Friday, April 05, 2013

Marshall vs. Carrier: First Rebuttals

Below is a transcript of first rebuttals in the February 9th debate between myself and Richard Carrier.  (See here and here for our opening arguments.)  I'll "fact check" or otherwise expand on many of the points Carrier makes in this statement in later posts.  Answering now is not, of course, "fair," because any reasonably intelligent person at leisure can usually pick apart an opponent's oral arguments.  But I'm not trying to be "fair" -- I'm trying to get at the truth.  And Dr. Carrier is fairly consistent in these arguments, they are considered points, not random responses.  I think his attempts to find parallels to the gospels, in particular, shed valuable light on larger issues about Jesus and the credibility of Christianity, that merit more in-depth consideration.. -- DM

Marshall: I was a little surprised to hear that the question of whether God exists is not relevant to the reasonableness of Christianity. I rather thought that it was.  One of the things that is interesting about that is the fact that St. Paul and Augustine predicted thousands of years ago that awareness of God would be found in countries around the world. David Hume denied that it was found, even in Greece, and certainly not (among) the barbarians who were outside of Greece. I think that is an extremely relevant point.

Miracles -- the character of miracles. Richard says there are a lot of silly stories about miracles out there, so why should we believe the silly stories in the gospels? My contention is that Richard has not actually recognized the true character of the gospels and the miracle stories in them.

I'm often amazed to read skeptics and the desire to find parallels to the gospels. Some of the parallels that I've seen put forward can be quite flabberghasting. Richard has often talked about the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, and some of the marginal stories in Herodotus. One of the stories that he says is a good parallel to the gospels is what he calls the Mass Resurrection of Fish, and I call the Distant Rumor of Sizzling Fish. (This is) a story about a group of people during the Persian invasion of Greece who apparently saw some fish flapping on the grill, and Herodotus heard about this. Richard says there's no better reason to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus than in this rumor.

I think that is palpably absurd. One distinction one can make between these two stories, for example, is the fact that Richard Carrier debated William Lane Craig on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus and whether there was good historical evidence for it, and according to Richard, he lost that debate. This is no disgrace to Richard because in fact, Craig has debated a number of very eminent New Testament scholars who are also skeptics, and according to Luke Muelhauser has won all of those debates. People like Bart Ehrman and Roy Hoover and Marcus Borg and Gurt Ludemann, John Crossan and Robert Price. Now if it's so difficult to disprove one single Christian miracle, I think it'd be very difficult to disprove them all.

What is the character of the Gospel miracles? I looked through all the stories Richard told in one of his talks to a skeptical organization, SKEPTICON, and I looked at those miracles, and then looked at the miracles of the gospels. And I found that the gospel miracles tend to evince five consistent characteristics. First of all, they tend to be realistic in their background narratives. Second, they're purposeful, in the sense that they're not just done to show off. Third, they're constructive. They tend not to curse, they tend instead to heal and to help. Fourth, they respect the integrity of Nature, and the integrity of human beings -- they don't make people bark like dogs. Fifth, they tend to point people to God. Twenty-nine stand-alone miracles in the Book of Luke, thirteen stand-alone miracles in the Book of John. The lowest, on a scale of one to tend, by my admittedly subjective counting, was realism in the Book of John, about 8.6. And all the others were like 9.7, 9.8, around there.

So the Gospel miracles tend to have these characteristics very strongly. But all the stories that Richard is conflating with those miracles, tend to not have those characteristics at all. So I would not even use the word "miracle" for both sets of events. I would say that some are "miracles," and I would prefer to use the word "magic" for the other ones.

Now the stories I told about personal experience all involve those kinds of characteristics also. They're not random. They're not dehumanizing. They're constructive. They're purposeful, and they're from people who seem to be trustworthy.

"Miracles happen from people of different religions, therefore we can't believe any of them." I don't really see that that's a logical argument.

I am a scholar of world religions, and like Richard, I like to read old stuff. I also love to wander into temples and talk to people. One of the sects that I studied for my Masters degree, was the True Buddha School, which was just full of "miracles" -- magic and all kinds of supernatural events happening, supposedly. And I asked my supervisor, who was the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington, if in all his decades as an atheist studying Chinese religions, he'd ever come across an experience in which he was convinced that something was really going on beyond the natural? And he said, "Maybe once, kinda sorta." In my decades of researching world religions, maybe I'd bump that up a little bit. But as a Christian, I have other resources I can draw on. If, for example, we find good evidence of a miracle in another religion, maybe God did it! I don't have a problem with that! It's up to God! He can do that, if he likes! Or maybe there are some other spirits doing things, possibly, if there's good evidence for it, there's good reason to believe it.

