Sunday, April 24, 2011

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Yesterday was Easter, traditionally the day on which media outlets try to disabue Christians of the silly notion that there's anything to sing about besides chocolate bunnies and daffodils. Nowadays atheist blogs add their chirps to the chorus, in some cases with straightforward skepticm, in others with adolescent sneers.
This being a Christian blog, you might expect me to answer the question, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" with a "big 10-4." I will try not to disappoint.

It occurs to me that, despite my interest in history, and all my books defending the Christian faith, I've seldom written much about why I believe the teacher we follow rose from the dead some 2000 years ago. Sometimes I refer people to N. T. Wright's erudite volume, the Resurrection of the Son of God, but John Loftus tells me that's too long for most readers. (And indeed, I have to admit, there are alleys in that maze down which I have yet to poke my nose.) I have also recommended William Lane Craig's debates on the subject, with John Crossan and Bart Ehrman, and will suggest another article, available on-line, at the end.

The evidence for any historical report naturally divides into two parts: (I) background evidence rendering the report plausible or implausible on its face, and (II) historical evidence that it actually did or did not occur.

The likelihood that Jesus rose is the product of these two figures. For instance, if the background likelihood that Jesus might resurrect is one in 100 billion, as an Irish skeptic of my acquaintance suggested (I think he was counting the number of people who have died in the past 2000 years, and assuming that none of the others came back to life!) then the historical evidence for the resurrection might have to be close to 100 billion to one in favor of the claim that it actually happened, to overcome such long odds. That might, admittedly, be tough odds for any historical claim to beat -- though not (I think) impossible.

If we were talking about a natural even, which did not ruffle any feathers about the sort of world we live in, the bare historical evidence for the resurrection would I think persuade every historian on earth that it took place. The reason people deny Jesus rose from the dead, is not that historical evidence is lacking -- it is I think amazingly good -- but that, heh, this is not what usually happens after someone dies!

This is David Hume's old argument about miracles. He claimed that "firm and unalterable experience" has established that the laws of nature are never altered. Therefore, even the most far-fetched natural explanation for a miracle is more plausible than a supernatural explanation for one. This is, of course, begging the question, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. How does he know miracles have never happened, in other words that all reports of them are false? But this does not stop Bart Ehrman and other skeptics from echoing his argument: extraordinary claims, we are told, require extraordinary evidence.

In a sense, that's exactly what I'm saying: one must consider both the background evidence of plausibility AND the historical evidence, to decide whether something has happened or not. The claim that the resurrection of Jesus is "extraordinary" is, in one sense, obviously true: it is unusual, beyond the ordinary course of nature, sensational. But let's not beg the question, as Hume and Erhman do, about whether it is "extraordinary" in the more relevant sense of "initially improbable on known background information."

To try to reduce the supposely unmanagable odds for the "extraordinary" claim of Easter, I will give the most attention to (I); also because it is relatively neglected. I will then offer some points on (II), that I find interesting.

(I) Is it plausible that Jesus could have risen from the dead?

"Of course not!" Many reply today. "Unlike those gullible 1st Century believers, we know science today! That kind of thing just doesn't happen!"

(1) The first fact we must understand is that ancient peoples were, in that respect, not that different from ourselves.
Paul's great sermon in Athens (Acts 17) is a masterpiece of cross-cultural proclamation. Paul begins by complimenting his audience on their religious interests. He cites Greek poets and philosophy brilliantly, then makes an argument for the existence of God that echoes popular Stoic arguments, especially Cicero's On The Nature of the Gods (which I have a strong notion he had read).

Having won the crowd over by reminding them of and affirming their own search for God, Paul made what may appear to be a fatal mistake: he brought up the resurrection:

"(God) has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."

The reaction of MOST of Paul's audience shows that for them, as for us, background assumptions told strongly against such a claim:

"Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to snear, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this. So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him . . . "

Obviously, PZ Myers was not the first to find the central historical claim of the Gospels far-fetched on first-principals! In fact, the Mars Hill forum itself, where Paul was preaching, was founded (Bruce Winter notes) on the saying, "‘When a man dies, the earth drinks up his blood. There is no resurrection (anastasis).” Furthermore, everyone in the dinner party conversation Cicero describes in On the Nature of the Gods, scoffs at resurrection tales (“fabulous old women’s stories”). Doubting such nonsense seems to serve as a social boundary marker as well as an expression of personal incredulity. Scoff at these "old wives' tales," the message seemd to be, or risk your membership in the social elite.

You may have heard that line yourself.

So let's be clear. Only fools, which were probably no more common in the 1st Century than today, ever accepted the resurrection because they didn't know it contradicted the normal course of Nature. Jesus' own disciples were, at first, also incredulous. They were perfectly aware of the "facts of nature," so evident in a society without refrigerators. Much attention is given in the Iliad to the need to burn your slain before wild dogs, flies and maggots devour them. Public death was a common event in ancient Palestine, and decay more evident in any premodern village, than in a squeaky-clean modern megapolis.

