CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In the course of discussing Christianity with non-believers, I often come across the assertion that the Biblical texts ought to be viewed “skeptically.” After all, it is argued, you wouldn’t take such claims as are made in the Bible at face value if they were made about people other than Jesus. Thus, these skeptics continue, if the ancient authors attributed miracles to some ancient leader from the same period of time – Caesar Augustus, for example – you’d be skeptical about such claims, wouldn’t you?

Naturally, I agree. There is no question that claims made in ancient literature about a person taking any action whatsoever ought to be viewed with a certain degree of skepticism. Moreover, I agree generally that the nature of the claim should, in some circumstances, cause certain claims to be viewed more skeptically than other claims. A thing that is more likely to occur or that is common should be viewed with less skepticism than the claims of actions that are either very likely to occur or which are extremely less common. Thus, a claim that Caesar Augustus commissioned a certain building to be built rightly ought to be viewed less skeptically than the claim that Caesar Augustus snapped his fingers and the building miraculously rose out of the ground completely intact. The first is a common occurrence that most (if not all) ancient rulers would regularly have done. The latter requires that Caesar Augustus have a power or powers that go beyond what we would normally expect of a mere mortal. One ought to be skeptical of such claims.

I would hope that we would be on common ground in agreeing that skepticism is both appropriate and the best approach. But it has become quite apparent to me that what the skeptic (at least, the skeptic of the Internet variety) means when he calls for skepticism is vastly different that I am talking about when I talk about skepticism. You see, when I talk about skepticism, I mean it in the ordinary sense of the word – I will doubt the truth of the claim being made without sufficient evidence to believe it to be truthful. In other words, I remain open to the idea that the claim that may seem miraculous to us is actually miraculous. Meanwhile, today’s skeptic does not seem to believe that skepticism is merely a step in the process, and that such skepticism can, in fact, be overcome based on evidence. She simply rejects any possibility that the miraculous occurrence could have actually occurred. Skepticism is not the process by which claims are examined – it is the conclusion that can only be overcome by . . . uh, . . . actually, it can’t be overcome. Skepticism turns off legitimate inquiry in the name of a preconceived conclusion based on the unlikelihood of the claim itself.

I believe it to be beyond reasonable doubt that skepticism was originally (and remains today) part of an appropriate process of evaluating claims. When I hear or read a claim that something incredible happened, e.g., the Bush administration was responsible for destroying the World Trade Center on 9/11 using explosives planted in the buildings prior to the airplanes crashing into the two towers, my first reaction is to be skeptical. (Actually, my first reaction is “how can anyone believe such nonsense,” but that’s another story.) I find it very difficult to believe such a claim. Now, if I were to see evidence that supported the claim (so far, I haven’t), then my skepticism would lessen because I remain open (even if initially skeptical) to the idea that the Bush administration really engaged in such pointless acts.

The skeptics that I have run into when discussing the Bible don’t use skepticism in that way. The skeptics’ initial judgment of the situation cannot be overcome by any amount of evidence because the skepticism is no longer part of the process of determining the truth – it is the truth that the evidence will necessarily determine. Evidence presented to the contrary – e.g., detonation caps being found amidst the rubble (not saying that such things have been discovered) – are dismissed under one guise or another as inconsistent with the conclusion that skepticism presents as the correct answer.

When a skeptic uses the tired cliché of “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” they are merely covering this promotion of skepticism to a conclusion behind rhetoric. What exactly is an “extraordinary claim”? What constitutes “extraordinary evidence”? The answer to the first is “anything that involves the idea that God actually exists and involves Himself in human affairs.” The answer to the second is “whatever is presented by the Christian to support the idea that God actually exists and involves Himself in human affairs is not sufficient.”

This is not skepticism; this is simply rejection of the possibility of the miraculous based upon preconceived notions. Hence, it seems to me that skeptics shouldn’t call themselves skeptics. They are using a word that has traditionally meant one thing to stand for something completely different. (But then, that is consistent with their history. The term “free-thinkers” should mean that people who claim that title think for themselves, but anyone who has ever debated these self-proclaimed free-thinkers and witnessed the way so many of them merely mimic the same tired arguments that they read in some atheist manifesto knows that these so-called free-thinkers are anything but.) I think that in the interest of truth in advertising, they should call themselves something more accurate like “rejecters” since that is really what they are doing while claiming to be merely skeptical.

16 comments:

It's really not that difficult.

