Thursday, January 15, 2015

Matt McCormick, Part III: the Salem Witch Trials

The Gem in the Crown of McCormick's argument against Christianity is probably Chapter 3: "You Already Don't Believe in Jesus: The Salem Witch Trials."   At least that is what I have seen quoted most often, and largely what attracted me to this book.  McCormick also refers to this chapter and the one preceding it, which we have already analyzed later in the book, as if he had in these two chapters convincingly overthrown the Christian faith.

His argument is simple.  McCormick asserts that the evidence for the actual existence of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, is far stronger and more immediate, than the evidence for the Resurrection.  Since we reject the former, we should therefore also reject the latter. 

The odd thing is, though, McCormick is quite coy about explaining why it is that we should reject the reality of witches in Salem.  He dances around the issue, in fact.  I don't point that out to claim that there really were witches -- I have no idea, because McCormick has not bothered to define "witch," or so much as mention any actual evidence in detail.  (To be sure, I have done some background reading on the phenomena in the past, but personally I didn't come across any really powerful evidence either way.)

Why is this interesting?  Because the real question that McCormick is dancing around is, "Who cares?  What difference does it make?"

Suppose the evidence for witchcraft in Salem is excellent.  How would that either strengthen or weaken the evidence for the Resurrection?  Of course, it would make no difference, anymore than good evidence that Tom Wolfe writes his own books would make evidence that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet either better or worse.

Suppose the evidence for witchcraft in Salem is poor.  Would that effect the evidence for the Resurrection?  Again, not in the slightest, any more than evidence that Tom Wolfe employs a ghost writer would mean Shakespeare did, too.
In fact, this chapter is nothing but a bluff, a shell game, trying to distract the reader from the real question, on which McCormick has already show that he is out of his league -- evidence for or against the Resurrection of Jesus.  It is, in that sense, much like Richard Carrier's constant appeals to texts that almost no one has read, in the hopes that they won't, and that his false claims about them will be accepted.

But you want details.  So here we go.

"We typically disbelieve many supernatural claims that have far more evidence and better-quality evidence in their favor."  (53)

Who is this "we?"  And why do we do that?  If, as I believe (and Michael Licona and others show), the evidence for the Resurrection is in fact very strong, perhaps we shouldn't reject this even better evidence!  Or at least, explain why we should, after we have proven its alleged excellence.
Anyway, claims should not be believed or rejected simply because the evidence for them is good or bad.  There is also the issue of prior probability.  And that's much of what McCormick will be dancing around in this chapter.  One reason we reject the claim that witches in Salem were doing bizarre acts of black magic on a large scale in Salem -- speaking for myself when I say "we," McCormick usually means "you," sometimes "you rubes" -- is that they seem ridiculous a priori.  And no, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ does not, for reasons I explain in my popular "Prior Probability of the Resurrection" article.  -Which so far has something like ten thousand page views, but nothing like a refutation. -

"Hundreds of people are purported to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry." (54)

Here McCormick shows that he is quite an amateur in Historical Jesus studies.  One even wonders if he has taken the elementary precaution of reading the New Testament carefully.  Of course the resurrected Jesus does none of this, unless you count the fish barbecue he prepared for his disciples as "feeding the hungry."

McCormick's summary of some arguments for the resurrection is often decent enough, though.  He is at least able to "get out of his own skin" enough to summarize Gary Habermas' argument with a degree of fairness. (55)  McCormick promises, in the next chapter, to offer psychological arguments that allegedly undermine Habermas' argument:

"But for now let us consider the broader question of accepting miraculous, supernatural, or magical events on the basis of historical evidence." (56)

What other kind of evidence is there?  Science itself is a province of history, as Carrier more or less points out.  Every report of an experiment is a historical report.

So the real question here is, "Why should we believe anything that falls outside the grid of my metaphysical expectations or demands?"

"Much can be said for the supernatural explanation.  First, hundreds of people were involved in concluding that some of the accused were witches.  Eyewitnesses testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that those on trial were witches." (58)

This appears to be mostly bluster.  McCormick says hundreds of people believed the accused were witches, not that they testified to any particular supernatural, or subnatural (a better term, in my opinion) act.  In fact, this is all very vague.  There is no direct quote from any witness, no specific account of anything anyone actually claimed to see.

"It strains credibility to suggest there was a conspiracy or a mass hallucination shared by the hundreds of people involved.  The same hallucinations cannot be had by large groups of people." (58)
McCormick has not, in fact, presented any evidence that "hundreds of people" witnessed any event, even the sun rise.  He simply seems to want to lead readers to infer that.

