The case for Christ: Chapter 1 – Eyewitness Testimonies

‘The case for Christ posts’ are all in relation to a particular book by Lee Strobel, oddly enough entitled ‘The case for Christ’. It’s not often one has the opportunity to read such a well written piece of propaganda. These posts are intended to break down the book chapter by chapter and explain what is wrong either logically or factually in each. By the end of it hopefully readers will be more aware of what to look out for in biased writings.

Before the Interview

Strobel’s first interview is with a fellow named Craig Blomberg. A reputable enough fellow he seems a reasonable choice for an interviewee.

Before Strobel even gets started with the interview he’s already making mistakes. Firstly he places great importance on eyewitness testimony. This is already fraught with danger as we know these kinds of testimonies are often inaccurate. I could dedicate an entire post to how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, so I won’t go into any extra detail here, but just because you have a witness or two doesn’t prove the kinds of extraordinary claims Strobel would like you to believe. It makes even less sence to place such importance on claims made by people over 2,000 years ago, who spoke a different language, who lacked critical thinking education and who’s mental states we can only guess at.

The next big mistake Strobel makes (again before the interview) is to say that

“…eyewitness testimony is just as crucial in investigating historical matters – even the issue of whether Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God”.

The fact of the matter is no amount of eyewitness evidence could ever prove such a thing. Even if we could confirm that everyone in the Gospels is who they say they are, and that the testimonies they have given are accurate we could still not conclude that Jesus was the son of God. It would only prove the man could do amazing things and claimed to be the son of Yahweh. Another explanation is that he could have been the son on Zeus. Or an Alien with superior technology. Or a human, but from the future. The list of alternative explanations goes on. The best we could conclude from eyewitness testimonies is that the man (if he was a man) could do some spectacular things.

Again before the interview, Strobel asks the reader

“…how well would these accounts” (the eyewitness testimonies) “withstand the scrutiny of skeptics?”

At no point does Strobel actually consult a skeptic to answer this question. A sure sign of biased journalism.

Who Wrote the Gospels?

The first answer Strobel gets from Blomberg is

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. But the uniform testimony of the early church was that Matthew…was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark…was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke…wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles”.

I’m not sure I’d go as far to say the Church’s teachings were “uniform” but it is certainly true that the early Church did teach this. What’s important here is not the answer given, but the way Strobel uses this information in later chapters. Right now Blomberg’s answer is ‘We can’t be certain who wrote the Gospels, but the Church believed they knew who the authors were’. Later Strobel creates arguments based on the assumption that the Church was right, completely ignoring the possibility that they may have been wrong. We’ll return to this idea later.

There is in fact strong evidence to suggest the Church was wrong on these facts. Firstly, none of the Gospels name the author. Surely if one of the Apostles wrote a Gospel they’d feel the need to attach their name to it, thus giving it extra credibility as an eyewitness account. But none of them do.

The Gospel of Matthew is written completely in the third person. In reference to Jesus and his disciples it always refers to “they”, not “we”. Even when Jesus calls the disciple Matthew to join him, the text reads “him”, not “me”. Very strange wording, assuming Matthew the Apostle actually wrote it.

The final few verses in John also eliminate the writer as being one of the Apostles. John 21:24 reads

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”

Note the use of “we” here. It is referring to the writer and the reader, in reference to the disciple. This means the writer is differentiating himself from the disciple. The Gospel itself is quite clear that the writer was not one of the disciples.

As for the other two Gospels, Mark and Luke, although there is no strong evidence against the Church tradition (Mark was a follower of the Apostle Peter and Luke was a follower of Paul), there is also no good reason to think any of it is true. Neither Gospel mentions who its author is and all we have to go on is what the Church wants us to believe. But should we trust them?

Should we believe the Church?