There's no verifiable evidence that a miracle has ever happened in the course of history. Reports of miracles are by admittedly biased sources, and all religious people reject claims of miracles from competing religions based on criteria they will not apply to their own faith systems.

Until someone proves that a miracle can actually happen, there's no reason to conclude that a miracle could happen.

The phrase "extraordinary claims..." refers directly to this fact. To prove your Bible's claims of a miracle truthful, you have to prove not only that the record is accurate, but that such an achievement is indeed possible.

No one doubts s Caesar's erection of a building because that was well within the capabilities of such a ruler. But to justify your resurrection, you need to prove that a resurrection is indeed possible and that the record of said resurrection is accurate.

Hitler's propogandists documented the existence of a superior Aryan race. They would be the acknowledged experts on such a race and we could determine that their reports were transmitted faithfully. However, we reject these reports because no one else has recognized that a superior Aryan race does indeed exist. Although their record was transmitted faithfully, we write them off as bigots because we recognize that their theories were propogandist bunk, created with motives apart from pure research.

To the skeptic, the idea of a man rising from the dead is unbelievable. No one has ever done that before. What evidence you produce is scanty, conflicted, admittedly hearsay and originated thousands of years ago in an age where such miracles were practically a dime a dozen. To make us believe your man rose from the dead, you've got to come up with more than "his disciples said he did". We don't believe in Mithra or Ra's resurrection, so why should we believe in Jesus'?

Frankly, if Christian apologists really believed in their method instead of using it as a convenient crutch, they'd be terribly disturbed by the non-uniqueness of the resurrection of Christ and would expend significant effort to find a more unique justification for the event.

bk,

how would you as a skeptic investigate event like Matthew 27:51-53? What would be an appropriate process of evaluating claims about these zombie saint? What kind of probability would you put on this historical event to be true and why?

Ooh, look, BK, they're doing it now! Same old rhetoric, no new (or even substantial) argumentation.

There may be some truth in BK's complaint about some internet skeptics, but I think he unfairly extends that complaint to cover anyone who just isn't as easily convinced by miraculous claims as he(she?)is.

I remain as open to the possibility that Jesus was divine as I do to the idea that Casar was, but given the quality of the evidence presented for such claims I remain skeptical of both. That I don't accept the evidence you do doesn't mean I am being unduly skeptical, or that I have somehow changed the meaning of skepticism. I
m just a little more skeptical than you are.

I'm sorry, but I see this kind of post as a rather weak attempt to deflect legitimate criticisms by dismissing the critic instead of dealing straghtforwardly with the criticism.

Actually, Peter's question is fair enough as a process question (his inaccurately derrogatory terminology aside. Though not being a native English speaker he may not realize 'zombie' and 'saint' are two very different kinds of claims. Even fantasy role-playing gamers could tell you that much, Peter. {s} And I'll suppose you didn't know that calling them "zombie saints" would be insulting and so would make you look less like you're seriously asking the question--right?)

As for myself: the first thing I myself would do, of course, would be to check to see whether what I believed to be true about reality would accommodate the claim more or less at face value. If I'm already convinced on strong prior grounds that such a thing must (as reported) be impossible, then of course I'm going to have an equally strong prior constraint against believing it happened. (Which is why I don't blame people whose worldview isn't that openminded about such things, for having problems with them. I do think it's kind of ironic that they're often in the habit of accusing people who do have leeway for such events in their beliefs of not being openminded enough; but that doesn't obviate the principle in their favor. {s})

On the other hand, if I found (as some positive agnostics of my acquaintance would be willing to allow, even or perhaps especially if they didn't already have a developed worldview structure to speak within per se) that I didn't have any constraint expectations against the event (as reported), then I could move to a Bayesian process (even if not thought of technically in those terms) where I weigh in my opinion of the author, the author’s competency, the cultural milieu, independent attestations if any, and a few dozen other factors. I might still easily end up with a ‘nope, don’t believe it’, even though I have no philosophical constraint against it; but if the other factors added up sufficiently I might end up with a ‘yep’, too. Why it happened, or what actually happened, I might differ on from the author’s explanation or belief, depending on various ways I find the data to weigh out and/or on my worldview.

