CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The Jesus Project was started in 2007 as a forum for skeptical biblical scholars, both professional and amateur, to conduct a 'scientific' investigation of the historicity of the Jesus traditions in the New Testament. Their sessions resulted in an edited volume, Sources of the Jesus Tradition, published last year. In this post I want to take a closer look at an essay by classicist Justin Meggitt called 'Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions', which provides an alternative, skeptical model of the transmission of Jesus traditions in early Christianity. As Meggitt puts it:

When the popular cultural contexts within which stories about Jesus were first told or retold are taken into account, it becomes apparent that they are likely to be characterized by far more creativity, improvisation, idiosyncrasy, and inconsistency than has hitherto been assumed by most New Testament scholars. Far from being careful and cautious in their handling of such traditions, the earliest Christians appear to have been largely indiscriminate or partisan in their judgments and, for the most part, show little concern about questions of historicity that so preoccupy current scholarship. (p.55)
Meggitt further notes that "Most scholars have tended to underestimate or pass over the potential for myth-making in the initial years of movements that made claims, of one kind or another, about the figure of Jesus." (ibid) He finds that mainstream scholarship typically confines that potential to the beginning and end of Jesus' life (the virgin birth and resurrection stories, respectively), and is driven largely by two assumptions that he finds questionable: 1) the central traditions of the Synoptic Gospels at least go back to Jesus himself, or were somehow determined by his actual impact, and 2) these traditions were transmitted in a controlled fashion by communities of believers either corporately or through the authority given to authorized eyewitness. Meggitt argues to the contrary that "the license and creativity of those who relayed stories about Jesus is likely to have been so great that the association between many traditions and specific historical events that may have been their original genesis is largely unrecoverable." (p.56)

In response to this thesis, I will argue that while Meggitt presents an erudite and convincing portrayal of the context of popular myth-making in the early Roman Empire, he does not sufficiently engage with details of the early Christian texts which suggest that, unlike popular retellings and 're-imaginings' of pagan stories about heroes and gods, Jesus traditions in the canonical Gospels were in fact handled with considerable care and concern for accuracy and reliability.

Meggitt devotes the bulk of his essay to a reconstruction of the context of popular myth-making in the early Roman Empire. By 'popular' he means to expand our perspective beyond the concerns of the literary elite and focus on the practices of 'ordinary' people in learning, retelling, and passing on myths, which he defines as "a popular story about a god or hero." (p.61) This use of the term myth does not imply a judgment on whether the story is historical or not, but Meggitt does suggest that myths typically included material that was "neither true nor probable." (p.62) 

Having defined his terms Meggitt goes on to describe early Roman myth-making in detail. His first point is that such mythmaking was intrinsically open-ended. He quotes John Gould:
The...absence of finality is characteristic of Greek myth. Greek myth is open-ended; a traditional story can be re-told, told with new meanings, new incidents, new persons, even with a formal reversal of old meaning...The improvisatory character of Greek myths is not just a literary fact...It is not bound to forms hardened and stiffened by canonical authority, but mobile, fluent and free to respond to a changing experience of the world. (p.62)
As a consequence of this open-endedness (Meggitt cautions that even though the above description is that of Greek myth, it applied more generally throughout the Empire) popular myth-making was quite fecund: "Even when knowledge of written, canonical versions of a myth became widespread, as was the case with Virgil and Homer, further myth-making could continue apace, often involving the deliberate rewriting and reordering of these written accounts." (p.64) Myth-making was also pluriform. Though a minority of critics was concerned with separating the wheat from the chaff and discerning a historical kernel behind the exaggerations of mythology, "for most people there were no significant problems caused by the persistence of multiple versions of the same myth, even when they flatly contradicted one another, and no particular reason to choose between them." (p.65) This fecundity and pluriformity were no doubt encouraged by the fact that, since most people in the Empire could not read or write, they did not have very detailed knowledge of written versions of the myths. 

People also had quite varied attitudes towards the historicity of these myths. Meggitt notes that while there was some skepticism about the existence of gods, pretty much everyone believed in the existence of heroes: "during the period...from the fifth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., absolutely no one, Christians included, ever expressed the slightest doubt concerning the historicity of Aeneas, Romulus, Theseus, Heracles, Achilles, or even Dionysius; rather, everyone asserted this historicity." (p. 68, quoting Paul Veyne) The interpretive method known as euhemerism, the idea that stories about gods and heroes were actually exaggerated stories about historical human beings, helped some of the more skeptical critics maintain belief in their existence. Finally, the open-endedness of myth was enhanced by its transmission process, which was largely informal. Even though people did learn about myths through formal education, most of their knowledge was from hearing freelance raconteurs at festivals, plays and funerals, or from nannies and maids at home (perhaps the most interesting observation in the essay concerns the role of women in domestic contexts in transmitting myths, such an essential part of culture). 

Up to this point I have merely summarized Meggitt's article because there is not much to object to in his reconstruction of the context of popular myth-making in the Roman Empire. His citation of sources is extensive and he generally draws sound conclusions from them. There can be little doubt that popular myth-making was fecund, pluriform and transmitted via informal processes. The question, however, is whether the creation and transmission of Jesus traditions as we find them in the canonical Gospels is best understood within the context of popular myth-making. I highlight the phrase in italics because it reveals the fundamental weakness in Meggitt's argument, as we will see below.

