Christian anthropology and even secular psychology.  As atheists often point out in other situations, human beings have a strong propensity for "cognitive dissonance reduction," to believe what they want to.   The human heart, says the Bible, is "wicked."
From the fact that not everyone believes Fact X, it does not follow that Fact X is untrue, of course.  Nor does it follow that evidence for related truths would be overwhelming.  
The very fact that we are still dissecting these ancient stories, looking for clues to determine whether or not they really happened says enough, don’t you think? I believe we have too quickly forgotten that the same book which asserts that Jesus came back from the dead also asserts other things, such as: 1) if you pray for people to be healed they will get better, 2) if you give money to God you’ll get even more back in return, and 3) if you truly trust Jesus with all your heart then his spirit will empower you to become a better person. It says all of those things, and so much more, yet the devout keep pointing us away from present-day evidence toward ancient stories which we will never be able to positively disprove without the use of a time machine.
(9) Carter is simplifying Christian claims to refute them more easily.  The gospels note that because of lack of faith, in one place even Jesus was unable to do many miracles.  Furthermore, Paul prayed for his own healing of some sort, and did not receive it.  Yes, there are also passages that seem, on the surface, to imply that everyone prayed for will be healed, but they must be taken in this larger context.  See recent books by Eric Metaxis and Craig Keener on miracles, to see that miraculous healing does sometimes occur.  
(10) The money promise is one of those phony pseudo-verses that prosperity preachers love.  The New Testament makes no such promise, if you read it seriously.  
Jesus does say, in Luke 3:38: 
"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
But look earlier in the same chapter!  
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.  Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven . . . "
It is clear throughout the chapter that Jesus is talking about rewards beyond the here-and-now, and therefore beyond Mr. Carter's calculations.  
(11) I happen to think (3) is true.  I have seen people do just that -- trust Jesus with all their hearts -- and I have seen them become better people.  I was just talking with my aunt today about how this happened in my mother's life.  I know that if I trusted Jesus more, I would become a much better person.  
According to the writer(s) of the fourth Gospel, Jesus himself indicated what he intentioned would be the most visible evidence for his own legitimacy: The unity of the church. If the author(s) of that gospel can be believed at all, Jesus had the audacity to gamble his own legacy on his followers’ ability to remain in harmonious relationship with one another.  I have often called this “the most failed prayer in history,” and it seems to me that any student of history should be forgiven for concluding based on what we have seen that in fact Jesus wasn’t who the Bible says he was.
(12) We're wandering quite a distance from Tim Keller's arguments for the resurrection, you will notice.  The thread connecting the two issues has not quite broken, but has become thin, long, and multiply frayed. 
Suppose that John, in his old age, fondly remembered the words of Jesus in his youth -- and remembered some of them not quite correctly. 
How much easier is it to remember the most significant and awe-inspiring sight of your life -- whatever that may be, a marriage, a sudden death, an unexpected victory -- than the precise words of even a close friend, 50 years later?  From which it follows that even if John did slightly romanticize Jesus' promise, that would in no way undermine the dramatic claim that he met him alive, after dead.  
But did Jesus actually say anything about "the unity of the church" in the John 14-17?  Well he does pray as follows: 
15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them byd the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Carter seems to have forgotten, somehow, that this is primarily a prayer, not a prophecy.  And it is primarily about the disciples themselves, secondarily about those they would lead to faith.  (As the whole prayer shows.)  
That Jesus was not just waving a magic wand and making his followers be nice, is clear throughout the gospels and the epistles.  They are stubborn, pig-headed, argumentative, even treacherous -- that very night!  In other words, the Spirit leads, but gives Christians the freedom to follow -- or not.  
That aside, I see no reason not to work my way through the handful of reasons which Keller believes the burden of proof—or rather disproof—remains on people like me who disbelieve that a guy died and came back 36 hours later nearly 2,000 years ago. I do feel the need to throw in couple of caveats first, however.
