Response to Arizona Atheist
On Early Christians, Richard Carrier and Blind Faith
Over the past four years, an atheist named Ken (aka "Arizona Atheist," "Gifted Writer," "Prime Truth," I forget what else) has been posting attacks on my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism in various fora around the Internet (Richard Dawkin's website, Harvest House, Amazon, his own website, etc). He has often goaded me to respond. I have replied a bit sometimes, I think effectively enough, but less often or thoroughly than Ken and some seem to think appropriate.
I was loath to say more: frankly, I didn't see the necessity. Ken's criticism tends to meander -- his "rebuttal" of my book has now reached the size of a small book in itself. I find his critiques amateurish and unpersuasive, and expected most other readers to feel the same.
But atheists for whom I have some respect have drawn my or other peoples' attention to Ken's critique, challenging me (in effect or directly) to respond. Also, to give him credit, Ken has revised and tried to improve his booklet. He has toned down the aggregiously immature personal comments with which he peppered some earlier writings, and seems to have tried to improve the quality of his argument. I have a bit of time this week, with my dissertation just sent in, and waiting for several chapters to arrive for our upcoming anthology. So here I'll respond to Arizona Atheist's most recent critique of The Truth Behind the New Atheism.
I'll focus mainly on the issue of faith and some of his responses to my first chapter, Have Christians Lost Their Minds? In his response, Ken seems to rely largely on the atheist philosopher and historian, Richard Carrier, whose errors on Christian history and other topics I have exposed before. The two also take on leading Christians thinkers in these pages, especially St. Luke, St. Paul, Justin Martyr, and Origen. I am a great fan of all four, and am glad therefore for the chance to explore their real ideas, as opposed to the caricatures modern skeptics sometimes report of those ideas.
I think the rebuttal will be enough, that it will become evident to most readers why I do not feel the need to read or respond to all of Ken's critique.
What are we arguing about?
Ken attempts to explain my argument in "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?"
"In this chapter Marshall attempts to prove to his readers that faith is 'not blind,' and that christians (sic) do have evidence for their faith."
Unfortunately, the latter is NOT what I try to show in that chapter. Proving that Christians have evidence for their faith is not something I would try to accomplish in such a short space! Even in the five (soon six) books I've put together so far, I feel like I've only touched the fringes of a full argument for the truth of Christianity.
Here's what I actually promise in the first sentence of the chapter (emphasis added, as below):
"If the modern world is confused about anything, it is the idea that Christianity demands 'blind faith.'"
So the question of whether Christianity provides good evidence is not the issue here, but whether it demands (in theory) that we believe without evidence. This should also be clear on the following page:
"Much is at stake here for non-Christians as well. I will argue that in its idea of 'faith,' the gospel defends us against simplistic and dehumanizing models of truth. Christianity, I will argue, stands on the side of ordinary people against the intellectual imperialism of those who imprison the human spirit in credulous, tunnel-visioned scientism."
So one issue here is scientism, the idea that one finds truth only through science, as opposed to broader ways of knowing. The chapter is mainly philosophical, in other words, not about the empirical search for evidence to support the Christian faith. This is why, on the facing page, the first sub-head asks, "What Does the Bible Say About Faith?" The theme of the chapters should also be clear from later subtitles: "Richard Swinburne: Can There Be Too Much Evidence?" "Alister McGrath: Is Faith Supposed to be Blind?" "Nicholas Wolterstorff and the Sin of Blind Faith." "Do Ordinary Christians Believe for No Good Reason?" "Pascal's Wager." "What is Faith, and Why is it Useful?"
The men I name here are all leading Christian philosophers. The questions I ask, are theoretical or theological. "This is how Christians see faith."
It is a bad sign that AA mistates the point of the chapter from the get-go. This is not a minor quibble, nor is it the last major misreading in his critique.
Driving Miss Lazy
It is no great crime (admittedly) to misread David Marshall. What is troubling about many Internet skeptics is their apparent inability to accurately and fairly read what great Christians thinkers say, and respond to plain words on the page, rather than to a series of straw men. It might not be fair to call Ken lazy -- as one of my most diligent Internet critics, he appears to have worked long and hard on his rebuttals. But his analysis does not go deep enough. Like many such skeptics, again and again his criticisms suggest that he has not applied sufficient care to the first two phases of "read, mull over, and respond" that any serious critical encounter must pass through.
Ken grossly misreads what great Christian thinkers say about faith , and also continues to badly misread my argument, much of the time. Since this is such a dominant, debilitating, pattern, the rest of this post will mainly quote Ken, citing Christians, and show how he misreads us. First, just one more on me:
"Marshall . . . goes through and quotes what a handful of christians, the bible, and other theologians have said about the definition of faith and that Dawkins must be wrong simply because no theists agree with Dawkin's definition."