Strobel then asks Blomberg whether anyone would have reason to lie about the Gospels authorship. Blomberg reasons that because Luke and Mark weren’t actually disciples, and that because Matthew was most likely the least liked Apostle (being an ex-tax collector) it is unlikely anyone would make this up. It would be far more convincing to attribute these works to actual disciples (or at least likable ones), than to choose these three people. But this isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps the author was especially crafty, and realising this logic deliberately chose some less renowned names to give that extra credibility. Or perhaps by the time the author was writing many of the disciples had already died. Obviously a dead man couldn’t write a book, so it would be much more believable to use a close friend. Blomberg is clearly biased by his own desires and doesn’t want to consider the possibility of deceit.

Finally it needs to be noted that Blomberg finishes this section by stating

“the gospel [John] is obviously based on eyewitness material, as are the other three gospels”.

Not only is this clearly wrong, as two of the gospels attest to, there’s no good reason to think it’s right.

There is one final quote in regards to John’s gospel that is worth noting. Blomberg says:

“For many years the assumption was that John knew everything Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote, and he saw no need to repeat it, so he consciously chose to supplement them. More recently it has been assumed that John is largely independent of the other three gospels, which could account for not only the different choices of material, but also the different perspectives on Jesus”.

The question must be asked, if John is truly one of the disciples, as was Matthew, how can they be independent? For the most part these two were together with Jesus during his ministry. It is very odd that two people would have such radically different views, both on the events of Jesus’ ministry and of Jesus himself.

Early Writings

In the next section Blomberg tries to give specific evidence as to why he believes the gospel writers are who the Church claims they are. He cites Papias, an early Christian writer saying Papias confirms it was Mark, the follower of Peter, who wrote the Gospel. Blomberg says Papias wrote that Mark “made no mistakes” and “did not include any false statement” and that “Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.” Blomberg glosses over Papias, which is a mistake as there are several issues with his writings.

Firstly this is an exaggeration on what Papias wrote about Mark. The text actually reads:

“For he was intent on just one purpose: not to leave out anything that he heard or to include any falsehood among them”.

A valiant effort no doubt, but a far cry from his writings being free from error.

It’s also worth mentioning that this just isn’t true. The Gospel of Mark is not terribly long. Surely if Mark has written down everything that Peter had told him the book would be vastly longer.

As for Papias’ writing on Matthew, he doesn’t say where he received his information or when. Papias wrote somewhere between 110-140AD. This is more than enough time for the myth of authorship to build up. Papias writes that

“Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue.”

Firstly, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest all the gospels were originally written in Greek, and secondly, the gospel of Matthew is much more than a composition of sayings. Is Papias even referring to the gospel of Matthew as we know it today?

As a final note, most historians don’t place great importance on Papias’ writings. Although there is no reason to think these specific quotes are incorrect it is well-known that a lot of Papias’ writings are wrong. Unless these writings can be confirmed elsewhere, it is difficult to give them much credibility.

Blomberg then refers to the writings of Irenaeus, which does verify the Church’s teachings of the authorship of the four gospels. The problem is that Irenaeus was writing in ~180AD, more than enough time for the mythical tradition to have built up.

Deliberations:

At the end of each chapter are a series of questions for reflection and further thought. I intend to answer all of these.

1. How have your opinions been influenced by someone’s eyewitness account of an event? What are some factors you routinely use to evaluate whether someone’s story is honest and accurate? How do you think the gospels would stand up to that kind of scrutiny?

We are fortunate enough with the gospels that we have multiple accounts to go off, and not only those found in the Bible. This is truly fantastic, because one thing I would use to evaluate the accuracy of someone’s story would be to compare it with other’s who were there at the same time.

Unfortunately the gospels differ significantly, both in their recording of history and their theological opinions. This is quite forgivable if the authors didn’t know each other or had heard the Jesus story much later in time, but when two of the authors were meant to be followers, and the other two disciples of other followers we should be skeptical.

2. Do you believe that the gospels can have a theological agenda while at the same time being trustworthy in what they report? Why or why not? Do you find Blomberg’s Holocaust analogy helpful in thinking through this issue?