(13) Given the claim of your article, you really would need, not "work through" Keller's arguments, but fairly evaluate them, to come to the conclusion that Keller really is just tossing the whole issue into the unbeliever's lap, as you claim.  I don't think he is, and you seem to sort of concede that here, too.  
First, I will assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was in fact a real, historical person. I will admit this is far from certain, and I dare you to bring that subject up within any gathering of English speaking atheists today. 
(14) It is quite certain.  Name the gathering, and if they are polite and intelligent, name the hour.  
But for the purposes of interacting with this chapter, we might as well start with that assumption. Remember that just because a guy named Jesus lived and died in the way the Bible says he did does NOT necessarily establish that he also performed miracles and came back from the dead. I hope most readers can separate Supernatural Jesus from Regular Joe Jesus long enough to get through the topic at hand.
(15) There never was any "regular Joe" Jesus.  The historicity and supernatural character of Jesus are interwoven throughout the gospels (AN Wilson saw this even as an atheist) in such a manner that they cannot be rationally separated.  That is the very fact -- a challenge to their core world assumptions -- that forces skeptics like Carrier et al into the absurd "mythicist" position, and the likes of Stephen Law into downgrading the gospels as historical sources.  And aside from his miracles, Jesus is never "regular Joe" -- his teachings are as amazing as his acts, his social character, his style.  
Second, I cannot help but note that in a chapter aimed at convincing skeptics of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, Keller relies upon the same individual for 9 out of 10 citations, and that individual happens to be an Anglican bishop. Granted, N.T. Wright is a brilliant writer and a devoted student of primitive Christianity who gratuated with honors from Oxford University. He’s no slouch. But he’s still an Anglican minister, and at heart he is a student of Christian theology. I found it somewhat disappointing to see him relying so heavily upon a fellow man of the cloth to establish a question of objective history.
(16) And yet Carter, to argue for his principle of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," cited three skeptics alone, and none as historically-literate as Wright. 
Also, aside from his undergrad days, people like Marcus Borg and Raymond Martin, neither I think a Christian, set Wright at or near the pinnacle of historical Jesus studies.  What difference does it make what clothes he wears?  Maybe he's a pastor BECAUSE he finds the evidence so strong. 

Seven Arguments Against the Resurrection NOT Happening


1. While the gospels weren’t written until a full generation after the time of Jesus, the letters of Paul attest to the resurrection as well, and they were written earlier. 
Well, yes, that is most likely true. Although we’re still talking about second- or third-hand information at best, and it’s still at least 20 years after the time at which these events were to have taken place. If I were to write a piece today about the untimely death of Princess Diana, I doubt it would carry much historical weight, given that I was neither there to witness the automobile accident that claimed her life nor was I even in the same country at the time. I wouldn’t be much of an authority on the details of her death, nor would anyone treat me as such unless they were desperate for reliable sources of information on the matter.
(17) But Paul says he met Jesus.   He also knew Jesus' closest friends, who say they met him after his death.  That changes things.  
2. ZOMG there were 500 witnesses to the risen Jesus!
Okay, so Keller never used the word “zomg,” but I feel entitled to poke fun after having heard this thrown out as many times as I have over the years. The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 to which Keller refers doesn’t establish what he thinks it establishes at all, because Paul is merely repeating what he was told by someone else, and we don’t even know if that someone else was supposed to be one of those 500 people in the first place. Keller seems a bit overly impressed by all of this:
Paul’s letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. (p.212)
Just how often does Keller think people on the other side of the Mediterranean made trips to Jerusalem? And if they did travel the nearly 1,800 miles by land (or 800 by sea), how exactly would they track down any of those 500 witnesses now that more than 20 years had come and gone since that time? In short, this doesn’t count as 500 points, it only counts as one point, if even that. It’s not even an eyewitness’s account. It’s a second-, third-, or even fourth-hand retelling of a story that claims there were eyewitnesses. Can people really not understand this difference? I’m kind of baffled.
(18) Actually, the Jewish Christian community seems to have been surprisingly mobile.  (Or not surprisingly -- read the Greek historians, and see how much traffic there was by sea between ports even centuries before Christ.)  Many Jews from around the Mediterranean visited Jerusalem for Passover, and many Christians were scattered by persecution -- Paul should know, he was one of the persecutors -- throughout the Jewish diaspora.  