But I don't say "no" theists agree with Dawkins' definition. In fact, I point out that in my survey of 76 Christians in conservative churches, one person did agree with that definition. I assume he or she was a theist. So, probably, did some of the tens of thousands in Michael Shermer's survey, which I also cite.
Note also how different the procedure Ken describes looks, depending on whether you accurately understand my goal for the chapter, or accept Ken's misconstrual of it. Skeptics might reasonably see citing the Bible and theologians as a poor way to show that there is evidence for Christianity. But it's an excellent way to show what Christians think about the relationship between faith and reason, which is my actual goal.
Marshall also quotes a few early christian apologists as to their views on faith . . . . 'Origen . . . argued that there was good evidence (in archeology, history, miracles and prophecy) that the Christian faith was, in fact, reasonable.'
It's odd, but Marshall doesn't even provide a direct quote for Origen so how can we truly know what Marshall is saying about him is accurate?
Uh . . . By reading him? I have read Origen some, and found these arguments in his writings, especially Contra Celsus. I take my readers for mature adults, and assume most have access to the Internet and libraries. I do not need to "prove" it: were I to make such things up, Dr. Paul Griffiths, Warren Chair of Catholic Thought at Duke Divinity School, whose blurb appears on the back cover of the book, would no doubt have caught such errors, and boxed my ears.
However, I do have a direct quote and it presents a much different view than Marshall claims. Origen said, 'We admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons.'
Now the sad thing, here, is that rather than read Origen for himself, Ken's footnote shows that he is citing Richard Carrier's Not the Impossible Faith. Rather than box his ears, here is where I am liable to become "patronizing," and Ken, angry. Lesson number one for those who would pretend to the status of intellectual: READ THE DARN ORIGINALS!
What happens when we read Origen here in context?
Origen is debating the anti-Christian writer, Celsus. In chapter nine of Contra Celsus, Celsus is quoted as offering the following complaint:
He next proceeds to recommend, that in adopting opinions we should follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived . . . he asserts that certain persons who do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, keep repeating, 'Do not examine, but believe!' and, 'Your faith will save you!'
Origen responds in part as follows:
To which we have to answer, that if it were possible for all to leave the business of life, and devote themselves to philosophy, no other method ought to be adopted by any one, but this alone. For in the Christian system also it will be found that there is, not to speak at all arrogantly, AT LEAST AS MUCH OF INVESTIGATION INTO ARTICLES OF BELIEF, and of explanation of dark sayings . . . as is the case with other systems.
Did Richard Carrier forget to cite that part? I have not read this one of his books, and am relying on Ken, here, so will remain agnostic. But having read others of his writings, I would not be shocked.
The three chapters in which this conversation occurs are only a few short paragraphs long. If he didn't want to read the whole book (it's worth reading), Ken should at least have read these paragraphs.
Origen is responding to Celsus' criticism here, that Christians take things on faith. His answer is four-fold:
(1) Christians who have the time and ability DO investigate "articles of belief" (still true);
(2) But most people don't have time or intellect to do that well (also still true);
(3) Isn't it better that they believe on insufficient grounds, and have their characters reformed for the good? (which also remains a reasonable consideration);
(4) Anyway, Celsus, most people in your Greek schools also believe without doing all the research, so what are you complaining about? (Also still true of skeptical schools -- as Ken makes quite evident in his mis-reading of Origen!)
Origen is being extremely reasonable, here. If skeptics misunderstand his argument, so much the worse for them, since modern skeptics could benefit from this good sense. (Which is, by, the way, in sync with an insightful comment by Aristotle, in Politics, about how we learn not only from direct empirical investigation, but also, reasonably, by authority of the "old, wise, and skillful.")
Both Ken and the uneducated Christians Origen referred to believe based on what other people say, rather than on first-hand investigation. The difference is, Origen seems to have cited his opponent more fairly than Dr. Carrier (or Ken, if the error is his) takes the trouble to do.
Misreading Justin Martyr
Justin fairs little better:
As for Justin Martyr, Marshall neglected to quote the following from the twenty-third chapter of his First Apology . . .
Ken then cites a long passage from Justin Martyr that, while popular among some critics of Christianity, is not very relevant to the topic. This is a famous passage in which Justin Martyr proposes what neo-pagan "scholars" Freke and Gandry call the theory of "diabolical mimicry:" that the devil planted fake stories (myths) about an incarnation, to pre-empt the real incarnation. It's a silly theory, but Justin's critics often seem to quote-mine it without reading Justin for themselves and gaining the many valuable insights Justin offers elsewhere, as I argued in part 3 of this earlier post. And that's a pity.