Of course they can. But that doesn’t mean they did. Only sifting through the evidence can really answer that question. Mulling over the theoretical possibilities is a waste of time.

Blomberg’s Holocaust example is no doubt useful in terms of understanding his point, but it doesn’t get us any closer to answering the question of historical reliability.

3. How and why does Blomberg’s description of the early information about Jesus affect your opinion about the reliability of the gospels?

If you were to follow only Blomberg’s descriptions the early information about Jesus would be quite convincing. The problem occurs when you do further reading and discover the alternative opinions on what this early information may mean. It becomes much less compelling.

What I truly find interesting is how early Paul may have been writing. If Blomberg is right that Paul was writing mere years after Jesus death/resurrection, this could be quite compelling. Only further reading will tell for sure.

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The case for Christ

Periodically I get into discussions with both theists and atheists online. Generally they’re useful, if for no other reason than to understand another’s point of view. But several months ago I got into a conversation with a particular theist on her blog, which has become quite enlightening. The conversation itself didn’t lead very far, as we very quickly realised we were in the ‘agree to disagree’ position. Thankfully we realised the reason for this was due to very different educations, and we agreed to try to share these lessons with each other.

This resulted in my recommending her a couple of books, and she several for me. Of all the books she recommended the one that stuck in my mind was, as you may have guessed, ‘The case for Christ’ by Lee Strobel. I’d heard of this book before and heard very divided opinions on it. The believers revere it and the skeptics can’t stand it. Hearing of it again from this passionate lady I resolved myself to rise to her challenge and get the book.

Roughly $100 later I left Amazon.com with copies of ‘The Demon Haunted World’ by Carl Sagon, ’50 popular beliefs that people think are true’ and ’50 reasons people give for believing in a god’, both by Guy P. Harrison, ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ by Bart D. Ehrman and, true to my word, a copy of ‘The Case for Christ’ by Lee Strobel. Maybe not the most balanced selection of books, but I did stick to my guns.

I chewed through ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ and cannot recommend it highly enough. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in the Jesus story should pick up this book. So far it is my favourite book on this topic. What I adore about it is that although it sticks to history, facts and science, it can be read by a believer without having a great impact on their faith. That’s not to say your opinions won’t change (I very much imagine they will, regardless of your beliefs), but it can be read without destroying faith. It is first and foremost a history book, not a philosophy book or debating manual.

Next I read through ’50 reasons people give for believing in a god’ and although it’s not nearly as good as I’d been lead to believe, it’s still worth a read.

Finally I plucked up the nerve to take a look through ‘The case for Christ’ and after only reading a few chapters came to a powerful realisation. This book is just so terrible that I can’t read it cover to cover and then write a blog post about it. It is riddled with so much bad logic, exaggerations, stretching of evidence, wishful thinking and on occasion, outright lies that the only way to truly give a good representation of this book is to read it chapter by chapter and give a report as I go.

What bothers me most about this book is that it is honestly very well written. I actually don’t think Strobel realises what an amazing piece of propaganda this is, as he seems to be utterly convinced by his own stories. But it’s not Strobel’s opinion of his own work that bothers me. It’s the fact that thousands, possibly millions out there are also eating it up, hook, line and sinker. And I truly can’t blame them. If this was the first book I’d ever picked up on this subject I’d be pretty convinced too. Thank goodness I chose to read ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ first, as both books raise many of the same points. Ehrman just does a much better job of it.

Strobel relies on people’s general lack of knowledge about the history of Jesus, and then suckers them in because it’s what they want to believe. It would be deplorable if Strobel realised what he was doing, but as he seems so convinced by his own stories it’s just kind of sad. That said, the number of people who are reading this and believing everything written within deserve the truth so they can make up their own minds about what to believe. That’s what I hope to aid with.

Let’s just take a quick look at the introduction.

Strobel is first and foremost a journalist (a point which we will return to another time), and begins the book with a story of a young man being sentenced for shooting a police officer. A vast array of evidence has been collected against the lad and at the end, he confesses to the shooting in a plea bargain. Everyone thinks the case is watertight.