As it happens, when I weigh all the data involved, I incline toward thinking that those few verses partially result from legendary accretion. Strictly speaking, most of those details are entirely plausible (even naturalistically so, if coincidentally): earthquakes did happen in the area, and most of the details are normal weird phenomena preceding and following earthquakes. (Even darkening of light, though that detail isn’t in those particular verses.) In fact, verse 53 is the only verse I would have any real trouble with, if I rejected Christian theological propositions (and even then I might be prepared to accept it under other metaphysical terms). As it stands, the verse doesn’t fit very well into a largescale historical narrative; but if one allows a little hyperbole via legendary accretion, ‘many’ can be read as ‘five or six’. Or it might be any of several other relatively unremarkable things, contributing complexly to the end result. (Even as a Christian, though, I’m sceptical of the ‘many’.)


I think what I’ve said here responds well enough to Anon’s comment, too; sympathetically so in many cases, but in opposition occasionally, too.

(It should be patently obvious in deductive disconfirmation that this statement of his is false, for example: “all religious people reject claims of miracles from competing religions based on criteria they will not apply to their own faith systems.” That’s admittedly true about a lot of people, but not about all of us. Also, Anon doesn’t seem to have actually studied the comparative Res stories enough to understand even the distinctive details involved. The reason apologists are not “terribly disturbed by the non-uniqueness” is because we generally do recognize the distinctive details as being significant; including the very differing “justifications” for the events.)

JRP

"No one doubts s Caesar's erection of a building because that was well within the capabilities of such a ruler."

And resurrection is well within the capabilities of God.

"And resurrection is well within the capabilities of God."

I see builders putting up buildings all the time. I've even helped build a few.

I've never had direct experience of either a God or a resurrection, so therefore I must be much more skeptical about the latter...

Jason Pratt,

Thanks for correcting me. I did not meant to be derogatory, so I apologise if that sounded so.
Dictionary defines a zombie as a dead body supposedly brought back to life again, sometimes without a soul. Let me reword my question as I really want to hear BK's answer. I'm really interesting in the process. Like Jason mentioned Bayes' theorem is one way to approach it and using that has the advantage that it can be also used to evaluate all kinds of supernatural claims. If you use that then please tell us what odds and likelihood ratios you used.

BK,

how would you as a skeptic investigate event like Matthew 27:51-53? What would be an appropriate process of evaluating claims that "the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life" (NIV)? What kind of probability would you put on this historical event to be true and why?

And sorry again about my ignorance.

So many comments, let's see:

Anonymous simply proves my point. Here's what he's saying (paraphrasing, of course): "I have never seen evidence that verifies a miracle so I am deciding a priori that such things don't happen and any such report should be rejected. It doesn't matter if other people report having seen them. Unless I see evidence to my satisfaction that a miracle has occurred, I will reject all such claims." How about going to Joe's page on miracles (excusing his spelling -- he has a really bad case of dyslexia) and seeing what you think. He notes: "[The people at Lourdes where people go to Lourdes who claim to have been miraculously cured] do examine the patients. It does have to be proven that the people were sick beforehand! they will only choose a case when they cannot find a naturalistic explanation."

Oh, but of course, that's not going to be good enough either, right?

Peter,

You speak of Matthew 27:51-53 and ask what would be the appropriate process for investigating it. I would ask you the same basic question: exactly how do you go about investigating an event that would leave no archaeological evidence? When it is said that Hannibal crossed the Alps on elephants, it is said that he did so with 25,000 soldiers who survived the crossing and scores of elephants of which only 37 survived. Yet, there has yet to be found the physical evidence of this epic event (scholars aren't even sure whether he took a northern or southern route). The proof of this feat having actually been accomplished is from ancient writings which are not admittedly by eyewitnesses but which claim to have used the source of eyewitnesses. The events you cite would be much less likely to leave any type of archaeological evidence than the crossing of the Alps with scores of elephants. So, obviously, we shouldn't expect any additional evidence than the attestation of those who were eyewitnesses.

In fact, I think that a very strong case can be made that Matthew is written by the Apostle Matthew -- an eyewitness. Assuming that for the moment, the question comes down to the veracity of the eyewitness testimony. This is where the fact that he is accurate on a lot of other things comes in.