I see the prior probability of Jesus' being raised as a function of three issues: (a) Does God exist? (b) How likely is he to keep the basic laws of Nature in effect -- including entropy in general and human death in particular -- while raising some one person dramatically from the dead? (c) How likely is that person to be Jesus? Points 2-9 will deal with these issues.

(2) Of course we cannot settle the question of whether God exists in this short (I still hope) post. Let me simply point out that there are many reports of miracles in modern times given by honest and reliable people, that in some cases seem convincing. Nor is this limited, as Hume supposed, to the "ignorance and barbarous." Augustine converted because he saw the hand of God at work. The history of Christianity, including the conversion of people I have met, often seems to involve miracles. I have seen God answer prayers in remarkable ways myself. This is why Christianity spread in the ancient world: not that no one was skeptical, but that skeptics found immediate reason, in the miracles witnessed in the Gospels and Acts, that overcame their skepticism.

But my argument does not depend on certainly that God exists. One need only find reason to keep an open mind: and there is certainly plenty of that. Even if you concede that there is only a one in five chance that God exists, even (and most people find it a lot better than that), this helps lower the "prior odds" against the resurrection to managable levels.

(3) We cannot, of course, read the mind of God. It does not seem so unlikely, though, that if God created Nature, He would have some reason for affirming her laws in general. Second, much of the offense skeptics take at miracles seems to be aesthetic; it seems inartistic, crude, etc, for the laws to be set aside too easily. (Which is why Myers and others focus on the "zombies" mentioned in passing at the end of Matthew.) Third, it's not hard to see some sense in God offering some sort of dramatic promise to humanity that Entropy will not have the last word, that there is hope for the human race. Raising a good person from the dead might well be His plan, if redemption of the human race in history (in some sense) is His goal.

There are a lot of "could bes, might bes" in this paragraph, obviously. But all that is needed to lower a very high initial probability against the resurrection is a plausible explanation for why it might occur -- not an airtight argument that it must occur.

To offer a parallel, suppose a trustworthy friend tells you, "I saw an elephant swimming in Green Lake in North Seattle yesterday." This may sound absurd: elephants are not native to North America, certainly not to the Pacific Northwest, nor are they common pets. If you subsequently hear on the radio that an elephant has escaped from Woodland Park Zoo half a mile from the lake, that does not add to your store of historical evidence for his visit to the lake -- which still consists of just one instance of human testimony -- but may decrease how much more evidence you demand before you believe it.

(4) To evaluate how likely a given person is to be the One whom God resurrects, let's begin with Martin Luther King. Suppose God wanted to dramatically show that Entropy would not have the last word, that there was hope for the human race, by raising a prominent person from the dead. Suppose He also pick someone whose triumphal return to life would serve as a reprimand to oppressors and murderers everywhere, and would underline the importance of that person's message?

Martin Luther King might be a good person to pick. His resurrection would not only give people hope for life after death, but also demonstrate God was on the side of non-violence and human rights. On the other hand, his resurrection might also send mixed messages about how to treat women, or force God to "pick sides" in American politics. ("Vote Democratic, and be on God's side!") And there are others who might do just as well -- Gandhi, say, or Socrates. So if there is a God, and he wanted to make some dramatic points by raising one great person from the dead, one might suppose (for instance) that there is a one in a thousand chance that the person he would raise would be Martin Luther King, Jr.

In that case, would there be anyone more likely to be raised than Jesus? Consider the following facts, none of which depend on the historical accounts of Jesus' final days in the NT:

(5) Isaiah spoke of a Suffering Servant dying, yet then "seeing the Light of Life." Christians have interpretted this and other passages in the OT as a signal pointing to God's intention to raise Jesus. Early Christians who wrote the NT certain felt Jesus fit much of what is said in the OT about the Messiah or Suffering Servant, and fulfilled many types and prophecies in Hebrew tradition. One might suppose they made all this up, to make Jesus look like the Messiah -- though this seems far-fetched to the max. (See part II.)

Anyway, some of the prophesies were not fulfilled in the Gospels, but have been fulfilled since. In particular, over and over again, the OT predicts the Messiah will be a blessing to people around the world. This had not happened by the time the Gospels were written, but it certainly has today.

If there is a God, such prophecies, which come to a focus on one insignificant nation in the 1st Century, and which one man seems so remarkably to fulfill, make the resurrection of that man from the dead immensely more probable than that, say, Martin Luther King, or even Mohandas Gandhi.

(6) The ancient Hindus wrote of God (Prajapati) sacrificing himself for the world. There are parallels in other cultures, and mythological "dying and rising gods." The Chinese Book of Rites, one of the 5 Classics of ancient China, for instance, talks about the hope that a man will rise from the dead within three days. Might these also give some indirect signal of God's intentions? To put it another way, is it not plausible that God understands what it is about human nature that causes us to dream of such things, and fulfill the psychological truth found in all cultures through his model human being, his "second Adam?"