It turns out the boy is in fact innocent, and the point Strobel wishes to make is that sometimes the same evidence, seen in a different light can lead to different conclusions. Sometimes all we need is to change our mindset. Although this is true at times, the way he goes about ‘demonstrating’ this is deplorable. It turns out he’s been keeping a truckload of evidence from the reader! For example, only one bullet was missing from the boys gun, but both the convicted and witnesses said they saw him fire the gun into the front porch. Shouldn’t that mean that there were two bullets missing from his gun? One for the porch and one for the policeman? Well as it turns out, yes. But heaven forbid Strobel might give you all the evidence up front to make up your mind.

The point Strobel is trying to make is that opinions can influence the interpretation of the evidence. He’s trying to be all scientific. But that’s not at all what’s going on here. The truth is he’s just conveniently ignored some rather damning evidence, which is completely the opposite of scientific. A scientific theory is meant to encompass all the available evidence. If it doesn’t, then you have a great big gap in your theory. You need to account for that evidence, not just ignore it because it’s inconvenient!

Strobel admits up front he was convinced of the boys guilt. But that’s not because the case was truly open and closed. It’s because he’s just not very good at accounting for all the evidence, and can easily be lead astray by the pressure of others (the police in this case). Strobel demonstrates this in the next few paragraphs when he talks about his previous atheism.

In regards to his earlier, atheistic beliefs about Jesus, Strobel admits he’d only ever taken a “cursory look” at the evidence. But it’s quite clear he also only took a cursory look at the evidence for a scientific worldview. He refers to evolution as a satisfactory explanation for “how life originated”. No, evolution only speaks on how creatures changed after their origins. If you want to learn the origins of life, you’ll need to research abiogenesis. This is incredibly basic stuff.

I don’t think Strobel is a particularly well read theist, but by the sounds of it, he was also a poorly read skeptic. And this theme carries on for at least the next few chapters, if not the entire book.

Over the course of the book Strobel interviews 13 academics (but not 1 skeptic – not very journalistic either apparently) and each chapter is dedicated to a new interview. Over the next few weeks I’ll be reading each chapter and writing a summary. At the end of each chapter there are a group of questions for further thinking. I’ll also be writing my answers to these.

So brace yourselves. This is going to be a long ride but hopefully a worthwhile one. Let’s dig into ‘The case for Christ’.

Deepities

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

There are a lot of sayings out there. Some are genuinely wise, others are merely fluff coated in wise sounding words. Deepities, I believe the word is.

Since becoming a skeptic I’ve become accustomed to analysing these types of quotes at a much deeper level than I used to and sadly I’ve discovered a lot of them fall into the deepities category rather than actual wisdom.

But, it’s always nice when these sound bites do actually show a great deal of wisdom. Even nicer when it comes from someone who a great deal of people admire, as it’s incredibly frustrating when spiritual leaders give dodgy advice and people just suck it up without question.

This sentiment leads us beautifully back to the original quote. It’s a rather common one, so maybe you’ve heard it. This is one from the Buddha. Like all the spiritual leaders over the generations, Buddha had some sayings that were rubbish and would classify as deepities, but what’s great about this particular saying is that it encourages people to disregard dodgy sayings, even if the Buddha himself said it.

‘Believe nothing…unless it agrees with your own reason and…common sense’. Very clever words to live by. Or more to the point, be skeptical with. Far too often I see people accepting things that clearly don’t make sense to them, yet they take it on as wisdom either because it’s part of the larger belief system (whether religious or not) or because it’s easier than questioning it further.

Actually if I’m going to be completely honest I have to admit I really don’t know why people accept these things. It’s something I can’t wrap my head around and therefore can’t understand or sympathise with. Perhaps if some readers accept some of the following examples you could try explaining it to me?

