Damaging, Embarrassing, Mindless Errors

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This post started out to be one thing and ended up being another. I wrote the part between the two asterisk groups before bedtime last night, and then I got stuck. You’ll see why when you get to the end of that section. I slept on it, and this morning I decided to let you in on some of the process I went through to come to a conclusion. I think it’s an important one, even though it’s not what I thought I was going to say when I started out on this post.

**********

I expected more of a pushback on my post last night, “The Bastion of Reason.” Skeptics and atheists rarely see the church in that role. More often they’ll say things like,

This blog is a promotion to science, intelligence, free thinking, and awesomeness. We aggregate the web’s best atheist content.

atheistgraphic.png

I didn’t just pick that out of the air, naturally. A Facebook group I’m in has been discussing a graphic on that tumblr site that implies there’s something fishy about all those incredible events in the life of Jesus that no one ever wrote about. No one but his biographers, that is. (I’ve included a reduced-size version of that graphic here.)

The first of these was Herod’s terrible slaughter of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18). Why didn’t that make CNN at the time, or its equivalent? Well, first of all, if there had been some proto-CNN at the time … oh, never mind, there wasn’t any such thing. No one took it upon themselves to tell the world all the news of the world.

But even if there had been, there’s not much reason to think proto-CNN would have reported on this. Bethlehem was a small town, and there couldn’t have more than about a dozen baby boys there. Herod was a butcher. As he was getting older he ordered the chief men of Judea to be imprisoned, ready to be killed at the hour of his own death–so that someone would mourn when he died.

Charles Dana is supposedly the one who first said, “If dog bites man, that’s not news. If man bites dog, that’s news.” If he had been an editor for proto-CNN, he would have killed this story. “If Herod kills a dozen boys, that’s not news. If a dozen boys kill Herod, that’s news.” The slaughter in Bethlehem wasn’t news.

I’ll move on to the graphic’s third point. Iin my new hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, we have the largest YMCA in the country (in square footage, that is). There’s a soccer football field (pitch) inside our Y. Naturally it’s a bit smaller than a regulation soccer field. Maybe that’s the one this author had in mind when he said the events took place on an area the size of 34 football fields. Although the entire temple property was sizable (about 27 American football fields), as my friend Tim McGrew pointed out in that Facebook discussion, the sacred precincts within were much smaller.

As he went on to say there (reposted with his permission),

It is completely unclear why the size of the Temple area should make this event likely to be recorded by anyone but the four Evangelists.

For comparison, the catastrophic burial of the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 goes unremarked by both Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness who wrote an extensive account of the eruption, and Suetonius, who also mentions the eruption. The first written record of their destruction that survives today is by Dio Cassius, who not only did not witness it but in all probability had never spoken to anyone who had. So what?

And one more. For this one I’ll quote at length from Dr. McGrew:

5. “Supernatural darkness covers ‘all the land’ for hours.”

Presumably the graphic means to refer to the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death mentioned in Matthew 27:51 and the account in Matthew 28:2 of the events at the time of the resurrection. There is no particular reason to think that we would have information about this earthquake in any other author of the time; there simply isn’t any systematic record of natural phenomena of this sort. That said, I note for the record that in Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronicon, Olympiad 202, we do find some notices of a widespread earthquake around the years AD 32-33, affecting regions as far away as Turkey.

The darkness was notable; none of the Gospels claims that it was supernatural. Phlegon’s remark about the darkness is also quoted in the same passage of Eusebius’s Chronicon.

Sometimes, of course, it is claimed that we should expect a detailed account of these things from contemporary writers. Thus Gibbon, in the second volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writes that the preternatural darkness “passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable industry could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is devoted to eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration: but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of the year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour.”

Why Pliny in Italy, or Seneca in Rome or in his banishment in Corsica, should have taken notice of an unusually dark Friday afternoon in Judea is not clear. But in order that you may judge the honesty and candor of Gibbon, I will here transcribe and translate, in its entirety, the chapter of Pliny to which Gibbon alludes, from his Natural History 2.30:

Fiunt prodigiosi, et longiores solis defectus: qualis occiso dictatore Caesare, et Antoniano bello, totius paene anni pallore continuo.

“Unusually long, portentious eclipses of the sun also take place, as when Caesar the dictator was slain; and in the war against Antony, the sun remained dim for nearly a year.”

Yes, that’s right: the chapter of Pliny that is “devoted to eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration” consists of a mere eighteen words of Latin.

No further comment seems necessary.

Right. I’ll comment anyway.

There is within some atheist circles a conceit of intelligence that thinks it can survive while disconnected from knowledge. This is not “awesomeness,” it’s sadness. It’s not helpful to the promotion of reason or free thinking, whether of atheists or of Christians.

The same thing could be said of some Christians, I know. I’ve blogged on some of them, too.

***********

That’s where I got stuck last night. I’m sure you can see the problem. I’m complaining about an atheist making mindlessly uninformed errors, yet to be honest I have to admit that sort of thing happens among Christians, too. Is there any difference in principle between the two? Does one group do it more than the other? I have no data, so I wouldn’t presume to say. So what’s the real difference?

Obviously (or so I thought) this kind of mindlessness among atheists leads to dangerously wrong anti-theistic conclusions, whereas (since at least their conclusions are not opposed to the Christ and his Kingdom) the same kind of uninformed prattle among Christians is more benign.

Or is it?

With further thought I had to reject even that idea.

When atheists put out this kind of nonsense it undermines Christianity in their readers’ minds. That is their intent, and I’m sure it accomplishes its purpose. When Christians speak uninformed nonsense it undermines Christianity more gradually, more subterraneously (below the surface), but just as seriously. It promotes the impression that the faith itself is uninformed and mindless. Uninformed Christian drivel makes its listeners dangerously vulnerable to uninformed atheistic drivel.

Which leaves me with conclusions of two kinds, one concerning what I started to write about, and another concerning the new direction my thoughts took overnight.