So the "Outsider Test for Faith," trying to use other religions as a crowbar to try to deconstruct Christianity in this regard, I don't think works at all. If there's good evidence for it, maybe it's happening, I don't have a problem with that. But having studied them for many years, and having deep respect for many of those religions, I haven't found anything that disconfirms Christianity.

Now the question of the Problem of Pain. It's a problem! I admit that up-front.

Why didn't God do this? Why didn't God do that? In many regards, I'd have to say "I don't know why he didn't do this or that." That doesn't mean believing in Christianity is unreasonable. No matter what your creed is, there may be disconfirming evidence. It's like the old movie, Doc Hollywood. The doctor crashes his car in a small town, and the mechanics put the car together. And he comes back to the garage, and he finds a few pieces lying on the ground. They say, "Oh, don't worry about it. When we put the car together again, there are always a few pieces left over." Worldviews are sometimes a little bit like that.

 I don't think anybody has a total understanding of the nature of the universe and of everything that's going on. I confess, as a Christian, there are some things I don't understanding. The Problem of Pain, there are some genuine difficulties. Christian philosophers have shown, I think, that they're not insurmountable difficulties.  But they are difficulties. In my experience, my feelings, as well as intellectually, I think it's valid to make that argument. However, if there is good reason to believe the Gospel is true, then that remains the case.

Now are there any parallels to the gospels? Richard Carrier's going to give an argument called "Why the Gospels almost certainly are myth." I took the gospels and analyzed them according the 50 characteristics that define them. And then I compared them to ancient myth and works that contain myth, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hercules, the Iliad, the great Journey to the West in China, according to eight theological qualities, and 42 non-theological qualities. And I found that, again and again, the gospels tended to line up with historical works like Tacitus' Agricola, and most of all Confucius' Analects. In many of those 42 characteristics, the gospels not only lined up with the historical accounts, but exceeded them in historical value on all those characteristics.

Let me see if I can name a few of them quickly.

Dramatic personai disappear in the gospels, they don't keep reappearing.

Jesus overturns hierarchy.

His unique, yes transcendent teachings, as most of the world recognizes, contrary to Richard Carrier's comments.

Jesus notices individuals in a way most people don't in the ancient world.

According to Walter Wink, the way his teachings about women, the way he treated women, was unique in the ancient world --"without parallel," are his exact words.

There's a styllistic contrast between Jesus and the narrators, in the gospels.

Jesus' radical dialogue with his culture.


All right, we'll get back to Jesus in a few minutes. 

Carrier:  The question of whether or not God exists is not relevant to this debate for a simple reason. Pick any other religion - say, Islam, it doesn't matter. If the Islamic faith is reasonable, then Christianity is not. The point is, whether God exists or not, doesn't tell you whether Christianity has the right bead on him. Maybe some other religion does, maybe no religion has the correct bead on God. So the existence of God is not relevant.

The existence of the supernatural is not relevant. What we want to know is whether the Christian faith itself is reasonable, and that's the only thing we're debating here today. Obviously we can't debate every conceivable proposition, every single question, in one debate. So that's not relevant. I don't need to address those arguments for this debate.

He talks about, on another occasion where I wrote about the mass resurrection of fish. That's not relevant to this debate, either. It's not an argument I made in this debate. He needs to respond to argument I'm making here in this debate. That's a fallacy called a red herring, trying to distract you from the fact that I didn't make that argument in this debate.

He also brings up the fact that I claim I lost the debate to William Lane Craig, and various other people have lost debates to William Lane Craig, therefore Christianity is reasonable, is kind of the implication. That's taken out of context, of course. I said I ran out of time. I didn't have time to rebut all of William Craig's arguments. So by the measure of whether you get all the rebuttals in under the clock or not, I did technically lose that debate. But that has nothing to do with whether William Lane Craig was right, or whether Christianity is reasonable. And this is how Craig wins debates, generally. He gives enough arguments, tons and tons of arguments, using the shotgun effect, so that his rebutter, his opponent, doesn't have enough time to rebut them all before the clock runs out.

The fact that the clock runs out when people are debating William Lane Craig does not make Christianity reasonable. We need to just make that clear.