(7) Lin Yutang, the great Chinese philosopher and man of letters, who compiled an anthology of Chinese and Indian literature, said that "no man has taught as Jesus taught." Many others on a similar intellectual plane concur. Is it not more likely that God would choose a great moral teacher to make His point?

(8) Jesus was, as I show in Truth Behind the New Atheism and other books, at the center of many of the greatest reforms in human history -- inspiring them, setting an example, more so than anyone. Is it not likely God would choose to raise such a person, to set an example for the human raise, and underline his example?

(9) Jesus was (most scholars agree) murdered by tyrants, backed by the Roman Empire, in a particularly savage way. If God is (as Lao Zi said of the Tao) on the side of the weak against powerful oppressors, would not raising him from the dead be a particularly good way of showing that?

I pointed out many such deep and important elements in non-Christian cultures that also seem to increase the significance of Jesus, in Jesus and the Religions of Man. Notice that I haven't introduced any specificially Christian theology into these last several points. Even so, these seem to me to be enough to show that, if there is a God, and if He might do as I suggest, then the resurrection of Jesus in particular is more probable than of anyone else who has ever lived.

In fact, one might even say that if God did not raise Jesus, it would be a shock and a surprise.

And so, even before looking at the historical evidence for or against the resurrection, it seems reasonable to assign a high prior probability to the idea that he rose from the dead -- perhaps even a positive probability, even BEFORE examining the evidence, and finding it (as I agree with the other Christians here that it is) strong.

II. So How is the Evidence for the Resurrection?

I think amazingly good.

I've argued at book length for the general truthfulness of the Gospels. The evidence for the Resurrection is even stronger than that argument implies, because it does not depend on the Gospels being so accurate as historical reports. If all we had for an ordinary historical event (prior probability having already been found strong) were the report in I Corinthians 15 about all the witnesses for the resurrection, that alone would be sufficient to establish any ordinary historical claim. If, say, knowing what we know about Paul, he had mentioned all these eyewitnesses to the fact that Peter had blond hair, no one would doubt it.

This may sound flippant. Of course the Gospels are claiming something much more important. And of course I think the evidence for what they claim is far stronger: no one died for their faith in Peter's blond hair, nor has it changed the world.

Furthermore, we have several early sources that tell of the resurrection of Jesus and its aftermath: Mark (a very early source), Luke (found to generally be a consummate early historian in the Greek style, and who probably knew some eyewitnesses well), John (probably based on an eyewitness testimony). One might admit that some of these sources are stronger than others: Matthew's "zombies" are a hard pill to swallow. Still, the NT alone contains several remarkable accounts of Jesus after he died.

In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I describe 50 characteristics that uniquely identify the Gospels, and in most cases Jesus, like DNA or fingerprints on the windowpane of ancient history. Many or most of those characteristics also support the general historical truthfulness of the Gospels, sometimes in remarkable ways. Just as DNA or fingerprints can provide powerful evidence for someone's presence at the scene of a crime, so the Gospels are for this reason provide not just serioius historical evidence, but evidence of a forensic strength.

I'll give one brief example. If, as the Jesus Seminar admits, many of the SAYINGS of Jesus reported in the Gospels are unique, putting Jesus in a league of his own, and almost certainly from the mouth of the historical Jesus, how could it be that all the earliest writers, who got mere words right, have muddled this little detail that the disciples all met Jesus again, alive, and it absolutely transformed their lives?

Every great religious tradition knows what happened to its founder, especially when the founder died dramatically, like Joseph Smith, in a shootout, or Mohandas Gandhi, victim of assassination. This is not normally something you just forget.

Equally powerful is the evidence that is the Christian church itself.

We know that an earthquake occurred in Japan recently, not only because people and instruments that were there report it, but even more because of the enormous effect it had on the countryside. The resurrection of Jesus was the tsunami that changed human history.

There's much more to be said on each of these points, but I'll stop here for now. This is a big enough bite to swallow, and to prompt discussion, for now. I may post on this second part of the question later.

In the meanwhile, for a good summary of some of the argument for II (mostly), see Tim and Lydia McGrew's The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (It's a pdf file, so I can't link, but you can find it easily with a search.) Tim is a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University: he knows what he's about with probability. He points out that the Gospels and Acts have been found to be highly reliable. Citing Habermas, he points out that most scholars admit the tomb was empty and the disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead. He also points to the "realism and vividness of personality" the resurrected Jesus displayed, which matched his pre-resurrection personality. (I might add, this is a sharp contrast to the "Jesus appearances" recorded in Gnostic stories -- see my The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.' That is what real "fake Jesus appearances sound like!)

That'll be quicker than reading Wright. But anyway, I think most the force of the Argument Against Easter lies with I, and that turns out to be not so strong.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Does Google Make Atheists?