  • The “awesomeness” and “intelligence” of this blogger’s graphic is just old-fashioned nonsense.
  • There’s nothing to the argument from silence as presented there. The whole thing is sadly, embarrassingly misdirected.
  • Some atheists make fools of themselves, acting like they know important things about God, when in fact they are woefully uninformed, actually ignorant.
  • Sometimes we Christians make fools of ourselves in pretty much the same way.
  • It’s hard to say which of those is more damaging.

I conclude with this final word of advice for my fellow believers:

Let’s keep learning so we can grow in the knowledge of God, be confident of what we do know, and be equipped to answer questions like the ones this blogger raised. Meanwhile let’s recognize always that there’s always going to be a lot more we don’t know than we know. Let’s be leaders in real knowledge; and let’s not act as if we know what we do not know.

P.S. Thank you to Dr. Timothy McGrew, who knows a lot more than I do about the relevant history. It’s fine to quote knowledgeable authorities, especially when they make their case as clearly as he did.

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45 Responses to “ Damaging, Embarrassing, Mindless Errors ”

  1. Is there any difference in principle between the two?

    I don’t think so, if I understand your question.

    Does one group do it more than the other? I have no data, so I wouldn’t presume to say.

    Acknowledging that the plural of anecdote is NOT data, I have only personal experience here. But in that experience, Gnus are far and away worse. Also in my experience, the reason this is so is that the sort of Christian that makes the sort of wrong-headed arguments to which you refer is exactly the sort of of Christian who spends little or no time talking things out with others; they just ain’t interested. On the other hand, the sort of atheist that makes these errors is the same sort of atheist that seems compelled to argue them in as public a forum as they can tolerate, and in as belittling a manner as they can get away with.

    So my sample is badly skewed.

    Obviously (or so I thought) this kind of mindlessness among atheists leads to dangerously wrong anti-theistic conclusions, whereas (since at least their conclusions are not opposed to the Christ and his Kingdom) the same kind of uninformed prattle among Christians is more benign.

    Or is it?

    With further thought I had to reject even that idea.

    When atheists put out this kind of nonsense it undermines Christianity in their readers’ minds. That is their intent, and I’m sure it accomplishes its purpose. When Christians speak uninformed nonsense it undermines Christianity more gradually, more subterraneously (below the surface), but just as seriously. It promotes the impression that the faith itself is uninformed and mindless. Uninformed Christian drivel makes its listeners dangerously vulnerable to uninformed atheistic drivel.

    Had I a large enough sum of money, I would print this in a flier and mail it to every Christian church in the nation. This cannot be said too often or too forcefully.

    It’s a question of credibility. Establishing, keeping and maintaining it.

    When the genuine seeker is confronted with an “argument” such as “Pliny devoted an entire chapter to…”, and asks about it, it is easily debunked, and the proponents credibility is damaged, perhaps severely. But that sword cuts both ways, and while the atheist in question may be concerned with nothing more than taking cheap shots, we are supposed to be committed to the truth. And we are supposed to be ready to defend it.

    It drives me nuts. I am way past the point of engaging every single error in reason I see from the usual internet atheist. Someone who would post the sort of chart found at the top isn’t really interested in reason, or they would never post such a thing. But we must confront the Christian who makes the same sort of argument as often as we can and as forcefully as we must. I had a friend say, from the pulpit and in a contemptuous tone, that she “wasn’t interested in apologetics. I’m not about to apologize for my faith in Jesus Christ!

    Had this been Old Testament times I might have stood and rent my garments and gnashed my teeth.

    What I DID do was speak to her immediately after the service, and explain just what apologetics is, and how in light of 1st Peter 3 it is imperative that each Christian be able to give at least a very basic apologetic. And when I spoke the next week, I took the opportunity to explain to the congregation at large the same issue. In both cases I found a receptive audience.

    On a similar note, a couple of years ago I got an opportunity to teach a summer class to the teens at our church. I grabbed a basic book in Christian Apologetics and we went at it for 2 months. Argued, discussed, reasoned, back and forth. They loved it. I still get comments from some of them about how much they enjoyed talking about this stuff.

    We absolutely have to do this sort of thing. There is no reason not to (very weak pun intended).

  2. I would have to agree with Longstreet when he says “But in that experience, Gnus are far and away worse.” Along the same lines from David Bentley Hart:

    “I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. This is not because I necessarily think the current “marketplace of ideas” particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.”

    A recent example from this blog is Sault’s comment (#9) on the “Vicious Deception/Amazing Faith” thread. There Sault, who I have come to admire for his intelligence and general fair mindedness, launches into an attack on NT validity that is some kind of a cross between Elaine Pagels and the Jesus Seminar. These kind of criticisms have been thoroughly debunked but Sault writes as if he is totally unaware of this. We here have read Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett, et als. We’re aware of their point of view but over and over we have the nonbelievers come here and demonstrate just how limited is their knowledge of Christianity and the arguments that support it. I’m sure there are many many examples of equally ill informed Christians. Hard to think many seek out websites to vent their ignorance among so many of the so well informed opposition.

  3. Good points.

    One of the big differences between uninformed New Atheism and uninformed Christianity is just what you said there at the end BillT: the atheists’ willingness to parade their ignorance. I’ve hit Otto Tellick pretty hard over that same thing on the Atheists Have Meaning and Value thread.

    I don’t know how they can think they’re on solid enough ground to get away with this kind of nonsense, unless they’re spending an inordinate amount of time in the self-congratulatory atheist Internet.

  4. This little snippet was a real delight for me, Tom:

    Uninformed Christian drivel makes its listeners dangerously vulnerable to uninformed atheistic drivel.

    What an oh-so-neatly-crafted ambiguity! Is it the uninformed drivel that all atheists spout (appealing to popular and strident anti-atheist prejudice)? Or is it the drivel that comes only from the uninformed subset of atheists – not the complementary set of informed atheists, about whom nothing more will be said (appealing to the “enlightened and thoughtful” audience)? ‘Tom reports, you decide!’

