(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
Well, it seems that we were not in fact done with this little series. After my final post, Daniel chose to take me up on my offer to have the final word (as I normally try to do in exchanges like this). He has chosen to respond, point-by-point, to my list of what things would lead me to embrace Atheism. If you feel like any of the points still demand a reply from me, or if you have any questions about what Daniel says, feel free to to comment here, on Facebook, or get in touch with me privately. For my part, though, I consider this particular set of exchanges finished. Once again, I thank Daniel for this exchange. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
When I initially decided to compile a list of criteria that would convince me my conclusion on the question of theism was wrong, I had sincere hope that a Christian, Muslim or other person of faith would tally up a corresponding register. I am glad to see you rose to the challenge and enrolled in this dialogue. It has been a wonderfully enlightening experience for me, and I do hope that sentiment is mutual.
I read your piece the day it was posted and while at first I found much of it persuasive, the more I reflected the more I realized it was probably the list I would have drafted two years ago, before I renounced my faith. Much of your criteria seems to rest firmly on the aesthetic appeal of the Christian narrative. And this would seem to slot right in line with your epistemological moorings-a concern for the communal connection, compelling force and overall mesmerism of a worldview over against its underlying facticity.
Yet it seems this only holds true up to a certain threshold, given a few of the items on your list. You seem to be OK with affirming the faith given its impact on your life, the power of influence you’ve seen it have on history, and the way it has shaped others with which you’ve crossed paths. But if you were to discover beyond reasonable doubt that this narrative was based on so much myth, that this loosely corroborated Yeshua the gospels are based on was a mere mortal (item #1), you would relinquish the faith forthwith.
Thus it seems to me that our epistemic divergence is one of degree, not of type. With that in mind, I’ll attach some brief notes beside the items in your list.
“1. If we found Jesus’ body.”
Yes, the discovery of Jesus’ mortal body would indeed falsify the strongest claims of Christianity. But of course the point is moot. Even if we could extract usable DNA from two thousand year bones (which is very possible), we would have no way to affiliate the preserved DNA with Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t have a reference ‘Jesus sample’ with which to compare it, nor do we have reference samples from his close kin. A disinterred corpse would just as likely belong to the Jesus Christ as it would to any other male contemporary. So this one’s really a non-starter.
But more poignantly, is this not too narrow a view of Christianity? Some commenters have noted earlier in our accompanying discussions that even if none of the Bible is historical or factual that this still would not spell the death knell for their faith. These, non-Trinitarian Christians you might call them, find that Christianity narrativizes their life-demythologized or not-and would continue to affirm that blueprint even beyond the margins of history.
It appears you would not fall into this camp.
“2. If the earliest Christian traditions did not include the idea of a physical bodily Resurrection.”
A solid case can be made that they didn’t. The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s, and he simply relays the stories of people who claimed to have had visions, along with his own vision experience. Paul never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death. There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples. Paul’s Christology is clearly divergent from that of the gospel writers, and I think this is important.
Secondly, surely you are aware (as I’ve pointed out) that bodily appearances of mythical beings suffused ancient literature. From pagan myths to pagan poets to pagan novels to pagan philosophers, all are replete with accounts of gods appearing to humans in human form. This is not at all out of place and is smoothly continuous with the religious and pagan motifs of the time.
Lastly, I simply see no agreed-upon criteria by which you can sift allegory from history. Asserting the most fantastical claims in the Bible are allegories or otherwise shouldn’t be taken literally (e.g., the global darkness and rock-shaking earthquake), while fully believing that a god came to earth in human form via virgin, turned water into wine (also attributed to Dionysus and several other pagan deities before him), walked on water, talked to people in the flesh three days after being executed, then rose into the clouds to Heaven?
Some might call this cognitive dissonance. I see no reason not to locate the resurrection narrative in the same box as other religious folklore.
“3. If an alternate explanation for the rise of Christianity was given. The development and rise of Christianity–in its scope, diversity, speed, and geography–is something that, in my opinion, is completely unparalleled and only truly explained by something actually having happened on Easter morning.”
Really? I don’t think it spread like wildfire until the 4th century. Again, the reality is more nuanced than you let on.
