Monday, March 25, 2013

Marshall vs. Carrier: Richard's opening argument.

Richard Carrier's opening argument, February 9, 2013, University of Alabama-Huntsville  (Subheads have been added, and again, disfluencies subtracted, so as to make what follows maximally readable.) 

All right. I can't give you all the reasons I think Christianity is unreasonable in the time given here, so I'm only going to focus on a few. Of course after this debate you should go out and learn more -- more of my writings, more of David's writings, others, Christians, atheists and so on. Learn about this beyond what gets covered in this debate.

Jesus and Sickness: The Argument from Evil

I'm going to get to my main choice of what I'm going to argue as the negative case for what we're talking about here -- the reasonableness of the Christian faith. And I want you to think about a fact that I read on the plane here. I was reading about a particular charity group that was working on a particular problem. It was quite an alarming statistic that this charity was working with. Every 21 seconds, somewhere on Earth, a child dies from contaminated water. That means that by the end of my opening statement over 50 children will have died of diseases contracted from their local water supply. Now start counting off the deaths in your head. It's pretty horrific. 

This is one of thousands of examples of fundamental injustice in the structure and design of the world that I could mention. But to keep it simple I'll just use this one in particular because it is especially relevant to Christianity. In the time of Jesus, half of all children died before adulthood from diseases. I want you to imagine that. Imagine that now, more than half of all children born -- all children you know, your own children -- never survived to be adults. Most died miserably. And imagine that's just the way things are -- and yet it's totally preventable. I want you to think about that for a moment. (While I fix my computer.)

Not only could someone who had the ability to eradicate all diseases just get rid of the problem altogether -- I mean, immediately. But even just knowing the germ theory of disease and how to decontaminate water, food and milk, and sterilize instruments and utensals, and maintain community sanitation -- even that can reduce the frequency of child death from half of all children to less than one in one thousand, like in America today. Now imagine that now, half of all children were dying, but we could make that one in one thousand. 

Now did Jesus do that for us? Did he or his God tell us about germs or parasites, or how to create a less-diseased world?

No. Humans had to figure it out on their own, after thousands of years of misery. And then they had to do it themselves.

Jesus never mentioned anything about how to create this better world that we made. Nor did any Christian get the message for almost two thousand years of ruling half the world. And when they did get it, it didn't come from Jesus or God. It came from guesswork and experiment. It came from science.

In the gospels, the Jews come to Jesus and complain that the disciples don't wash their hands before they eat, like everyone else is doing. In fact, everyone else is washing their cooking utensils as well.  

We now know that's a pretty good idea, and we know why. It reduced infection. So did Jesus say, "Heh, you know you're right. In fact, you should do that even more diligently, because it will kill the germs that kill you and all your children?"

No. Jesus argued that we don't have to wash our hands before we eat, that washing is a human tradition, with no endorsement from God. And that nothing we put into us can harm us. And as he is claimed to have said in the Gospel of Mark, not even poison.

Clearly, Jesus knew nothing about germs. Nor did he know that faith doesn't make you immune to poison, either. Notably, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or God impart any correct knowledge or information about the world, that wasn't already known to men at the time. Thus apparently, Jesus and his God were as ignorant as every other First Century human.

So Jesus said nothing about the existence of germs, and what to do about them. He thus failed to save the lives of millions upon millions of innocent children. He and his God just let them die miserably for thousands and thousands of years, because remember, humanity has been around a lot longer than Jesus has.

Jesus also didn't say anything about parasites, water-born or animal-born. Most curiously, the gospels only have Jesus performing occasional faith healings on people with no actual verifiable diseases. Similar faith-healing acts are performed in all religions today. Yet they never cure any verifiable disease like malaria or influenza. Anecdotes aside -- we've never scientifically confirmed this. Much less did they restore lost organs or limbs.

Jesus also never cured any verifiable disease, or restored any lost organ or limb. Jesus thus had no more power than any other random faith healer from any other religion today. (Not just Christians can do faith-healing, Muslims and practioners of other religions can. Pagans did, as well.)

Now let's compare that with what an actual God could do. A God (or any man granted his power) could cure all sick people on Earth.