Having drawn up a model for understanding the dynamics of popular myth-making in the ancient world, Meggitt then turns to the New Testament sources for evidence of his model at work among the early Christians. He first of all notes, and rightly, that "the production of myth, the spinning of stories about Jesus, was a concern in some early communities." (p. 70) Indeed, "In a number of places in the New Testament, the authors are keen to distinguish themselves from those whom they complained purveyed myths about Jesus." (ibid) For example, Peter insists that "we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty." (2 Peter 1:16) Paul, on his part, urges Timothy "to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations." (1 Timothy 1:3-4) Paul further warns that "the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4; I should note that Meggitt is neutral on whether these letters are pseudepigraphical or not)

Meggitt finds further evidence that myth-making was rampant in the early communities from the fact that there seem to have been several such communities with few if any ties to the Jerusalem church, with extremely limited knowledge of Jesus. As examples he cites Apollos, a charismatic teacher active in Alexandria, who originally "knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25), until Priscilla and Aquila more accurately explained the Way to him. (Acts 18:26) There is another example of a group of disciples in Ephesus who only knew the baptism of John, who subsequently had to be re-baptized and educated about the Holy Spirit's role in redemption. (Acts 19:1-7) Meggitt also cites Origen's statement that "from the very beginning, when, as Celsus imagines, believers were few in number, there were certain doctrines interpreted in different ways." (Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.10ff) From the example of Paul beginning to convert Gentiles without first consulting the Jerusalem church Meggitt concludes that "the Jerusalem church did not function as arbiter of tradition and authority among all those who propagated faith in Jesus in the empire, despite its ideological significance in early Christian historiography." (p.75) He finds more plausible a model of Christian origins which allows for the possibility of "only distant or tenuous relationships between some of the groups that emerged and the co-existence of complementary and competing conceptualizations of their origins." (p.76)

Finally, Meggitt disputes the notion that "Christian communities, collectively or as a consequence of the ongoing presence of credible eyewitnesses, controlled and delimited the traditions so that innovations of a fundamental kind were impossible." (p.76) He claims that "Nowhere can we find any explicit statements about communities or representatives of communities making collective judgments on oral traditions...in early Christian sources." (p.77) Indeed, "From what we know about how early Christians went about sifting the wheat from the chaff when judging the traditions about Jesus, it seems that this was not a collective activity nor one that particularly concerned communities, but rather an initiative of particular individuals within the churches."(ibid) As examples he cites Luke (Luke 1:3) and Papias (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39), the latter being particularly telling because, all protestation to the contrary, "he appears to have been as drawn to sensational paradoxa (marvelous tales) as anyone else, and his judgments about the veracity of traditions were disturbing to later Christians."(ibid) He then cites the Gospel of John as evidence that "traditions about Jesus were legion and most early Christians had no difficulty with this...the author makes it clear that he has selected only a few traditions for inclusion in his Gospel, but the criteria for selection are expressly theological. He does not show any concern about the authenticity of traditions he does not include...John nowhere shows any evidence of either doubting other traditions nor some collective process in authenticating the material he includes. Indeed, John's apparent indiscriminate attitude towards traditions about Jesus appears to share much with the popular genre of paradoxography..." (p.78) To the claim that the interdependence of the Synoptics shows a conservative tendency in the transmission of Jesus tradition, Meggitt counters that "Matthew's use of Mark is, for example, characterized by the widespread abbreviation, addition, omission, conflation, elaboration, and reordering of material, and displays a degree of license indistinguishable from that apparent in the way that Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers of the time made use of their written sources." (ibid)

To anyone familiar with the New Testament, many of these claims will seem dubious, and with good reason. In contrast to the first part of the essay, Meggitt's handling of the New Testament material is quite sloppy. That there was concern about widespread myth-making in the early Christian communities cannot be doubted. However, his use of the accounts in Acts of believers with only tenuous connections to Jerusalem and with partial knowledge of Jesus, or who acted without the consent of the Jerusalem church, is completely undermined by his failure to highlight the conclusion to all these accounts: these groups were soon set right by apostles with close connections to Jerusalem, like Priscilla and Aquila and Paul.  Apollos received more accurate instruction in the Way, the believers in Ephesus were baptized, and Paul went before the Jerusalem leaders to ascertain whether his gospel was in line with previous teaching. (Galatians 2:1-10)

Meggitt's distortions of the Gospel sources are particularly egregious. He claims that "John nowhere shows any evidence of either doubting other traditions nor some collective process in authenticating the material he includes." He is right on both counts, but draws the wrong conclusions from these facts. John does not dispute other traditions because that is not his focus (although surely the very selection and formatting of the Gospel implicitly counters other, erroneous interpretations of Jesus' significance), and he does not allude to some collective process in authenticating his materials because he himself as an eyewitness was the source of the material included in the Gospel. (John 19:35; 21:24) Furthermore, the mere fact that John highlights his selectivity in the traditions he chose to recount and acknowledges the existence of other traditions about Jesus in no way implies that he accepted them all. Meggitt erects a highly dubious argument from silence when he suggests that John had no concern about the authenticity of traditions he did not include. How does Meggitt know about this lack of concern when John nowhere explicitly engages with other traditions? This would be like suspecting a historian of accepting Holocaust denial accounts simply because the historian nowhere critically interacts with them, or acknowledges the existence of other historical accounts of the period without explicitly critiquing them.

Several of Meggitt's claims fall under the 'true but irrelevant' category. For example, he suggests that in claiming eyewitness authority Peter was "defending himself from others who judged that the traditions the author himself proclaimed were myths." (p.70) As Sherlock Holmes would say in the recent movie, we now have a firm grasp of the obvious. Does the mere fact that other people thought Peter was purveying myths about Jesus evidence that he was? Meggitt also notes that sifting the wheat from the chaff of Jesus traditions seems to have been a preoccupation of individuals rather than whole communities. What is this supposed to imply? That these individuals would not have been able to do a good job of this sifting? From the fact that Papias was not always the best sifter of tradition, are we to infer that Luke or John weren't? And in fact there is evidence that whole communities were concerned with the preservation of accurate information about Jesus. For example, Paul praises the Corinthian congregation because "you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you," (1 Corinthians 11:2) traditions including accounts of the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) and Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

But the biggest problem with Meggitt's argument is that his thesis of rampant myth-making among the early followers of Jesus can be granted without this having any implications for our assessment of the reliability of the canonical Gospels. Even if the Jerusalem church with its collegium of authoritative eyewitnesses could not control every story about Jesus circulating in the early communities, they did not have to in order for reliable accounts to have made their way into the Gospels. I have addressed this issue in an earlier post (Eyewitness Control of the Gospel Tradition: A Game of Whack-a-Mole?). Even though wild stories may have circulated about Jesus which the eyewitnesses could not stamp out, they themselves knew the truth and remained within the early communities for a long time after Jesus' death. Luke explicitly claims to have derived his information from "those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning." (Luke 1:2) Quoting from my previous post:
The only issue which concerns us is, was the Jesus tradition accurately preserved along the currents that fed into our canonical Gospels? Here it is important to remember that despite some skeptics' claims, the evangelists did not just write down whatever they heard on the street. The evangelists clearly devoted meticulous effort to the theological and pastoral presentation of their material, and we should imagine this effort being extended to the research they did in the traditions their communities had inherited. True, the average believer may have been content to accept whatever she heard about Jesus from friends or passers-through, but given the above evidence of the apostles' interest in making sure the official story was passed on and the efficient communication networks they had available we can be fairly confident that for the careful investigator the truth was there to be found.
Meggitt does not interact at all with the evidence which suggests that the evangelists were in fact keenly interested in recording accurate information about Jesus. There are Luke and John's claim to eyewitness testimony, a claim corroborated by the fact that much of the Gospel material is in precisely the format which would be expected of 'personal event memories' (see Robert K. McIver's fascinating new book, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels). There is also the evangelists' choice of genre for recounting the life of Jesus, the Greco-Roman bios, and as David Aune reminds us, "the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman bibliographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened." (quoted here) There is, furthermore, plenty of evidence that they were actually successful in doing so (too copious to go into here; see, for example, Chris Price's documentation of Luke's geographical, historical and political accuracy). Finally, it is doubtful that the stories about Jesus should even be thought of in analogy to stories about gods and heroes who lived in the distant past (perhaps more relevant would be the exaggerations and distortions surrounding the life of figures such as Yohanan ben Zakkai that Meggitt aludes to, but the argument is not made for the similarity between the two traditions).

In sum, while Meggitt presents a convincing portrait of popular myth-making in the Roman Empire and we can grant that myth-making about Jesus sprung up quite early and was hard to suppress (I also agree with his point that many scholars are too quick to discount the potential for myth-making in the early years of the Jesus movement; I have always found the 'too little time for legends to take hold' argument quite ridiculous), he does not make a good case that these facts should undermine our confidence in the canonical Gospels.

I know that some Bible-believing Christians who read this blog are strong believers in evolution. When I have spoken with these individuals they explain that they believe that God created the universe, but they are willing to accept what science teaches on the Theory of Evolution. The way they make these two views work together is to adopt a type of Theistic Evolution, i.e., theistic creation via evolution.

There is something to be said for adopting Theistic Evolution: it really does away with the conflict (to the extent it is scientific) between the Theory of Evolution and the Biblical account of Creation. It does so by saying that God is wise enough and all-powerful enough that he could create the initial conditions of the universe in a way the would ultimately lead to the rise of life -- including human life. Thus, whenever a new scientific discovery speculates about how life arose or how it came to be what it is, a person who adopts Theistic Evolution can say, "No problem because that's completely consistent with my view."

Moreover, the people who adopt this viewpoint largely believe that they have removed a stumbling block to belief in Christianity. As noted on the website Perspectives on Theistic Evolution on a webpage entitled Credibility of Christianity at Risk:

The intellectual credibility of Christianity has been placed at risk due to the perceived naivete of Christians by the non-Christian intellectual and scientific communities. The Creationists have yet to surrender, despite the ever-increasing mound of scientific and theological evidence that disputes their claims. Yet, many Christians continue to filter out scientific evidence and methods when the result sets fail to meet their pre-conceived ideas on creation.

* * *

The continual refuting by the scientific community of the scientific claims of the Creationists is damaging to Christianity. The Creationist scientists do not submit their scientific theories to scientific journals where their scientific peers can review their methods and results. Instead, the Creationist scientists rely on publishing their work in books targeted for Christians. This is not proper communication for scientific research. Such tactics are commonly referred to as propaganda and are frowned upon in the academic community. Even worse is when such tactics are deemed as deceptive, an attribute that is not considered representative of Christianity.

Of course, accepting the Theory of Evolution as the mechanism for God's creation leads to its own stumbling block. Specifically, I have often encountered individuals who use the belief in Theistic Evolution as the defensive position that is taken to avoid the brutal fact that the Bible is wrong about how the universe was created. In other words, they see Christians falling back to Theistic Evolution as saying, "We don't really have any facts to support our view that God created, so we are going to say that He is the one who wound up the universe as a way to explain that we have no way to show He is really there." In other words, non-Christians can see God in the Theistic Evolution view like the Wizard of Oz -- supposedly hiding behind the screen pretending like he is the all great and powerful when he really has nothing to do with it.

The interesting thing is that I find myself walking a position that is not accepted by the Young Earth Creationists (I have been called a heretic in my own home by a person who is a strong advocate of that viewpoint), but certainly finds that the Theistic Evolution position gives too much away. You see, I think that the scientific evidence supports the view that God created the universe and life when you take into account that scientists regularly make grandiose claims to keep evolution in line with the scientists' naturalistic framework which are really not, in fact, supported by science.

The position I am staking here is quite similar to the position I took in my last post entitled Is Everything that Scientists say about the Unborn Scientific? There, I pointed out that scientists in a report about the facial movements of unborn children assumed that these facial movements were not really expressions of emotions, rather they were "practice" facial expressions for when the children actually feel sadness or joy. The claim that the expressions were only practice and not reflections of actual feelings or emotions by the unborn children was stated as a bald assertion with only the barest support (which really didn't support the statement at all). It appeared to me that the scientists in question were making a broad assertion in the report that was not based on fact but was based on a presupposition.

The same regularly happens in the claims by scientists concerning the Theory of Evolution. The circular reasoning at the heart of the issue goes something like this: The Theory of Evolution is true and creation is false because life forms arose from purely naturalistic mechanisms. We know that they arose from purely naturalistic mechanisms because we see evolution consistent with the evolution of species in nature. The fact that we see support for a purely naturalistic cause for evolution in nature proves that it was natural evolution and not creation. Don't you see?

No, I don't see. The evidence that evolutionists point out equally supports the idea of Old Earth Creationism and it always has. It is only when you thrown in the philosophical presupposition that it becomes proof of purely natural mechanisms giving rise to life and the species.

Take the origin of life. Exactly how did life evolve from non-life? In the 150 or so years since Mr. Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, there has been no answer to this most basic of questions of how life arose. Laboratory tests have all but established that the early ideas that combining primordial goo with electricity is not even close to sufficient to give rise to life. No self-organizing principles have been found to explain how the non-organic could form into something that would become organic. In fact, despite all of our research, knowledge, and creativity, scientists haven't even come up with a viable theory as to how it might have happened. The advancement of science has clearly demonstrated that the simplest organisms are so incredibly complex that mathematics have predicted the arising of life by chance to be all but impossible.

"Without conceding the point", say the evolutionists, "we still have strong proof that once life arose it evolved into higher and higher life forms." Really? I agree that there is an appearance of that happening since it appears that less complex (we cannot call them "simple") life forms were on earth before more complex life forms. But we are back to the same problem of how this occurred. How is it that single-celled organisms came to be symbiotic and then create mutually helpful structures where they can exist as a single multi-cellular organism?

Am I the only one asking this question? No. Consider the words of Marcelo Gleiser, theoretical physicist at Dartmouth, in an NPR Commentary entitled The Goldilocks Enigma: Is The Universe Fit For Life? Obviously supporting the idea that the universe is both fit for life (using that circular reasoning I described above Dr. Gleisner reasons that it is obvious our universe must be fit fit for life because our universe is a naturalistic system and there is life in it) and the supposedly obvious fact that it must have been Darwinian Evolution behind the arising of life, Dr. Gleisner notes:

A very clear distinction must be made between simple, unicellular life and more complex life forms. It's hard not to doubt that Earth is the only planet where life took hold. After all, we have seen how resilient it is here, with extremophiles defying our previously held assumptions of where life can thrive. However, there is a huge difference between simple life and complex life. Contrary to what many believe, evolution doesn't lead to complex life forms: evolution leads to well-adapted life forms.

We had unicellular algae here for about 2.5 billion years and nothing more. The jumps from simple to complex life are many and still poorly understood. For example, on Earth simple prokaryotic cells had to incorporate outside structures to become eukaryotic cells -- with nuclei protected by bags; life then had to go from single-celled to multicellular creatures; it had to somehow develop differentiated organs that were nevertheless integrated by functionality; it had to adapt to water, air and land, and to multiple environmental cataclysms; finally, it evolved creatures capable of higher brain functions.

Let me give you a hint: "still poorly understood" means "we don't know how it happened. We have some ideas, but nothing has been proven." In other words even if we grant that life arose from some natural process and even if we agree that life on Earth over time began with less complex unicellular organisms which were joined by even more complex (excuse me, more "well-adapted") multicellular organisms, we have no real understanding as to how it happened.

As noted in Evolution News and Views: Privileged Planet: Dartmouth Physicist on the Surprising Fact of Complex Life, on Earth or Anywhere (where I first read the quote):

This interestingly turns Steve Meyer's argument in Signature in the Cell on its head. Let's assume we get the first, simple life as a free gift. Gleiser says it's everything that happens after that that is the real enigma.

Once again, scientists confirm my belief that there is nothing in science that disproves creation. It is merely the naturalistic starting point of these scientists that leads to the conclusion that evolution must have happened.

This past week, I received my e-mail edition of World Science. I enjoy reading this popularizer of science stories, and if you could go back and search my blog entries you would find that many of my posts about science arose from something that I found on this website.

But as a popularizer of science, I find that the website falls victim to the same problem other science popularizers such as Carl Sagan have fallen victim: making unsupportable claims when the evidence does not fully support (or may even counter) my world view. In World Science, I regularly find stories making assertions as if they are supported scientific findings that are either unsupported or inadequately demonstrated to be supported. In fact, in many cases the claims seem to be not only unsupported but incapable of being supported.

Take, as an example, a very interesting story entitled Facial expressions reported to develop before birth. As a person who supports the right to life of the unborn, I am always interested in stories that lend support for the proposition that the unborn exhibit characteristics while are still in the womb that are normally associated with children following birth. This story seems to fall in that line when it begins:

Babies in the womb develop a range of facial movements in which one can identify facial expressions such as laughter and crying, researchers say.

“This is a new and fascinating insight into the remarkable process of fetal development. This research has for the first time demonstrated that in healthy fetuses there is a developmental progression from simple to complex facial movements, preparing the fetus for life post-birth,” said Brian Francis of Lancaster University, U.K., one of the researchers.

Wow. Here we have scientists observing that the unborn children in the womb are exhibiting what appears to be laughter and crying. How early are these facial expressions that we associate with laughing and crying appearing? According to the article,

In a new report, the scientists present images of what they call facial expressions developing between 24 to 36 weeks gestation. They examined videotapes of developing fetuses using so-called 4D ultrasound machines.

Fetuses at 24 weeks could move one facial muscle at a time, such as stretching the lips or opening the mouth, the researchers said. By 35 weeks, fetuses combined different facial muscle movements, combining for example lip stretch and eyebrow-lowering. Thus by birth the baby has already developed the facial movements to accompany crying and laughing, the investigators said.

“We have found so much more than we expected. We knew that the baby blinks before birth and that some research has identified scowling before birth. However in this study for the first time we have developed a method of coding and analysis which allows us to objectively trace the increasing complexity of movements over time which results in recognizable facial expressions,” said Nadja Reissland from Durham University, U.K., another of the scientists.

Okay, so from as early as 24 weeks, we are seeing the unborn child beginning to show facial expressions associated with laughing or crying. By 35 weeks, the expressions have developed to the point where it is clear that the child is laughing or crying in the womb. This would seem to be powerful evidence that the baby while still in the womb is experiencing emotions that we associate with sentient beings. The obvious conclusion is that the child seems to be laughing because the child is laughing while in the womb. The child seems to be crying because the child is crying while still in the womb.

Not so fast, says World Science. The article adds the following sentence:

[The researchers] claim the movements develop before the baby feels emotion, just as a baby practises breathing movements in the uterus even before it has drawn a breath.

So here we have it: a single sentence that shoots down the idea that the pre-born child is actually laughing when the he/she appears to be laughing. No real laughter here, says the scientist, just a developmental reaction that is preparing the child to be able to laugh one he/she is born and actually able to laugh.

I have one question: how do they know this? How do they know that the facial expressions that appear to be laughing is not really laughing? How do they know that the child's facial expressions that seem to show that the unborn child might feel something tickling him/her is only a developmental reaction?

There is no answer. In fact, other than the comparison to the fact that the pre-born child appears to "practice" breathing movements prior to breathing -- a fact that, unlike the claim being applied to the appearance of laughter and crying, is well supported because it is certainly the case that the child cannot be breathing in the womb -- there is nothing that supports this bald assertion. In fact, it appears that this language is being added for only one reason: to try to keep people from arriving at the obvious conclusion that the pre-born child experiences emotions that would lead to laughter and crying from as early as 24 weeks. In other words, the unsupported assertion appears to be added by the researchers not because scientific evidence leads one to that conclusion, but only because the researchers or the editors wanted to add something that would support a pre-determined world view, i.e., that the unborn child could not possibly be feeling emotions because that would lead to the conclusion that it is fully human before birth.

I guess I am asking too much when I ask for my science news to actually report only supported science.

Reading through my notifications, I came across an article from the Morning Sun (Serving Central Michigan) that caught my attention by the outrageous title. It was Atheists are not monsters by Eric Baerren.

After commencing his piece by admitting he is an atheist (much to what I am sure must have been the stunned shock and surprise of many), he reports:

There will soon be a billboard in the Grand Rapids area advising motorists that atheists exist and aren't horrible monsters, as they are often assumed to be by many of the Christian majority.

I don't know about you, but this absolutely floored me. Not that atheists are not monsters. That's a given. But that atheists are "often assumed to be [monsters] by the Christian majority." Really? That's odd because as a member of the "Christian majority" I don't know a single Christian who thinks atheists are monsters.
But I guess my little slice of Christian America doesn't count because apparently there are "polls" that "regularly show" otherwise:

Polls regularly show that atheists have a public perception problem on par with child molesters and terrorists, but the real villains at work were, in this case, the victim. There was something about "ramming a set of beliefs" down someone's throat involved, for good measure.

Too bad he doesn't link to these polls. My quick research only found one such poll from the University of Minnesota in 2006 (rather than polls regularly showing these things) and this poll didn't say that Christians thought that atheists were monsters at all. It said that people felt that atheists didn't share their vision of America on par with Muslims and gays and lesbians. According to the report of the study:

Using data from a new national survey (2003, N = 2081), we show that Americans draw symbolic boundaries that clearly and sharply exclude atheists in both private and public life. From a list of groups that also includes Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals, Americans name atheists as those least likely to share their vision of American society. They are also more likely to disapprove of their children marrying atheists.

So, I guess it is appropriate to suggest that atheists have a PR problem, but does that mean that many Christians think they are monsters? Hardly. But despite the fact that the initial premise that Christians think atheists are monsters has not been proven, Mr. Baerren pushes onward as if his claim is fact. He moves to the question of what atheists must do to improve on their monstrous image.

Well, if I understand things correctly, it is impossible to be both an atheist and an ethical person. The Bible, I've been told, is what makes people good. Without it, we're essentially all a bunch of fornicating savages who'd cut your throat for a pair of shoelaces.

No, Mr. Baerren, I don't think you understand things correctly. I think that most Christians (unless they don't personally know any atheists) instinctively understand that there is a difference between having no rational warrant for acting ethically (which is the case with atheists) and not acting ethically. I have met lots of ethical atheists -- I just have no idea why, in light of their atheistic beliefs, they are acting ethically. But that is a story for another day.

More importantly, Mr. Baerren's suggetion as to why atheists are held in such low regard is simply not the correct reason. It isn't that Christians think that ahtiests are "fornicating savages" (although I wouldn't be surprised if a tiny minority were fornicating savages) or some other monster unable to control his/her libido, but rather there are more obvious, in-the-news reasons that atheists are not well trusted among the broader populace. For those atheists who are reading this who have no idea why they are either disliked and/or distrusted by many Christians, let me suggest the following reasons (just as a sample -- not as an exhaustive list):

Atheists show a marked lack of respect for the firmly held beliefs of many of their fellow countrymen. Atheists can be seen regularly comparing belief in God to belief in Santa Claus, an invisible pink unicorn and something that they call the flying spaghetti monster (usually accompanied by wails of laughter something akin to Bevis and Butthead telling a toilet joke). Of course, if they reduce a trust in God (something that a believer holds to be near, dear and sacred) to being equivalent to these things, it is understandable that some Christians might hold an unfavorable view of atheists, is it not?