Christianity remained small, scattered, and divergent for its first three hundred years. For example, surviving communications between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan (CE 98-117) make that very clear. About the year 112, AD Pliny was serving as governor of the Roman province of Bithynia in NW Asia Minor. A band of Christians was brought before him, and he knew nothing of them. First he questioned them about their beliefs, and then gave them a chance to recant and fall in line with the appropriate Roman gods. Some recanted and were released, a few refused and were executed. Afterwards he wrote Trajan and asked if he did the right thing. Trajan replied it was OK to execute those who defied him, but not to bother persecuting the cult. The interesting thing about all this is that before being sent to Asia Minor, Pliny had been a lawyer in Rome, and then served as Praetor (a combo police chief and head prosecutor) in the largest and most important city in the Empire, as well as being a top advisor to the Emperor. Yet, prior to his experience circa 112, he knew nothing of the Christian Cult. How large and widespread could they have been to be so under the radar of such a prominent and experienced official?
Rather, its explosive radiation did not light until the 4th century, when Constantine converted to the faith in 312 CE. This validated Christianity, making it more attractive to the citizenry (i.e., it was socially advantageous to adopt the faith of the holy emperor). Further, his Edict of Milan, issued in 313, made illicit the persecution of its adherents. Conversion rates accelerated throughout the empire under this new social, cultural and political climate. And of course Flavius Theodosius I’s (347-395) Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, further cementing its hold on history.
One might still ask, what exactly occasioned the zeal of Christianity’s earliest proponents? Could one not chalk the ignition of the Christian faith up to the ebb and flow of history? Some religions take off, while those of other charismatic prophets and followers do not. Why does the religion of Muhammad claim so wide a following not only in the Middle East but over a wide swath of the world? Why did Joseph Smith’s religion, out of all the itinerant prophets of the 19th century, acquire such a prominent place in American culture? Some social movements catch on; the vast majority do not. There need be nothing ethereal about the preeminence of Christianity – only the zeal and luck of its early proponents in concert with the palatability of its message.
Sarah Ruden is one scholar who attempts to answer this question for Christianity specifically. In her book Paul Among the People, she emphasizes that the message represented and propagated by Paul was one that did away with the Jewish requirements of circumcision and other mitzvot and instantiated a truly egalitarian community of faith. This, it can be argued, was a break from the institutions and other movements of the time and garnered widespread appeal for the pagan, Jewish and other communities of the era.
Of course, the palatability of a message and subsequent rise into the stanchions of history speak not to the actual historicity of its central claims and central protagonist. The question of the resurrection, for example, is not one that can ever be settled by history, just as Mormonism’s claims of the angel Moroni and planet Kolob can never be claimed by history, making it purely a matter of faith. The Christian movement may have initially launched for any number of reasons; there is no consensus. What we do know is that the surviving records which report divine status are clearly euhemerized and written under theological impetus. The real questions to be asked, it seems to me, are 1) to what extent were they euhemerized, and 2) what significance does this have for one’s faith?
“4. If Isaiah 53 was written after Christ.”
This one had me puzzled, if only for your refusal to entertain the converse. Instead of speculating that an OT text was redacted to corroborate a NT narrative, is it inconceivable that the NT writers (who were well familiar with the Hebrew texts) used the OT to inform their theology?
In fact we know they did this. As the tribune and arch-founder of the vast majority of Christian theology, Paul was clearly conversant in the Jewish texts and we see on several occasions him using Old Testament motifs, names and places and incorporating them into his theology. For example, he specifically references Adam to construct the Pauline idea that death and suffering are the result of human sin. For me, the fact that parallels can be made between Old and New Testament texts does not at all seem out of the ordinary. In fact given what we know about literature in antiquity, I think it would be stranger if we didn’t see any.
Further, I don’t think the majority view of scholarship today holds to the idea that the OT predicted the Christ of the NT or that the NT is a fulfillment of OT prophecy (see here for one such book).
“5. If the Old Testament didn’t seem like the perfect precursor to the new. If the Old Testament just didn’t have so many darn “types” and foreshadows of the Gospel and Christ.”
This one seems to me hard to take seriously. One can find parallels between the Old and New Testament texts as easily as one can find between DC Comics lore and Marvel Comics lore. And this should not at all be surprising given what we understand the biblical texts to consist of: a fusion of fictive symbolism and euhemerized historical anecdotes. It’s not a mystery why writers would draw upon earlier themes and upon the texts with which they were amply familiar.