Richard Dawkins, John Loftus, and a certain "research" mentality.

"To know what you know, and know that whatever you got from Google you do not know, this is knowledge." -- Confucius 2.011

Noting an uptick in unbelief in the United States, at least unbelief in God, some atheists optimistically suggest that the Internet might deserve some credit. In the bad old days, they argue, it was hard to locate resources that rebut that great cloud of loopiness rising into the cognosphere from the world's religious propagandists. Now,with skeptical answers to every conceivable question available at the click of a mouse, more and more young people are ditching the naive, befuddled superstitions of their youth.

The skeptics may have a point. It's not that the Internet encourages deep contemplation and serious scholarship. But that mouse, like the Pied Piper, lures young and some old into practicing a form of "research" (also known as "web search") that may encourage cynicism about the Christian faith.

Type a word into a search engine, left click, and presto! You can now pose as an authority on the Constitution, mongooses in Oahu, or Medieval witch-burning, without ink staining your fingers. You can bad-mouth St. Matthew, Aristotle, or Augustine, without going to the tiresome trouble of reading them.

Reversing Confucius' aphorism, we now know what we manifestly do not know. Knowledge has become like a snake eating its tail: a cyber meme is believed because it is believed because it is has thousands of unique page visits. Only a few old-fashioned readers who maintain a fondness for fiber know you're bluffing, and you can vote they don't add to the discussion.

By "you," of course I mean me, too. But mostly I mean the New Atheists.

I'll give four examples of how this works. The first two come from the Grand Mousequetter himself, Richard Dawkins, taking on (think "The Mouse that Roared") Tertullian and Pascal. The third is a criticism of Justin Martyr, ubiquitous on the Internet. The fourth, on witchhunting, comes from a recent article on John Loftus' popular "Debunking Christianity website."

(1) Did Tertullian promote blind faith? In a chapter called "Viruses of the Mind" in The Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins rebukes Tertullian for the following two comments: "It is certain because it is impossible."

"It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd." (139)

Taking religious comments like this as a kind of competition in absurdity (perhaps like peacock feathers), Dawkins warns: "That way madness lies."

But did Tertullian really say or mean what Dawkins cites him as saying? Alister McGrath flatly denies the second quote:

"It is a misattribution, and has been known to be such for some time. So at least we can reasonably assume that Dawkins has not read Tertullian himself, but has taken this citation from an unreliable secondary source . . ."

Tertullian did, indeed, write "it is certain because it is impossible." In context, though, he was not arguing for "blind faith," nor was he talking about faith and reason, or the evidence for or against Christianity. Rather, he was arguing against the Gnostic ideas of Marcion, who denied that Jesus was born into a physical body. He is echoing Paul's words about the "foolish things of the world" overcoming the wise -- wise in this context somewhat sarcastically referring to a consensual Gnostic contempt for physical reality. (Though stories of Zeus coming to mate as a bull remained the rage.)

In a sense, in arguing for the Incarnation, Tertullian was laying the ground for all the physical sciences so dear to Dr. Dawkins. What he certainly wasn't doing, was arguing for Dawkins' fervently believed definition of "blind faith."

McGrath explains: "The point being made is that the Christian gospel is profoundly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive at this point. So why would anyone want to make it up, when it is so obvioiusly implausible, by those standards of wisdom? Tertullian then parodies a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric, which argues that an extraordinary claim may well be true, precisely because it is so out of the ordinary. It was probably meant to be a rhetorical joke, for those who knew their Aristotle." (99-101)

I doubt the Aristotle reference: the connection seems weak to me. But certainly
Tertullian's true views on faith and reason are better explained elsewhere:

"For reason is a property of God's, since there is nothing which God, the creator of all things, has not foreseen, arranged, and determined by reason. Furthermore, there is nothing God does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason."

Why would Britain's most renowned public intellectual falsely assert things about a man he has never read, based on one fake quote and another taken grossly out of context? As I show in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Dawkins often relies on Internet web sites for his atheist "research," often with disasterous results. Perhaps that is the problem here, too.

(2) In The God Delusion, Dawkins calls Blaise Pascal to the witness stand. He cites Pascal's Wager as an example of how Christians justify "blind" faith:

"The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God's existence might be, there is an even longer assymetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You'd better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won't make any difference anyway."

Dawkins goes on to claim Pascal "wasn't claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds." Maybe the man was even joking.

This is a common way to represent Pascal's argument on the Internet. It probably deserves a name -- let's say, Pascal's Beat Long Odds Meme (PABLOM).