Now imagine Jesus had done that! Not just a few people he happened to bump into in one tiny corner of the world. In fact an actual God, or any man granted his power, could simply eliminate all germs and parasites altogether, or render them all harmless to humans, or at least to children.

But no. Jesus and his God didn't do anything God-like. Just as their knowledge was ignorantly human, so was their ability. In the time of Jesus, the top killers of millions of children, and adults, were malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Pay close attention to the gospels. Never once does Jesus meet with a single person clearly afflicted with those ailments. And yet those are the most common ailments most commonly killing people around him at the time. Once, according to the gospels, he cured a fever, and that's it -- just an ordinary fever. Yet hundreds of thousands were dying of those more seriously ailments all around him. Carefully avoiding them, Jesus never had to try to heal them. We know he couldn't, as no other human faith healer can, either.

Because faith-healing isn't real. It's psychosomatic. If it worked, we'd have faith-healing wings in all our hospitals.
The malaria mosquito at work.
Malaria, killer of millions of children even today, shockingly, even after 2000 years of Christianity -- malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitos. which breed in stagnant pools of water, and can be warded off with chemicals and nets, or just killed. At the very least, Jesus could have mentioned that. "Heh, you know, you should do something about these stagnant pools of water over here. And there's this thing called a mosquito net I want to tell you about."
But no. Jesus didn't even know to do that, much less just eliminate the malaria parasite, like any actual God would do.

Typhoid, and other lethal fevers are transmitted by a lack of public and personal sanitation -- basic germ theory of disease. Jesus didn't mention that either, or do anything about it. A leading cause of tuberculosis in children is contaminated milk. Ever wonder why we pasteurize our milk? Now you know. Did Jesus tell us that? No. You'd think a really nice thing to do would be to tell everyone that the milk they're drinking and the cheese they're eating is killing them and their kids, and that simply heating the milk up a bit would solve the problem, saving millions of lives and ending ages of misery. 

An actual God, or anyone in regular chat mode with Him, would at least know to tell us how to fight these diseases -- washing hands, sanitizing cooking utensals and medical instruments, mosquito nets and getting rid of standing water. Heating milk before drinking it or making cheese from it. Basic stuff like that. But Jesus didn't even know that eating with unwashed hands is bad for you.

Knowledge is not the only thing a real God would have, that he would give us if he cared about us and existed. God would know the actual cure for every disease right now -- every disease. Cancer, everything. He could even just cure every disease right now.

Now imagine we were talking about some ordinary person. We weren't talking about God, just some ordinary Joe. Some guy who knew how to cure every disease on Earth and could do it immediately at no expense to himself -- yet didn't tell anybody or do anything. Would you think that person cared about us? I wouldn't. (32:30)

I mean, take it seriously. Would you think it is reasonable to worship a guy like that? Or think anything kind of him? That's not the example of a nice guy, not the sort of guy you'd want to follow or have faith in.

The Christian religion is simply not believable in the face of this evidence. Neither Jesus for Christianity as a whole has exhibited any special source of information about the world. Nothing distinctive of actual divine communication. They didn't know about germs, they didn't know about parasites.

Christians have no more evidence of having a pipeline to a kind and all-knowing God than any other religion in history had, and that's the principle point, here. The fact that it took Christians 1800 years -- do the math on that 1800 years -- to figure out that germs and parasites even existed, and it might be a good idea to kill them before they kill our kids -- proves that Christianity is a man-made religion, and not anything received from any real God. If you were a time-traveler and went back to the First Century, what would be one of the first things you told them? Why, about germs and parasites, of course, and how to combat them. It would be absolutely cruel not to, to withhold that information, and watch over half of all children die miserably from preventable diseases, for thousands of years.

Thus, if Jesus were really God's emisary, he would have told us those things, as surely as any compassionate time-traveler would. As surely as you would, had you the chance.

If you are more informed about the world, and more compassionate, than Jesus and his God, then the Christian faith is simply not reasonable. It's just another false religion.

That's my main negative case. But now let me address some of the points that David Marshall brought up.

Rebuttal: Initial Comments

Now we're not here to debate whether some belief in God is reasonable or whether something supernatural exists. Maybe there's a God, maybe there's a supernatural. That's not relevant to this debate. We're here to discuss whether the Christian faith specifically is reasonable.