(And for the record, I do think you were being creative in the example you give.)
“6. If Christianity didn’t have such versatility, depth, and diversity. I don’t know of any other way of viewing the world that has such implications for every part of it. It cuts across every boundary line of geography, race, class, and ethnicity, and it’s the only way of thinking that has done this. The Gospel can be grasped by the youngest child (or perhaps even unborn child), and yet can be the subject of centuries of the highest and most respected scholarly research and development. The greatest scientists of the Scientific Revolution were Christians. Many of the greatest artists were Christians. It strikes intellect, soul, heart, and real, everyday, mundane life.”
This is patently false for several reasons. Firstly, much of Christian theology cannot be grasped by “the youngest child”, as you say, as much of it does violence to the rational faculties that strains even the most learned of individuals. Watching theologians tie themselves in Gordian knots trying to solve the trilemma of theodicy makes for good comedy, and the webs are hardly transparent to children or anyone capable of asking a reasonable question. Compounding this are the many thousands of denominations, which would take the better part of a lifetime to pore over.
And I’m afraid your laser focus on Christendom has blinded you to the accomplishments, competencies and reach of other world faiths. You can insert ‘Islam’ above and no one would bat an eyelash. Islam has also “cut across every boundary line of geography, race, etc.”, and has been “subject of centuries of the highest and most respected scholarly research and development.” Moreover, Islam has a celebrated legacy of scientific pursuit in the Muslim world, reaching its crescendo during the Middle Ages. If you ever find yourself in paths with a devout Muslim, you might find that they could claim, with equal effervescence, that their credo “strikes intellect, soul, heart, and real, everyday, mundane life.”
“7. If Sacraments were not a thing. But the fact that, week after week, I truly do meet God’s tangible Presence in his Word, His People, Preaching, and in the Communion Elements, shows that he is still around, and actively so.”
You forget that many non-believers were once Christians themselves, who once believed as you do that they felt a “presence”, almost tangible, and that this presence was of a divine nature. I am one of them. In fact we all share in these moments of transcendence, those fleeting ephemera which engulf us in emotion, where grandeur and the numinous overtake our being. These experiences are not unique to you, and they are not unique to Christianity. Every major religion, especially the Eastern religions like Buddhism or the mystical sect of Sufism, focus almost exclusively on the more contemplative aspects of human nature.
What this tells us is that this is integral to the human experience. Why think Christianity has a monopoly?
“8. If the world was destroyed, and Jesus didn’t come back.”
? These events have happened before. Numerous times, in fact. Are you not familiar with the K-Pg extinction, provoked by the impact at Chixculub, in which the majority of life on earth was extinguished in a geologic instant? The most celebrated victims were the dinosaurs, but the event also saw the loss of all flying reptiles, most marine reptiles, more than half of all land plants and insects, and a veritable pavilion of other terrestrial and marine organisms–more than 75% percent of all species on earth. More sobering, the K-Pg extinction is just one of the more recent and severe of several other mass and smaller-scale extinction events that we know of since the genesis of life.
Are we more important than the species which have come and gone?
“9. If a completely material account could be given for the rise of justice, beauty, and love. It would need to be an account that did justice to the fullness of awe and transcendence those things evoke. I can see how our evolutionary capacity and skill for these things would have developed. And I understand that the primary place where we experience them is in our brain. But still, there’s something “more”, “Other”, and “external” about each of these things that hints that they are things that exist outside of us that we experience (hello, Plato!).”
An account has already been given. I think the major point you continue to overlook is that materialism doesn’t exclude emergent properties. Aesthetic qualia emerge from biochemical interactions in the brain. I understand your intuition and desire for the “something else out there” worldview, but until you can give an adequate account of what this “something else” is, you shouldn’t be surprised when others are skeptical.
(P.S. We’ve learned much since Plato.)
“10. If an Atheist could give me a full, convincing accounting for why they believe in morality and justice. This is more specific than the last point. I know it seems like a silly, over-the-top argument.”
It is a silly argument, considering there are entire fields of philosophical inquiry devoted to just this question of moral motivation theory, and considering most philosophers identify as non-theistic. For example, I am a moral internalist: I believe there is a connection between conviction and motivation. Under this view, what you believe is right and the motivation to do them are inseparable.