In fact, Pascal is not guilty of PABLOM. Read the whole book, and it is clear Pascal thinks Christianity enjoys excellent odds. Much of Pensees gives evidence for the Gospel from miracles, the life of Jesus, and prophecy. What is he doing in the Wager, then? Again, one must read the whole passage. He is comparing life to a game of blackjack or poker in which one "must wager." The hypothetical skeptic in the passage is no objective bystander:

"But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?' Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. 'Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free . . . '"

By "the rest," Pascal means all that has gone before in his argument so far -- not, apparently, anticipating (despite his own role in creating machines that think) that search engines would one day render the concept of reading a book consecutively outdated.
But being a sophisticated observer of human nature, Pascal recognizes that our choices are not purely rational: "Endevour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions . . . "

Why did Dawkins so badly misrepresent Pascal? Why do so many other skeptics speak so glibly and narrowly about "Pascal's Wager," as if that were the only thing in the book? The answer is obvious: they haven't read the book. Most likely they simply "quote-mined" PABLOM off some dang-fool web site.

(3) Justin Martyr

Skeptics often have fun with the 2nd Century philosopher, Justin Martyr. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin did make a silly argument. He claims there that Satan performed counterfeit pagan signs, planting them into pagan literature just to preempt the Gospel story:

"Be well assured, then, Trypho, that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter's) intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? . . ."

Quoting this theory is supposed (a) to make Justin look silly, and perhaps (in isolation) it does. It is also often used to argue that (b) early Christians were so gullible, no wonder they believed such an absurd religion, and (c) if even Justin could see how close the parallels between Jesus and these myths were, why should modern Christians deny it? One skeptic combined (b) and (c):

"Entertainment value aside, this bizarre claim about demons/the devil planting virgin birth, resurrection, etc. in early pagan stories is valuable as evidence that at least one early Christian writer thought his audience would buy into a very convoluted, supernatural "explanation" for why Christian story elements were so similar to pagan story elements."

Justin's point, to be sure, is not quite grasped when taken out of context like this. He is not saying these stories resemble the Gospel that closely. If he were, one might justly accuse him of a lack of exegetical and literary sense. But granted, in this case, that
Justin did offer a silly argument.

The real problem I have here is that I like Justin, and am sad to see skeptics quote mining him without reading, first. I'm sorry that, in their eagerness to scoff, they miss his courage, cheerful enthusiasm, and also his better ideas. Among those are a more genial theory of religions: that various schools of Greek philosophy are "tutors to Christ." This is an idea that would be developed by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and that I have in various places argued remains an enlightening interpretation of world religions. Instead, we get of Justin something a lot like what Chevy Chase offered of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live: an atheletic thinker forever defined by a single misstep.

(4) Witches in Africa

I have a lot of sympathy with this fourth example, so I'll try to be fair in how I critique it.

On his popular Debunking Christianity website, John Loftus posted a link to a horrifying video about children in Africa who are abused, and often killed, as supposed witches. The men who do the abusing are described as Christian pastors. Loftus noted:
"My heart breaks when I consider the harm Christianity does to children accused of witchcraft in Africa. This is how religion evolves as it comes into contact with a different culture. Since Christianity is growing exponentially in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia this just might be the Christianity of the future. Watch this video. It makes my blood boil. I hope this barbaric idiocy can be eradicated in the future."

Having myself worked to prevent child abuse in Taiwan, I share John's horror. In my humble opinion, hanging is far too good for people who abuse kids. And yes, Christians have a particular obligation to fight against such abuse, especially when evil men abuse children in the name of God.

But John, too, fails to look at these crimes in context. They seem to have come to his attention on the Internet, and not knowing much more about it, apparently, he doesn't put it fairly into context. The context shouldn't change how we see these acts themselves, but what we should conclude from them.

Four contexts must be taken into account here:

(a) First, what are human beings? We are animals who evolved by showing our rivals the hungriest teeth and the reddest claws. Life demands dominance: a douglas fir shading ferns, a lion eating a gazelle, beavers flooding a valley with scant regard for whatever else lives in that valley. Nurturing and cooperation and affection also help us survive. But killing the weak is not foreign to our nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, just as a male lion kills cubs that don't share his genes, "pastors" who murder children should be no surprise. And indeed, look into the tombs of Alpha males and Alpha females of the ancient world, and you often find the skeletons of those they dominated, laid to rest to serve them in the next world.

(b) Second, why are we surprised? Westerners (even Richard Dawkins) have been conditioned by the Judeo-Christian faith to expect more of homo sapiens, and especially more of religious homo sapiens. How conditioned? By tens of thousands of hospitals with crosses on their walls. By tens of thousands of schools founded by missionaries, nuns, priests. By great reform movements against slavery, sati, foot-binding, child labor, polygamy, infanticide, poor jail conditions, and human sacrifice, led by zealous Christians. By soup kitchens. By elders who visit widows, fix toilets, patch up roofs.

(c) John also omits the context of African witchcraft. A common practice in Nigeria was to kill twins at birth. It was assumed they were devils in human form. If an important person died by accident, say by falling out of a tree, it was assumed witches were responsible, and sometimes several people were killed in reprisal. When an important person died, little people were killed as sacrifice. Mary Slessor, and other missionaries, boldly, and sometimes dramatically fought against these practices, saving many lives directly and probably millions of lives long-term, beginning to transform African cultures by doing so. Given these contexts, how absurd to blame Christianity for the small-scale resurgence of these ancient practices that is was, in fact, responsible for overturning!