    But you “forgot to mention” (wink, nudge) that the uninformed Christian drivel will also (and more often) lead listeners closer to seeing how that drivel contradicts actual, verifiable truth, and even seeing how this real truth is not dependent, after all, on any sort of Christian dogma. That’s the bigger threat to Christianity (just ask Augustine of Hippo).

    Uninformed atheists, as often as not, have the sense to say “I don’t know” when that happens to be right (and often enough, even when they do know, they won’t hesitate, given the opportunity, to clarify the limits of what they know, and will tell you how you can find out for yourself). When they don’t have that amount of sense, it’s easy enough to ignore them.

    Ignoring evidence-based truth is harder, or at least it should be.

    Unfortunately, it’s also harder to ignore theocratic demagogs who use every manner of psychological manipulation and sophistry to indoctrinate their flocks of faithful believers. (Christianity is not the only religion with this problem, but there are relatively few others that have it as bad or worse.)

    People who get that kind of attention from their religious “leaders” rarely have the wherewithal to see uninformed Christian drivel for what it really is. “True Christians” (and “true Muslims”, etc) have their work cut out for them in keeping the demagogs in check, and countering that especially poisonous form of drivel. Heck, the more you succeed in doing that, the fewer valid complaints atheists will have against religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Good luck.

  5. @Tom: “… the atheists willingness to parade their ignorance…”

    Which ignorance is that, Tom? The ignorance of rejecting imaginary claims? The ignorance of dismissing divine pseudo-mysteries that have no plausible relevance to reality? The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales? Or maybe it’s the ignorance of noticing the contradictions and equivocations that are involved in sustaining the illusion of coherence in religious belief – I guess our inability to accept incoherence as truth must make us look pretty ignorant from your perspective.

    If you’re using “ignorance” to refer to things like working to understand actual research that’s been done, actually doing more research, forming and testing hypotheses, synthesizing and critically analyzing theories, measuring the accuracy of predictions, and with all that, still admitting honestly to the things we really don’t know – in short, everything that religion doesn’t do and won’t do because it must not do – if all of that is “ignorance” because it’s rooted in empiricism and has no use for groundless, ethereal speculation, I’m happy to claim that as my “ignorance” as an atheist.

    Sheesh, when this crowd of “thinking Christians” gets worked up, hubris becomes wisdom, and theological guesswork becomes knowledge. It’s actually kind of a shame that you probably won’t be able to realize your mistake once you’re dead – realization only comes with consciousness, and death is most likely the end of that. And even if it isn’t, the odds are incalculably remote that any of the myriad “predictions” for afterlife fabricated in the name of Christianity might be true.

  6. “The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales?”

    These kind of vague generalities are worthless drivel. Come on Otto, be specific. Give us one of those places were the “evidence is antithetical to our religion”.

  7. {For this one I’ll quote at length from Dr. McGrew:
    5. “Supernatural darkness covers ‘all the land’ for hours.”
    Presumably the graphic means to refer to the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death… }

    Does Dr. McGrew “do” a point by point refutation of this graphic. I would sure love to read his take on some of the other points.

    Robert
    p.s. Thank-you for a great website !

  8. How very kind of Otto to show up and serve as an example.

    What an oh-so-neatly-crafted ambiguity!

    Just the tiniest bit of reading comprehension would resolve the ambiguity for you. Read to understand, not to denigrate.

    Uninformed atheists, as often as not, have the sense to say “I don’t know” when that happens to be right…

    You must live in one of the multiverse’s many alternates, where this sort of thing actually happens “as often as not”, and have somehow managed to communicate to us across the void.

    That, or drugs.

    Which ignorance is that, Tom?

    Again, reading comprehension is your friend.

    The ignorance of rejecting imaginary claims?

    Imaginary claims? Oh my!

    The ignorance of dismissing divine pseudo-mysteries that have no plausible relevance to reality?

    Divine psuedo-mysteries? Oh my!

    The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales?

    Every rational person? Every single one?
    Oh dear, oh dear.

    I guess our inability to accept incoherence as truth must make us look pretty ignorant from your perspective.

    No. No, that’s definitely NOT what it is!

    Otto’s posts are not entirely without merit though. In reading them I’ve been inspired to write a children’s book.

    I’ll call it “Otto the Pooh and the Blustery Post.”

  9. I have no way of knowing how the “historical Jesus” would view the behavior of his faithful followers in this and other recent threads. It’s hard to tell about him, because the quotes attributed to Jesus in the NT run the gamut from sublimely inspired to deeply disturbed. He might very well approve of the insults and obtuseness you’ve been tossing around, especially if he were prone to appreciate your flattery of him – he was, after all, only human. But in any case, he is dead – and try as you might, you really can’t prove otherwise. Hard enough trying to prove that he ever existed at all.

    As for the imaginary Jesus that lives inside the head of each self-satisfied theist here, I have no doubt that he’s perfectly pleased with you, indeed. That’s what he’s there for.

  10. You think,

    I have no doubt that he’s perfectly pleased with you, indeed. That’s what he’s there for.

    If you only knew.

    Jesus Christ loves all, regardless of what we do, but I know of no Christian, least of all myself, who thinks he loves us because he’s pleased with our actions. He loves us because he loves us, regardless of our actions.

  11. Otto,

    You are here as a welcome guest among people with whom you have severe disagreements. That’s fine. I’ve done that myself, and it’s a normal part of Internet communications. Your recent comment prompts me to review what you have written here, and what has been said back to you in response. I think a good dose of reality is in order.

    You’ve been welcomed here as a guest in spite of your continually sneering at your hosts. (How often would that happen in any other relationships you know of?) Eleven times in the past few weeks you have dismissed us as with the specific description of holding to “imaginary” beliefs. (I’ve spoken of certain things being “illusory” on atheism, but that’s what a lot of atheists themselves believe, and I developed an argument for that position.)

    You’ve been generally insulting in other ways, for example, here and here, where you were really snarky by your own admission. Did you notice how graciously BillT responded? In response to him and others, though, you called him “sick,” “insane,” and “ill.” You called him “thickheaded”.