Only the last few lines that Ken quotes seem relevant to the issue I'm talking about in this chapter -- and they supports my claim, and undermine those of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Arizona Atheist:
Justin Martyr: " . . . they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof -- we shall bring foward the following proof."
Arizona Atheist: But what 'proof' is he referring to? Nothing but the bible. Throughout his Apology the only 'proof' he cites is scripture. Justin Martyr's argument summed up is not one of inquiry and evidence, but one of blind faith that the scriptures are true, and that's what he used as 'evidence,' when he never checked the reliability of such writings to begin with. According to Richard Carrier:
"You can read Justin's two apologies back to front and never once find any other methodological principle or source of his faith [other than the scripture]."
That's curious, because I find another methodological principle (or, rather, empirical method) in the very second chapter of the Apology, which I cited, and which Ken objects to, and in the chapter that follows it.
Here's the bit I cited:
"Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions."
What is he talking about? What methodology is he pushing, here? Read the Bible, close your eyes, and believe? Not at all:
"For we have come, not to flatter you by this writing, nor please you by our address, but to beg that you pass judgement, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumors which have long been prevalent, to give a decision which will prove to be against yourselves. For as for us, we reckon that no evil can be done us, unless we be convicted as evil-doers or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us."
The inquiry requested in this great passage is judicial and historical. The question is whether Christians are "evil men," whether they in fact commit the crimes they are accused of. (Much like the claim that a certain Norwegian mass-murderer really was a "fundamentalist Christian," as often alleged.)
"Do the investigation!" Justin is saying. His address is to the emperor (chapter 1), and he is asking for a JUDICIAL review, not a Bible study. In fact, he has not even mentioned the Bible, yet.
In the next chapter, he makes the nature of the inquiry, and of Christian reason, even clearer:
"We demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve . . . But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumor, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgement, but by passion."
I could go on with such quotes: Justin repeats himself at length, to make his demands clear in these first chapters. He wants rumors about crimes allegedly committed by Christians investigated, feeling confident that investigations will clear them. He appeals also to philosophy, which he opposes (along with piety) to "violence and tyranny."
In the following chapter, Justin appeals specifically to Socrates, whom Cynics, Stoics, and Peripatetics alike often took as an example of true philosophy and nobility. Reason (Logos) prevailed among the Greeks, and took form among the Barbarians, in the person of Jesus, by which we repudiate the immoral acts imputed to the gods, he argues.
So in the first five chapters of the book, Justin in fact appeals not once to the authority of the Bible, but to three independent sources of knowledge: judicial review (historical investigation), philosophical reason, and moral understanding of which Greeks are also assumed to be aware. Carrier is dead wrong, and leads readers like Ken off a cliff, here.
Justin does cite Scripture, beginning I think in chapter 15, not because he thinks it will automatically be seen an authority for pagans, but to explain and demonstrate the wisdom of Christian teachings. In chapter 15, he quotes Jesus on chastity, then makes an empirical claim that can (again) ONLY be proven by sociological investigation, which he recommends:
"And many, both men and women, who have been Christ' disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men. For what shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits, and learned these things."
Carrier cannot have read the Apology carefully. He was apparently looking for something, and found what he was looking for by shutting his own eyes to the empirical facts, and believing. I could go on, and there is much more of interest to say about Justin's methodology. But this is enough to make my point: Justin clearly did not believe in "taking things on faith" in Dawkins' sense of "believing without evidence." That definition, from Justin's point of view, would have been nonsense, but almost decribes, unfortunately, the procedure Arizona Atheist appears to have followed here.
Ken then attempts to show that my argument that the Bible supports reasoned faith is "selective," and flies in the face of "much evidence." He tries to make this case by citing four NT passages that I supposedly overlook, and claiming that I "misrepresent" "some" passages, of which he names Isaiah 1: 18. He also attempts to rebut my argument that Doubting Thomas actually involves an appeal to reason, not "blind faith."
I'll deal with the "new" passages Ken cites as positive evidence for his views. If those don't help him (and they won't), I see no need to read any further.
(a) 1 Timothy 6:3-4: "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and the constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain."
Ken does not explain why this passage is supposed to support the contention that faith, for Christians, should be blind. Paul (if it is Paul, there is controversy about who wrote this letter) seems to be preaching against loud-mouths, sophists ("quarrels about words") and con men. He is not saying that faith should not appeal to rational support. Earlier in the letter Paul warns against an unhealthy interest in "myths and endless genealogies," which hardly suggests that his target here is rigorous empirical investigation.
But granted, there is some possible ambiguity in this passage. The next two passages Ken cites, however, completely undermines his "read" of Paul:
(b) 1 Corinthians 15:11 Paul says, "...this is what we preach, and this is what you believed."
How remarkable that Ken would cite this passage!
Is Paul saying, "Just close your eyes and believe that Jesus rose from the dead?" Not at all! He is making a bold historical and empirical argument for the resurrection, here. Paul preached that something dramatic had happened. Jesus had appeared to Peter. He then appeared to the Twelve. Then to more than 500 "brethren" in one shot, most of whom were still alive. Then he appeared to James, the apostles, and finally to himself.
"If Christ has not been raised," Paul continues, "our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also in vain."
Plus that would make us a bunch of miserable liars, he adds, wasting and risking our lives preaching what we would not in fact have witnessed.
Nothing further from "blind faith" could be found than this passage. It remains, in fact, a strong piece of historical evidence for the resurrection, cited in every serious debate on the topic. (NT Wright's discussion of the passage in Resurrection of the Son of God, for instance, spans some 48 pages!)
(c) 2 Corinthians 5:7: "We live by faith, not by sight."
Never trust a seven word phrase snatched out of context. Paul here is talking about life after death, about which indeed we have to trust God -- who has shown Himself worthy of that trust, as Paul recognizes and explains many times, including in the dramatic conclusion of Paul's previous letter to the Corinthians, already cited.
Read the story of how the Corinthian church started, in Acts 18, and one finds that Paul was "reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Gentiles."
That doesn't sound like the church began in an appeal to blind faith, either.
How did Paul reason with Gentiles? A model is given in Acts 17, where Paul explains Christian faith to Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. This would take us a bit afield, but I suspect that Paul's argument may have been based on the Stoic argument for God given in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, ascribed to Balbus. It is very much a rational, evidence-based piece of reasoning. Paul also engages in evidence-based argument from Natural Law when he preaches to pagans in Acts 14, and echoes these arguments in Romans 1-2.
(d) "Luke 1:18-20 tells how Zechariah asked god (sic): 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man an my wife is well along in years." Because he questioned god, he was punished by being made a mute.'"
How is this passage supposed to undermine my case? The man was talking with an angel! Isn't the appearance of an angel a palpable form of evidence -- the very sort of visual, palpable evidence skeptics often demand?
Zechariah was punished (mildly) for disbelieving not without evidence, but with evidence. And the punishment itself was a further form of confirming evidence, as was his later cure. Ken is flailing, here.
(e) "Romans 1:17 it is said that 'The righteous will live by faith.'"
Yes, of course! But the issue here is what Christians mean by "faith."
And what does Paul mean? Happily, he gives some indications (yet again) in the very next verses . . . also some words that careless skeptics might well take to heart:
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which is known about God IS EVIDENT within them; for GOD HAS MADE IT EVIDENT to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been CLEARLY SEEN, BEING UNDERSTOOD THROUGH WHAT HAS BEEEN MADE, so that they are without excuse . . . Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools."
In each case, Ken simply misreads what he wants to deconstruct. In most cases, he baldly, palpably, grossly misreads. (Or perhaps, in some cases, not read at all, but relied on unreliable sources.) He gets my arguments completely wrong: far worse, he twists the plain words of Justin, Origen, St. Paul, and St. Luke.
In each case, the passages he thinks prove that Christians affirm blind faith, when read in context, show just the opposite. Origen was practical, but thought that for those who had time to study it, there was excellent evidence for the Christian faith. Justin argued from judicial inquiry, history, and Greek philosophy. Paul made use of a wide variety of evidence and rational arguments to make his case for the truth of the Gospel.
But that, I think, will be enough for one day. I can hardly find a single passage that Ken has read accurately.
Such misreadings seem especially common among evangelical atheists on the Internet. They seem to share some preconceived notion about Christianity that they want to affirm. Seeing themselves as intellectually superior due to their reliance on "science" and lack of belief in "god" (the grammatically-incorrect lower case is de rigeur), and following lazy writers like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers who think true skepticism means adopting a bold pose, they rush into fields of which they know little, like Red Guard city slickers sent down to the countryside and trying to plant rice for the first time. They assume that their superior assumptions about life will make up the difference, or that people won't check the originals for themselves. Maybe the Internet has made them lazy. Maybe they've grown used to quote-mining, not really reading, books. Even when they do read, their hostility and lack of practice in pondering contrary arguments, determines what they will and will not see, and what colors of mud will be splattered on their faces, when the carriage passes.
Professing to be wise, they become fools.
How did Paul know?