"We have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials, such as those by Cotton Mather . . . (+) documents, books, records, transcripts, affidavits, testimonials, and other works detailing the events." (59)

So what?  More vagueness, more distraction.  A "witness to the trial" need not be a "witness to the alleged events," whatever they are -- McCormick has been too coy so far to tell us.

"The point is they were not witches, and you (probably) do not believe that they were based on this substantial body of historical evidence." (59)

Amazingly, McCormick has not actually GIVEN any evidence yet.  It is all sleight of hand.

"For Salem, we have thousands of actual documents surrounding the incidents, including the sworn testimonies from people claiming to have seen the magic performed." (59)

By now the reader will recognize the trick McCormick is again playing.  He mentions "thousands" of documents that "surround" the incidents.  So is physical proximity to evidence evidence?  If you pile a library of books within a five minute walk of a murder, does that turn them into testimony as to the identity of the murderer, like potatoes soaking up the flavor from meat in a crock pot?

But wait!  Some of those documents (how many?  1,000?  2?)  are sworn testimonies from witnesses to the magic itself?

So why don't you quote those testimonies, to strengthen your case?  How many affirm a given and clearly and credible supernatural incident?  Who offers the testimony?  Why is it credible?  And if it is, why don't you believe it?

Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.

"By reasonable measures of quantity and quality, the evidence we have for witchcraft at Salem is vastly better than the evidence we have for the magical return from the dead by Jesus.  But despite the better evidence, it is simply not reasonable to believe that the women in Salem were really witches or that they really performed magic.  No reasonable person with a typical, twenty-first century education should believe, even though some of the accused were tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft, that they were really witches." (60)

No reasonable person with a logical education should believe anything at all about Salem based on McCormick's account of the city's history, because he does not bother to say anything worth a warm bath of spit.

He hasn't even bothered to define the word "witch" for us, yet.  And that is a real problem, since people around the world have, in fact, at least attempted to harm their neighbors by black magic.  If that is what a witch is, everyone should believe in witches.  And naturally a truly rational person should request some evidence, one way or the other, before making such a universal disavowal as that no one in Salem, or even none of the accused, actually attempted some such experiment.  (Although, given the community, I myself hold to an a priori skepticism -- unless the young girls making the accusations were conducting their own form of black magic, as one modern writer suggests, though not one I trust much.)

Also, notice that McCormick implies that Christians believe Jesus was raised by "magic."  We believe no such thing, of course.  We believe God raised Jesus from the dead.  See my Jesus and the Religions of Man, for a discussion of the difference.

So why shouldn't we believe that real, effective magic was at work in Salem?

McCormick's first answer to this question is that it defies the consensus among historians, "the people who are best qualified to evaluate the quality of historical evidence."

But is that because the historical evidence is against it?  Then why don't you say so?  And why don't you cite that evidence, instead of dancing around it like a banshee around a magical fire that you believe will supernaturally consume your enemies?

Or if the evidence is not against it, do historians reject magic at Salem, because they find the specific reports of magic intrinsically incredible?  Or again, because they subscribe to naturalism in their work or home philosophies?  McCormick does not even raise this vital question, let alone try to answer it.

McCormick's second point is that believing in witchcraft at Salem would open a big kettle of worms:

"It also wreaks havoc with a whole approach to history.  Lowering the standards here requires lowering them across the board.  If magic was real at Salem, then, by extension, so was demon possession during the Plague years and the Inquisition in Medieval Europe.  Werewolf and vampire stories in history must also be treated as facts.  Hexes, the evil eye, and spectral beings must be treated as real, historical phenomena.  Kings, emperors, and religioius leaders must also have magical powers." (61)

Now the dam bursts, and we are all awash in a sea of spit.  Just a minute ago, weren't we were talking about instances in which there was good, solid, empirical evidence for magic, with thousands of documents buttressing it (somehow)?  But "Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes forth its contagion to the world."  Did thousands of people witness a vampire, and swear to it in court of law?  When?  What did it look like?  What did it do?  Why does McCormick reject those accounts?

Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.

Vagueness and sleight of hand continue to reign supreme, until McCormick pulls out his ace, drawn from the deck of his friend John Loftus: the Outsider Test:

"You either get Christianity and a whole bunch of other religious movements, or you get none of them.  The Christian won't want to accept all the other movements because so many of them, like Christianity, claim exclusivity.  Lots of them, on the base of their historical miracles, claim that theirs is the 'one true religion' and the 'one true God,' and all the others must be rejected as false . . . If we let them all in, then we have a hopeless mess of conflicting doctrines; theological incompatibilities; and a supernatural realm overrun with competing gods, saints, spirits, and forces." (62

Call me a kid with a dream, but I hope I have utterly laid all such arguments to rest now, with How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test.