True, this shows that we still have a ways to go. It is, as John said, heart-breaking that adults are still allowed to abuse children in this way.

(d) The fourth context we must recall is the life of Jesus, who reached out to the weak and marginalized, warned that anyone who causes a child to stumble risks the wrath of God, listened to cries on the side of the road, fed the hungry, and cured the sick. This, not evolution, and not world history, is the context that explains why John Loftus and I are shocked at the murder of small children in the name of God, or Race, or Class, or Caste.

So, does Google make atheists?

Truth be told, I have no idea. Correlation really does not, of itself, prove causation. Type "google make atheists" into your search engine, and see what you find!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Phase Changes (H20)

Phase Changes

Our universe may be defined as one in which, in the space of possible universes, water is possible -- that fortuitous bond of three small atoms that floats ships, makes blood flow, soup congeal, glaciers grind mountains, and penguins emerge from the deep blue onto an ice flow.
My town (all but one photos taken within a mile of home) may be defined as one in the space of all towns where water cycles through its phases with particular exuberance. We are surrounded by water in all three phases, and changing from one to another. Pacific storms strike the Cascade range, which begins about ten miles to the east, pile up as mists against Mount Si, stack up dozens of feet high as winter snow, then run down the Snoqualmie River a block from my house.
The story of the water that flows in that river is much longer than the river itself, of course. It begins at the moment of creation, when intense radiation ("Let there be light!") kept most of our universe's hydrogen from "cooking" into heavier elements. The oxygen that would join it, was later baked in the explosions of supernovas. The two elements having been coupled, water splashed down on Earth in comets from the outer reaches of the solar system. During the last Ice Age, glaciers from Canada piled Cascade runoff into a deep lake where the town of North Bend ("Twin Peaks") is today. When the river ran free, Indians set up a village where my town now is, to dry salmon on the bank, and launch canoes in raids towards Puget Sound (the Snoqualmies were a force under the wily Chief Patkanim).
The winter now ending may be defined as the winter, in the space of all winters, one I'm among the happiest to see the end of. We had a little snow in five months -- November, December, January, February and April -- a little sun, and a whole lot of rain. Enough, already! In History of Grace, I wrote optimistically:
"Water is an elegant but enduring compound . . . Look across a pond on the snow on a fog-wreathed mountain on an April day, and you see the rare sight of a single compound in three states. When it freezes, it doesn't contract like most compounds, but expands, creating the doom of the Titanic, but hope for anything that wishes to inhabit the Earth: ice that floats, rather than sinking and clogging the oceans.
"That layer of ice also insulates lakes like snow used for an igloo. When the atmosphere . . . turned blue, the frozen form of this ingenious compound would alone be worth crossing the galaxy to see as it precipitated from clouds. Billions of six-sided crystals flutter down, each a unique shape, delicate and white lattices. Even her stores of inorganic crystals thus marked her as a planet of mesmerizing beauty."

That is how I like to think of it, and I did enjoy the heavy flakes of early April snow we saw last week. But scary as it may seem at first, as if a robin's egg were imprisoning the Earth, and grateful as I am for the anthropic wonder of water, which humanity took for granted for so long, and now begins to recognize for the miracle that it is, it's nice, finally, to see a little of that blue poking through the mists again.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Yes, You are a Stamp Collector: God, Lawrence Krauss & "Non-Stamp Collector"

Why Lawrence Krauss, "Non Stamp Collector" and other skeptics miss the point when they say, "We just disbelieve in one more god."

A popular argument is making the rounds in the skeptic memosphere.  "You Christians deny all gods but one!" It is said.  "We atheists just go that step further, and apply your skepticism about Zeus, Apollo, Kali, Thor and Allah to that obscure Hebrew deity called 'Yahweh.'"

This argument often shows up in surprising places: among leading scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, who see it as a trump when the scientific arguments just don't strike paydirt, in "historical Jesus" debates, and commonly among the peasantry of the skeptical on-line community.

Where does the line come from? Its origins are humble. It seems to have come from an otherwise unknown (at least to me) Internet presence. A fellow by the name of Stephen Roberts claims credit for the quote in its present form, from an on-line discussion in 1995:

"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." I responded to an older version of the meme that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett use in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. I also gave some of the anthropological evidence undermining the assumptions it is based on, first from China in True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and then the rest of the world (in response to Karen Armstrong's History of God) in chapter 9 of Jesus and the Religions of Man.

Let's deal with the latest version. I'll begin by offering two examples of how this argument is used, first from Dr. Krauss, in his recent debate with William Lane Craig, then from the popular "Non Stamp Collector" site. I'll then explain several ways in which the argument not only fails, but (as often with skeptical arguments) when the evidence is closely examined, strongly supports the Christian faith.