If you are interested in these topics, I recommend de Waal’s recent exposé The Bonobo and the Atheist, Hinde’s Why Good is Good, Buckman’s Can We Be Good Without God?, and Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Good stuff there.
I’d also encourage you to consider your question a bit more deeply. When one passes from religious faith to no faith at all, their desire to act conscionably toward others is not lost. It doesn’t go away. It’s still there. I would argue that it is not one’s religious convictions that drives one to act morally toward their fellow brothers and sisters. Are not empathy, human connection and the lessons derived from social experience sufficient justification for decent treatment of others? I would answer firmly in the affirmative.
One cannot so easily discard a conscience.
I am sure you didn’t mean it, but I find such a suggestion deeply insulting. Given that there are now 1.1 billion non-religious people in the world today (at latest count), do you really think there is no other reason one can choose to be moral apart from belief in a god? It’s an insult to the billions of people who have cultivated a moral ethos apart from religious faith. Please consider these things.
“11. If animals did art. Seriously.”
It would of course hinge on how one defines art, as it is far from a universally understood concept, but the response to this argument seems simple enough. Humans have different brains than chimpanzees, or any other species with which we co-habitate this planet. That difference (which is both palpable and measurable) correlates to our asymmetric capacities for creating and appreciating what we might label art. I don’t see how this is a compelling argument.
“12. If Hopkins, Roethke, Rachmaninov, Bach, Miles Davis, stringed instruments, Caravaggio, and Rothko didn’t exist.”
See my response to #9 and #11 above. With our markedly different brains, we are able to both produce and appreciate deeply remarkable works of art.
I’d also like to turn this question around. To what do you ascribe the terestrial “accomplishments” of Elizabeth Bathory, Talat Pasha, Josef Mengele, Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Kim Il Sung, Nero, Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Vlad Dracula? If you would count the musicians as evidence for God, then you should count the above ensemble as evidence against God.
“13. If everything: my intuitions, my loves, my affections, my joys, my sorrows–in essence–my story could be given an entirely rational, material accounting that really did encompass all the sensations I’ve ever had.”
I think a solid material accounting can be given for those things. If you find such an accounting disagreeable, then that is another matter.
“14. If Near Death Experiences were fully explained.”
I found your link to the Eben Alexander story puzzling, since it has been debunked. [Paul here. I just wanted to quickly say that the podcast I linked to was a discussion of this precise article that Daniel links to, and how it is not a “debunking” and, for the record, the podcast discussion after this talk of Alexander’s book was what struck me, not the actual Eben Alexander part. I could care less about the Alexander book. That wasn’t even close to my mind when I wrote the original piece.]
Further, I would contend that the sheer diligence with which NDEers eschew non-supernatural explanations of their experiences speaks more to their epistemic motivations than to the authenticity of their claims. More puzzling to me is the idea that a phantasmal, supposedly worship-worthy creator would choose to reveal itself in this circuitous, life-pending way and not in the millions of other more plausible ways. It just doesn’t pass muster, and I know of no NDE tale which has survived the scalpel of scientific inquiry.
“15. If Science’s sudden turn against theism didn’t look entirely like a culturally-conditioned movement of the moment, rather than a natural by-product in the pursuit of truth. The greatest scientists, historians, scholars, thinkers, writers, and such have all been Christians, and only until fairly recently. This whole separation between religious belief and even empiricism is really, really new (in the grand scope of human time). Call it an evolution of thought if you want. I wonder if it’s just a socio-cultural historical spasm or temper tantrum.”
Consider the words of Neil Tyson:
“The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there’s any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.”
Tyson is obviously far from alone.
“16. If I lost hope that people could change or that the Gospel didn’t “work”. I’ve written about this before. Human change is such a difficult, mysterious process. I genuinely have seen the Gospel change people at such deep levels, more than anything else has.”
This is truly compelling, and I don’t wish to downplay its significance in the least. I would simply say this is a phenomenon which cuts across each of the world religions, and even applies to some who have since de-converted from the Christian faith. But even then, what if there is something about the Christian narrative that drives or compels people in a way that no other faith can? This is an interesting possibility that, if true, would be very poignant and convincing for me. Alas, I know of no way to test or assess such a possibility. I’m very amenable to this, and I think it’s your most persuasive item.
