Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Matt McCormick: Philosopher, Prosecutor, Card Shark, Tease? Part I

Matthew McCormick is an intelligent, fluid writer, and has taken the time to read a few important Christian thinkers (unlike, say, Peter Boghossian, AC Grayling, or John Paulos) before writing his ambitious refutation of Christianity.  He does not seem to suffer from the (inflated) self-image problems of Richard Carrier, or the intense, reality-warping spite of, say, Annie Gaylor.  This book is therefore readable, coherent, and sane.  McCorkick is, however, relentless in his assault on Christianity, and that assault fails in multiple, fated ways.  Despite negative virtues, McCormick lacks either the knowledge or the objectivity for a serious intellectual critique of Christianity.  As Jesus warned, he ought not to have ventured battle without first scouting the enemy's strength more thoroughly.  

Let's take it chapter by chapter, and allow the omens of forboding to unfold like flowers, each in its season.  

As it happens, I am also reading another book on the resurrection at the same time as this one, by Mike Licona.  That book is all that this one is not: self-critical, fair, judicious, careful, and convincing.  I may refer to that book by way of comparison from time to time.   

(1) "Speaking Ill of Jesus"

As the title of the first chapter of Atheism and the Case Against Christ suggests, its purpose is to soften up the enemy before the main assaults, and to indicate where those assaults will be launched.  McCormick also subliminally lets his readers know that he will engage in a species of trash-talk, a kinder and gentler form, offering almost understated (given the genre) yet unsparing criticisms of Christianity.  The goal here, as with all trash-talking, is to win the game before the game begins: to cause the heart of your opponents to faint within them, and hopefully shift their ground so as to make the battle more pleasant on the morn. 

The danger with such unripe engagements is that you show the enemy your hand, and what's in the hand, or in this case, what ought to be there but is missing.  

Let us follow this series of scattered skirmishes and see what McCormick unconsciously reveals:

"In this book, I present a case for an unpopular view: we should not believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead."  

This is an important theme in Chapter One.  McCormick wants to portray himself as a fearless thinker who is challenging ill-conceived and poorly-defended popular errors.  But of course, the Resurrection is popular in some circles (most churches), and troubles others (most philosophy faculties, as McCormick himself points out.)  And this sets the tone for much of the book, as we shall see: it is an "Us vs. Them" polemic, not in the sense of being strident, but in the sense of assuming "we" (we "Brights," though thankfully he does not use this word) are on the right side of history, so you dims had better quickly join us.  

If we judge the evidence for the resurrection by the same standards we judge other historical events, McCormick argues, "objectively and without bias," then we will reject the Easter story:  

"Inattention, inconsistency, desire, cultural influences, various aberrations in the human cognitive system, fallacies, and a host of other factors foster this double standard." 

But how about atheists?  Surely they also suffer from these disorders?  Or have they broken free from the shackles of cultural influence and aberrrant biological desires?  

What strikes me about McCormick's early rhetoric is how naive this sounds, coming from a philosopher.  Licona's terminal degree is in history.  He invests two hundred pages to epistemological questions, including describing the same foibles that McCormick mentions here.  But Licona never suggests that his opponents are uniquely or to some special degree subject to the cognitive problems that can trip us up in the quest for historical truth.  Rather, he emphasizes that everyone is biased, and that we all have to make sometimes painful and protracted effort to overcome our own biases and constricted points of view to really consider opposing arguments.  McCormick, by contrast, often writes as if he belonged to a different species from "religious" humanity.  (Indeed, I often suspect that is one reason skeptics insist on what Peter Berger called a "substantive" definition of religion -- to set themselves apart from their opponents, and give themselves a privileged, "objective" point of view from which to critique.)  

Here again: 

"Various quirks of the human cognitive system suggest that neurobiology, psychology, ignorance, fallacies, and historical forces have more to do with the formation of ancient religions than bona fide encounters with the Almighty."

How lucky we are that scholars like McCormick, free from such quirks, have finally appeared to reveal our many errors.  But of course that does not really set well with the atheist paradigm: by hypotheis, McCormicks' brain itself was molded by the same forces of blind evolution that produced, say, belief in witch doctors.  And materialistic philosophy has produced its fair share of daft theories since the dawn of the "Enlightenment." 

What is a miracle?

McCormick insists that "miracle" should be defined as "a violation of the natural order or interruptions of physical law."  The word "violation" comes from David Hume, and also seems to move the battle ground in a favorable direction for skeptics.  We use the word "violate" for law-breakers ("You violated three statutes"), for tyrants ("that's a violation of my rights!"), for rapists in particular.  But from a Christian perspective (as I argued in Jesus and the Religions of Man 15 years ago, and CS Lewis and Eric Metaxas argue as well), miracles do not so much "violate" natural law as echo the deeper rhythmns of God's work in Nature.  And the Greek term is "semeiyos," a "sign."  That's the biblical definition of a miracle: an event in this world that gives probative evidence that God is at work to redeem us, and through us the Creation.  Hardly a violation.  An understanding, in fact, which disarms McCormick's arguments, including this one: 

"The notion of a violation of the natural order or interruptions of physical law cannot be reconciled with an almighty, all-knowing being.  God would not do miracles."  