I. Krauss vs. Craig Dr. Lawrence Krauss is an eminent theoretical physicist who teaches at Arizona State University, and is author of The Physics of Star Trek. Recently he debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God. During the Q & A period, almost exactly two hours into the debate, a questioner asked him which was more plausible, the general argument for God, or the argument for any one particular idea of God within a given religion. In response, Krauss immediately said:

"The only difference between an atheist and a Christian is that a Christian is an atheist about every other religion. And if I call myself an atheist, that is just one more religion I don't believe in.

Krauss went on to admit that he found the idea of deism, of a God who got things running, a "plausible postulate" to explain things like the origin of the universe. "The universe is an amazing place."

However, "Everyone who is fundamental in their religion, believes fervently that their religion is right and everyone else is wrong. And they can't all be right." Krauss concluded by saying he thought that instead, they were all wrong.

So be encouraged! (Or afraid!) What you say in a casual on-line conversation, may wind up in the mouth of famous people speaking at important events.

II. Non Stamp Collector vs. the Stamp. Non Stamp Collector is an Australian who's sometimes clever animated attacks on Christianity have been watched by as many as 400,000 viewers on U-Tube. His cyber name is itself a species of this argument: "Atheism is not who I am," it suggests, "any more than saying that someone doesn't collect stamps tells you who he is."

The funny thing about "Non Stamp Collector" is that he seems to spend a lot of time "not collecting stamps," and has built up quite an identity for this non-hobby of his. It would be a serious philatelist indeed who dedicated as much time to his craft as NSC: like Russell, Dawkins, and Loftus, he seems to have "gone pro," or at least viral, with this business of not believing in God. How much clearer could the flaw in NSC's analogy be?

But let's set this existential inconsistency to the side (for now), and attend to NSC's argument. One of his U-Tubes is called, "Atheism: How many gods do you not believe in?" This is a short stand-up comic routine: "If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color. If atheism is a belief, then off is a TV channel." "Allah? No, that's a don't believe for you guys."

Now actually I agree with Non Stamp Collector's basic point here -- that atheism is not a religion. I think it is an element in many religions -- communism, secular humanism, hedonism, nihilism. And I think all those "religions" involve a lot of "faith." But I'll leave those (oddly controversial) claims for some other day.

III. Why NSC is a stamp collector, after all -- and so is Dr. Krauss. The main problem with the "one more god meme" is the profound, multi-level ignorance it displays of religions in general, and of the Christian religion in particular. .

* First of all, perhaps someone should break it to these skeptics (gently, please) that "Allah" is Arabic for "God." Allah is who Arab Christians pray to. Allah was the name of the Arab high god before Mohammed ever claimed to receive his revelation.

* This points to a general phenomena: God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe. This is not limited to Christians. God was known by many different names among different tribes of Australian aborigines, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.

It is a common story in missions history, that after the natives have decided not to kill and eat the missionary, and have spun him wild yarns about the gods, when he begins to talk about the God Christians believes in, a hush falls over the crowd and they say, "Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!"

This particular example of the phenomena comes from G. K. Chesterton, in his great book Everlasting Man, written almost a century ago, now. Chesterton misattributed this story to Austalia -- I think he got it from Andrew Lang, who told the story in at least two of his books, but in one case was a little confusing about where it happened. The story actually seems to have occurred among the Algonkin Indians in Canada.

The same thing has happened many times, though. In ancient China, a western people conquered the Shang Dynasty, and founded the Zhou. They readily accepted the Shang name for God, Shang Di (上帝), as meaning the same as their own Supreme God, Tian (天). Two millennia later, a group of Jews arrived in China, and borrowed both words for Yahweh.

A few more centuries passed, and the great missionary Mateo Ricci arrived, and argued forcefully not that "My religion is right, and your's is wrong -- I'm an atheist about all your religions," but that the Chinese had known about the true God from time immemorial. And to this day, tens of millions of Chinese Christians call him Shang Di.

* The same thing happened in the West. First, meditate on the fact that the word we use, "God," is NOT Hebrew. Someone, somewhere, recognized that the word could be used to describe the same God that the Bible talks about -- but it wasn't anyone who wrote the Bible.

But step back a few paces. What word is used for God in the New Testament? Usually, theos (θεοσ). This is a term that referred to the kind of gods Homer wrote about -- tossing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, tricking fair maidens and rugged youths into precarious love triangles with the immortals, starting wars over apples and keeping poor Odysseus from his beloved Penelope out of pique or loneliness. But by the time of Christ, philosophers had begun to use the term, and sometimes Zeus, the ruler of the gods who owned the thunderbolts . . . .
Well, let's see how they used the terms:

"Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth."