Now I already refuted most of his arguments for a generic God and a generic supernatural in my other works, including The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity. So if you want to see my whole case against those things, it's there. Here I'll just address what has been argued that is relevant to whether the Christian faith is reasonable.

Rebuttal: The Gospels
Now he talks about the gospels as evidence. The fact is, we don't know who wrote them, or who their sources were. And they look just like other tales of gods and demigods, and we don't believe them.
Centuries before Christianity, the goddess Anona and the gods Romulus and Zalmoxus were preached as having died and been resurrected from the dead and communicating with their followers afterwards. Those who believed in Zalmoxus even received eternal life. Sound familiar?
We don't believe these stories. So why would we believe the Christian version?

We don't trust stories that have men walking on water and calming storms and conjurring food and blotting out the sun and having conversations with demons, so why would you trust this one? It's simply not reasonable to. It's just another mythical superhero story.

Now he didn't mention the epistles. The epistles give us no mention of any of these supernatural kinds of things that Jesus was doing. The only Jesus that's know there is in visions and in spirit communication that the Christians were having. So we don't have any evidence here of anything special that distinguishes Christianity as more probably true than any other religious faith. 

I want to give you another example. Is it reasonable to believe an alien spaceship was recovered at Roswell, New Mexico, and alien bodies were autopsied by the government? Books written within forty years of the event in 1947 claim dozens of witnesses saw these things and gave detailed narratives of them.

We don't have access to the original evidence in the case of Jesus. We only have the writings, forty years later, of the hard-core believers. This is like only having the books of the hardcore believers in the Roswell spaceship and alien autopsies. Yet it is not reasonable to believe them, so it is not reasonable to believe the gospels. Books written 40 years later by fanatical believers just aren't reasonable evidence. We can't rely on them. We need the original evidence, or evidence we can directly confirm now. But we have no access to that anymore. We therefore cannot reasonably believe in Christianity based on its unverifiable faith literature. We need more reliable evidence than that, just as we would need more reliable evidence to believe in alien autopsies and space ships.

Rebuttal: On Miracles

Let's talk about this thing called miracles. He gave several stories about lucky coincidences, and people experiencing a supernatural. People of all religious faiths can make those claims. If he could actually present scientific evidence that only Christians have those kinds of experiences, that only Christians experience supernatural aid, that only Christians experience lucky coincidences, then he might have a case. But we don't have evidence of that. These things are experienced by everyone, and therefore they show no favor to one religion over another.

To give you an example, he talked about an Imam who heard a voice to say, "Follow Jesus." Now if everyone got that voice, if everyone on Earth heard a voice to follow Jesus, then you'd have a case. But instead, we're talking about a one-in-a-billion example, here. If something like that happens so rarely, it looks a lot more like random coincidence or something that's not divine. If it happened to everybody then you'd have a case that maybe there might be something special going on.

Just read the books of Joe Nickel. Joe Nickel has written many books about this. He actually investigates these miracle stories and finds that in reality, the evidence doesn't hold up. People's memories are often out of alignment with what really happened. Or the stories aren't true to begin with. So we can't really rely on these kinds of things.

And you don't. Let's be honest here. You don't really trust these kinds of things. If I gave you a book that claimed that Gandhi flew through the sky with the devil, battled demons, cured the blind with magical mud, stopped hurricanes with a single command, cast spells that made dinner materialize out of thin air, levitated at will, transmutated substances with a gesture, and survived a month without eating a single morsel, would you believe that book? No, you would not. And you wouldn't make excuses for why you should believe it. You'd know it's bunk, you wouldn't need to research it.

And this would be the case especially when you asked me who wrote the book and I told you I wasn't sure. I don't really know. Even more especially when you asked where the mysterious author of this book learned of these things, and I told you, he never really says. It is simply not reasonable to believe books like this, and there is simply no way to honestly gainsay that fact. You would not trust such a book from any other religion. And yet the book I just described is the New Testament. The gospels claim that Jesus did all these things that I just mentioned there. It even narrates them

You wouldn't believe such a book about Gandhi. Why would you believe such a book about Jesus?

Rebuttal: The Transcendent God 
Dr. Marshall also talked about the idea of God transcending all cultures. Of course this is just God, not Christianity. That actually kind of refutes his case. If Christianity were reasonable then the Christian faith would transcend all cultures. It does not. Different gods, different religions transcend all cultures. So really that's evidence against Christianity. If Christianity were true, everybody would have been hearing the Gospel from God since the first shaman 40,000 years ago. But that's not the case.
Another culturally transcendent theory?
Now I should also point out that the Flat Earth Theory and the Geocentric Theory once transcended all cultures, and those also turned out to be false. So transcending all cultures is not a hot recommendation for being true.

We also happen to know the psychological mechanisms that lead to belief in God, and belief in the supernatural. Read Guthrie's book Faces in the Clouds, for example.  We know a lot about this, how the brain gets tricked into this, and why some of these beliefs transcend all cultures. And I (can) also point out that atheism transcends all cultures, not only because we have been communicating our ideas across all cultures, but even independently, atheism has arisen in several cultures. So if atheism transcends all cultures, does that mean atheism is true? I would say, it doesn't mean atheism is true, you need more evidence than that. Therefore, transcending cultures is not relevant.

He talks about the eloquence and beauty of Jesus' statements in the gospels. I find this a typical view of Christians who are somehow enamored of the gospels. I read a lot of ancient philosophy from a lot of ancient philosophers. And in fact, I find them much more eloquent and beautiful. I think there are things in Seneca, there are things in Musofeus Rufus, that are much more brilliant, much more deeply argued, much more beautiful, and much more eloquent, for sure. And there are many other Greek and Roman philosophers that are more impressive than the gospels. If you want to see examples, I've written about Musonius Rufus, I've even written about Jesus as a philosopher. You can google "Jesus" "philosopher" and "Richard Carrier" and you'll probably find those writings.

Read the philosophers I talked about and compare them to Jesus, and you'll see that there isn't anything actually special about Jesus. There isn't anything divinely great or more eloquent or more beautiful than the things that were being thought of by humans throughout history.

How much time do I have left? ("Three minutes.")

All right.

Well, I've rebutted every one of his arguments that's relevant to this debate. So let me see if there's something else I can talk about.

Let's get back to the gospels, and the idea that the miracles in them are somehow believable.

They're not.

This is an important point. The gospels not only claim Jesus walked on water, by the way, they claim Peter did as well. So let's take that as an example, here. If you believe that actually happened, I'm sorry, but you're being unreasonably gullible. Notice that we don't get to see this walking on water. Nor do we get to know who told that story of it. And notice how it only ever happened once, conveniently in private. If any Christians, then or now, could walk on water, like regularly, like this is something Christians could do as soon as they had enough faith, then Dr. Marshall here might have an argument. But no. Christians can't walk on water, or do anything miraculous at all, anymore miraculously than any other faith tradition can, pagan or otherwise.

When we see stories from religious fanatics about amazing powers that no one can ever reproduce, those are the kinds of stories we don't believe. We don't believe loading magical weapons defended the Greek temple of Delphi all by themselves. Yet within forty years of that, Herodotus claims witnesses said they did. It simply isn't reasonable to believe such claims. That the gospels contain such dubious tales, not only proves they aren't reliable, it proves their authors couldn't tell the difference between a true story and a false one. They just wrote down anything they wanted, or whatever they were told. It's not reasonable to believe an author like that, when nothing they claim can be reproduced.

And I'll end up my case there.

Note: I've now posted First Rebuttals.  I've also posted Part I and II of my fact-checking on Dr. Carrier's opening argument, and Part I of my in-depth analysis of his claims in his 1st rebuttal.  Click here to view these first of these critiques. -- DM.    


Darrin said...

My as-yet unedited response is here:

John Fraser said...

Here is my partial rebuttal to Carrier's first argument:

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, gents. Darrin had some interesting thoughts; I'll see what John has to say. Good to hear from you, John.

John Fraser said...

I've been out of the apologetic debate blogosphere for a while, but I couldn't resist weighing in on this one. If I had more time I would develop it a bit further. I was a bit surprised at how sophomoric some of Carrier's stuff was, particularly in regard to some hermeneutical issues.