    For example:
    Sept. 26:

    I think this “someone” you say must exist is just a product of your imagination (assisted, of course, by the imaginations of the various authors and editors responsible for the holy scripture you grew up with).

    There’s a not-too-subtle jab there at what you perceive as Christian infantilism: we can’t get past what we grew up with. It completely ignores the fact that many believers began to follow Christ as adults. I met someone Wednesday who became a Christian at 59.

    You are “amused” at how some of us “ignore or deny” truth.

    Your snarkiness continued with

    Well, fine. You get that by making stuff up, or by accepting the claims of ancient authors who were making stuff up, about the supernatural realm.

    You poisoned the well with irrelevant (to the current discussion) and unsupported assertions, as I already explained to you. I pressed on you in a series of comments there, not to insult you globally, as has been your wont to do with us, but to try to get you to wake up to something very specific: your strong and unbending confidence that you understood the argument that was underway when you manifestly did not. (See esp. here.)That’s not insult, in my book. I’ll take that kind of thing from you any day with thanks. Or I would if you had that kind of message for me, that is.

    You said Christianity was characterized by

    theocratic demagogs who use every manner of psychological manipulation and sophistry to indoctrinate their flocks of faithful believers. (Christianity is not the only religion with this problem, but there are relatively few others that have it as bad or worse.)

    You further said Christianity was a mess of “divine pseudo-mysteries that have no plausible relevance to reality;” that it was obvious to “every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales;” that our beliefs are filled with contradictions and equivocations that are involved in sustaining the illusion of coherence in religious belief;” and “groundless, ethereal speculation.”

    You did that while still not acknowledging that you didn’t even understand the discussion underway on the previous thread. And you did that without acknowledging that I had directed my criticisms in the OP there both outwardly and inwardly.

    Now, look back over that and consider whether that’s respectful treatment of fellow human beings. The fact is you consider us infantile, superstitious idiots; insane; pathologically disconnected from reality; sophistical manipulators who have ourselves been manipulated. In other words, you have taken repeatedly to the tactic of delivering deep personal insults.

    In response to that, what kind of push-back did you get? We responded by re-explaining our positions to you, trying to get you to understand what you were saying, pointing out to you that you weren’t always getting it, and completely refraining from responding to you in kind.

    I did speak of some atheists’ willingness to parade their ignorance, but I supported it with an example, and I didn’t globalize it as you globalized (what you view as) Christian ignorance. Furthermore I admitted it’s not just an atheists’ problem, but that it’s an issue within Christianity. I don’t think any of that was uncalled for.

    Then Longstreet came along. First he agreed strongly that Christian ignorance is a serious issue. Then he returned and gave you back just a little bit of what you had been dishing out——and you lashed out in response that Jesus would be ashamed of how we’ve been behaving, not only in Longstreet’s comment but also in “this and other recent threads.”

    You say you believe in empiricism. Those are the facts. I might have missed some genuine earlier mistreatment we’ve done you. If so then you can feel free to add that to the facts.

    Now I’ll go beyond the facts into some admitted speculation about what’s going on behind the scenes. (Note that I’m admitting this is speculation, in contrast to the über-confident pronouncements you’ve been making about what’s behind our beliefs.) You seem angry. You never acknowledged or mentioned the manner in which we were treating you—respectfully in spite of your constant jabs at us—until you found an opportunity to proclaim us really, really awful. I think you were baiting us and trying to create that opportunity so that you could confirm your presuppositions. But those presuppositions were being disconfirmed day after day, comment after comment, and you missed it.

    But setting speculation aside, and returning to the facts you and I can both look at on the screen: you’ve been very intentionally rude and insulting, and we haven’t responded in kind, except (in a lesser way and to a lesser degree) Longstreet’s last comment—the one you reacted to. That’s what the evidence shows. Take a look at it, if you really believe in empiricism.

    P.S. By the way, if you care to find out what happens when the shoe is on the other foot, I encourage you to try an experiment. Go to some prominent atheist website—pick one of your choosing, or try Pharyngula if you don’t have one in mind—and post something there that you think represents a Christian-based argument. Choose one of the best, if you want to make this a good experiment (you do believe in empiricism, right?). See whether your comment gets met with (a) a serious response to the argument (i.e., “you’re wrong, and here’s why…”), or (b) belittling and insulting you (i.e., “you’re a small-minded ignorant idiot…”) without any real attention to what you actually wrote. Compare that to how we’ve treated you here. You might find it instructive.

  12. A couple more points, if I may.

    1. I’m thinking that someone who posts something like this:

    The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales?

    doesn’t have a whole lot of room to complain about insults and obtuseness. If you didn’t want a snarky debate, then why the snark?

    2. My imaginary friend once called the religious leaders of his day a nest of vipers, and whitewashed tombs. “Otto the Pooh and the Blustery Post” seems pretty tame in comparison, to me at any rate. But if it will assuage Otto’s feelings, I withdraw the (thoroughly tongue in cheek, as I suspect he knows) accusation of drug use.

    Sorry if I was a distraction, Tom.

  13. Thank you, Longstreet.

    I agree with your assessment: your post was pretty tame by comparison. Otto was fishing for something (I’m guessing, of course) and when he got something vaguely resembling it he pounced. Vaguely resembling.

  14. I recall an recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, (site here)

    that discussed evidence for the earthquakes in Jerusalem reported in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, here.

    It mounts a plausible case for the historicity of such an event that occurred in the right time period, correlating with our Lord Jesus’ death.

    Just one more piece of information to fit into the historical mosaic of the events that occurred in Judea during Pontius Pilate’s tenure – there are no points for guessing what our (Christians’) abductive reasoning leads to 🙂

  15. More intellectual cowardice from Otto characterized by more vague generalities. What’s up with that Otto? Not enough facts or the courage to give us even one specific place where you believe that reason runs contrary to our beliefs.