Christianity does not claim ontological exclusivity, in the sense of denying that there is any truth in other religions.  (The sense required by McCormick's argument.)  And God transcends even the tradition through which He reveals His Son to the world: there is only one true God, by definition.  But that does not make reality a "hopeless mess of conflicting doctrines," at all.  Render under hell, the things of heaven.  And to heaven, the things of heaven.  Christians have seldom found the world of religions as hopelessly confusing as atheists like Loftus and McCormick think we should.  In fact, thirty years of often hands-on research in Asian religions and traditions have greatly strengthened my faith.

There is, in fact, no other Jesus in all the world.  And he is, indeed, he in whom all things fit together, in heaven and on earth, and in whom the things of hell - human sacrifice, slavery, oppression, madness, Gulag - are most effectively challenged.

But please deal with concrete facts, Matt, not with such vague generalizations.  That's what I do in Jesus and the Religions of Man, in True Son of Heaven, in my doctoral thesis, in the new book.  I haven't found anyone in any other religion at all like Jesus.  Nor have I found an event at all like the resurrection story, as recorded in the gospels,  If skeptics have some really good parallels (please, enough of Apollonius of Tyana and Romulus, already!), well cough them up already!  Why so coy about hard facts?

In an amusing aside, McCormick then points out that we live in a world of cell phones, computers, "planes flying at seven thousand miles per hour, and spacecraft capable of leaving the solar system," and then claims this jibes poorly, if we want to add in ghosts, elves, and fairies.

Actually, the fastest airplane in the world is generally considered to be the Blackbird, which has flown more than 2,000 miles per hours, though various jets and rockets might be considered airplanes, and perhaps if the elves in the Blackbird get out and push . . .

The general idea here, though, is that like so many skeptics before him, McCormick assumes his readers are so easily cowed, and gullible, as to suppose the human ability to create machines somehow disproves God's ability to raise the dead.  As a philosopher, one would expect McCormick to cough up an argument to support this line of reasoning.  What is the link between assumptions and conclusion supposed to be?  Integrated circuits are like kryptonite to angels, they flee on gilded wings at their approach?

Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.

Later pages in the chapter mostly repeat McCormick's earlier points, then try to force the reader into one of three choices: (1) admit that every account of the supernatural is real, regardless of the evidence or the prior plausibility of those accounts (McCormick says little of the first and is vague in the extreme about the second); (2) claim there is some difference between the Resurrection and the witches that favor the former; (3) admit that you don't really care about the evidence.
Given those choices, most Christians would go with (2).  But unfortunately McCormick has now forgotten to listen to contrary arguments, and simply repeats his own views in this section in a general manner: "Denying the analogy is doomed to fail, however, by ad hoc rationalizing and special pleading."  (65)  So he doesn't really have to consider any actual arguments for dissimilarity.  And he has not so much as mentioned how prior probability might favor the resurrection -- his job being that of a lawyer, not a philosopher -- nor has he given a smidgeon of the supposely strong evidence for witchcraft in Salem, so we can examine it.

On option (3), McCormick plays a trick that is rather beneath him, on William Lane Craig.  (Though Craig must be used to that, he seems to bring the worst out in frustrated atheists.)

"Perhaps she is someone who, like William Lane Craig, has resolved to subordinate reason to faith: 'The way in which I know that Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart and this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence." (69)

And then McCormick argues:

"If we are to take seriously this view . . . then we have to conclude that his historical arguments for the resurrection are disengenuous."

Beyond being sleazy, that is just illogical.

Suppose I say, "My most important reason for believing that Seattle is set on a body of salt water, is (a) that I was born in that city, and often walked to the seashore myself, digging clams and looking for star fish and crabs, without going anywhere near the city boundary.  But since you may not have had that same experience, let me add that you should also believe Seattle is on salt water, based on (b) the testimony of this Washington State map I hold in my hands, and (c) these photos I took of Puget Sound tidal flats at Alki Beach with the Space Needle in the background." 
If you take (a) seriously, does it follow that (b) and (c) must be "disengenuous?" 

Of course not!  That is a complete non sequitur.  Again, this is a remarkably clumsy bit of logic for a professional philosopher to engage in.

And then McCormick's coup de disgrace:

"Craig is correct, however, if concluding that the only way to sustain one's belief in the resurrection is to disregard the evidence." (70)

This looks like a lie.  Craig has concluded no such thing.  Indeed, Craig has soundly whipped about a dozen leading unbelieving historians and other NT experts, each of whom know vastly more about the subject than Matthew McCormick, in public debate on the evidential grounding of the resurrection.