M said...

Richard Carrier's germ argument is rhetorically clever. It seems designed to generate an emotional response in its audience. However, as a philosophical objection, it's just another version of the problem of evil--in particular, a method of establishing the existence of gratuitous evil. As an argument, it suffers from several problems. Many are grounded in what can only be called exegetical ignorance (e.g., using the longer ending of Mark to establish theology, confusing ritual purity with physical cleanliness, etc.). I don't have the time to address all of those. However, there are two areas that deserve a longer comment. First, Carrier's objection to the suffering of infants is predicated on certain conceptions and orderings of justice and knowledge which themselves are unjustified; in fact, Carrier's a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism leaves us in a less than satisfying place, one that ultimately undercuts his own germ argument. Second, Carrier seems to fail to grasp the nature of Jesus' mission on earth. On Christian terms, Jesus' mission makes sense, despite him not providing the kinds of knowledge and physical benefits Carrier otherwise expects. It's as if Carrier hasn't challenged his own expectations about what Jesus' ministry should have accomplished.

What is Justice?

Carrier's position is predicated on a certain sense of justice. In particular, his whole argument assumes certain definitions and values for innocence and guilt. But where do these values come from? It's not clear how he could justify his metaphysical assumption that the preservation of infant life is good and should be attempted in most or all cases. On atheism, infants are merely less developed, temporarily ambulatory bags of chemicals. Why should we be outraged at the fact that some set of temporarily ambulatory bags of chemicals have ceased to function earlier than another set of temporarily ambulatory bags of chemicals?

For an atheist, matters of right and wrong are social constructs, which vary from time, place and culture, and at very bottom are merely a set of biochemical reactions that occur in the brain, designed solely to propagate our genes. Once we realize that our outrage is merely a natural mechanism of preservation, it makes complaints on this point seem immature; it's not as if there is something really wrong with what a hypothetical Jesus figure would do with knowledge that could have increased the longevity of some bags of chemicals. Carrier is raising an emotional objection that, when taken from his own perspective, renders the whole exercise inert. Indeed, the very emotional invocation of young children suffering seems illogical; these emotions are not based on any objective moral criteria.

For a Christian, the suffering of infants is tragic and difficult. But God has explanations for death. Not all of them will satisfy all inquirers, but it's not as if the Bible doesn't deal quite regularly with this issue.

In this vein, what argument exists, on Christian grounds, such that Jesus should have provided us with the knowledge necessary for excellent hygiene? While it's not clear that Carrier is making his argument on Christian grounds--if he is, it is confused in that it currently draws indiscriminately from both atheism and (some version of?) Christianity, even though the systems are mutually exclusive in their metaphysical and ethical commitments--it serves at this juncture address whether it's reasonable to expect Christ to have provided that kind of information.


M said...

The Purpose of Jesus' Ministry

The germ argument is also predicated on a certain stratification of knowledge. For Carrier, the ample kinds of knowledge and insight Christ provides into spiritual realities are meaningless. This is because Carrier values knowledge of the physical more than knowledge of the spiritual.

But what if some spiritual realities are more important to understand than some physical realities? Not only would this be consistent with Jesus' ministry and goals, but this ordering of values is something Jesus otherwise explicitly makes throughout his parables and teachings. Think of all the sayings and teaching of Jesus on wealth, success, prestige and honor (or their converse, namely suffering the lack of these things). Often Jesus juxtaposes their temporary value to the importance of being right with God--avoiding eternal suffering in hell and living a life that is honoring to the Father, the kind of life that produces eternal rewards. Like a good doctor, Christ dealt with our most pressing concerns first. On Christianity, it would have been unjust for Christ to have spent his entire ministry developing and explaining theories of bacteria, germs, infections and all the other biological and technological information necessary to make sense of these ideas. What good is it to live a few moments longer if your eternal destiny remains on a deadly course?

Anonymous said...

I'm NOT a fundamentalist, i'm NOT a conservative "believer".
but Carrier is simply an idiot. the only thing he disproves is fundamentalist versions of Jesus, Christianity and "God". well big whoop. an intelligent 3rd grader could do that. big deal.