This is from Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school of philosophy. Stoics are supposed to pantheists, and not believe in prayer . . . apparently Cleanthes forgot his own theology long enough to write this hymn. Cleanthes adds that the universe goes where "Zeus" leads it, that "all works of nature" came to be established from chaos by his "thunderbolt," and that mortals will be happy if only they listen to "God's universal Law." This is not Homer's Zeus.

For the early 2nd Century Stoic slave Epictetus, humanity exists to be a "spectator" and "interpreter" of God and his works. He "perceives" all things, indeed it is impossible to conceal our thoughts from Him. Our duty is to sing hymns of praise and thanks as we plough and eat:

"What else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God . . . I will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song." It is with people like this to whom St. Paul preached when he arrived in Athens. In fact, he seems to have borrowed some of their lines in his sermon. And that is how the West was won for the Christian God -- by God getting there first, and preparing the minds of those who heard.

* Krauss is wrong, then, to suppose that for Christians (or really for anyone with sense), the truth of one religion means "everyone else is (just) wrong." No doubt everyone IS wrong, to some extent -- and not just "everyone else." But the first Christian doctrine -- the one he was arguing about with Craig -- is one that Christians agree about with probably most of the world.

* I have argued, in two of my books (and in my dissertation, yes I do see light at the end of the tunnel, thank you) that the most orthodox Christian perspective on the religious traditions of humanity is something called Fulfillment Theology. FT doesn't mean that Christians just meekly affirm all the stupidity and cruelty that human beings produce in the name of religion. It does mean people are usually aware of God, at some level. And often, the deepest truths in a given culture point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of what is good and beautiful within that culture. There's some amazing stuff, hidden in that last sentence. But don't get me started -- we'll be here all month.

* So what is the difference between a Christian and an atheist? More importantly, what is the difference between the gods none of us believe in, and God whom some of us say we believe, and others say they don't? I'm not going to spoil the moment by spelling it out. Why? Not because it's a secret, but because it is no secret at all. Everyone knows it, including Lawrence Krauss, and Not a Stamp Collector, who spends so much time pretending not to do what he is quite obviously doing all along.

Political philosopher Jay Budziszewski talks about "What we can't not know." He's referring to morality. But I think there are other things that we can't not know, too. There are paradoxes that bite because they are so self-evidently true, and others that go viral because they are so obviously and pleasantly not the case.

Objections By e-mail. "If philatelists spent as much time, effort, and resources trying to convince the rest of the world to take up stamp-collecting as the religious spend trying to convert others to their particular flavor of belief, I'm sure you would see a lot more"non stamp collectors" out there making careers out of arguing against philately. Really, it's simple supply and demand.
Perhaps. But obviously, the best-known evangelical atheists see their atheism as something pretty important about themselves. The stamp collector analogy does not do justice to the fervency of a Dawkins, Hitchens, Marx, Freud, or Russell.

"You are correct in stating that atheism is not a religion. But your supporting argument is flawed, since "communism, secular humanism,hedonism, nihilism" are not religions, either."

Well they are, the way I (and many other scholars of religion, but not all, maybe not most) define religion -- close to Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern." But that's a naked assertion on my part, not a "supporting argument."

(Does Allah mean "God?") "True in a trivial sense, but try telling a radical muslim that Allah is the same being as the Christian God. And you might want to be wearing a Kevlar vest and steel collar when you do. If the two are not identical to the Muslim, than they are not identical."

Islam recognizes that Judaism and Christianity worship the true God. This is in the Koran: it is a non-negotiable part of orthodox Islam.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean by saying "if the two are not identical to a Muslim, then they are not identical." No two concepts of anything are exactly alike. You see the moon from Oregon, I see it from Washington, through different clouds, and a slightly different face. Maybe your view is somewhat obscured by radioactive mist from the Fukushima planet, and you see it wrongly, to some extent. But our planet only has one moon, we agree on that.

Christians, Muslims, theistic Hindus, Confucianists, and tribal people, agree there is one supreme Spirit who created all things, is good, and calls us to righteousness.

"God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe." Actually that's a leap to a conclusion.

"What that really shows is that the brains of human beings are probably hard-wired to believe in causality, so, left to their own devices, they will seek a causal explanation in most circumstances.

"Many cultures have therefore evolved the concept of a universal causal principle, or "first cause", and many have labeled that presumed first cause "God", or some variation of same. This does NOT, however, mean that they have "recognized" the existence of some actual anthropomorphic superbeing, nor that they necessarily have a rational basis for their belief in the causal principle."

There tends to be more to God than just that: for instance, the idea that He should not be worshiped with idols, seems fairly common, and that He should be called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother."

It's OK for atheists to tell themselves a story about how this common idea arose -- what surprises me is how seldom and how grudgingly they recognize the facts. It's also interesting how often they make the opposite argument: because God is never the same in different cultures, he must be just a cultural construct. Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void.
(Update: I have since developed what I call TACT, Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence.  Here's a recent post on this subject, answering objections from the quantum physicist, Don Page.)