Should we view the account skeptically? Again, that depends on what you mean. I will admit to having a lot of problems with the verse that you mention. The fact that Matthew is the only one to mention it should (and does) raise my eyebrows. Yet, there are reasons to believe that such an event actually occurred given the nature of the resurrection and the mention of the events (even if somewhat embellished by legend over time) in other, later mentions. One account that appears unembellished is the account of Quadratus. According to Glenn Miller, Quadratus was a "very early 2nd century apologist (writing sometime during the reign of Hadrian, 117-138ad), and we have only one fragment of his [writing] (cited from GASC:36):

"'But our Savior's works were permanent, for they were real. Those who had been cured or rose from the dead not only appeared to be cured or raised but were permanent, not only during our Savior's stay on earth, but also after his departure. They remained for a considerable period, so that some of them even reached our times.'

"Now it would be highly unusual for someone raised in 33 ad to live naturally another 90-100 years (to the times of Quadratus' writings) but this is not necessarily the scope of his reference to 'our times'...this latter phrase could often mean plus-or-minus 50-75 years, allowing SOME of these saints to die naturally again (as would have the resurrected Lazarus, the widow's son, etc.) after a few decades."

So, the question becomes how cynical are you going to be in evaluating this evidence? Are you going to recognize that we, in fact, have better evidence for this event than for the crossing of the Alps because not only do we have multiple sources, but one is arguably written by an eyewitness (and if not written by an eyewitness himself, almost certainly by those who he taught)? Naturally, it is the nature of the claim itself that is the most bothersome, but I contend that once come to recognize that the evidence for the resurrection itself is very good, the fact that miraculous events surrounded it is not that surprising.

A hermit,

I am not dismissing the critic -- I am pointing out a methodological flaw in the reasoning. (BTW, I am a "he".)

My question to you is this (and forgive me, it is a long one): do you not see a difference between the claim of a man, Caesar, who is claiming (as many ancient rulers did) that they are somehow divine as a means of establishing power, and the claim of Jesus who had no political base, was raised in a fiercely monotheistic Jewish culture where to claim to be God (the one and only) went against the very fiber of society yet who still claimed to be that same one-and-only God, who has multiple accounts written that claim that he performed miracles, where there are Jewish writings that continue to exist from about the same time that also attribute to him great works (even though they call him a magician), and about whom his immediate followers(who were also raised in the same culture and who should have known that they were lying if Jesus didn't raise from the dead) were willing to risk their lives to pronounce that he had, in fact, performed great feats (including rising from the dead) and who was, in fact, God, doing so with no hope of gain for themselves other than the favor of God?

With all due respect to your position, there is simply no way that the claims of the Caesars (or any other ancient rulers) to divinity can be put on the same level.

Jason Pratt wrote:

"It should be patently obvious in deductive disconfirmation that this statement of his is false, for example: “all religious people reject claims of miracles from competing religions based on criteria they will not apply to their own faith systems.” That’s admittedly true about a lot of people, but not about all of us."

I agree. I am skeptical of the claims of other faith systems, but I certainly don't dismiss them out of hand. These miracles most certainly could have happened, and I would try to evaluate them on a case by case basis given many of the same factors Jason Pratt mentioned in his comments.

Oh, I suppose I should write down Joe's webpage where he gives the information from Lourdes on miracles:

http://www.doxa.ws/other/Miracles.html

Peter,

Your dictionary apparently leaves out a lot of practical associations with the term. Zombies are slaves of a magician who has forced the body and/or body-and-soul of a person into servitude in this fashion. Also--and this has some bearing on comparative Res claims by the way--the restoration tends to be very partial which is why zombies are portrayed in folklore as at least acting mentally retarded. (Insofar as there is a historical basis for the stories, that makes a lot of sense even on a naturalistic explanation.) Modern associations of zombie in folk culture go further and portray them as rotting cannibals, playing up the undead decay (or more recently the maddened plague victim aspects).

Consequently, calling a resurrected person (or anyone) a 'zombie' is highly insulting in English. It could be humorously wry or self-deprecating (DC Comics fans used to call Marvel Comics fans "Marvel Zombies", for instance, which Marvel fans eventually decided was pretty funny to apply to themselves), but it isn't a neutral technical term. Or put another way, even its use as a technical term is associated with cultural history and has never been practically divorced from that cultural history in English. Maybe doctors in modern Northern Europe call recovered patients who used to be dead "zombies", but they don't here.


{{Like Jason mentioned Bayes' theorem is one way to approach it and using that has the advantage that it can be also used to evaluate all kinds of supernatural claims.}}

Though not by itself, as I also mentioned. {s}

{{If you use that then please tell us what odds and likelihood ratios you used.}}

If you're asking me (I couldn't tell from the way the question was asked if you meant me or Bill), my answer is: it's a technical fallacy to use odds and likelihood ratios in BT. I know it's very common to see people use numerical ratios and odds, including specialists in BT, but if you pay attention you'll see those specialists occasionally admitting that they really shouldn't be doing that.