Now everything he says about the gospels is true of all kinds of faith literature in all religions.  He picks on certain kinds of examples that look different from the gospels. But that's special pleading. He's picking certain examples through selection bias to make his argument.

There are other examples that look more like the gospels, for example, the Book of Tobit. Or Plutarch's biography of Romulus. Or Philostratus' biography of Apollonius of Tyana. There are a lot of these examples of faith literature that look more like the gospels.  And if you wanted me to sit down and research and find the most similiar example, I could. But it's not necessary. There's plenty of examples like this that have all the characteristics of the gospels.

Again, if I gave you a book about Gandhi, having all the same attributes that he claims the gospels have, with all those same miracles I was talking about, you still wouldn't believe it.   Because you can be objective about that, and agree that it still wouldn't be reasonable to believe stories like that. But you can't even verify who wrote those stories -- much less, what their sources were, or that the stories were true.

Now let's get back to the issue of other religions. If other religions can do miracles, and they can, supposedly -- all religious traditions have miracle traditions -- then it cannot be argued that Christianity is any more reasonable than those religions. You can't appeal to the fact that Christians can witness miracles, as evidence for Christianity. If only Christians could perform miracles, and we could verify that, then you might have a case. But we don't have that kind of evidence.
For the Christian faith to be reasonable, we have to look for evidence that meets three criteria at least: (a) It has to be only true for Christianity, and not other religions. (b) We can actually verify that it's true. (c) It indicates knowledge or power beyond what humans of that time could have already had. We just don't have any evidence like that. And he hasn't presented any.
He talks, for example, about Jesus noticing individuals, about that being unusual. I don't see that as being unusual. There are lots of stories in the ancient world -- Apollonius of Tyana notices individuals.  Pliny the Younger notives individuals. You can pick just about any kind of genre of writing and find examples of people noticing and interacting with individuals and having compassion on them. There's an example from Isis' cult, Apolleus in The Golden Ass, which is often praised by classicists as showing an unusual amount of compassion to the subjects, including slaves and animals. Because what happens to the hero is, he turns into a donkey, and he goes through all the experiences of a donkey. And it relates all the suffering and misery and abuse he endures as a donkey, showing sympathy even for animals. We don't get that from Jesus, of course.
He talks about the way Jesus treated women as being unique. That's not even remotely true.  If you read the writings of Musonius Rufus again, or Epicurus, they actually have more enlightened and more extensive feminist views about women, judging by the standards of the ancient world.   So that's not an exceptional case.
So the arguments he made just don't hold up the reasonableness of Christianity. And he didn't give an adequate response to the problem, not just that diseases are here and Jesus didn't do anything about them, but more importantly, Jesus didn't know about them. And that's really the key issue, here. Jesus had no idea about germs. He had no idea about parasites. If you read the gospels, it looks like he assidously avoided encountering anyone with malaria, typhoid or tuberculosis, much less curing those diseases, much less telling people very simple pieces on information they could have had, to fight those diseases. The basic fact that germs exist. The basic fact that pasteurizing milk is a good idea. The basic ideas about how to combat malaria through combatting mosquitoes. Jesus didn't know these things. That means that Jesus is an ordinary human, which means that Christianity is not a reasonable religion.   It's based about what an ordinary guy said, or was said about an ordinary guy. So we just don't have a case, based on that.
And again, if we get to those criteria that I was talking about -- it's only true for Christianity and not other religions. Did Jesus cure all the diseases in the world? Do Christians now consistently have the ability to cure unusual and lethal diseases? Do we have faith healing wings in hospitals, and is it only Christians who can work in those wings? No, these things aren't true. So we don't have any actual evidence that Christianity is any more true than any other religion on the planet. And that's what makes Christianity not a reasonable faith.   
And I'll revisit the point I made about the time traveler. If you went back in time, you would do these things. You would tell them about germ theory. You would tell them about how to fight malaria. You would tell them about pasteurizing milk. So how could you have more information, and be more compassionate, than the Christian God, or than Jesus? It doesn't make any sense. Unless, of course, Jesus didn't know about those things, and then, at least, he has an excuse.
How much time do I have?
(Three minutes.)
This doesn't usually happen. I rebut all the arguments before the clock runs out.  It's the exact opposite of William Lane Craig.
I basically made all my points, so I'm going to have to sit down. There's nothing more to say.

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