“17. If the Gospel was no longer stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful and explanatory of the entire universe.”
It’s difficult to demarcate this one from the one above, so I echo my reaction there. I may not feel the same way as you do as regards the extrapolation of the Christian worldview, but if I did, I’d be right on board with you.
“18. If I tried Atheism long enough. I truly believe that the perceptual “muscles” used to gather “religious” knowledge is like a muscle that grows weaker with time not exercising it. In other words, there is a way to truth that is only known from “inside” the “Christian knowledge circle”. When you’re outside of it, one’s ability to see this or resonate with it dulls. I feel my inner-Atheist to such a degree, that if I removed myself from means of grace and communion and all those other ways and places I meet God, I could probably become an Atheist. This would not be true of everyone, but it might be true for me.”
This is a very interesting one and seems to touch upon the notion of groupthink. It’s no secret that the more you are surrounded by like-minded individuals, the less you may be able to honestly assess views outside of that bubble and the more prone to bias you can become. Having been entrenched in the atheist camarilla for some time, have I grown less objective on matters of religion? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Such an argument cuts both ways of course.
Yet insofar as one can be conscious of one’s cognitive biases, I think it is entirely possible to preserve one’s open-minded objectivity, regardless of one’s worldview or how long one has held it.
“19. If Daniel’s kind of god were true and Christianity made perfect, logical, evidentiary, reasonable sense. Honestly, if the requirements of God as laid out in Daniel’s post were actually answered in those terms, then I’d become an Atheist. Because then, I’d no longer have any place to incorporate suffering, doubt, and real human experience. If Christianity wasn’t nitty-gritty, earthy, messy, and soily. If it answered every “why?”. In other words, if the God of Christianity were able to be submitted wholly to human reason, as Daniel wants, then he would not be a God worth worshiping or believing in at all.”
I’m delighted that you included this one, as it would seem to strike directly at the ballast of our epistemological lacuna. I.e., I would come to the opposite conclusion. As a rationalist-empiricist who holds reason as ascendant within the epistemic hierarchy, my beliefs are conditioned by my capacity to reason. Whatever doesn’t pass the soak test of reason must be rejected.
And the core Christian doctrines of original sin, divine atonement and vicarious redemption, along with the dubious historicity of so much of its foundational texts, simply do not scan.
Your language here reminded me of the words of the late Martin Luther:
“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.”
(Table Talk, 1569)
Call me crazy, but I don’t think I could ever be on board with that.
“20. If God changed me into an Atheist. In the end, though, what could make me an Atheist? Nothing a human could do. Spirituality is not fundamentally a human enterprise. There is no new “fact” or “event” that I think would pull me away. It is a deeper, more existential state that arises from a communion with the Numinous, the Other, the One within whom all of reason and logic is grounded. Every “fact” is appropriated within him, and so no new “fact” could disprove Him any more than a child can disprove they had a parent. And so, in the end, I don’t know that, working within an empirical worldview, I could ever “discover” or “come across” any tangible thing (or even experience!) that would negate my faith as it seems it has Daniel’s.”
This one seems to be the odd sock in the drawer. It stands in explicit contradiction to item #1. Item 1 describes a fact that would negate your faith, yet you claim here that nothing whatever will do. Even more curious, however, is that if no fact or empirical reality can collapse your faith, then why did you spend several blog posts defending empirical claims and responding to the charges I made against the historicity of the Christian faith? This only serves to confuse the issue of your epistemology further. Are you concerned with the empirical nature of things, or not? It’s still not clear.
If I were to attempt to deconstruct the obscurity here, it seems to me like you and I actually embody the same epistemology, with the only difference being that you tend to suppress that epistemic motivation when inquiry veers too close to the deepest convictions of your faith, whereas (I believe) I have remained consistent in my epistemic emphases.
So what do you all think? Did Daniel address my points? Do YOU have any responses to what he says? And what have you thought of this entire series? Where do you think we ultimately diverge? Sound off below. And again, if you have any specific questions about anything that’s been said by either of us, feel free to contact me.
[image credit: “Fight with Cudgels” by Francisco de Goya]