  16. The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales?

    Ironically the way Otto has been arguing is anything but evidence based. It seems to me that Otto has prejudged every Christian who has ever lived as being hopelessly irrational. He’s not going to win any arguments here if that’s his approach. But then, maybe he’s really not trying to win an argument. Maybe this is just all about pretension and posturing. That’s too bad. It would interesting to have an honest discussion with an atheist who was willing to honestly consider the evidence.

  17. @Tom (#14): Well, the stridency of rhetoric among you and your colleagues seems to be getting dialed back a bit (even SteveK limits himself to calling me just “pathetic”, which I guess is more civil than calling me an idiot.) – and I should be grateful for that. Thank you.

    I have to point out that you, Tom, have stretched things rather badly in your characterization of some of my remarks (for which you provided so many useful links – thanks for that, too; I honestly appreciate your effort).

    In particular, you seem to have concluded that my reference to “theocratic demagogues” in my initial reply in this thread was meant to refer to all Christians, including you. Please look again at the last paragraph of my initial reply in this thread (which I wrote before I saw your “parading ignorance” remark, gloating about how you “hit [me] pretty hard”).

    I was referring to the specific set of self-proclaimed Christians who in fact have acted as demagogues, and by doing so have seriously sullied the name and undermined the value of Christianity.

    My sincere hope is that the “True Christians” among you will actively work to limit and repair the damage done by the demagogues. I already know that you do not deny their existence, and that you do not approve of their “teachings.” I fully support you in your struggle against them.

    Please understand: when you compare the atheists, who simply dismiss claims of miraculous events and unevidenced entities, against the false prophets, who mimic your “faith-based reasoning” and distort your scripture, it should be clear that the latter group poses the far more serious threat – not only to the True Christians, but to humanity at large.

    Now, allow me to pose an honest question (I’m sure this has been asked before, so perhaps you can point me to an existing answer):

    Given that the false prophet, by appealing to an experience of revelation and/or a linguistically valid interpretation of scripture, is using the same resources – and claiming the same authority – that serve as the foundation of your own beliefs, how do you properly refute the false prophet? How do you substantiate that the revelations and interpretations that you accept are the right ones? (Bonus points if you can include the notion of “progressive revelation” in an adequate and coherent answer. And if you can explain clearly how you define “progress” in that context, we may even find that we have some basis for agreement, finally.)

    Those of you who are not Mormons: are you inclined to refute the claims of Joseph Smith? That one should be pretty easy – it’s child’s play for any atheist (the man was a charlatan, and many of his claims were blatantly preposterous, not to mention racist). But for the millions of Mormons in the world who accept Mormonism on faith (not a few of whom converted as adults), how would you, as a True Christian theist, convince them in refuting Smith?

    Those of you who are not 7th-Day Adventists: how about Ellen White (who provided the foundational SDA literature)? She clearly did not regard the OT/NT canonical Bible with the sort of disdain that Smith expressed – quite the opposite. Indeed, rather too much the opposite: the SDA church is at the forefront of efforts to deny and eradicate scientific truth, and replace it with a frankly embarrassing biblical literalism; it serves as the perfect example of what Augustine (and you, Tom) said Christians should not do. And yet, that’s what they do, on the basis of faith. How do you, as a True Christian theist, refute their false beliefs about the true nature of Christianity and the true value and interpretation of scripture?

    Does anyone feel that my central question here is idiotic or pathetic or irrational or worthless?

    You might think that atheism should rank as the bigger problem because it is the “common enemy” of all religious faiths. But if atheism didn’t exist at all, you would certainly not be any better off – the reality is very much to the contrary. Religious faith can be (and all too often is) its own worst enemy.

  18. Point taken with regard to demagogues. You did not say it applied to all Christianity; you only said it was worse in Christianity than in just about every other religion. It’s a fine distinction but I’ll accept that I misunderstood you on it, and I appreciate your further clarification.

    Now, did I also get it wrong about your calling individuals on this site “sick,” “insane,” “ill,” “thick-headed,” holding “imaginary,” “fairy-tale” beliefs?

    Was I generally wrong about the way we’ve responded to you here all along (at least until that one comment from Longstreet, and the one I admittedly missed, “idiot,” from Steve) in spite of your treating people like that? Was the overall tenor of that comment in error? Was that “stretched rather badly”? Please elaborate on my error, if indeed I was wrong. I’d be more than happy to learn from you, because so far I don’t understand it.

    I don’t have time this morning to respond to the new stuff you’ve brought up here most recently, but I just want you to know I’m very unimpressed with the way you’ve zeroed in on one over-generalization in what I wrote while ignoring the rest. I’d have a lot more respect for you if you would treat this conversation as a conversation, not just an opportunity to find whatever fault you can find. I’d have more respect for you if you would even acknowledge the main point of what I wrote to you in that last long comment.

  19. Your new topic in that last comment is indeed a new topic. And a huge one. The answer is contained in libraries’ worth of research and analysis on biblical literature, archaeology, and general apologetics.

    I can’t speak for other commenters here, but I want you to know that when I do get time to respond, I’m not guaranteeing that I will address those issues. Here’s why. When I post an article on some topic T, I’m taking on a voluntary commitment to discuss T with anyone who shows up to talk about it. I’m not taking on a commitment to discuss U, V, W, X, Y, or Z, if some commenter brings up one or more of those topics (you’ve brought just about that many here).

    You can see why I have to keep that boundary clear. If I write about T, you have a choice: you don’t have to respond. I’m not holding your time hostage in any way when I write something on the Internet. When you write something on the Internet, you can’t expect me or anyone else to hold our time hostage to what you’ve written either.

    I’ll stick with my topic T because that’s what I committed to do when I wrote it. I’ll speak to other topics if I decide to do so.

    For the rest, I suggest you do a google site search for those topics on this blog. I haven’t addressed all those topics, esp. Seventh Day Adventism, but you’ll find some of what you’re looking for anyway.