How does McCormick know what God would or wouldn't do?  He is like a novice flute player who is telling Mozart not to break the petty "rules" he has learned so far.  But I refuted this argument, as well, in Jesus and the Religions of Man.  

A proper understanding of miracle as a "sign" from the Creator God would, indeed, disarm some of the purportedly strongest arguments in this book, such as the argument from the Salem Witch Trials, or the Argument from Ganesha Drinking Milk.  But more on that, too, later.  

"Wide and Narrow Atheism"

Another shot across the bow of Christianity in Chapter One is the familiar aphorism that the author is just atheistic about one more god than Christians are -- a form of the Outsider Test for Faith which I believe I have just defeated forever, in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test.  McCormick writes: 

"The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of a particular sort of god.  A Christian, for example, is most likely a narrow atheist concerning the existence of Gefjun, the ancient Norwegian goddess of agriculture."  

This "argument" is really no more than a bad pun.  It depends on the peculiar circumstance that in English, the self-existing, all-good Creator and Sustainer of all things, "than whom no greater can be conceived," is distinguished from powerful but common and usually rascally spirits of a dependent character, by setting the letter "g" in the upper case: "God" rather than "gods."  But an atheist is a person who does not believe in God.  Let us not confuse the Source of All Being with a Norwegian spirit who busies herself about the turnips.  Really, Christianity is not so much "atheistic" about the latter, as indifferent.  An atheist is someone who disbelieves in God, not in some particular vegetable ghost.  

Does it matter?   

McCormick then seeks, and I think finds, one area of agreement with serious Christians: the serious and debatable nature of the question he is tackling in this book: 

"The simple point is that people should not dedicate their lives to a mistake.  The question of Jesus' resurrection, then, is vitally important because, if true, it would be perhaps the most important event in human history.  If it is false, then the Christian religion is built upon a mistake."

McCormick cites both St. Paul and C. S. Lewis on this point, with which I fully agree.  (Though I have been accused, by a poster named Calmly as I recall, of being intolerant and divisive for saying the Resurrection is essential to Christian belief.)  

Why do Christians believe?  

The next preliminary topic McCormick covers is why Christians "in America" believe.  Here he says something very peculiar, or rather, two things in sequence that mix strangely together, and makes one wonder how carefully he's attending to his own words: 

"A number Americans also believe that miracles are quite common . . . Thirty-four percent of the population reports having witnessed or experienced a divine healing . . . "

Then the next paragraph begins: 

"For millions, the belief in God and the weight of the Christian religion primarily rest upon the miracles Jesus is alleged to have performed." (15) 

But McCormick just told us that a third of Americans claim to have themselves seen one particular kind of miracle.  Surely that would give them independent grounds for rejecting materialism, and being open to reports of the resurrection.  And others (like me) have not seen such miracles, but have met people we trust who say they have.  So by McCormick's own account, one important pillar in Christian theism rests on a much broader base than he is now claiming.  

What does it mean when skeptics or Christians are mean?  

McCormick executes an equally impressive backflip later in the chapter.  First, he complains that believers make too much of how ascerbic or nasty the New Atheists are: 

"Inquiries from those of us who have doubts about the grounds that favor Jesus' divinity are viewed by many as angry, intolerant, hateful, or strident."

Again later in the chapter, he fusses over those who have come in for criticism for "tone and style:"

"Personal sensitivities wound around religious views lead to perceiving doubters as angry, intolerant, spiteful, or strident.  Many of the negative responses to the works of the New Atheists -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens --- have attacked them on just such grounds.  Criticism of tone and style tend to replace a concern about whether we actually have good reasons to think there actually is a God." 

As author of one of the first books rebutting those four gentleman, I am astounded at this claim.  McCormick should have read my book!  (And some of the other rebuttals!)  His claim is simply not true.  I personally argue that the New Atheists are wrong about "faith," wrong about science, wrong about history, wrong philosophically, wrong about American law, that they misquote Pascal and Tertullian and grossly misrepresent the Bible, that they overlook facts gallore -- heck, I listed of a hundred or so errors by Dawkins alone on-line, independent of my book.  That some Gnus are nasty (not merely perceived as nasty), yes, I document that fact, too.  But it doesn't get in the way of substantial criticism.  And other Christian writers point out numerous other errors that I overlooked!  