We KNOW Paul interviewed some of the eyewitnesses: it is probably that he had met many of them, even that some were in Corinth, a  major seaport just down the road from Athens.  According to Rodney Stark (and Carrier echoes him), the church had less than a thousand believers by this time -- a large percentage were probably eyewitnesses, even outside of Palestine.  
3. We don’t give ancient people enough credit for their skepticism, nor for their ability to distinguish between fact and folklore.
Both Wright and Keller borrow heavily from C.S. Lewis, who frequently accused his contemporaries of “chronological snobbery” whereby modern people look down on their ancient counterparts as simpletons who would believe any tall tale they heard.  
(19) Wright does no such thing.  He cites Lewis extremely sparingly in his massive historical works.  He obtains his opinions first-hand, from a massive amount of first-hand reading in ancient sources.  
My main problem with this contention isn’t that people back then weren’t as smart as we are today, it’s that people today are still much more gullible than we care to admit. In other words, it’s not that ancients were so easily duped, it’s that we all are, even today.
Fair enough, which is why I'm dissecting your article.  
The advent of the Information Age hasn’t necessarily spawned a generation of critical thinkers. I often say that misinformation travels just as fast as information, perhaps even faster. So this isn’t just a problem of ancient history. I’ve worked in a supplement store and I know good and well that as long the person giving nutritional advice is wearing a lab coat and/or has a stethoscope around their neck, people will buy whatever they are selling. And you don’t have to travel far from an major city before you run into a culture of superstition that makes you want to put your car in reverse and head back home as quickly as possible.
(20) Yes, but that cuts both ways.  People are both eager to believe, and to disbelieve.  It depends on their biases.  
4. Women were among the first to report the resurrection, and nobody in that day would have made that up.
Far too much has been made of the fact that the gospels report women as the first to testify to the resurrection. Apologists for many years have counted this as a mark in favor of the “criteria of embarrassment,” meaning that if the early church had truly fabricated the resurrection account, they would have made sure to put the first testimonies in the mouths of men for reasons of social convention.
Women’s low social status meant that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court…The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had. (p.213)
Well, that’s not exactly the only possible explanation, and this isn’t exactly a court of law, either. But in that particular culture and time, women’s lower social status actually made them more likely to be the ones given the responsibility of handling burial rituals, wrapping bodies and unwrapping them again to reapply burial spices and so forth. It’s quite normal and expected that if there had been a burial and a subsequent removal of the body of Jesus, women should have been the first to discover that he was missing.
(21) Which makes the Gospel story more credible, doesn't it?  
And I should probably add here that I think this is exactly what happened. I don’t personally subscribe to the mythicist position which suggests that Jesus never even existed.  To my mind, it is more likely that there was a guy named Jesus who did in fact get executed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that his body was removed at some point, leading to a whole host of theories and legends which eventually grew into post-crucifixion sightings of a resurrected Jesus.
(22) But that hypothesis has long since been massively debunked.  Let's not put too much faith in folk historical theorizing.  This "argument" doesn't even lay a glove on the usual arguments of a Craig or a Habermas, which have been bandied about for decades, now.
On just one minor note, remember that the gospels were written within the normal life-expectancy of Jesus' first followers -- and Paul's accounts, even earlier.  So we don't have an "eventually" to work with, here.    
The earliest version of the earliest gospel (Mark 16:1-8) ends with two women carrying burial spices to an empty tomb only to flee the scene “trembling and bewildered, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” The oldest manuscripts we have of this gospel end with two confused women and no resurrection appearances. Which means at bare minimum we can surmise that the stories of later appearances by Jesus must have grown up later on, and in time were even added to the end of the text of Mark’s gospel in order to corroborate the legends that grew up between the different versions of the story.
(23) No, we cannot.  Because Mark already mentions the resurrection at least two previous times in his gospel.  (Mark 9:31; Mark 10:34)  And also because Paul's conversion, and I Corinthians 15, were written first.  And also because of the internal credibility of the resurrection accounts, from an historical point of view.  
5. People in that time would have never believed in an individual bodily resurrection because it wouldn’t have fit their worldview.
Keller here again leans heavily on the work of N.T. Wright who argues in several of his works that any concept of resurrection familiar to the people of this time period would have disallowed for a personal resurrection of just one individual, and certainly not one that is physical in nature. Keller seems far too confident in ruling out any such thinking when he says things like:
Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible… The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek. (p.215-216)
And yet we have right there in the letter to the Hebrews (arguably the most Jewish book in the New Testament) this illuminating admission:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said,“Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead…
It seems to me that whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews believed that, even as far back as Abraham, there must have been some kind of concept of individual resurrection. If not for a belief in individual resurrection, how else would Abraham have been willing to march up that mountain ready to sacrifice the very offspring through whom the man was supposed to become “the father of many nations?”
I think this argument is not so obviously mistaken.  Wright's point, that the Jews of the time were not looking for an individual resurrection, is no doubt correct, and Carter does nothing to overthrow it, however.    
6. First-century Jews would never have agreed to worship a human as divine, unless he really were God incarnate.
Keller makes it sound like the deification of Jesus happened immediately. He takes the time-frame in which Jesus goes from rabbi to prophet to messiah to God and collapses it into an instantaneous event.
Jews…believed in a single, transcendent, personal God. It was absolute blasphemy to propose that any human being should be worshiped. Yet hundreds of Jews began worshiping Jesus literally overnight. (p.218)
Did they really, though? Because it seems to me the bulk of our knowledge about primitive Christianity comes from the later Pauline communities, not the earlier Judean ones. 
(24) "Later" Pauline communities?  We're talking about groups of believers who appeared more closely in time than the present is to my first trip to Asia, in my early 20s.  It wasn't that long ago.  The concept of "primitive" and "later / developed" here is bogus, chronologically.   
(25) And the gospels do clearly represent the first community of believers.  Bauckham has made a strong case for that, and I am presently writing what I believe is an even stronger case.  
Do we really know how quickly they adapted to the idea that Jesus was somehow both human and divine?  Even the early Christian hymn which Keller cites from Philippians 2, while situating the development of a high Christology in the mid-first-century, doesn’t really tell us that it wasn’t the more Greek-leaning diaspora communities who provided that particular innovation.
And as I mentioned in my last post, a cursory glance through the early church councils of the Fourth and Fifth centuries reveals that the divinity of Jesus was still being hotly debating in the church even 400 years after its inception. That’s not to say that the worship of Jesus didn’t start as early as the first century, but it does mean that the church’s understanding of the divinity of Jesus wasn’t exactly a fully developed thing right off the bat.
(26) Carter is conflating "understanding" with "belief."  Yes, it is clear that Jews were worshiping Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and God within the first generation.  That IS a reason to believe something spectacular happened -- as the gospels say.  It is not by itself proof of the resurrection, but it fits within the rest of the evidence.  
7. The early disciples would have never sacrificed their lives if the resurrection didn’t really happen.
Honestly, I don’t see how any American living in post 9/11 society can overlook the very real possibility that a dozen or more zealous young men would be willing to sacrifice their lives for a religious belief. Zealotry is no proof that the things you believe are actually true. It only means that you sincerely believe them to be true.
(27) I don't see how any American interested in the question, can still garble the argument this badly. 
How many years has Josh McDowell been repeating, "Yes, people often die for a belief.  But not for a belief that they know is untrue?"  Thirty?  Three thousand?  It seems like it.  
The key here is that the early followers of Jesus who claimed to have met Jesus alive, would have known if they "made a mistake," and would not willingly have died for that little error!  There are ways of getting around this argument -- but not if you don't see that it's there in the first place!
Did the original 12 apostles in fact give up their lives for their faith? I don’t really know. This is another one of those many points at which people like Keller immediately believe any and every story that church tradition has preserved about the deaths of the earliest disciples. One such story I recall describes the apostle Peter being crucified upside down at his own request because, as the story goes, he didn’t consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Because of course, Roman emperors were always taking requests from their captives, right?
(28) Occam doesn't like it when people who claim to be interested in the facts keep on dumping historical evidence ("church tradition") because it causes them unease.  
Actually, Clement of Rome refers to Peter's martyrdom just 20-30 years after the fact. 

Making Easter Relevant

I must comment on one last assertion that Keller makes in this chapter because I hear it from time to time and it has always struck me as a non sequitur. Following Wright’s lead, Keller suggests that the story of the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just about getting sins forgiven, but that it also portends to a future restoration of the whole world, and that the expectation of this future deliverance should motivate the church to become a meditating force to implement that deliverance in some anticipatory way.
Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends that, even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. (p.220)
My first thought when I read that last sentence was about how unconcerned about those things evangelical Christians in America seem to be. If the story of the resurrection is supposed to motivate the church to seek to effect change in those areas, they sure haven’t made any of those things central components of the culture wars they’ve been fighting over the last few decades. The church in America is much more concerned with exerting control over what people do in their bedrooms than whether or not they’ve had enough to eat or what their carbon footprint happens to be.
(29) Carter is, apparently, too focused on politics, and not enough on social reality. 
Sociologist Arthur Brooks shows that in fact, pious Christians in America contribute many times as much to charity, and are "by every measure" more charitable, than secularists, on average.  (See Who Really Cares?)
(30) What lunatic would care more about whether, say, their daughter burns off ten gallons of gasoline in her car over the weekend, than if she sleeps with a VD-laden pig who's going to dump her and leave her with an unsupported child AND an STD?  The messed-up priorities are, I think, Carter's own.  
And I would think that even if I did believe in apocalyptic global warming, which I do not.  
Keller goes on to give a lengthy quote from one of Wright’s sermons to argue that the Easter story should move the church to become a force for good in the world in precisely those ways:
Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement the victory of Jesus over them all. (p.221)
Those are wonderful goals, and I would love to see the church in America come to focus on such real-world activities as alleviating injustice, war, poverty and disease. But I fail to see how stories of miraculous feedings and healings necessarily inspires that. I mean it’s not like Jesus taught his disciples about antibiotics or how to better irrigate arid tracts of land. The early church didn’t travel to impoverished districts to dig wells or lobby to change the laws or foreign policies of the Roman Empire. In fact, the only direct action I can recall Jesus taking toward the environment was when he killed a fig tree for not bearing figs out of season. Not exactly the environmental hero we were looking for.
(31) Well, then, like many secularists, thanks to our biased and delinquent educational system, you're missing out on a huge chunk of human history.  
I don't see anything in Keller's comment about the environment.  But I see a great deal in history about followers of Jesus changing the world for the better in the ways Keller mentions here.  (See, for instance, pages 63-86 of my How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, also numerous posts on this site.)  
And yes, that emphatically did begin with the early Church, as is crystal clear throughout the gospels and Acts, and as people like Will Durant and Rodney Stark chronicle for the next few centuries as well.  So Carter is just wrong: the gospels did inspire massive, world-changing reforms, which have changed his life, and those of everyone he loves, for the better, whether he realizes it or not.  
Furthermore, the things we are told that Jesus did were all instantaneous miracles. Now we are being told that his example is supposed to lead the church to do the same things he did, but in non-miraculous ways because of course everybody knows better than to expect that? I’ve never understood the appeal of this line of reasoning. It tickles the fancy of the modern progressive listener, and I guess I can’t blame either of these two churchmen for seeking to make their own ancient religious tradition relevant to the times in which we live.
But this has always felt like a bit of a stretch. And I suspect the majority of the church instinctively knows that, which would explain why those things haven’t really caught on in the church today.
(32) Again, Carter is just parading his ignorance -- both of the enormous reforms by which the Gospel of Jesus has changed the entire world, and of miracles that still occur, today.  

So I predicted 30, and found 32.  We do our best to add value, here at Christ the Tao.