Later in the book, McCormick misrepresents C. S. Lewis' views on faith and reason almost as baldly, though without the sleaze, which Craig so often seems to bring out in his critics, even usually genteel scholars like Bart Erhman and Mathew McCormick.   -Perhaps we should posit the Sore Loser Syndrome?-

So what about B?  What disanalogies favor the Resurrection hypothesis over the "witches in Salem flew on broomsticks" hypothesis, or whatever specifics Matthew McCormick has in mind, but is too coy to mention in his book focused on this very subject?

Here's one.  NT Wright and Mike Licona have written long, detailed and exhaustively footnoted arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus, that are orders of magnitude more impressive than this tract.  Show me books like those, arguing for the Historicity of Hogwarts.

Here's a second.  What proponent of the Witch Theory has defeated a round dozen prominent historical skeptics in public debate?

Here's a third.  Were the many factors favoring the prior probability of the Resurrection, that I mentioned in my article on this site, paralleled in Salem?  I don't think so.  I doubt McCormick has even thought such thoughts, let alone refuted them.

So there's the gem in the crown of this book.   That crown increasingly appears to be made of paper mache, and held together with buckets of warm spit.  The gem, McCormick bought from an old Gypsy, but unfortunately is just a hunk of colored plastic from K-Mart.


Anonymous said...

I think that the problem with McCormick's thesis is NOT that he's wrong, but that far too many still believe in witchcraft and the paranormal. If someone believes there is a Satan with whom a person can align themselves, then they, it seems, believe in a form of witchcraft. Apparently in 2005, three in four Americans believed in the paranormal (

Gary said...

Jesus' resurrection after his death is the ultimate and defining proof of Jesus' divinity. Just about everyone knows the story, which is summarized in the Apostles' Creed. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

There is only one way for Jesus to prove that he rose from the dead. He had to appear to people. Therefore, several different places in the Bible describe Jesus' appearances after his death:

•Matthew chapter 28
•Mark chapter 16
•Luke chapter 24
•John Chapter 20 and 21

1 Corinthians 15:3-6 provides a nice summary of those passages, as written by Paul:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. As you can see in this passage, Jesus appeared to hundreds of people a number of different times.

Being like Paul: When we look at these Bible passages, there is a question that comes to mind -- why did Jesus stop making these appearances? Why isn't Jesus appearing today? It really is odd. Obviously Paul benefitted from a personal meeting with the resurrected Christ. Because of the personal visit, Paul could see for himself the truth of the resurrection, and he could ask Jesus questions. So... Why doesn't Jesus appear to everyone and prove that he is resurrected, just like he appeared to Paul? There is nothing to stop Jesus from materializing in your kitchen tonight to have a personal chat with you. And if you think about it, Jesus really does need to appear to each of us. If Paul needed a personal visit from Jesus to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why wouldn't you? It is an important question for the following reasons:

•We are told by the Bible that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people.

•We therefore know that it is OK for Jesus to appear to people -- it does not take away their free will, for example.

•We know that it would be easy for Jesus to appear to everyone all through history, since Jesus is all-powerful and timeless.

•We know that, if Jesus did reappear to everyone, it would be incredibly helpful. We could all know, personally, that Jesus is resurrected and that Jesus is God. If Paul (and all the other people in the Bible) needed a personal visit to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why not you and me?

•Yet, we all know that Jesus has not appeared to anyone in 2,000 years.

THINK folks! Which is more likely: A dead man walked out of his grave 2,000 years ago, ate a broiled fish lunch with his fishing buddies and then 40 days later levitated into outer space, or, this entire story of a Resurrection is a legend: a legend based on false sightings and/or visions and hallucinations, of well-intentioned but uneducated, illiterate, hope-shattered, superstitious Galilean peasants, desperately trying to keep alive their only source of hope in their miserable, first century existence?

David B Marshall said...

Rizdek: I just demonstrated numerous ways in which McCormick is in fact wrong.

David B Marshall said...

Gary: On what basis are you so dogmatic in claiming that Jesus has never appeared to anyone since?

But He picked the people, the times, and the locations, for his own purposes. If there is a God, the resurrection of Jesus is in fact rather probable, as I showed in "The Prior Probability of the Resurrection" on this site.

Gary said...

There is no more proof that Jesus has appeared to anyone since his death than there is for any other ghost appearance claim.

Ghosts are not real. Dead people do not walk out of their graves to eat broiled fish lunches with their former fishing buddies. People who claim to have seen ghosts are either delusional, hysterical, or lying.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Gary, for reciting your materialistic creed for us. Your firm faith is an inspiration to all those who aspire to belief without evidence.

Gary said...

My pleasure.

If you or your readers would be interested in discussing a worldview void of invisible ghosts, devils, and gods, feel free to check out my blog: