Saturday, May 27, 2006

Did the Author of I Peter See the Risen Jesus of the Gospels?

According to the story we find in the New Testament book of Mark, considered by many to be the earliest gospel, Jesus “ordained twelve” disciples, “that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils” (3:14-15). A man named Simon Peter is the first of the twelve disciples to appear in Mark’s listing (3:16). According to Matthew 4:18-20, Peter was a fisherman who abandoned his career to become a follower of Jesus, who was preparing his ministry to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). According to all four gospel narratives, Peter was present with Jesus throughout much of his ministry, attending Jesus’ many speaking engagements, hearing the master’s teachings, even experiencing many of Jesus’ miracles firsthand.

In all, the name ‘Peter’ appears in 93 verses in the KJV versions of the four gospels alone, more than any of the other disciples. Without a doubt, Peter is not only a prominent character in the gospels, but if these stories are true, he would be eyewitness to the most significant events in early Christianity, such as Jesus’ performance of miracles and healings, the last supper, the passion, and finally the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. (1) And although there is no known contemporary documentation of Peter’s life or even existence outside the New Testament, the book of Acts portrays Peter as one of the two most important personalities involved in promulgating Christianity after Jesus’ ascension, the other of course being the apostle Paul.

The New Testament also contains two letters which bear the name Peter. They are typically titled I Peter and II Peter. And although Peter was, according to orthodox New Testament history, an unlearned Jewish fisherman (cf. Acts 4:13), both letters are written in polished Greek. Because of this, some have suggested that Peter was using a secretary to write the letters in Greek on his behalf, though the texts themselves do not make this claim. Despite this, many hoping to salvage Petrine authenticity do not easily relent on this point, even though it compromises the matter; as E. Eve writes, "the letter then becomes the product not of Peter, but of the secretary." (2) Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that I Peter is earlier than II Peter, giving it more probability of being genuine. But many scholars have noted that, due to its references to persecution, it likely dates from post-70 AD, requiring Peter to be very old for the time which would be very unusual for a fisherman. Since II Peter is generally agreed to be too late to have been written by the Peter of the gospels (3), and therefore can safely be dismissed as pseudonymous, our interest is focused on I Peter and its claim to authenticity.


Dating Clues

I Peter is addressed “to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (v.1), that is, to Christian believers who were living in various places throughout the region and apparently suffering persecution. The Greek word ‘parepidemos’ is sometimes translated as ‘pilgrim’, as in I Pet. 2:11, and is used to connote heaven as the Christians’ native home, and earth as merely a temporary dwelling. The use of the term ‘scattered’ (Greek ‘diaspora’) here suggests that the congregations addressed were unconnected or out of touch with each other, and by addressing a letter to all of them simultaneously, its author was seeking to bring unity to them by speaking to an issue that affected them mutually. This suggests a period after Paul's missionary work (Bithynia-Pontus and Cappadocia had not, by all accounts, been missionized by Paul), thus requiring some time since Paul's ministry for the church to develop and reach these "frontiers of the Roman Empire." (4) By the orthodox timeline required by the gospels, already we're moving decades after the resurrection.

Sailhammer explains that I Peter "was written to give hope and encouragement to Christians who were suffering for the sake of Christ," and the author's "starting point for hope in the Christian life is the resurrection of Christ (v. 3), but the focus of his hope is clearly set on Christ’s second coming (v. 5)." (5) The letter's preoccupation with suffering and persecution is significant in terms of its implication for the date of the letter's composition, and has led many scholars to suspect that the Peter of the gospels could not be its author. For instance, Emeritus Professor of the New Testament W. G. Kümmel highlights the implications I Peter's concern for persecution has for dating the letter as follows:

The situation of persecution of those addressed can be understood only as occurring at the beginning stages of civil persecution... According to the unanimous tradition of the early church, the first persecution of Christians on more than a merely local basis (cf. 5:9) took place under Domitian. But that, of course, takes us beyond the life-span of Peter. (6)

Additionally, Elliott thinks it is "likely that 1 Peter was written from Rome sometime during the years 73 to 92 C.E.," since

Distance from the Pauline period and the early 60s is also indicated by the growth and coalescence of diverse traditions reflected in 1 Peter and the shift from an internal Jewish debate over the Mosaic law to a struggle of believers now labeled as 'Christians' with an alien and hostile society.” (7)

Already we have some striking clues in I Peter which militate toward the view that the Peter of the gospels was probably not the author of the letter. The Peter of the gospels was an unlearned fisherman whose native tongue would most likely have been Aramaic, and yet the letter is written in polished Greek. Furthermore, the locale of the letter's addressees and its preoccupation with the hostility that the Christian movement encountered in its neighbors (a far cry from the ready-made mass conversions of Jerusalem Jews reported in Acts), both suggest a post-Pauline period, pushing the date of its composition at least beyond the 70s. One wonders, if the author really were the Peter we read about in the gospels, why didn't he write (or dictate) his letter (and more like it) at an earlier time, closer to the events described in the gospels?


A Deafening Silence

What is really interesting about I Peter, is that here we have a letter purported to be authored by the same Peter we read about in the gospels, and yet it makes no mention whatsoever to any post-resurrection appearance by Jesus. As we saw above, the gospels depict Peter as chief among the apostles, and according to I Cor. 15, Peter was the first to see the risen Jesus. (8) In fact, however, I Peter makes no mention of any of the details and events which Peter would have witnessed and which, according to the gospel narratives, were so important to the inception of Christianity, such as Jesus' miracles, his lessons in parables, healings and exorcisms, a betrayal by Judas, the empty tomb, etc.

To explain such omissions, apologists, insisting on I Peter's authenticity, would have us believe that Peter the disciple would have had no need to mention even one of his extraordinary experiences with Jesus as described in the gospels. Given the purpose of I Peter (as Sailhammer above put it, "to give hope and encouragement to Christians who were suffering for the sake of Christ"), this seems rather dubious. What is incontestable is that, were the Peter of the gospels the author of the letter, he would have had more than ample opportunity to seal the hope he sought to instill in his audience by referring to things he would have personally witnessed, just as today's preachers make use of the gospel stories to underscore the message they're trying to get across. Acts portrays Peter, in his public speeches, as referring to Jesus' "miracles and wonders and signs" (2:22), alluding to the empty tomb (2:29), even performing many miracles and healings himself (cf. 2:43, 3:6, 5:12, etc.).


Missed Opportunities

I Peter is full of opportunities where we could reasonably expect the Peter of the gospels to make mention of the signs and wonders and risen Jesus that he purportedly saw firsthand in order to further the purpose of his letter. And yet its author makes no use of these opportunities.

For instance, I Peter 1:21 states that “God… raised [Jesus] up from the dead, and gave him glory, that your faith and hope might be in God.” But the author does not mention the gospel feature that Jesus was seen on earth in a physical body, both before and after his resurrection, either by the purported author of the letter or by others who had known and traveled with Jesus during his life on earth. And although Peter was, according to the gospels, a major participant in Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, present no doubt at many of Jesus’ speaking engagements and a hearer of Jesus’ teachings, parables and prayers, the author of I Peter never attributes any of his exhortations or words of wisdom to the missionary Jesus of the gospels. On the contrary, as do Paul and other epistle writers, the author of I Peter finds ample occasion to cite the Old Testament. I Peter 2:13-14 contains the following advice:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers.

Does it seem likely that someone familiar with the gospel’s passion events, which has Jesus being sent to the cross by the Roman authority of Pontius Pilate, would say that “governors… are sent by [the Lord] for the punishment of evildoers”? According to I Peter 2:22, Jesus "did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth,” and yet was put to death like an evildoer under the authorization of a Roman governor. Commentators may quote I Pet. 2:24’s “by whose stripes ye were healed” as a reference to the passion events of the gospels. However, this appears to be variation of Isaiah 53:5, which states:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Indeed, as with the Pauline epistles, the writer or I Peter relies on Old Testament texts to describe his Jesus' suffering, rather than on anything we find in the gospels. Not only this, the writer also relies on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, rather than on the Masoretic text or an Aramaic targum as we might expect if the author of this letter were actually the Peter of the gospels. Scholars have noted that the use of this source by the author of I Peter indicates a native familiarity with Greek and Greek sources that the Peter of the gospels most probably would not have had. P. J. Achtemeier says of I Peter:

The absence of influence from the language of the Hebrew Bible or the Targumim on the one hand, and the clear influence of the LXX on the other, show that the author was at home in Greek rather than Semitic culture, and such is likely not to have been the case with Simon Peter. (9)

Again, instead of any direct and unambiguous reference to the gospels’ passion scenes, which depict the crucifixion in a specific place and at a specific time, with specific characters performing specific roles, I Peter’s depiction of Jesus is compatible with the conception of Jesus found in the Pauline epistles – that is, a Jesus which was crucified and resurrected in a distant, unspecified past, wholly bereft of the kinds of details we find in the gospels. A.E. Harvey, whose concern is to defend the miracle stories found in the New Testament gospels and other Christian stories, makes a crucial admission relevant at this point:

We know from the epistles that it was possible to speak and write about Jesus without any mention of his miraculous power. (10)

How could this be in the case of a letter bearing the name of a key player in the gospel stories? How could this be in the case of someone who is said to have seen firsthand things that no other human being has seen? How could this be in the case of a man who abandoned his life as a fisherman in order to follow a worker of miracles which he would have witnessed for himself, and even experienced firsthand? Perhaps I Peter was written too early for the miraculous tradition ascribed to Jesus in the gospel legends to have been included in a letter bearing the name of one of Jesus' most important disciples? Perhaps I Peter was written by someone who did not know that any miracles had been performed? The apocryphal book The Acts of Peter, written in the latter half of the second century (11), was late enough to include references from the gospel stories. In this text, the miracle of walking on water is mentioned, a miracle that Matthew 14:22-31 has Peter enjoy firsthand. But the Acts of Peter dates late enough for the legends found in the gospels to have circulated and become associated with literature attributed to personalities who are mentioned as disciples of Jesus.

I Peter thus shows more affinity and familiarity with Paul’s letters than with any scene found in the gospels, and yet it is purported to have been written by one of Jesus’ closest companions. Unlike later texts bearing the name of the famous disciple, nowhere does I Peter mention any of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels and to which they portray Peter a witness. It seems that, if the Peter depicted in the gospels were writing “to give hope and encouragement to Christians who were suffering for the sake of Christ,” as Sailhammer puts it, then references to the power that the purported author had witnessed – if in fact he had witnessed any miracles to begin with – would have advantaged his purpose vastly more than merely explaining to his readers that “in their sufferings they share in the sufferings of Christ” (12), and promising an experience of joy at some unspecified point in the future. Specifics always seem to be far more effective in making a case than do appeals to vague approximates, such as we find in I Peter. This should not be taken to mean that the points that the author does offer in the interest of bolstering his readers’ encouragement should have been replaced, but rather supplemented with firsthand testimony of the events we read about in the gospels, had he actually witnessed them. Unfortunately, they aren't.

Another missed opportunity is found in I Peter 3:19, which mentions that Jesus “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” after he was, according to the KJV’s version of 3:18, “quickened by the Spirit.” By some apologists' interpretation of this passage, this means that Jesus was made "by the Spirit" to rise in a physical body - a detail not stipulated by any New Testament text prior to the gospels, and yet I Peter makes no mention about Jesus preaching to his followers on earth after he was resurrected. The whole sequence that I Peter gives in 3:18-22 is as follows:

a. “put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit” (3:18)
b. “preached to the spirits in prison” (3:19)
c. “gone into heaven and is at God's right hand” (3:22)

with no mention of appearances to believers on earth, such as we find in the gospels, such as the alleged author of the letter itself is said to have witnessed.

Chapter 4 of I Peter opens with more references to Jesus suffering in the flesh, but again, we find no references to details from events that Peter of would have witnessed according to the gospels. The author does not tell his readers about the anguish he would have experienced as he watched Jesus being flogged as he carried the heavy wooden cross up to Golgotha (cf. Mark 15:20f). He doesn’t mention Jesus being adorned with a crown of thorns (cf. Mark 15:17, Matthew 27:29; John 19:5). He tells his readers in 4:13 that they are “partakers of Christ's sufferings,” but he gives nothing specific to indicate what kind of suffering Jesus endured, other than that he was crucified. According to the gospels, however, Jesus was already suffering before he was nailed to the cross. But we wouldn’t know this from the epistolary record. Like other epistles in the New Testament, I Peter does not even mention the malefactors who were crucified beside Jesus.

I Peter's fifth chapter begins with the author identifying himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed” (v. 1), but he does not identify himself as a witness of a risen, physical Jesus who, according to the gospels, appeared in Jerusalem (or was it Galilee?) and mingled with the faithful. Achtemeier takes “the reference to 'witness' in 5:1… to mean Peter is calling himself an eyewitness to the passion of Jesus.” (13) Notice how this assumes that the gospel Peter is the author of I Peter, in spite of the complete absence of references to any gospel detail in the letter.


Conclusion: I Peter is Not Authentic

This whole letter, purported to have been written by someone whom the gospels paint as a star eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus, presents a context which is difficult to reconcile with that gospel record. And the same situation is repeated throughout the NT epistolary record, save for in some of the later epistles, which, according to many scholars, are pseudonymous. Clearly, if there was opportunity for this writer to identify himself as a witness of Christ’s sufferings as we find them described in the gospel narratives, there was more than such in the case of I Peter if in fact its author had seen the resurrected Jesus as the gospels tell us. Indeed, this would have only encouraged the intended readers of the epistle to remain steadfast and hopeful, which is one of the chief messages it tries to convey to them.

Donald Guthrie tells us that

As an eyewitness of the risen Christ Peter would never forget the profound impression which that stupendous event made upon his mind... (14)

And although we can reasonably expect the same of anyone who would have been in the position of the man named Peter by gospels, this supposition alone makes it very difficult to believe that the author of the letter bearing Peter's name in the New Testament was the same individual we read about in the gospels. Was the eyewitness of Jesus during his lifetime and post-resurrection appearances the author of I Peter? W. G. Kümmel writes:

I Pet contains no evidence at all of familiarity with the earthly Jesus, his life, his teaching, and his death, but makes reference only in a general way to the 'sufferings' of Christ. It is scarcely conceivable that Peter would neither have sought to strengthen his authority by referring to his personal connections with Jesus nor have referred to the example of Jesus in some way. (15)

The evidence simply does not add up to Petrine authenticity. What we have in I Peter is precisely what we would expect if, in the first century, there were diverse views of Jesus, just as today there are competing strains of Christianity. The letter's conspicuous omission of allusions to events which according to the gospels the disciple Peter would have witnessed in person, is not explained by a dearth of opportunity to introduce them, but by the fact that the author simply did not know of them. For surely had the author witnessed the miracles attributed to Jesus during his ministry, and the appearances Jesus is said to have made in the flesh and on the earth after his resurrection, he would have had ample opportunity to point to them in substantiating the message of hope that he wanted to deliver to his fellow believers.


Notes:

(1) Of course, Peter would not have been a witness of the virgin birth ascribed to Jesus by the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But then again, what NT writer could have witnessed this?

(2) The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 1263.

(3) A summary of some reasons why II Peter is widely agreed to date from the 2nd century is provided here.

(4) J.R. Michaels, (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, art. "1 Peter"; see also J.H. Elliott, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, art. "First Epistle of Peter"

(5) NIV Compact Bible Commentary, p. 577.

(6) Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 418f, 424.

(7) The Anchor Bible Dictionary, art. "First Epistle of Peter"

(8) Incidentally, Paul makes no mention of Jesus being seen by any women, even though according to the gospels the first to encounter the risen Jesus were women. But even on this point, the gospels are not entirely uniform. As Wells points out:

This sory of guards who saw the angel, knew that the tomb was empty, and had to be bribed by the chief preists to pretend that the body had been stolen while they were asleep (Mt. 28:11-15), shows that Christian tradition does not, after all, uniformly make only women the initial witnesses concerning the resurrection. (The Jesus Myth, p. 132)

(9) A Commentary on First Peter, pp. 6-7.

(10) Jesus and the Constraints of History, p. 98; quoted in Wells, The Jesus Myth, p. 142.

(11) Cf. Stoops, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 5, p. 267.

(12) Sailhammer, op. cit.

(13) A Commentary on First Peter, p. 9.

(14) New Testament Introduction

(15) Introduction to the New Testament, p. 424.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, May 12, 2006

Jason and the Halluci-Nots

Recent Controversy

A spate of recent blog articles (1) has rekindled an old debate between bible believers and critics of the Christian religion on whether or not the so-called "post-resurrection appearances" of Jesus were real or hallucinatory in nature. Since I know of no good reasons to limit the debate to only these alternatives, I am not writing to defend the view per se that the individuals which the New Testament claims to have witnessed Jesus after his alleged resurrection were in fact hallucinating; indeed, I have no confessional investment to protect on this issue and thus am not committed to such predetermined outcomes. Rather, I am seeking to give some brief observations on various objections which have been raised against this proposal by Jason Engwer & co. of the Christian blog known as Triablogue.


An All Too Typical Defense

In one of his articles defending the New Testament's claim to eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus from the charge of hallucination, Jason repeatedly claims that "every major strand of early evidence" (he uses this very phrase four separate times), disconfirms - even "contradicts" - what we would expect to be the case if those accounts were in fact hallucinatory in origin. By "early evidence" he is no doubt referring to various claims found in the texts of the New Testament. Throughout his rejoinder to such proposals, Jason's approach to the matter rests on the assumption that the elements of the New Testament's stories are accurate and historical to begin with, and that a theory attributing the experience of the risen Jesus to hallucination would have to come to grips with these stories on their own terms. Elsewhere I have already explained my view in regard to the claim that the bible constitutes "archaeological evidence" in Contra Dusman, where I clarify my position on this matter as follows:

I'm perfectly willing to accept the text of the New Testament as evidence showing what some ancient people *believed*. But this is far from supporting the claim that what they believed is true... I'm not disputing against the view that there were people in the first and second centuries who believed writings found in the New Testament.

Furthermore, in my blog Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness, I have already raised issue with the assumption, so commonly taken for granted by believers, that the texts of the New Testament present a uniform picture of Jesus and early church figures and activity, an assumption which is easily reinforced by reading the details we find in the gospels into the early epistolary records. So even before going very deeply into Jason's offerings on the issue, I already detect some areas of concern.


The Legendary Nature of the Evidence

Given the scant details that can be adduced from the New Testament on the psychological stability of the characters mentioned in its stories and chronicles, it is unclear where defenders of Christianity think they get their certainty about the supposed truthfulness of the incredible claims found in the New Testament. Here we have an ancient set of texts, written over a period of several decades and later assembled together in one volume, all apparently about the same individual who is claimed by believers to be the supernatural creator of the universe walking the earth fully clothed as a human man named Jesus. The earliest of these documents are a series of letters written mostly by one man, known to us as the apostle Paul, and his accounts put Jesus in some unspecified past in an unspecified setting, for the most part giving no time, location or other details one could confidently call historical. Much of his letters are preoccupied with doctrinal disputes, ethical teachings, theological arguments, etc., and shows no interest in a pre-Easter Jesus. Paul also includes references to his own mystical experiences of this Jesus, who he says died by crucifixion and was later resurrected, after which time Paul was paid a personal visit in the form of a visionary experience (according to one later source, at any rate) and selected to be Jesus' traveling emissary in search of converts to a belief program built on worshipping this resurrected "savior."

Later, some time after Paul's life and missionizing campaign, a new series of texts starts to be written. These texts also speak of a man named Jesus who was divine, and who was also crucified by the Roman state, and who was later resurrected from the dead. But these texts, known as gospels, place this Jesus into a historical context that is absent from Paul's many letters. All four of these texts portray a Jesus that bears little if any resemblance to the Jesus that Paul describes. The gospel Jesus, for instance, is said to have been from Nazareth, was born of a virgin, survived a slaughter of infants ordered by a jealous king, was baptized by a man named John the Baptist, worked as a carpenter, conducted a preaching ministry in and around Judea, taught in parables, cast out demons and healed diseases, worked various miracles, raised the dead back to life, was betrayed to Roman authorities by a man named Judas Iscariot, and was executed under the rule of Pontius Pilate. While the letters of Paul speak of a Jesus in an unspecified, vague past with virtually no historical details, the later gospel texts paint a detailed portrait that comes alive in the imagination of the reader, complete with other characters who interact with Jesus as well as place names and other location references, all of which give their portrait of Jesus a historical context that Paul's letters do not have.

What's more is that the gospel texts essentially repeat the same story (suggesting that later narratives were derived from the earliest account to produce new versions), and - significantly - that the gospel story grows more elaborate and impressive with each telling. For instance, the earliest account, found in the book of Mark, begins with Jesus as an adult getting baptized under the supervision of John the Baptist. This detail is nowhere mentioned in any of Paul's letters. The next two gospels, Matthew and Luke, seeking to confer a miraculous beginning to their Jesus, portray Jesus as having a virgin mother. And again this detail is nowhere mentioned in any of Paul's letters. The last of the canonical gospels, John, goes even further in giving its Jesus divine credentials by equating Jesus with the Logos (an idea which bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the same name enjoying reverence among Hellenistic Jews in the decades prior to the writing of John), an eternal being existing forever in a magic kingdom and enjoying immutable bliss as a member of the "Godhead." Similar progressions from relatively bare to more embellished treatments of the same anecdotal material can be observed throughout the story of Jesus' gathering of disciples, his performance of healings and other miracles, on up through to the passion and post-resurrection scenes. Thus the gospel accounts themselves are unhelpful in uncovering any truths in the earliest testimony, for the narrative accounts that we find in the gospels bear the signs of literary invention rather than historical reporting.


Our Limited Vantage

We do not have the benefit of seeing what Paul identified as Jesus when he tells us things such as that he received his gospel story by means of revelation (Gal. 1:12) and that "it pleased God… to reveal his Son in me" (Gal. 1:15-16). So again, it's unclear how believers can conclusively rule out at least the possibility that what Paul experienced was hallucinatory in nature, or at least subjective. As what appears to be a private deliverance to Paul that apparently informs his whole gospel (cf. Eph. 3:2-4), this "strand of early evidence" is not, contrary to what Jason has told us, "inconsistent with hallucinations and other psychological disorders," for these are internal experiences that Paul claims for himself, not experiences that are suggested to have been shared with others. Since the book of Acts reads like a later concoction whose intention is to portray a kind of "golden age" pageant of post-Easter adventures of the apostles, all we really have from Paul are his letters. Indeed, how does one rule out psychological disorders as at least a contributing factor in one's reasoning when an individual takes belief in invisible magic beings so seriously?

Jason and other Halluci-Nots may claim that the experience that Paul is referring to in these passages in the first chapter of Galatians, is the incident in which the book of Acts puts Paul on the road to Damascus with fellow travelers. Unfortunately, however, the book of Acts, which tells the same conversion story twice (with conflicts), could only indicate that the content that Paul later referred to as "my gospel" (cf. Rom. 2:16, 16:25) - of which he tells us that he "neither received it of man, neither was I taught it" (Gal. 1:12) - was delivered to him at a later point in time since he was instructed to proceed to Damascus "and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do." (Acts 22:10) The story does not indicate that any more than this was communicated to Paul on this occasion. Since it does not appear that Paul was given a full education on Christian theology at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus (at least, according to Acts), and since he was not "taught it" or "received it of man," this leaves unexplained exactly how he acquired (if that's the right word) knowledge of Jesus. The record we have nowhere rules out later private visitations by Jesus; in fact Paul's frequent appeals to having knowledge by means of divine revelation suggests that he enjoyed repeated visits by Jesus, or that he was in regular contact with the risen deity.

Of course, at this point, one might raise the question: why doesn't Jesus do for everyone he wants to save what the New Testament says he did for the apostle Paul (i.e., pay a miraculous personal visit), rather than just for one man who lived upwards of 2,000 years ago, whose writings are the only record of these private deliverances from a divine source, and whose ideas have been hotly debated throughout the centuries? It's larger questions like this that serve to put these disputes about whether hallucinations et al. played a part in the development of the early Christian testimony. As it is now, with a private message hand-delivered to one individual who died centuries ago and penned into texts which read like legend and myth, the result that reaches us in the modern era tends to raise more questions than it can hope to answer, and to cause more problems than it can hope to resolve. Apparently the all-wise, all-knowing creator of the universe finds the present method of disseminating its word to be preferable to a direct approach, but for reasons that we will likely never know.


Needlessly Limiting Possible Alternatives

A common apologetic tactic is the artificial restriction of available options for consideration on some point of contention to only two alternatives, one preferred by the apologist and the other presented as too implausible to be taken very seriously. Even though such strategem typically trades on superficial understanding of the issues involved, the intention behind such a ploy is not only to score an easy victory for theism, but also to belittle any alternative to theism (and any would-be adherents by implication). In Basic Contra-Theism, I encountered this proclivity for simplistic bifurcation as I considered the common apologetic treatment of the "origin" of the universe as "a choice between self-generating matter and an intelligent Creator." It seems that apologists are so accustomed to thinking in terms of square circles vs. circular squares, that non-believers should be mindful not to fall into the same booby-traps. For we see this propensity to bifurcate in an article called A Closer Look at the Subjective Visions Theory, to which Jason linked for support. Its author writes:

according to the 'subjective visions' theory, those that saw Jesus did so within the context of a dream, vision, etc., but Jesus did not really appear. In other words, it was the result of the mind playing tricks, or a hallucination.

Of course, the causality behind the experiences that Paul and other alleged eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus need not have been either hallucinations or "the mind playing tricks." An individual can have what some might term 'visions' as a result of a heightened, frenzied state, akin to what many charismatics and Pentecostals sometimes experience when brought to a trance-like state in which a subject may be heard babbling a "nonsense language" (so-called "speaking in tongues"). An individual can in fact be encouraged to "let go" of himself and be "taken over" by what are supposed to be "spirit forces." The subject may not experience actual hallucinations, but may be expected that the exhiliration thus experienced has religious significance. Since the details of what Paul's 500 witnesses actually experienced are nowhere given, it is possible that the individuals he had in mind underwent a kind of mass trance-like episode. Earl Doherty points out that the wording Paul uses in I Cor. 15 suggests precisely this:

In a study of the meaning of “ophthe” (the ‘seeing/appearance’ word in the Greek), The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the ‘seeing’ may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. It may simply be “an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself... they experienced his presence.” If what we have here is more a sensing of Christ’s “presence” than a full-blown hallucinatory vision, this would make it easier to accept that so many individuals and even a large group could imagine they had undergone such an experience. It is far from clear, therefore, that Paul in 15:5-8 is describing anything more than a series of occasions on which many people, most of them within a group already formed for a religious purpose, felt a conviction of faith in the spiritual Christ, experiences which took on heightened significance with the passage of time. (2)

In fact, from the scant description that we are given, Paul's 500 witnesses could very well have experienced the same kind of delusion nurtured by indulged religious hysteria not unlike the kind experienced by Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven's Gate followers. Applewhite was so certain there was a space ship hiding in a comet's tail, that he happily poisoned himself so that he could be resurrected on board the otherwise undetectable craft and be carried off into paradise to live happily ever after. The familiar ring of this kind of sold-out certainty concerning a set of ideas that are clearly absurd is due to its sounding for some 2,000 years now. Whether this delusion is constituted by "subjective visions" or by something else, can certainly be debated. But the dubiousness of such claims cannot. Was Marshall Applewhite hallucinating? I don't know, but I tend to doubt that he was since his devotion to his nonsense was sustained over a long period of time. Do I believe that the space ship he said was hiding in a comet's tail really existed? No, I don't. Do I believe that a universe-creating deity "became flesh and dwelt among us" some 20 centuries ago, only to be nailed to a cross and resurrected back to life three days later, and later wafted up to a magic kingdom above our heads some place? No, I don't.

Christian believers have a vested interest in rejecting out of hand explanations that do not affirm their predetermined religious commitments, only then to concoct occasionally plausible-sounding objections to any alternative hypothesis that's been proposed by a non-believer. The problem is not restricted to their inability to explain how they could possibly know for certain what was going through the apostle Paul's mind so as to confidently rule out psychological disorders as a key or contributing factor behind his claims; it also includes the implausible outcomes that their objections lead to when applied as principles in determining the truth of rival claims of a religious nature. I'm referring here to the unintended consequences that are likely to arise from the implications generated by the objections apologists raise against criticism, as well as to the ingenuity they must summon up in order to craft a host of qualifications that are enlisted to stave off unwelcome applications of the same. For instance, apologists will insist that the mystical claims in Paul's letters do not indicate psychological disorders, while the belief that a space ship hiding in the tail of a comet and waiting to scoop up believers' souls after they imbibe a lethal cocktail, is clearly whacko. O what a tangled web they weave...


Rival Miracle Claims

There is no doubt that religious believers reserve for themselves the right to pick and choose which miracle reports they will accept. But this privileged selectivity does not reduce to the application of rational principles. Non-Catholic Christians, for instance, while blindly affirming the stable-mindedness of the anonymous five hundred witnesses mentioned in I Cor. 15, typically dismiss the eyewitness testimony of the estimated 70,000 or so who attest to the Miracle of the Sun, seen outside Fatima, Portugal in October 1917 by 140 times the number that the New Testament claims to have spotted the resurrected Jesus. And unlike Paul's claim to so many eyewitnesses in I Cor. 15, in the case of the Miracle of the Sun we have actual names of witnesses who were present at the miracle, such as the attending newspaper reporter Avelino de Almeida, and Dr. Joseph Garrett, Professor of Natural Sciences at Coimbra University.

Another Halluci-Not and prolific writer of sweet nothings, Steve Hays has sought to preempt the use of what many take to be well-documented Marian Apparitions as counter-examples to the Halluci-not thesis. When attempting to counter the proposal that Paul's experience of Jesus was visionary in nature, the apologist exhibits a strong tendency to take Acts as actual history:

This fails to distinguish between an objective vision or appearance and a subjective vision or appearance... Even in the case of the Damascus road encounter, this was a public event, not a private event, for Paul’s escort were also witnesses to this audiovisual event. It’s a spatiotemporal phenomenon.

We must not forget that the book of Acts itself puts the words "heavenly vision" into Paul's mouth when it portrays him as recounting his conversion experience to King Agrippa (Acts 26:19). Thus it is up to the author of Acts to clarify whether his story's purported experience by Paul was "an objective vision or appearance" or "a subjective vision or appearance." The details given in Acts are too scant and inconsistent with themselves to allow us to make this clarification with much confidence. Naturally the apologist does not want it to be considered subjective, but in the cartoon universe of theism, everything is ultimately subjective anyway. Steve may say to me that, since I am persuaded that, like the gospels, Acts is more legend than history in the first place, that I therefore cannot rely on Acts 26:19 to support the visionary proposal. But if Acts is more legend than history, then the stories of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus are brought into serious doubt anyway. As Earl Doherty points out in response to Gary Habermas' statements to Lee Strobel on page 234 of The Case for Christ, we actually have in the New Testament "a wealth of invention" (Doherty) where Habermas chooses to see "a wealth of sightings of Jesus."

Each writer sat down to provide 'proofs' of Jesus' rising in the flesh," explains Doherty, "and they all quite naturally come up with anecdotes of their own, which best explains their incompatible variety. (3)

Anxious to dispel the subjective implications of phrases such as "heavenly vision" used by Acts to describe Paul's sighting of Jesus, Steve exclaims:

There is also an obvious difference between saying the same Jesus appeared to Paul and the twelve, and saying that Jesus appeared the same way to Paul and the twelve. Even if the Damascus road encounter involved a different mode of presentation, this does not imply an identical mode of presentation for Easter.

But does Paul ever distinguish between the nature of his sighting of Jesus and the sighting of Jesus he says these others enjoyed? On the contrary, it remains ambiguous and unspecified, thus allowing believers to uncritically read gospel details into what they read in Paul. Apologists need to understand that, while they want to put the onus on the New Testament's critics, the onus is really on the New Testament itself to shore up the very areas where they claim its critics habitually default. Steve claims that
the whole point of this chapter is to repeatedly stress the physicality of the glorified body
even though the chapter nowhere uses the word 'physical' (at least not in any of my translations), not to mention the fact that this position needs to be reconciled with what we read in I Peter 3:18, which speaks of Jesus as "being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit." It is hard to read this statement as coming from one of Jesus' own disciples who, according to the gospels, met face to face with a physically resurrected Jesus.

Steve may counter that Paul spoke of Jesus having been resurrected in the flesh, but Paul himself indicates that there are different kinds of flesh, that "all flesh is not the same flesh" (I Cor. 15:39), which leaves open the possibility that Paul may have reserved the use of the term 'flesh' in some circumstances to refer to some spiritual, non-physical "substance" which is to be distinguished from the tissue, bone and organs of living organisms. So this is at best inconclusive. Moreover, Paul insists that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 15:50), which suggests that the physical bodies we have are not analogous to the resurrected bodies that believers should expect to awaken in once they are resurrected. All these issues point to just some of the many serious ambiguities that plague the New Testament record, thus inviting endless contests between conflicting interpretations and wide-ranging speculations. (I'm glad these aren't my problems.) To be sure, there have been many efforts over the centuries to codify an authorized interpretation, but this endeavor is about as effective as trying to harvest wheat on the dark side of the moon; and no matter how much effort is applied to this ambition, the early record is still what it is: laden with incompatible variances and unyielding ambiguities.

Concerning reported sightings of the Virgin Mary, Steve hedges when considering the question "Do we reject Marian sightings?" giving no firm answer one way or another. He says that
some reports are more credible than others because some reporters are more credible than others.
I agree: some reports are more credible than others, and some reporters are more credible than others. But here we might inquire as to what criteria Steve consults in determining whether a report is "more credible than others," or in determining when one reporter is "more credible than others." Obviously the writers of the New Testament meet his criteria, while what he has written strongly suggests that his contemporaries (or near contemporaries) who have claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, do not meet his criteria. What are those criteria? Heaven knows! But he does give some indication here:
After all, how do they know what Mary looks like? Jesus was seen by his contemporaries. But no one today is a contemporary of the Virgin Mary. No one knows what she used to look like when she was walking the earth two thousand years ago. Any "recognition" of Mary would be based, not on a knowledge of the historical individual, but on Catholic art and iconography. Mary a la Raphael.
If it is valid to ask how those who claim to have experienced a visit from the Virgin Mary "know what Mary looks like," we should also ask: How did Saul of Tarsus know what Jesus looked like? Steve says that "Jesus was seen by his contemporaries," but this may be read as saying far too much. That one is a contemporary of another, does not indicate that either has seen the other or knows what the other looks like. For instance, both Steve and I are contemporaries, but I would never be able to pick him out from a crowd. Nor would he be able to do the same with me. Today we have cameras which record faithful images of our physical features, such that I could pass my picture to Steve via e-mail, and then he very well might be able to pick me out of a crowd. But cameras were not around in 1st century Palestine, so Jesus' "contemporaries" (an expression which takes the gospels as history) didn't even have this benefit. The "no one knows what she used to loo like" approach is certainly applicable in considering claims involving inanimate objects, such as that the burnt markings on a tortilla are the image of Mary. But a sighting of the Virgin Mary is usually claimed to involve an encounter with the real McCoy, though perhaps only in spirit form, which can enable direct communication, sometimes even dialogue (such as we find in Acts' versions of Paul's firsthand encounter with Jesus). And if the apparition identifies itself as the Virgin Mary (just as whatever it was that appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus allegedly identified itself as Jesus), then there's no need for face recognition based on prior knowledge of "what she used to look like when she was walking the earth two thousand years ago" in the first place. The apparition could very well have introduced itself as the Virgin Mary, and the person experiencing the vision, whether subjective or otherwise, might very well be prone to believing it.

Regardless, Steve makes it clear that he is committed to taking the New Testament - including significantly the gospels - as historically accurate on its say so when he writes:
We have more than the Easter appearances to go by. We also have everything that went before. Easter Sunday comes at the tail-end of the Gospels.
How these apologists' belief in the bible amounts to anything better than "it's true because I want it to be true," is not at all clear. But it is clear enough that Steve has the gospels in mind when he asserts that

this additional biographical material gives us a chance to become acquainted with the apostolic witnesses to the Resurrection.

But what the witnesses that Paul speaks about in I Cor. 15? For instance, what "biographical material" do we have in the case of the 500 who Paul claims saw the risen Jesus? Even though this is among the earliest post-resurrection sightings of Jesus reported in the New Testament, Paul mentions it only in passing, not even telling us who any of these 500 might have been or where the sighting may have occurred. Apparently this doesn't matter, because the gospel details are read into the accounts we read in Paul's and other early letters, such that "by the time we arrive at the Resurrection, we know a good deal about the character and quality of the reporters." Were I to take so much for granted in my criticism of Christianity, apologists would try to make a field day of me.

Steve says:
This is not at all the same thing as comparing a reported sighting of Jesus with reported sighting of Mary, where you have two isolated reports without any supplementary background material to help us size up the reporters. To compare the first Easter with Lourdes or Fatima or other suchlike is comparing the incomparable.
Indeed, the sighting of Mary at Fatima is so better documented than the unattested and conflicting reports that we find in the New Testament's epistolary record, that the two are essentially incomparable.

In a last-ditch effort to discount sightings of the Virgin Mary, Steve asserts:

The Resurrection is a purposeful event. Seeing Mary is a grilled cheese sandwich is not.

This merely puts the onus to prove a negative squarely on Steve's shoulders. Otherwise he risks asserting from his own ignorance while standing on New Testament invention. It is not difficult to suppose that the individual(s) who saw Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich would agree that their sighting was not a purposeful event. If one can suppose that turning water into wine or causing a fig tree to wither is sufficiently purposeful for an incarnated deity to take trouble to effect, one can with as much imagination consider that an apparition in burn marks, water stains, tree knots, etc., to be just as purposeful. A mind inebriated on religious faith has already stepped onto the wild-card grounds of make-believe. Surely if apologists had something more substantial than special pleading and rash dismissals, they'd be screaming it instead of these paltry offerings.


The Questionable Value of Purported Eyewitness Testimony

It is important to keep in mind that, in many cases of eyewitness testimony reported in the New Testament, we do not have this testimony from those who are said to have been the eyewitnesses themselves. The reports are at best secondhand (if not further removed) even to those who recorded them. In fact, in most cases we don't even have their names! For instance, in Acts' stories of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul is said to have been travelling with an unspecified number of companions. Who these men were and why they, too, were not converted as was Paul, we are not told. The story seems to include them only so that it can be claimed that Paul was accompanied by witnesses to the same event, thus serving as an element deliberately included (perhaps invented?) to anticipate the charge of hallucination, for they serve no other purpose in the story.

Would we accept stories of such supernatural character if we were told that they have taken place in our time? Suppose a woman takes the stand in defense of her husband who is being tried for a murder which took place 20 years earlier. The known facts of the case are that there is a victim whose death clearly resulted from foul play, that a blood-stained knife has the accused's fingerprints all over it, that there is a receipt for the purchase of the blood-stained knife signed by the accused, that the accused had strong motive to eliminate the victim, etc. The prosecution is confident that they have an airtight case against the accused. But when the wife takes the stand, she explains to the court that she was present at the scene of the murder when the victim met his violent demise, but that the perpetrator was in fact not her husband. On the contrary, she tells the court that a vampire bat had flown into the room where the victim was killed and turned into a dark-haired man wearing a long, flowing cape. The caped man then walked over to the accused and grabbed the murder weapon, which was in the accused's possession at the time, then strutted over to the victim and stabbed him right into the heart. As the victim lay dying in a pool of his own blood, the caped man turned back into a bat and flew back out the window, never to be seen again. The members of the audience in the courtroom are aghast at what they had just heard, and naturally find the witness's testimony unbelievable. But as she is cross-examined, she insists that her testimony is true, and tells the court that there were more than 500 other witnesses to these very events. Thus the sighting of the vampire was therefore, as Steve says of Paul's sighting of Jesus on the road to Damascus, "a public event, not a private event," and therefore not dismissable as an hallucination or psychotic episode. Of course, this was 20 years ago, so she does not have the details as to the identity and present whereabouts of these unnamed witnesses to this amazing event; she even indicates that some have already "fallen asleep," which the court is to understand as meaning deceased. When asked if any of these 500 witnesses had names, she assures the court that they in fact had names, such as (and I quote) "Bob, Nick, Dan, Pete, Frank, Eddie, and Arnold." She goes on to list the names of no fewer than 12 of the more than 500 witnesses she insists were at the scene of the crime when it happened. So her story is clearly on a par with what we find in the New Testament relating to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, with the added benefit of a live witness who can be cross-examined. What do you suppose that further cross-examination will uncover holes in her story? What if we had the benefit of being able to cross-examine Paul and other NT writers on the stories that they told? From our vantage, we will never have this opportunity, but the Halluci-Not thesis is driven by the dogma that we are to believe what we read in the New Testament on its own say so. Critical thinking need not apply.

Now here's the question to ponder, and I'm sure it wasn't hard to see it coming: If you were a member of the jury in this trial, how would you evaluate this woman's testimony? Would you think that what she told the court accurately reflects what actually happened at the time of the murder? Or, would you suppose that she

On Jason Engwer's reasoning, we cannot suppose that hallucination was involved, for

Subjective visions, whether we would call them hallucinations or something else, would be experiences within an individual's mind, not shared experiences. While it would be possible for people to have similar hallucinations around the same time, we wouldn't expect the details to be identical.

But since we do not have any testimony from the 500 or so witnesses that the accused's wife claims were present at the scene of the crime, we have no confirming indicators of which details those 500 or so witnesses would report, had we the opportunity to consult them. Thus we would not know whether their experience was shared or dissimilar. Such factors do not seem to concern Jason, for he continues:

If some people lost at sea begin having hallucinations, it's possible that they would all think that they're seeing a ship, but it's highly unlikely that all of them would think that the ship is the same color, is at the same distance, is traveling at the same speed, has the same markings on the side of it, etc.

Similarly, in his blog Hallucinations? Jason quotes Gary Habermas:

Let us suppose that a group of twenty people is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean when the ship sinks. After floating on the ocean for three days with no sleep, food, or fresh water, and with the strongest desire for rescue, one member points to a large ship on the horizon that he is hallucinating. Will the others see it? Probably not, since hallucinations are experienced only in the mind of the individual. However, let us suppose that three others in the group are so desperately hopeful of rescue that their minds deceive them into believing that they see the ship as well. As their imaginary ship approaches, will they all see the same hull number? If they do, it is time for the entire group to begin yelling at the top of their lungs because the ship is real. (4)

This is all well and good, at least in the case where details such as the color of the vessel, the rate at which and direction in which it may traveling, its hull number, even its port of call, might be reported by those experiencing the hallucination so that they can be compared. But in the case of Paul's unnamed 500 or so witnesses, we do not have their testimony, so we do not know what they would report if they in fact existed and could be questioned. That's just the point: this is all a secondhand claim by Paul, with no references, no details, not even an indication of time or place! So even if this were a case of hysteria-induced mass hallucination (which the apologists have not proven impossible), we are not given any details as to what they might have experienced, so if there were discrepancies in their experience, they are omitted from Paul's secondhand (or further removed) report. In other words, we do not have firsthand testimony from these 500 witnesses, so the question of their uniformity is unanswerable on what we are given in the New Testament. For all we are given, some of Paul's 500 might have seen a Jesus who had long hair, suffered from chronic acne and smelled of urine, while others might have seen a Jesus who was balding, bearded and smelled of fish. Still others might have seen a pristine Jesus, glowing with white light and surrounded by singing angels. Habermas' objection is thus insufficient to put the believer's worries to rest, because the scenario he uses to inform it is not sufficiently analogous to the situation recorded in the New Testament.


"...it's highly unlikely that..."

My attention is often piqued when a Christian apologist insinuates that a proposal under consideration is deemed "unlikely," such as when Jason writes:

It seems unlikely that a group of 11 people or a group of more than 500 people would have hallucinations of Jesus at the same time without eventually discovering that they had been mistaken.

Of course, we should not expect any New Testament writer to have come forward to correct the record if in fact any of these alleged eyewitnesses did discover that they were mistaken. But there is an even larger concern here. While we are told that coincidental mass hallucination "seems unlikely," this is stated in the context of a defense of a belief system which tells us that "all things are possible" (Mt. 19:26), that the universe was created by an act of consciousness, that dead people rose from their graves (cf. Mt. 27:52-53), that serpents and donkeys and burning bushes speak in human languages, that water was turned into wine by a wish, etc. To assess the likelihood of some event or occurrence under consideration, a thinker, whether he realizes it or not, is making reference to fundamental premises that he holds about the world in general. As some apologists might say, he is "invoking his worldview presuppositions." Greg Bahnsen explains:
presuppositions have the greatest authority in one's thinking, being treated as your least negotiable belief and being granted the highest immunity to revision.(5)
What 'seems likely' to me is that the apologist is not mindfully conscious of his own worldview's basic premises and their implications as they concern the issues on which he makes such pronouncements. He is torn between the premises of the position he wants to defend, and premises he employs in that position's defense: on the one hand, the Christian's position affirms a fanciful, cartoon-like view of the universe where anything the ruling consciousness wishes is not only possible, but the very standard of reality as such; while on the other hand he seeks to dismiss alternatives to his paradigm on the basis that certain elements of those alternatives "seem unlikely." There's a fundamental inconsistency here, one that usually runs along undetected by the believer as he insists on a fantasy while illicitly borrowing from a reality-based worldview. On the basis of my worldview's fundamentals, I can consistently suppose that it is "highly unlikely" that a group of individuals will have the same hallucination, complete with shared uniform details, and for reasons not unlike those which Jason himself has mentioned. For instance, an hallucination is not only an individual and private experience, its distortion of what one perceives is most likely to be influenced by such an enormous number of imperceptible factors that it would be essentially unrepeatable. But if I held to the view that the universe is run by a magic spirit who choreographs all events in human history according to a divine "plan," on what grounds could I confidently say that uniform hallucinatory experiences shared by even enormous numbers of human beings is either "unlikely" or impossible? Blank out.

In the final analysis, the proposal that hallucinations or other subjective factors played a role in the development of early Christian accounts, is not as implausible or "unlikely" as these apologists would like to believe. The objections raised against the possibility of hallucinatory causes behind the alleged eyewitness testimony in the epistles of Paul, for instance, rely on numerous questionable and sometimes indefensible assumptions, a tendency to read too much into what is actually given in the New Testament, the failure to distinguish between detailed firsthand account and secondhand or further removed testimony wholly lacking in details, and other hallmarks of over-anxious reasoning which frequently accompanies defenses of religious worldviews. Most ironically, we are told that it is "highly unlikely" that mass hallucinations may have played a role in Christianity's beginnings, while being assured that the New Testament's fanciful, myth-like stories are not only true, but divinely inspired truth, fit to serve as the bedrock of our perspective on life and reality as such. One can only say: May the Force be with you!

Notes:

(1) Some of the recent blog articles fueling this controversy include:

The Visionary Basis of Christianity, by Matthew (8 May 06)
God Fought Monsters In Order To Create The Universe: How John Loftus Reads The Bible, by Jason Engwer (8 May 06)
The Hallucination Theory: A Skeptical Delusion, by Jason Engwer (10 May 06)
Hallucinations, by Jason Engwer (11 Apr 06)

(2) Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ," pp. 253-254n.88.

(3) Ibid., pp. 203-204.

(4) The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 106.

(5) Van Til's 'Presuppositionalism'

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Basic Contra-Theism

An age-old ploy in the attempt to validate god-belief involves the supposition that the universe needed a creator. Arguments to this end have been formalized in numerous variations, but the basic argument makes the claim that the universe is something that "began to exist," and ends by positing a deity which is said to have created the universe, allegedly by speaking or wishing it into existence. This conclusion we are expected to accept as knowledge. Unfortunately, most if not all variations of this kind of argument that I have come across, do not state the working definition of 'universe' they assume in their premises, even though this is one of the key terms at issue in such arguments. Of course, if one is hoping to defend a position that is rationally indefensible, it's best to veer away from committing oneself to firm definitions. Nevertheless, the argument that the universe needs a creator, and that creator happens to be the one which defenders of such arguments worship, serves as a typical fall-back position when the going gets rough after other apologetic devices have been deployed.

In the comments section of a blog recently posted by Steve Hays of Triablogue, we find an exchange, between John Loftus of Debunking Christianity and a commenter who has chosen to remain anonymous, on this very issue. The anonymous commenter rolled out a stripped down version of this argument, shorn of the sophisticated embellishments that modern apologists usually heap onto it. With this we find the customary false dichotomies that usually accompany the deployment of such arguments. And as is all too typically the case, the defender of this argument does not provide a working definition for the concept 'universe'. After reviewing arguments like this, even those which are far more sophisticated than the one presented here, I'm convinced that such arguments are not defensible on a coherent definition of 'universe'. Below I will show that a coherent definition of 'universe' invalidates such arguments. I will also show that such arguments, whether their defenders realize it or not, commit them to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, which invalidates itself.

Let's look at the exchange.

John Loftus wrote:

What I'm saying is that I have never seen an event in my expereience which requires a supernatural explanation--that is, something which science cannot explain based upon the laws of nature.

An anonymous commenter responded:

Sure you do, you see it every day, it's called the universe, which science has no explanation for. It's called life, which science has no explanation for. If you claim they do then you obviously don't understand the proper use of the term. Unsupported foundational assumptions are philosophy, not science. Also principles of operation are not an explanation of causes.

Consider John’s statement: he stated that he has not witnessed any event “which science cannot explain based upon the laws of nature,” i.e., an event which necessitates a leap beyond nature to explanation by reference to the so-called “supernatural.” The anonymous commenter, presumably a theist, pointed to the universe as such a candidate. But the universe is not an event, and it is not science’s task to produce an explanation for the universe as such. I will touch more on this individual's misconceptions about the universe below.

For the present moment, observe that the anonymous commenter also pointed to life as a example of something “which science has no explanation for.” It’s not clear what content the anonymous commenter is looking for in a satisfactory explanation, but the science of biology has given men great understanding about the nature of life, and new discoveries are constantly being made. He suggests that the claim that science has an explanation for life means “you obviously don’t understand the proper use of the term.” So apparently there are underlying assumptions here which are serving to reinforce the anonymous commenter’s presupposition that science cannot offer an explanation for life, regardless of what discoveries scientists actually make. What specifically those underlying assumptions might be are anyone’s guess, for the anonymous commenter does not identify them. At this point it has become obvious that there is in theism a vested interest in seeing ignorance of science prevail, for therein lies the gap that theism finds its opportunity to pontificate. Without that gap of ignorance, there's no footing for theistic nonsense. And still theists insist that they do not oppose scientific developments.

To preempt a common countermove by theistic apologists (e.g., "Biologists can't create life in a laboratory!"), we should keep in mind that there is a profound difference between having an explanation for X and being able to repeat X. Seismic geology, for instance, can explain the causality behind earthquakes, but this is not the same as being able to recreate them. So while science enables us to formulate rational explanations for many things having to do with living matter, this is not tantamount to the claim to being able to recreate living organisms in a sterile test tube. If the question is as simple as “Where did life come from?” I have a simple and incontrovertible answer: life came from existence. Anyone who wants to claim that life came from non-existence, is free to present his case any time.

In response to the anonymous commenter’s statement, John Loftus wrote:

Anon, good points, because it is astounding to me that this universe exists. But to call it a miracle is prejudicial in favor of a God. How about we call the existence of this universe strange or unexplainable as of yet. Heidegger said "the fundamental philosophical question is why does something exist rather than nothing at all." That would include your God or the universe. Why does something exist? You can only call it a miracle if you can also explain why it is that an eternal uncreated God exists. but since you can't, then this universe is....is....strangely wonderful.

An anonymous commenter (perhaps the same as above) wrote:

Well, you're either left with an uncaused effect, or a Creator who made it from nothing. Either way it's not natural; hence must be supernatural. Matter does not create itself. So one is left with the problem of the inability of natural laws to explain its existence. If left with a choice between self-generating matter and an intelligent Creator the rational one is decidedly not matter generating itself. That's a pretty big argument in favor of God. So rationally the preference would be in favor of God.

The procedure of the case presented here is quite simple: First, present two options, namely theism and an alternative to theism. Then construe the alternative to theism to be so implausible that theism prevails by default (rather than on any actual demonstrable merits in its favor). If one accepts the premises implicit throughout the case, then theism will surely seem the better of the two. But are the premises which this procedure assumes rationally defensible? I submit that they are not.

The first point that needs correction is the characterization of the universe as an “effect.” Just as the universe is not an “event,” the universe is also not an effect, whether caused or uncaused. The universe is the sum totality of all that exists. (Compare Merriam-Webster’s definition of universe: “the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated.”) By virtue of the universe’s inherent all-inclusiveness, it would be self-contradictory to assert that something can or does exist “outside the universe.” Since existence exists and only existence exists, to suppose that something exists outside the sum totality of existence is necessarily incoherent. Consequently there can be no “outside” the totality, and thus nothing “outside the universe.”

Another reason why the notion that the universe is an "effect" is invalid has to do with the concept 'effect' itself. The concept ‘effect’ necessarily implies a cause which would have to precede the effect in question in order to bring it about and make it a part of reality. But causality necessarily presupposes existence. It would be incoherent to assert that something is caused while denying the existence of any thing or things which do the causing. So existence is a precondition to causality, not the other way around. Therefore, by implication, rather than being an "effect"of some prior cause, the universe - that is, the sum total of existence - is preconditional to any cause and effect to begin with. Thus to call the universe an “effect” commits a logical reversal. That is, to call the universe an effect is to posit causality outside the context of the universe, which means: to use the concept ‘causality’ while denying or ignoring its genetic roots, namely existence. This error is known as the fallacy of the stolen concept, and it is the fundamental error of theistic creationism.

It is true that matter does not “create” itself. Indeed, what necessitates the supposition that matter is “created” in the first place, if not the mystical premises borne on stolen concepts like the one assumed above? Moreover – and topical to theistic apologetics – we should ask: What validates the claim that matter was created by an act of consciousness? This is the basic presupposition of theistic creationism, but can those who endorse such a notion present any evidence in support of it? Yes, we can imagine something popping into existence at the whim of a consciousness which possesses powers which our imagination can attribute to it with abandon, such as we might see in a cartoon. But imagination does is not a substitute for fact, and what the theist needs in order to validate this presupposition which is so integral to theism, is not merely what he can imagine (for it is readily granted that the religious imagination is abundantly fecund), but facts which bear on the matter at hand. Since there are no empirical facts which can serve as evidence conclusively supporting the theist’s claims, and since the facts that do bear on the matter in fact show theism to be a contradiction, theists have no choice but to resort either to appeals to emotion, psychological or physical threats, or a semblance of argumentation to defend their faith stance. And this is where they open the door to frequently undetected cognitive errors, such as the stolen concept pointed about above.

The anonymous commenter explicitly repeats the basic procedure of his case when he writes:

If left with a choice between self-generating matter and an intelligent Creator the rational one is decidedly not matter generating itself.

If we limit ourselves to these two scenarios - "between self-generating matter and an intelligent Creator" - then I submit that we have already given rationality short-shrift. As a result, affirming one or the other horn of this false dichotomy cannot be considered rational. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of discovering and validating knowledge, and his only guide to action. Reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates what we perceive via our senses, and indispensable to this is the ability of man's mind to form concepts on the basis of objective inputs supplied by sense perception. Our senses are our primary and only direct means of awareness of reality. To discover what is “out there” (i.e., in the world, in the universe), we do not start by turning inward and consulting our imagination. The initial inputs of reason cannot be our imagination, for our imagination itself needs content, and this ultimately comes from what we perceive as well. No examples of consciousness in nature are examples of consciousnesses which create their objects ex nihilo. But theistic creationism posits precisely this idea: that the whole universe was created ex nihilo by an act of consciousness. Essentially, it holds that a ruling consciousness wished the universe into existence. But theists cannot objectively substantiate this claim; the most they can do is disparage alternatives to their view and hope for the best – that is, hope that their illicit premises are accepted uncritically.

Since existence exists independent of consciousness, and consciousness is consciousness of existence, the task of consciousness is not to create its own objects (which is the essence of metaphysical subjectivism), but to perceive and identify them. Do we not all begin as ignorant infants perceiving the world for the first time and constantly struggling to discover and identify everything around us as we mature? I know I did. Can an honest man claim otherwise? Also, since reason is the means by which we conceptualize what we perceive, a rational worldview is one which does not attempt to fake reality by supposing that it is a creation of consciousness; rather, a rational worldview is the systematic application of reason to the task of discovering fundamental truths (i.e., rational principles) and developing a comprehensive view of reality and life. Already we should see how profoundly incongruous theism is to this project, for it affirms the very opposite view - that the universe, reality, and the objects we perceive are ultimately dependent on and conform to someone’s consciousness intentions, that is, to the ruling consciousness’ wishing.

As the anonymous commenter apparently assumes, there are no good reasons to suppose that matter is “self-generating.” But an alternative to theism does not require that matter be self-generating. Only if we begin with non-existence would we need to invent such notions, and since existence exists, the proper place to start is with existence, not with non-existence. So the basic procedure errs by limiting the alternatives to two fundamentally flawed positions and by arbitrarily affirming one while rejecting the other. (Of course, if one is willing to retreat so far from reason as to posit a ruling consciousness which can materialize its wishes at will, it is unclear how one could rule out the possibility of self-generating matter and keep a straight face in the first place.)

As we have seen, theistic creationism itself consists of two fundamental errors, namely that something exists "outside the universe" (that’s one error), and that this extra-universal thing is a form of consciousness which wished the universe into existence (there’s a second error). Thus in the final analysis, theistic creationism is presented as an explanation on the basis of the misguided notion that two wrongs make a right, and this simply does not fly.

Interestingly, theists typically claim that their god was not created, that it exists “necessarily” – which is essentially taken to mean that it does not require an explanation beyond itself. We have only their say so on this, for there is nothing they can point to in the world which conclusively validates such claims. Why not begin with the universe, which we know exists, and build our worldview on the basis of this incontrovertible and objective fact? Theists typically do not dispute the need for a starting point, they just want it to be some form of consciousness which serves as back-up to their feigned authority and which is thought to have created the universe according to their preconceived notions, ever expanding the ruling consciousness’ role as an explanatory terminus which, like a malleable goo, can be troweled into any gap or crevice that momentarily stops the mind in its pursuit for further discovery. The problem for theism is that, as man’s knowledge of the universe grows, the role that theism’s ruling consciousness can play in plausible explanations can only evaporate.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Christian Insecurity: A Case Study

In his latest fit of insecurity, Paul Manata again expresses his dislike for me. Instead of tackling criticisms of apologetic treatments that I have posted on my site, Paul aims for the author of those criticisms himself, hoping to discredit me by means of personal attack. Indeed, if one takes Paul’s word for it (apparently this is what he expects of his readers), I come across as someone who’s really bad, all apparently because I don’t believe in Paul’s invisible magic beings. Like an adult who explains the truth about Santa Claus to a child, an atheist can be the ultimate of spoilsports.

Ever one to exaggerate his own reactionary angst well beyond the limits of the credible, Paul makes it clear that he’s sore at me. For instance, he tells us that

atheologians like Bethrick do not really care about truth. If their side makes a mistake we do not see them lambasting their side.

Notice the us-against-them presupposition here, the tendency to view our differences in terms of rival groups populated by unspecified numbers. This is symptomatic of the religious mind’s preoccupation with dividing men into two opposing collectives, the chosen vs. the damned. Paul of course numbers himself among the chosen, and yours truly among the damned. (Perhaps if Paul Manata were god, I’d already be in hell.) The mentality of the desert primitive is indeed alive and well in the 21st century. Apparently Paul thinks that atheists are like Christians - members of a sheeplike herd who are led about by seductive, self-appointed apostles who pretend to be spokesmen for the supernatural. But this is simply unexamined projection. Paul apparently does not appreciate the fact that many atheists think of themselves as individuals, not as members of a "team" looking to score petty points in some inconsequential contest. ("Christianity: 1, John Loftus: 0.") In my case, I have no obligation to support, encourage, correct, or ridicule someone else simply because he does not believe in invisible magic beings. Meanwhile, someone should explain to Paul that non-believers tend not to pretend to have access to invisible omniscient and infallible beings which pre-chew their thoughts for them; I've tried, but he won't hear it from me. The religious mind fears error for this indicates separation from their perfect deity, a blemish unbefitting the chosen status believers want to claim for themselves. Meanwhile, the man who is free of the bondage of religious insecurity, is happy to learn from mistakes – both his own as well as those occasioned by others.

As for my blog, I make its purpose quite clear in the headstock banner, which states:

In this blog, I will post my criticisms of presuppositionalism as it is informed and defended by apologists such as Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Richard Pratt, and their latter-day followers.

This should be clear enough to inform Paul that the purpose of my blog is not for "lambasting" other non-believers, since non-believers typically do not promote presuppositionalism. (An expert at logic that should be able to figure this much out on his own.) This of course does not in any way support the would-be conclusion that I therefore affirm everything that other non-believers hold to be true. My time is quite limited, so I have to choose my focus carefully. Other non-believers are free to consider my model, or ignore it. The choice is theirs, and the choice is mine as well.

Paul writes:

When it comes to Christianity we see them claim that they are on the side of reason and truth. They defend "reason." But constantly, we see atheists refusing to lay down their own strict rules on fellow atheists (or, unbelievers).

What does Paul “see” which serves as evidence suggesting that “atheists [are] refusing” to do anything? Does he not understand that I presume no authority over others such that I should "lay down… strict rules on fellow atheists"? Certainly he cannot point to any position that I have affirmed which pretends otherwise. I’m quite live and let live about things: adult atheists are free to govern themselves according to their own chosen yardsticks, and I acknowledge their right to do so. Apparently Paul finds this unsatisfying for some reason. Perhaps he wants me to divert my light away from presuppositionalism and onto something else. What else could “account for” his complaining?

So Paul needs to do more than merely assert things like
Atheists, like Bethrick, are about the group first, reason next.
What "group" is he talking about? In fact, I've been invited on numerous occasions to join other blogs. To date, I have politely declined this invitation (though I am free to reconsider this), primarily due to limitations on my time and the areas of my writings' focus. Furthermore, unlike Christians who prefer the safety of the affirming huddle and network of support ministries, I do not go out looking for other non-believers to "hang out" with. In fact, I rarely discuss my atheism with casual acquaintances. My experience is that the very thought of atheism very much disturbs many people; I have found that the concept of atheism tends to bring a lot of people's insecurities out into the open (especially in the case of lifelong believers), and as adults who suckle on imaginative stories of miracle-workers and fortune-tellers, many are visibly ashamed of their religious confession. Again, I prefer a live and let live approach in this regard, as mystics are an unpredictable and potentially violent bunch (many would love to be able to cast people like me into an eternal hell).

With all the vices and moral failings Paul attributes to me, it's quite extraordinary that the worst he can come up with is a charge like the following:
Bethrick did not blog on how poor Derek did.
Perhaps he is personally offended that I didn't take much notice of his debate with Derek (Paul makes it clear that Derek must have been mortally wounded by an apologetic prowess that I have yet to see). Does Paul really think that I have some obligation to "blog on how poor [sic] Derek did"? To hold it against me that I have not done so, it appears that Paul does in fact think this, but he does not give very clear reasons why. We get a glimpse of Paul's "logic" behind this assumption when he writes:

Bethrick blogs on how poor he thinks Bahnsen did (Bahnsen v. Stein)

Here Paul is apparently referring to my article Bahnsen's Poof, in which I present an analysis of Greg Bahnsen's opening statement - the statement he should have been most prepared to present - in his debate with Gordon Stein. (Incidentally, my conclusion that Bahnsen presents no actual argument for the existence of his god, remains unanswered to this day.) Does Paul suppose that my blog commenting on a statement made in one public debate, somehow obligates me to post another blog commenting on statements made in another debate? It's not clear, but it appears that this is what's turning round in Paul's mind. Well, there are a lot of debates out there, so Paul can wait patiently in line if he likes. It would help, however, if there were a written transcript of his debate with Derek; that way I could review it on my daily commute on the subway. In fact, while Bahnsen debated Stein in 1985, I did not write Bahnsen’s Poof until 2004. So apparently Paul not only expects me to produce an analysis of his debate with Derek, he expects me to do it on his timeline. With so many expectations, is it any wonder why Paul is so dissatisfied?

Now Paul may complain that I have not posted a blog critiquing Gordon Stein's performance in his debate with Bahnsen. But again, such a complaint would miss the stated purpose of my blog. Why would I devote a blog to harping on Gordon Stein's mistakes when he's not a champion of Christian apologetics? Blank out.

Of course, there are things I can say about Stein, and two shall suffice for the time being. The first point is that a debate over the existence of the non-existent is typically a fruitless use of time for rational human beings; when a rational individual encounters someone who holds to belief in invisible magic beings on the basis of faith, the proper response is to be happy he's not one who is so deluded, not assume that such an individual is interested in rational discourse.

The other point I'd make about Stein's performance in his debate with Bahnsen is to point out that Stein said all he needed to in his response to Bahnsen's question at this point in the debate:

Dr. Bahnsen

Okay Dr. Stein, you mentioned eleven basic proofs for the existence of God. Did you mention the transcendental proof for the existence of god?

Dr. Stein

No, I didn’t mention it by name. I think it is not a proof. I would not call it a proof as I understand it the way you said it.

Here Stein rightly points out that the so-called "transcendental proof for the existence of god" is in fact “not a proof” after all. Indeed, as as my analysis of Bahnsen's opening statement demonstrates, it is in fact “not a proof,” but a poof. Apologists today seem not to have grasped the difference between the two, for they are continually presenting variations of the latter while calling them the former.

Paul then writes:

I constantly see this religious attitude in the allegedly non-religious. "Get as many people to deny God first; truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost" seems to be the motto of many of them.
Here Paul shows his proclivity to insert words into other people's mouths (which, we will see below, he does again later in his blog). But can he find any statement affirmed by me which suggests that I am trying to "get… people to deny God"? Such a construal indicates deep misunderstanding of my position, for I do not encourage people to deny something that does not exist. (Why would one need to do this?) As I mentioned above, I'm quite easy-going when it comes to other people; what they might believe or disbelieve really does not matter to me. They are free to examine my verdicts and the cases I present in their defense, or ignore them. Again, the choice is theirs. If they want to invest themselves in fantasies about supernatural beings, I will not stop them.

Paul then links to his blog More on Moore which in turn posts a link to a posting of his on Triablogue. He asserts that Dr. Zachary Moore made some unpardonable blunder of logic, and after exposing this error those most loathsome of spoilsports - the atheists - "refused to tell him that he was wrong." (My, what gall they have!) Paul then says
Some, like Bethrick, implied that he didn't know who was right.
I checked the comments sections of both these blogs, and did not see where I had posted any comments myself. At any rate, Paul does not quote me saying what he says I have implied, nor does he link to where I might have implied this. But in spite of this undocumented accusation (as if reserving judgment were some grave vice), Paul announces:
This just shows how serious he (and his ilk) should be taken.
Apparently I'm not to be taken seriously - at least, no more than writing an entire series of blog articles with the ambition of smearing me.

Continuing to air his own dirty laundry (apparently his frustrations have been accumulating for several months now), Paul turns his attention to a question that I posed in response to assertions that he made in his blog titled (no, I'm not making this up) Your Post Stunk When The Christian You Tried to Debunk With Your Awful Junk – a title which, as an incomplete sentence, leaves the reader wondering where its author finishes his point. In this blog, Paul responds to questions posed to Christians on another blog.

One of these questions has to do with the myth of Cain and Abel, and apparently the question gets some little detail of the myth wrong by placing the two legendary figures in "the Garden" at some point. (Were Paul a little more careful in his ambitions to rival Oxford scholars, he might have made it clear that I was not the author of the questions he sought to tackle.) Such oversights are simply an open invitation to the "aren't you stupid!" scoldings of Mighty Manata. In his response to this question, Paul asserts that
Cain was afraid that the other people who lived on the planet would kill him.
When I read this, it appeared that he knew something that I had not read in my version of Genesis, so I asked him if he could indicate how many people were allegedly on earth at the time in question, and if he knew any of their names. In other words, I was looking for him to authenticate the statement he was attributing to the Genesis myth. He says that the point of my question "eludes" him, but he did manage to eke out an answer nonetheless, stating that
there were approximately 890 of them,
but that he could not name them all, adding that
some are: Bob, Nick, Dan, Pete, Frank, Eddie, and Arnold.
Naturally, Paul did not give any sources to authenticate this response. Apparently Paul's faith is so insecure that minor questions, such as I had asked him, make him bristle, and so he found it necessary to berate his questioner (namely me) by inserting words into his mouth. Paul writes:

The only way it can be charitably read in a way other than making Dawson look like a stooge is to read it as Bethrick offering a rhetorical question with the implied conclusion: "If you don't know their names and how many there were, how do you know there were any? Since the Bible doesn't say there were others, then there were no others." This is the best way to read Bethrick. We see, though, that the best way to read Bethrick is to read him as committing the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantium!

In Paul's narrow universe the options are always few and torn between miserable alternatives: either Dawson makes himself "look like a stooge" merely by posing a question (that’ll teach me to go to Paul for answers!), or Paul can make Dawson "look like a stooge" by attributing to him an argument he never made. For nowhere do I make the argument that, if Paul does not know the names or how many people there were at the time, then there couldn't have been any people on the earth besides Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. (I do realize that the imagination needed by the religious mind is free to invent details not revealed to it from above.) Nonetheless, Paul tells his readers that "this is the best way to read Bethrick" - that is, by attributing to me obviously weak arguments that I have never made in the first place. And though he nowhere presents a conclusive case to support his accusation that I have committed any fallacy here, Paul tells his readers that “the best way to read Bethrick" is to presuppose that I am "committing the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantium." And Paul says people like me "do not really care about truth."

Continuing to complain about my comments, Paul writes:

I had pointed out that the purpose of the Bible was not to give an answer (or a detailed and precise answer) to everything there is. For example, the Bible doesn't tell us how to change a flat tire. Bethrick said, "I agree, the Bible doesn't give us knowledge of anything."

What I had actually written was:

I agree that it would be naive to expect anything approaching useful or precise knowledge from the primitive writings collected in the bible.

Paul himself seems to agree that the bible does not serve as a source for knowledge on "many, many things" - for he writes:
There are many, many things the Bible gives us knowledge on.
In response to this, I asked:
Such as how the mind forms abstractions?
But I have not seen where Paul answered this question.

Paul then writes:

His [sic] tried to imply that he was agreeing with me but I pointed out that I never said the Bible doesn't give us knowledge of anything

But nowhere did I indicate that I was agreeing with Paul. I even pointed out to him that "I did not specify that I agree with you." So how does Paul now think that I was expressing agreement with him? Does the universe truly revolve around this man, Paul Manata?

Paul then made my point for me, writing:
I pointed out to Bethrick that it gives us knowledge on how to escape the wrath to come.
As I had stated, we "would be naive to expect anything approaching useful or precise knowledge from the primitive writings collected in the bible." As evidence, I pointed out to Paul the laborious confusion in the bible on the issue of salvation. Apparently Paul, like so many Christians, is in the habit of presuming that the books of the New Testament are wholly uniform with one another, and yet this is the very point that's been brought into question. But instead of recognizing the pervasive disharmony within the New Testament, apologists prefer to gloss over this, merrily swallowing the party line and uncritically accepting what their sheepherders order them to believe. As a mild introductory piece, I pointed Paul to B. Steven Matthies' Christian Salvation? I had suggested to Paul that, "if it worries you, perhaps you can devote a blog entry to sorting out the mess." Apparently it did worry him, because Paul sat down and picked through Matthies' article.

Paul writes:

Bethrick claims he was a Christian, but if he agrees with Matthies article then one must wonder if he ever was a believer. Maybe he was in the youth group of some touchy-feely church and now just uses his past childhood (leaving out the details) to give him some credibility when talking about Christianity. One thing is clear, though, as a believer he never studied his faith.

Yes, it is true that at one time I was a Christian, and no, this is not something I'm at all proud of. Quite the opposite in fact, it is painfully embarrassing. I look back on that time in my life and shudder at what I had allowed to happen to me. But now that I have recovered from the experience, I can appreciate how deep the delusion of Christian god-belief can run. It does not surprise me when believers want to deny a non-believer's past sojourn as a Christian, but the ways in which they try to convince themselves that Christianity's critics were never themselves "real Christians," are typically not as inventive as their doctrinal teachings. Nevertheless, I don't think that someone needs to have been a Christian in order to have credibility on the topic of Christianity, any more than I would think that a psychologist trained in counseling those diagnosed with suicidal tendencies needs to have committed suicide himself.

Paul also writes:

We hardly ever find a Christian, who was intellectually satisfied, becoming an atheist. Indeed, in most cases (actually, all) the reason people leave the faith is for moral reasons (i.e., cheating on their wife), not intellectual ones. The intellectual ones always come after, as a way to justify their moral rebellion.

Indeed, someone who is “intellectually satisfied” with Christianity, has in fact sold short his cognitive potential. And it is most telling that Paul segregates the moral from the intellectual here, as he does in fact do so openly, treating morality as if it were not intellectual. On the contrary, morality requires a mature and confident intellect, one which requires the conscious choice to be honest to oneself, whereas religion implores the believer to “deny himself” (cf. Mt. 16:24). One cannot be honest to himself, and deny himself, at the same time. And just as Paul openly divorces the moral from the intellectual, so Christianity divides a mind against itself. I realize that Paul resents atheists, not only because he feels threatened by them, but also because he worries that one day he too will renounce his faith. Only then will it be possible to embrace reason.

by Dawson Bethrick

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