Bayes set up his theorem as a way of describing inductive reasoning processes in pseudo-algebraic terms (and there's some debate, btw, about whether his formula as given really makes sense), over against a claim that had been recently made by David Hume about how people engage in inductive reasoning. While Bayes does seem to have tried to link it to mathematical probability estimation for purposes of illustration (Bayes' own chosen illustration method involved predicting where a dropped ball would land on a sheet-plane), it isn't actually supposed to be that kind of theorem.

I don't mean to say this in order to denigrate sceptical results of BT (after all I'd be torching my own bridge, too, to do so). But it's important to head off category error in thinking about (and applying) BT. Including when Christian proponents like Swinburne, Craid and Moreland try to use it.

JRP

BK said:
exactly how do you go about investigating an event that would leave no archaeological evidence?
That was my question to you. How did you come to the conclusion as a skeptic that those events happen? If you don't have any other evidence, do you accept it and how? We have eye witness reports that divine Roman Emperor Vespanius cured a blind man and healed sick man. If you go to India to small villages there, you can hear eye witness stories of miracles attributed to their gods. These eyewitness reports are surely better than Matthew 27:51-53, yet most Christians are very skeptical about those.

BK said:
Are you going to recognize that we, in fact, have better evidence for this event [Matthew 27:51-53] than for the crossing of the Alps because not only do we have multiple sources, but one is arguably written by an eyewitness
You seem to dismiss all evidence that Hannibal battled Romans in modern Italy, related archaeological evidence, coins from that era portraying Hannibal with his Elephants, Roman mosaics, Roman deployment of battle axes and pigs to combat elephants in the following battles against Hannibal in North Africa... We know Hannibal has resources to do that and Elephants were used in the battles before. No part of the Hannibal crossing the Alps seem implausible, someone could even test this... If we only rely on eye-witness reports, we would know very little about our history.

BK said:
how cynical are you going to be in evaluating this evidence?
Why do you think I am cynical? I was asking your process how to evaluate the claim. So far you have only stated that you believe Matthew. Is that how you understand skeptism?

BK said:
Yet, there are reasons to believe that such an event actually occurred [Matthew 27:51-53] given the nature of the resurrection and the mention of the events (even if somewhat embellished by legend over time) in other,
Can you please tell us what the "reasons" are and what is your hypothesis and the process that made this? What is the "nature" of resurrection and how do you know that?

BK said:
I contend that once come to recognize that the evidence for the resurrection itself is very good, the fact that miraculous events surrounded it is not that surprising
Your premises are that miracles in one particular holy book are believable and your best evidence (so far) is Matthew wrote that and you believe it without been able to make a case for it. Sorry, I have to call this pseudo-skeptism. I think you should accept Matthew 27:51-53 based on faith or make a proper skeptical investigation cases for miracles even those of all other religions without a bias to any particular religion or holy book.

Peter says: So far you have only stated that you believe Matthew. Is that how you understand skeptism?

If that is all you (Peter) think that I have said, then there is no point to continuing because I have obviously said a great deal more.

BK

If that is all you (Peter) think that I have said, then there is no point to continuing because I have obviously said a great deal more.
Ok, I retract that comment and apologize for that.

Now please don't run away from the discussion and please address my questions. Last time you didn't like the one of my sources (H Avalos) I quoted, you deleted all my comment on that thread. Now please show that you can back up your claims that you are a true skeptic and not just writing about it.

"My question to you is this (and forgive me, it is a long one): do you not see a difference between the claim of a man, Caesar, who is claiming (as many ancient rulers did) that they are somehow divine as a means of establishing power, and the claim of Jesus who had no political base..."

The short answer is no, not really. One could propose the same kind arguments you make for giving Jesus special consideration could be made for cult leaders like David Koresh and Jim Jones. I am no less skeptical of their claims because of their lack of political power or the fact that people were willing to die for them. Hell, people have even given there lives for Communism...fanatical devotion to an ideology or a leader is not something unique to Christianity.

"With all due respect to your position, there is simply no way that the claims of the Caesars (or any other ancient rulers) to divinity can be put on the same level."

With all due respect this looks like special pleading to me...

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