But that doesn't stop McCormick from pointing out: 

"A less than cheery demeanor may negatively affect one's overall rhetorical success . . . but it is irrelevant to the truth or reasonableness of what one is saying."

Actually it IS relevant, as McCormick himself realizes.  Ironically, but without the least sense of deliberate irony, on the very same page (31), McCormick then turns around and explains why attitude matters -- now himself acting as "Tone Troll in Chief:"

"Running religious beliefs together with ethnic identity also seems to be related to some chilling quasi-ethnic prejudice in believers against atheists . . . Americans had a worse opinion of atheists than of Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, or any other minority group named . . . At the very least, the believer ought to be concerned that his own animosity towards atheists can produce a possible bias against critically evaluating his own religious views . . . enthusiasm, passionate commitment, and fervent engagement are our norms about religious matters, and when that runs to excess it can turn into a frightening zeal."

How's that for an Olympic-class backflip from a dead start?  A minute ago, Christians only complain when Richard Dawkins says teaching the Bible to children is worse than child abuse, and typecasts us as terrorists, because we're afraid to talk evidence.  (Even though we do talk evidence.)  And presumably, when PZ Myers and his disciples wish death and pornographic misery to their targets, we should not allow our little hearts to palpatate, but seek out the half-dissolved grain of substance in the raging sea of vitriol.  But when people merely indicate that they trust atheists less than immigrants, McCormick is "frightened" and "chilled."  He also suddenly remembers how bias can clog the cognitive arteries.  "Oh, yeah!  Forgot about that when I was talking about atheist hatred.  But Christian intolerance, however comparatively mild, is really dreadfully dangerous."

The suddenness of the turnabout is astounding, as is McCormick's complete lack of consciousness.  (That is the difference between physical gyrations and intellectual gyrations: if you spin like that in body, your body and mind will know.  But mental gymnastics often go wholly unobserved by those who execute them.)    


On pages 16-18, that old familiar carol sings, the "blind faith meme."  Ending this meme is like trying to kill Rasputin.  To give him credit, McCormick seems to realize that most Christians think there is evidence for their faith.  But this being a preliminary dance, he wants them to know he is going to discredit that evidence, and then he knows they will back into the "blind faith" corner, because oh, he has witnessed this move so often before.  

As have I.  So tiresome.  

Carrier on resurrected fish. 

They're back!  Richard Carrier and his Resurrected Fish, which he caught in Herodotus.  "Richard Carrier points out that in Herodotus' book on the Persian Wars, Herodotus reports without a hint of doubt "that the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated arnaments, lightening bolts, and collapsing cliffs . . . a horse gave birth to a rabbit; and a whole town witnessed a mass resurrection of cooked fish."  

McCormick's point is that we should be consistent: if we reject these kinds of stories, we should be just as critical about gospel stories.  

Been there, done that.  Carrier is imagining things.  Put those rotten fish in the ground where they belong, and let's move on!

Is Christianity harmful?

McCormick is careful to point out that the good or ill Christianity has accomplished must be distinguished from its truth or falsehood.  He's arguing that Christianity is wrong: even if it did the world good, as intellectually-honest people, we should reject it.  But he can't stop himself from taking a dig, nonetheless: 

"It could be, of course, that a great many people adopt Christian views that influence their lives and decisions but the net effect of those influences are positive.  That view is quite prevalent.  Nevertheless, it has been persuasively argued that it is mistaken." 

Here McCormick inserts a footnote.  As author of books and long posts on this site that argue Christianity has in fact greatly blessed the world, and a bibliography of some 130 works that detail some of those blessings, I flipped to the back of the book to see what objective and experienced historians McCormick would cite to buttress this important point.  (And you know he's going to bring it up again, along with the "Blind Faith Meme.")

Sam Harris (a neuro-scientist), Christopher Hitchens (a grouchy journalist), and Phil Zuckerman (the sociologist who pretty much conceded to me, when we debated, that Christianity had the strong positive effect on Scandinavia to which he so often credits Secular Humanism.)  

That's it.  

Loftus' new book would be better, actually, but not persuasive, either, in the face of massive contrary evidence.  

McCormick ends the first chapter of his book with some randon references to Young Earth Creation and religions that lock women indoors or refuse them an education, to further prejudice (or irritate?) his readers.  He then points out that Christians shouldn't feel persecuted by having their beliefs challenged in public.  Of course not.  And I hope McCormick won't be put out when we refute his arguments, either.  

1 comment:

  1. Where do these guys come from? How many people who mistake arrogance for reason are going to write these easily refuted books and tout them as devastating critiques of Christianity and belief in God?

    It's still vaguely entertaining to engage them and point out the countless errors in their "reasoning", but after eleven years of doing so I'm starting to get bored.


Sincere comments welcome. Please give us something to call you -- "Anon" no longer works.