Atheists are spearheading the movement to remove all semblances of Christianity from public life. They have already successfully convinced some weak-minded judges to accept the premise that the Constitution requires that any mention of God is somehow a violation of the Establishment Clause (contrary to the practice of the founders which argues strongly that such a view is not consistent with the original understanding of the clause), and they regularly move for the removal of even the barest mention of God (such as the mere statement of "In God we trust" on our currency) as somehow an unconstitutional endorsement of theism that will sway untold millions to believe in God.

Atheists have been behind the removal of crosses from the cemetary of soldiers when those crosses are on public land -- many of which went to war to defend a country that largely and openly trusted in God.

Atheists denounce traditional Christian values and openly advocate for laws to be enacted that many in the Christian community find objectional (such as laws favoring abortion rights).

I could go on, but these are a sample of the positions taken by people claiming atheism as their driving motivation. I realize that not every atheist does these things, but these things are being done by atheists. Is it really any wonder that atheists (who obviously promote these anti-Christian positions) are mistrusted by a population that remains largely religious and largely nnominally Christian?

But here's the real newsflash: Not only are atheists not monsters, and not only is it not true that Christians think that atheists are monsters, but Christians actually want to love atheists. They can disagree with them and hate what they are doing, but Christians love you because God first loved you. We just want atheists to know the truth -- a truth that many atheists deny for the most shallow of reasons.

That's the real headline.

I just finished reading a...well, puzzling OpEd over at OpEdNews by Jack Flash entitled Cognitive Impairment and Belief. Ordinarily, I don't comment on material like this because I don't want to unnecessarily denigrate the author, but I think that he inadvertently raises an interesting point.

Let me attempt to fairly summarize the rambling opinion piece. Mr. Flash begins by seeking to evoke sympathy by saying that he has grown up suffering from a birth defect that caused his teachers to make fun of him and which has made it difficult for him to feel accepted in a "culture that is unforgiving of nature's diversities." Then he reveals that his birth defect is that he is an atheist. No, I'm not kidding. According to Mr. Flash:

My Birth Defect: I was born an atheist! This is what my experience tells me. I have no memories of ever believing in a god. I have searched the world of knowledge and the depths of my mind only to find: NOTHING. There is nothing within me that can relate to the concept of god.

The first traumatic memory I have of discrimination is of a teacher's statement in about the fourth grade: "You don't believe in Jesus? What's WRONG with you?" I've been called a worm, an enemy of America, and a whole host of expletives. I've been told that I can have no moral values without believing in god. Countless numbers of people have told me they will pray for me, indicating that atheism is a defect needing Divine intervention. Even at the age of 62 I am still patronized, insulted and ridiculed for this defect that I did not choose for myself.

Mr. Flash, however, finds solace in his "faith" in the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." He says,

I have Faith that each individual has the right to respect and dignity regardless of their beliefs. I have Faith that everyone has the right to express their opinions and beliefs. I have Faith that my opinions and beliefs are just as valid to me as theirs are to them. I have Faith that I treat others as I wish they would treat me, a golden rule that Christians would be wise to adopt.

He closes the article by noting that the reason he wrote the OpEd in the first place was because someone told him "that everybody is born with a link to God and therefore belief is innate."

That's it. That's Mr. Flash's OpEd. In reading it I am torn by several things.

First, the title of the piece (adopted for this blog) is "Cognitive Impairment and Belief", yet there is virtually nothing in the article relating cognitive impairment to belief. Who exactly has the cognitive impairment according to his article? Now, I suppose that an editor may have chosen the title, but on a little website like OpEdNews I would suspect that the authors choose their own captions. So, I have to ask who is cognitively impaired? I doubt he is saying that he is cognitively impaired as an atheist, so it must be all of those evil Christians who have done the litany of evils generalized in his OpEd. But, of course, there is no argument that those who have faith in God are cognitively impaired. So, whence the title?

Second, Mr. Flash finds that he, as an atheist, believes that "all men are created equal." If he has any cognitive dissonance from the word "created" in the thing in which he professes faith, he certainly doesn't note it.

Third, I suspect that he overplays the sufferings that he has undergone as an atheist. I mean, as a Christian who regularly debates with atheists about the truth of Christianity, I can tell you that I have been called much worse things than "a worm," and Christians (especially conservative Christians) are regularly called "an enemy of America, and a whole host of expletives" in opinion pieces and Internet chatrooms. Moreover, I am regularly "patronized, insulted and ridiculed" for my beliefs -- usually by atheists. Thus, I don't find very convincing his argument that it is somehow Christians who need to discover the Golden Rule.

Fourth, Mr. Flash says that atheism is a birth defect. Really? I understand that he is being facetious to make a comparison. He is saying that since some Christians say that belief is innate because people are born with a link to God that he atheism (to those individuals) is a birth defect. But seriously, using the phrase "birth defect" puts being born with lack of belief on the same level as being born with Down's Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy or other serious physical or mental defects. It's not.

However, this is where, in my opinion, the article raises an interesting question for Christians -- especially those of the double-predestination Calvinistic bent. Mr. Flash was told by someone (likely, a Christian) that belief is innate. But if you believe in double-predestination, is faith really innate? I mean, aren't some people born pre-destined to not turn to God? If that is the case, then is he right that atheism is some type of birth defect from the Calvinist point of view?

But as a Christian who walks the line between Calvinism and Arminianism (I don't believe either side of the debate is wholly correct), the claim that atheism is a birth defect is wrong, but not wholly. I don't doubt that Mr. Flash has not ever found himself believing in God -- even in the slightest. But I don't think that he was born an atheist any more than I believe that I was born a Christian. Belief and unbelief, it seems to me, are not something that are genetic.

Let's suppose that I share Mr. Flash's belief that "all men are created equal." Is that something I was born believing? If someone believes (as in Animal Farm) that some men are more equal than others, is that belief also innate? I think not. We learn our beliefs. Our experiences and our teachers shape our beliefs.

Now, in the Christian understanding, belief in God is not the same as other beliefs. Faith is not strictly something arrived at by experience and teaching. It is something that is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But either way, it seems that most people or philosophies would agree that faith is not something that you are born with or without. It is something that is acquired through life.

But to a certain degree his non-belief is a defect that he held at birth. It is a defect called "original sin," i.e., every person is born with a sin nature as the result of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. This sin nature is what separates us from God and makes us all, from birth, non-believers until we receive faith through the Holy Spirit. For some of us, that faith comes early. For others, it comes late in life or at any of the millions of points in between. But it is not a birth defect as Mr. Flash is suggesting because this defect can be overcome by the work of the Holy Spirit.

You see, I don't think that (with the possible exception of double-predestination Calvinist) Christians believe that atheism is a birth defect in the sense that it is something with which a person is born which is unchangeable. If it is, then there are a whole lot of Christians and atheists who are wasting hours of time debating about something that cannot possibly change anyone's predetermined mind.

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The thing to do with Global warming is not to argue agaisnt it. Use it. Atheists are almost bound to believe in it (I believe in it--not the point). Rather than argue against it as an example of bad lock, it's more useful as an example of good logic. This is so because the logic of Global warming is the same logic used in Pascals wager.

I have two observations to make before getting into this. The first one is about the wage itself. The second about the paradigm used for "risk taker analysis."

(1) Atheists mock and ridicule the wage extremely much, over doing it, becuase they don't understand it's function. Most Christian apologists don't understand it either, so no slight to our Atheist friends. Mine you the wage is an argument I never use. Most people take it as attempt at proving God exists. It is not an attempt to prove that God exists. It's meant as a tiebreaker. It's used after the massive collection of arguments Pascal wrote known as the Pensées Or "thoughts." Those aren't even meant to prove the existence of God but to clue one in on how to realize the reality of God. Although this is my phrase, you wont catch Pascal saying anything that awkward.

(2) The wager is a decision making paradigm not an argument to prove something. The paradigm is based upon Pascal's own invention, mathematical probability. That's right all the arguments atheists use about simplicity and all of that inductive reasoning the likelihood of this or that it all goes back to Pascal. He was not a dunce. HE was a mystic, however, and he was not interpreted in proving things logically. His tie breaker, the wager, demonstrates the probability of God being true.

The reason Is say the global warming and the wager use the same logic is because they are examples of what we in college debate used to call "risk taker analysis."An example: let's say I guy a hat. It blows off my head and over a freeway. I have to cross a busy freeway to get the hat back. I must ask myself "is having this hat worth risking my life for?" It could be only if having is worth so much that I am willing risk losing everything for it. A hat, not so much as they say. Now if the hate is a bearer bond worth a million dollars, maybe it is worth risking it all for that. Another aspect of this the risk can be minimized. So part of the equation includes the levels of reward vs risk. For example even a million dollars may not worth risking death for if death virtually certain. So wait until 2:00 am when there are almost no cars on the free way. That has to be balanced agaisnt the risk that the bond will blow away in the mean time. so risk taker analysis means doing a sort of calculus.

It will cost several billion dollars for the medical diagnostic industry to re tool and change from X-ray machines to second generation Doppler ultrasound.This is why they will probably never do it of their own accord. If they did they might save 24,000 lives a year (I am assuming that form of ultra sound can do everything X-Rays do, which it probably can't but in debate years ago we had journal evidence saying it could). Are 24,000 lives worth making an industry spend billions of dollars? What about the government subsidizing? This is just an example of the kinds of questions that one can ask using risk taking analysis. Of course it gets much more complex than that.

The wagers says "there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by following Christ and placing belief in God. But there is everything to lose and nothing to gain by not following Christ." So if that is true the risk taking analysis shows that the much greater risk is in not being a Christian, or whatever. That's breaks the tie between the realization of reality and the doubt fostered by nothing overwhelming direct proof. We can't totally prove it either way, but the greater risk is in not believing. The only thing to be gained by not believing is momentary sinful pleasure which in the long run always runs out and works against the experiencer.

Global warming risk taking analysis. Like the God question we don't have total proof either way. We can be sure that man made source so green house gas are the real cause or even the major catalyst, although there's a good probability that they are. So what is the loss vs gain ratio? does it justify the risk? The risk in believing in global warming is that we will spend a lot of money trying to switch over to non green house producing sources. That will cost profits and might result in economic problems. The worst outcome would be loss of jobs. What is the risk in not assuming it? Doing nothing:

(1) If the theory is right and we do nothing all life on earth might be destroyed at worst, at best, the earth will much hotter, storms more violent, major flooding in many parts of the wold., millions could die.

(2) vs if the theory is wrong and we do a lot to change it anyway, we could have an economic slump in the U.S.

So the risk of loss is much greater if we do nothing than the risk of loss form trying to solve it necessarily.

Of cousre there's the additional factor that we could try to solve but since the problem is not man made (assuming that answer) it would continue despite our efforts. Then we get the worst of both worlds. We die in a super heated world while having an ecnomic slump. Yet thta element is more remote becuase the odds are our life style is at least a contributor to the problem if we change it, even if the cause is not primary our life style it might compensated enough to help minimize the effects. The chances that we would get the worst of both worlds are very small.

We can see from this that both the wager and global warming are forms of risk taker analysis. They both have the same formation: everything to gain by doing X and noting or little to lose. They both have the element that the gain from rejecting action is temporary and self defeating. In terms of the wager one has pleasure form sin but it goes away as you get older, and it's bad for you so you lose your looks sooner and die younger. That's just a short term gain. The gain from rejecting the global warming hypothesis is short term to. As with sin the pleasures of keeping your extravagant life style going a little longer, are short term and offset by the evils of that lifestyle. It's pollution, it's fosters bad nutrition (people have lots of money to spend and they carve new things) it's the whole consumer culture that needs to be overhauled and all our habits changed. So in both cases the life style and the sinful pleasure are short term while the risks of loss is much greater and long term: in religion we risk eternal damnation and in global warming we risk destruction of the life bearing ability of the planet.

It's important to make atheists see that they have such a risk to take becuase the more analogies that stack up for their paradigm the sooner their paradigm (naturalism) will shift. It's very important to point out every inconsistency we can in atheist thinking. for them to know that acceptance of a view point they consider absolutely essential to their acceptance of science as the only way, requires that they also accept the logic of Pascal's wager.


As a Christian apologist, I am constantly exposed to bad reasoning. Sometimes, the bad arguments are found in arguments in favor of Christianity. Most often, the bad arguments are found in arguments against Christianity (this site regularly raises and challenges -- often defeating -- those bad arguments). But bad arguments are not confined to the discussions about the truth of Christianity.

Take, for example, the arguments about global warming. Some people (including me) aren't sold on the idea that global warming is all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, there are three questions that have yet to be conclusively answered in the global warming debate: First, is the earth really warming? Second, if the earth is warming, is the cause of the warming primarily, if not exclusively, human activity? Third, if the cause is human activity, is there anything that can reasonably be done to reverse the process of global warming? Despite protests by global warming activists to the contrary, none of these claims have been established in favor of the positions advocated by these activists either clearly or convincingly. (For the record, I do think that there is evidence of climate change, and I do think that there is reasonable evidence that what man does on the planet does contribute to the change, but I am neither convinced that the temperature change is anything more than part of a larger cycle of climate change that has been taking place before man existed nor am I convinced that man's contribution makes any significant difference.)

But it is because the argument cannot be made sufficiently to convince enough people to agree with the merits of the global warming apologists that the argument is turning to style rather than substance. Consider the following discussion with Al Gore (thank God he wasn't elected president) about how to deal with people (like me) who are unconvinced with the global warming arguments. Gore's bad argument is found in an article appropriately entitled Gore: Global warming skeptics are this generation’s racists because that pretty much summarizes his poor argument.

In an interview with former advertising executive and Climate Reality Project collaborator Alex Bogusky broadcast on UStream on Friday, Gore explained that in order for climate change alarmists to succeed, they must “win the conversation” against those who deny there is a crisis. (RELATED: Bill McKibben: Global warming to blame for Hurricane Irene)

“I remember, again going back to my early years in the South, when the Civil Rights revolution was unfolding, there were two things that really made an impression on me,” Gore said. “My generation watched Bull Connor turning the hose on civil rights demonstrators and we went, ‘Whoa! How gross and evil is that?’ My generation asked old people, ‘Explain to me again why it is okay to discriminate against people because their skin color is different?’ And when they couldn’t really answer that question with integrity, the change really started.”

The former vice president recalled how society succeeded in marginalizing racists and said climate change skeptics must be defeated in the same manner.

“Secondly, back to this phrase ‘win the conversation,’” he continued. “There came a time when friends or people you work with or people you were in clubs with — you’re much younger than me so you didn’t have to go through this personally — but there came a time when racist comments would come up in the course of the conversation and in years past they were just natural. Then there came a time when people would say, ‘Hey, man why do you talk that way, I mean that is wrong. I don’t go for that so don’t talk that way around me. I just don’t believe that.’ That happened in millions of conversations and slowly the conversation was won.”

“We have to win the conversation on climate,” Gore added.

When Bogusky questioned the analogy, asking if the scientific reasoning behind climate change skeptics might throw a wrench into the good and evil comparison with racism, Gore did not back down.

“I think it’s the same where the moral component is concerned and where the facts are concerned I think it is important to get that out there, absolutely,” Gore said.

Notice that this is not really an argument -- it is a tactic as to how to defeat an opponent without really making an argument. It calls for people to disengage from the facts and instead engage in the tactic of ridiculing the other side. It is the same as "shouting down" a speaker not because the argument being made has been demonstrated to be wrong but to silence the other side by belittling the position.

If you don't see this as a bad argument, let's suppose that this tactic was being employed by an atheist against a Christian. Here's the argument revisited: Rather than argue the merits of whether Christianity is true, we need to feign offense over the fact that someone would even suggest that Christianity is true. We need to get to a time when people would say, ‘Hey, man why do you talk that way, I mean that is wrong. I don’t go for that so don’t talk that way around me. I just don’t believe that.’ If that happens in millions of conversations, slowly the conversation will be won.”

And for the atheists who visit the site, let's turn it around. Suppose it were a Christian making the statement: Rather than argue the merits of whether Christianity is true, we need to feign offense over the fact that someone would even suggest that Christianity is false. We need to get to a time when people would say, ‘Hey, man why do you talk that way, I mean that is wrong. I don’t go for that so don’t talk that way around me. I just don’t believe that.’ If that happens in millions of conversations, slowly the conversation will be won.”

This tactic clearly exalts form over substance. It is wrong regardless of where the argument is made or for what cause the argument is made. It demonstrates a disregard for the truth and seeks to bully others into accepting a questionable point of view. It is truly sad that a leader of the global warming movement (or any movement, for that matter) should advocate adopting such a strategy.

In my experience, this shows that Gore (or any other person adopting such a strategy) cannot win the real argument and it should cause people who see this argument being deployed to ask why.

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