  20. Well Otto that’s a very thoughtful diversionary post. What about the “imaginary Jesus that lives inside the head of each self-satisfied theist here,…” or “The ignorance of pointing to your lack of evidence when it’s patently obvious to every rational person that evidence is antithetical to your religious fairy tales?” or “…the contradictions and equivocations that are involved in sustaining the illusion of coherence in religious belief…”

    What? Not going to follow up on any of those? Not going to give us even one concrete example that would illustrate any of the above. And please, don’t tell us you were talking about Joseph Smith.

  21. I don’t want to be too harsh here lest I offend Otto again, but is he really accusing the other commenters here of being strident? After his pair of posts on October 9th?

    Really?

    BillT is right. Your deflection is duly noted. If you don’t want to be laughed at, then save the “imaginary Jesus”, “illusion of coherence” and “every rational person” garbage for Reddit.

    Was that too strident?

  22. Otto @ #5 wrote:

    If you’re using “ignorance” to refer to things like working to understand actual research that’s been done, actually doing more research, forming and testing hypotheses, synthesizing and critically analyzing theories, measuring the accuracy of predictions, and with all that, still admitting honestly to the things we really don’t know – in short, everything that religion doesn’t do and won’t do because it must not do – if all of that is “ignorance” because it’s rooted in empiricism and has no use for groundless, ethereal speculation, I’m happy to claim that as my “ignorance” as an atheist.

    I’d like Otto to answer one question:

    Is natural causation alone (causation that does not involve any kind of intelligent agency–God, angels, aliens etc.) sufficient to explain everything about the universe, life and human existence?

    Can you prove it? Or, do I need to accept it by faith?

  23. BTW, my “idiot” comment was directed at the person I quoted, which was the author of the video, not Otto.

  24. @JAD (#26): Given the current state of knowledge about the universe, life and human existence, there is obviously plenty that we don’t know and don’t understand.

    It certainly seems plausible and likely that human understanding of natural causation will never be complete – which means it will never be “sufficient to explain everything.” We just don’t know yet what humans are really capable of.

    But so long as we keep accumulating evidence, and keep developing and refining our theories so that they accurately account for all the evidence we’ve accumulated, the range of things explained by our understanding of natural causation will continue to expand in useful ways.

    In contrast, if it remains based on 2000-year-old traditions (to the exclusion of evidence), our understanding of the universe, life and human existence won’t expand, and won’t be any more useful than it was 2000 years ago (when slavery was ok, capital punishment was applied at the whim of leaders, and all manner of suffering was either demons’ work or God’s will).

    The point is: when it comes to understanding reality, it doesn’t help to accept anything “by faith.” What helps is to have a reliable basis in observable evidence, consistent with sound logic, for the things you think you know and understand, and to be able to recognize the limits of what you know based on the available evidence.

    If you want to speculate about things for which there is no reliable, observable evidence (such as a creator deity who wishes to have personal relationships with individual humans), go ahead – I have no problem with that, so long as you don’t insist that in doing so you have revealed an absolute truth that everyone else ought to accept “by faith.” (To the extent that others choose to agree with you, I have no problem with that either, but that sort of consensus still falls way short of establishing something as “absolute truth.”)

    If you go further, and say that your deity will condemn me to eternal torture after death unless I accept your notion of “absolute truth” before I die, or that your deity is offended by homosexuality and therefore people who happen to be homosexuals must repress and deny their own nature, I’ll have to be more assertive about the fact that you don’t have any reliable, observable evidence to back up these claims.

    All you have is a set of imperfectly preserved oral traditions from a couple thousand years ago; there are other religions that can match or top you on that, as well as on the volumes of theological discourse you may want to cite in support of your claims. I’m sorry, but that really is not sufficient to explain much at all.

  25. @Tom (#22): I’ll take the time to be clear about how certain terms have been used. (Thanks to SteveK, BTW, for clearing up who he was calling an idiot – it’s still an unjustified insult that doesn’t come close to actually addressing the argument that led the “idiot” to his conclusion.)

    BillT posed a series of questions along the lines of this one (which, curiously, doesn’t have a question-mark):

    What can you say to me if I decide that creating benefits is “bad” or causing harm is “good”.

    Terms like “insane”, “ill” and “seemingly thick-headed” were referring to the hypothetical person he posited, who would be inclined to hold views of that sort, or to question or deny the intrinsic value of human life (whether that value be God-given or naturally emergent). My intended point was that society in general (including the True Christian and the New Atheist) has a common antagonist in such people.

    The term “sick” was used to refer to “some religious apologists who want to insist that anyone who forgoes belief in and tithing to their particular deity must therefore also lack intrinsic value.”

    I trust that you and BillT and the others involved in our discussions here are not people of that ilk. But I also trust that you do not deny the existence of such people. (Remember the folks at Westboro Baptist Church? Do they offend you as much as they offend me? Be sure to count them in among the others that I brought up in my “diversionary” post (#21), if and when you respond to my basic question there.)

    I appreciate the sincere engagement here, and I will strive to communicate more clearly.

  26. @BillT (#24) and Longstreet (#25): I realize that my tone in #5 was inflammatory, and I admit it was intended to be, given how I perceived the treatment I was getting.

    I don’t want to revert to flame-bait, but I do want to make it clear that my statements in #5 were chosen because they are well founded, and they apply at least to a significant fragment of the population that self-identifies as Christian, even if they don’t apply to individuals involved in this forum.

    Regarding fairy tales: Do you hold that believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is an essential foundation of Christian faith? I’ve known a few people who regarded themselves as Christians while concluding that this part of NT lore was based on something that was, at best, a mistranslation. (That was many years ago; I don’t know if they still regard themselves as Christian.) If you happen to be one of those people, then my charge of “fairy tale beliefs” is refuted in this case.

    I’m pretty sure there’s no definitive evidence to say whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin – apart from the so far exceptionless rule that human pregnancy requires male sperm, and the inescapable conclusion that getting sperm into Mary’s reproductive organs would have required sex.

    But the real problem with the miraculous conception story is that, even if there were a physical trace from the body of Jesus, and even if it showed DNA patterns that are consistent with a normal person who had a normal human father, the virgin-birth believer simply needs to posit the further notion that, of course, God the Father caused a fully potent and genuine male sperm cell to spring into existence de novo within Mary’s uterus, complete with the specific traits of some chosen male line – or whatever it takes to “explain” the evidence and sustain the virgin-birth tale. If that’s the sort of direction to which your thoughts are inclined, I’m sorry, but the “fairy tale” charge holds up.

    As for lack of coherence, where to start? I’ll put that off, perhaps indefinitely for this thread. It’s a topic that’s bound to come up elsewhere.

  27. BTW: this is no longer a discussion of the graphic I started with, it’s about who’s treating whom badly, and in what ways. The important thing now is for ourselves to take a step back, stop for a while from trying to defend or attack, and just see ourselves and each other clearly as fellow human beings.

  28. Okay, I’m back from the breakfast Bible study. Great discussion there, and if you’d been there, Otto, I think you would have had great trouble characterizing that group the way you do us here.

    With respect (and I use that word advisedly) to your most recent defense, I want you to realize that if you intended “insanity,” “ill,” and “thickheaded” to refer to some hypothetical person, you did not say it that way. Therefore we did not read it that way, and even now, without some further explanation on your part, it isn’t easy to believe that’s what you really meant. Please re-read what you wrote and I think you’ll see it.

    And I think that means the point I made a bit earlier still stands. What you have been writing here about us (actually writing, regardless of whether you intended it that way or not) has been belittling and inflammatory. I said it before, and I’ll repeat it: based on what you have written here,

    you consider us infantile, superstitious idiots; insane; pathologically disconnected from reality; sophistical manipulators who have ourselves been manipulated. In other words, you have taken repeatedly to the tactic of delivering deep personal insults.

    Take “fairy tales” as a repeated instance. Fairy tales are by definition stories that everyone knows are false and impossible. Anyone who thinks they’re real is pathologically deluded, mentally ill. And we believe in the virgin birth, so by your analysis we suffer from a pathological delusion.

    But the fact is that not everyone knows that the virgin birth is impossible. It’s only impossible if there’s no God who would enter earth as a human in that manner. Not everyone knows that there is no such God. In fact a whole lot of highly educated, intelligent, sane, good, productive people think that there is such a God. You on the other hand think we’re wrong; but instead of simply disagreeing and saying, “You’re wrong,” you ramp it up to “you believe in fairy tales.”

    So when I said earlier you were not seeing yourself clearly, this is what I want you to recognize: you’re not just conducting one side of a debate. You’re not just staking out a claim on a position, you’re not just defending it, you’re not just trying to tear down an opposing viewpoint. You’re also belittling and in effect dehumanizing the people you’re debating with.

    And this will hurt you. If you can dismiss us as infantile then you can ignore our arguments. Suppose there was some substance to them. You’d never notice. You wouldn’t have to (by your own view); they come from thickheaded believers in fairy tales.

    It hurts you another way, too: the more you dehumanize and infantilize other humans, the more you do it to yourself. It’s just a principle of human life: no one becomes great by treating others as small. I don’t think you’re small. I think you’re wrong (as you think I am wrong); I think your position is philosophically, evidentially, and existentially untenable. But that doesn’t give me license to call you something less than human, for God didn’t make you less than human.

    So think about these things, please. Thanks.

  29. Otto. Thank you for the direct reply.

    From you post #29 let me focus in on what I believe is the critical statement you made.

    ”…or to question or deny the intrinsic value of human life (whether that value be God-given or naturally emergent).”

    This is the problem. The “intrinsic value of human life” only exists is there is a reason (and I’m going to continue to emphasize that word) for its existence. There simply is no intrinsic value to human life unless you can give a reason why such value exists. As a Christian, I don’t believe in things existing without reason. It is a fallacy to characterize intrinsic value as “naturally emergent”. Human life has no intrinsic value unless there is a reason why. Can you give me a reason?

    Let me illustrate. The naturalistic understanding of man’s existence is one of a great cosmic confluence of factors all of which fell together by mere chance. That chance confluence created life but that is all it created. That’s all it could create. Value is a metaphysical trait. Chance can’t create metaphysical value. If the above is true, we are all just blobs of sophisticated protoplasm, briefly existent, soon to be gone forever without a trace. Value? Please! In the above circumstances that is simply wishful thinking. No reason for value, no value. Can you give me a reason?

    As to your post #30 in order to better understand the issue we need to get out of the weeds a bit and look at the bigger picture. The virgin birth along with the flaming bush, the talking mule, the water into wine, the healing of the lame, the raising of the dead, and the resurrection itself are all the same thing. They are miracles. There are many vastly more qualified people than me to speak on this topic (C.S Lewis among others). I would hope if this topic has interest for you, you would seek them out.

    However, allow me to give you the “back of the envelope” explanation why miracles are not “fairy tales”. It’s a simple one word answer. God. If God exists, a God capable of creation ex nihilo, then the existence of miracles within His creation is not only not unusual or unbelievable or incredible, it’s actually quite mundane. Quite obviously, if God wants to intercede in His own creation, for whatever reason and in whatever manner, he can simply do so. It’s simply one small aspect of His omnipotence. Since the existence of God is certainly not disproven, miracles are certainly possible and reasonable.

  30. It is a fallacy to characterize intrinsic value as “naturally emergent”.

    In order from something to emerge, it must first exist as a possibility to emerge. That would mean that intrinsic value existed in “potential form” prior to it emerging and that makes no sense under naturalism. The nature of reality under naturalism – the kind of thing that reality is – doesn’t allow for it.

  31. @ Otto (#28)

    Given the current state of knowledge about the universe, life and human existence, there is obviously plenty that we don’t know and don’t understand.

    It certainly seems plausible and likely that human understanding of natural causation will never be complete – which means it will never be “sufficient to explain everything.” We just don’t know yet what humans are really capable of.

    If you believe that “natural causation alone is sufficient to explain everything about the universe, life and human existence,” and you cannot prove it, then you believe it by faith. Why would anyone want to be an atheist if it is something that they have to believe by faith?

    But so long as we keep accumulating evidence, and keep developing and refining our theories so that they accurately account for all the evidence we’ve accumulated, the range of things explained by our understanding of natural causation will continue to expand in useful ways.

    That’s a version of “promissory naturalism”. Again, you are smuggling in faith.

    In contrast, if it remains based on 2000-year-old traditions (to the exclusion of evidence), our understanding of the universe, life and human existence won’t expand, and won’t be any more useful than it was 2000 years ago…

    I don’t know any Christians here who believes faith and evidence are mutually exclusive. You are the only one making that argument.

    The problem with you assumption “that natural causation is a sufficient explanation” is that it does not “accurately account for all the evidence.”

  32. How about this, BillT? — continuing my thoughts on potential…

    Suppose all that actually existed were crooked lines. Can circles emerge from from this reality? Could you in theory connect millions upon millions of the crooked lines and form them into the shape of a circle? You might test this idea and conclude that a circle did in fact emerge out of crooked lines. I mean — it looks like a circle, right?

    If a circle really did emerge (I am assuming this to be true) then we must go back and alter the opening statement to reflect the true nature of reality. The statement “all that actually existed were crooked lines” is only partially correct. A better, more complete and accurate statement about the nature of reality would be “all that actually existed were crooked lines and the potential for circles”.

    The kind of thing that reality IS – it’s essence – now looks very different. From the very inception of reality, circles were a part of it’s essence – a real part of all reality. So even though circles emerged later as physical circles, circles have always been part of reality.

    Substitute the term ‘intrinsic value’ for the term ‘circles’ and see if this makes sense under naturalism. Does naturalism say that intrinsic value has always been part of the essence of reality? It does not. I therefore conclude – by reason – that naturalism is false.

    Otto, you are welcome to explain how it is that I’m wrong.

  33. Atheist philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson once said that he would believe in God if He were to suddenly appear and everyone in the world was knocked to their “knees by a percussion and ear-shattering thunderclap. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open, the clouds part, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure, towering over the features of his Michelangeloid face. Then he points down at me and explains for every man, woman and child to hear: ‘I’ve had quite enough of your too clever logic chopping word-watching in matters of theology. Be ashamed, Norwood Russell Hanson. I do most certainly exist.'”

    Notice that there are even some atheists, like Hansen, who think that God would use miracles to authenticate himself. Hansen was actually arguing that the miracles were not good enough for him. Apparently he wanted a personal demonstration.

  34. Steve,

    So glad to have you to inform and educate me in the many places where my virtual complete lack of philosophic training is evident.

  35. Bill,
    I’m as untrained as you. Just passing along, in my own words, what has been explained to me. As far as this blog is concerned, I’d say G. Rodrigues is the go-to guy on the subject.

  36. @JAD (#37): I said (and you quoted me): “It certainly seems plausible and likely that human understanding of natural causation will never be complete – which means it will never be ‘sufficient to explain everything.’…”

    And then you said: “If you believe that ‘natural causation alone is sufficient to explain everything..,’ … then you believe it by faith.”

    How strange, that you quote what I said, then attribute to me an opinion that directly contradicts what I said. Recall that the first mention of “sufficient” in this thread is in the question that you posed to me (#26) ; the second mention is in my response to you (#28), which both of us have now repeated. But you seem not to have noticed what I actually said.

    My position on natural causation is not a matter of faith: I do not credit it with powers that it obviously does not have. But I do credit it as being the only method available to us, as humans, to acquire reliable knowledge about reality. Notions of supernatural causation are not well suited to this purpose, because they can’t be tested; they do not yield useful hypotheses or predictions. That’s the point I’m hoping you’ll understand.

    Next, you quote my comment about how we continue to expand the range of things that we can explain through naturalism – a fact observed, at an ever-accelerating rate, over the last few hundred years – and you apparently want to claim that by projecting this trend into the future (you label this “promissory naturalism”), I am “smuggling in faith.” This is like saying that our projections about future astronomical or tectonic movements are faith-based and “promissory.” (Some Christians actually try to make that kind of argument in their “apologetics.” It’s sad.)

    You say (and I won’t dispute this) that you “don’t know any Christians here who believes [sic] faith and evidence are mutually exclusive.” That’s good news. But a core point I’ve expressed multiple times in this thread (starting with my first reply, where I actually agree with a core point in Tom’s original post), is that there are other Christians out there who don’t share this attitude. What’s to be done about them?

    Do you counter them with alternate scriptural interpretations, metaphysics and supernatural claims? Or do you counter them with evidence and the predictive power of well-formed hypotheses based on well-supported theories? Which do you think would be more effective?

    BTW, do you accept the evidence that all primate species are descended from a common mammalian ancestor? For naturalists, and for Christians who practice science rigorously, this is not a matter of faith. I don’t know how those Christians reconcile the facts of the matter with their personal metaphysical beliefs, but there are way too many other Christians who consider their own faith and the evidence in this area to be mutually exclusive. That is a serious problem, and the fault lies squarely on the side of supernaturalism.

    I will certainly acknowledge that, among the world’s religions, there are forms and examples of Christianity that compare favorably in terms of fostering and being consistent with evidence-based reasoning (despite the fact that some of Christianity’s foundational claims defy reason). Unfortunately, religions generally (including some specific brands and phases of Christianity) have set a rather low bar here.

  37. Otto,

    But I do credit it as being the only method available to us, as humans, to acquire reliable knowledge about reality.

    I hope you can see that, clearly, science (methodological naturalism) cannot tell you if your philosophical stance here (philosophical naturalism) is true or not.

    Please explain how you acquired this knowledge of reality *through* natural causation?

  38. Otto,
    It *seems* like you are making the same grave errors that Alex Rosenberg makes in his book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Edward Feser reviews the book here.

    If the review is accurate, I see in you some of the same errors of scientism that Rosenberg makes. Given the absurd view of reality that results from taking such a stance, doesn’t that trouble you enough to rethink your stance – or are you going to continue to grit your teeth and double down?

  39. “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.”
    F.M. Alexander