The easiest example to jump to is the phrase “God works in mysterious ways”. Frankly that’s not an answer. It’s a non-answer. Which basically means it’s a statement that sounds good, but adds no new information to the question. ‘Yes I know it’s mysterious, that’s why I asked!’ The main issue I have with this non-answer is that far from going against reason and common sense, it asks you to put both aside and accept things anyway. This should instantly set off alarm bells. If you’re being asked to put your common sense and reason aside there’s a very good chance the actual answer will not fulfill either.

Probably not what the Nicene Council had in mind…

The other example that instantly comes to mind (and forgive me for once again picking on Christianity, it’s just the religion I’m most familiar with) is the concept of the Holy Trinity. Since it’s introduction into Catholic doctrine in C.E. 381 at the Nicene Council, no one has every been able to explain it in a clear and distinct way. The idea that three people/deities can be the same individual whilst maintaining their independence is quite out there. Water/ice/steam has been offered up as a metaphor. An egg, including shell, white and yolk has also be considered. But at the atomic level the former is either water, ice or steam at any given moment, not all three. And the later three components can all exist independent of one another.

I’d prefer not to have this turn into a post about understanding the Holy Trinity (although feel free to go nuts in the comments), as frankly I don’t think anyone does. My point is that despite many great minds trying to puzzle this idea out, no one really has. Certainly not to my satisfaction anyway, and I’d warrant that anyone who really stopped and thought about it would honestly feel the same way. But at that point it often gets palmed off into the previous example of simply being mysterious and not for us to understand…at least not yet.

And this again brings us back to the original quote. If it doesn’t make sense, maybe it’s not that it’s incredibly complicated, or beyond human understanding or supposed to be a mystery. Maybe it just doesn’t make sense?

So I ask you, if you have a believe or opinion or even a piece of information that doesn’t entirely make sense to you, don’t just accept it and put it to one side. Pick it up again and analyse it. Tear it apart and then see if it even can go back together.

For me the big one is ‘something or nothing’. Is it possible our universe could have come from nothing? Or is it possible the universe has always existed in some form or another. I don’t have a good answer, nor does it make a great deal of sense to me. So I don’t believe it. However my journey doesn’t end there, as apparently some people claim they do understand it and I feel it’s my job as an honest thinker to try to find these answers, assuming they exist at all.

– Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

Stealing Christmas

How the grinch stole christmasThis is a much bigger issue in America, but it’s becoming an issue in Australia and I’m sure many other countries are having to deal with this as well. Considering the time of year, I think it’s time we tackled this one and set it to rest once and for all.

The ‘problem’ (and I use that word loosely) is that people of faiths other than Christianity are coming into our schools and insisting that the schools stop celebrating Christmas. (See the link at the bottom for one example). Generally the culprits of such actions are those pesky Muslims, and we know how the media loves to stigmatize these people, so I’ll use this religion as reference, however the same applies to any other religion.

This act is often considered an invasion by those of us who celebrate Christmas and many people, atheists/agnostics included, find it intolerable that these people have come into our country and are trying to take away our greatest holiday, depriving our children of the wonders of Santa, Rudolf, presents and pine trees. Oh, and Jesus. Can’t forget Jesus.

I mean, it’s one thing to have your own beliefs, churches and celebrations, but to come into someone elses country and try to take away theirs…well that’s just a step too far right? Right?

Well, that probably depends on the particular situation. If the school in question is private and religious, then yes. Sit down, shut the fuck up or go somewhere else. You put your child there, now suck it up.

However, I have a hunch that most of the time it’s not a private school that is being given the run around, but a public school, and this is where it gets a little different.

What people don’t understand is that Australia, the US and likely many other countries that are experiencing this debate are secular! For those playing at home, that means the Government is not allowed to endorse any religion over another.

By celebrating Christmas in public schools that is exactly what the Government is doing.

At this point there is two things the Government can do. They can celebrate the holidays of every religion, which means your child would probably spend more time at home than at school. Or they can celebrate none. Obviously the latter has to be the choice, as it would be impossible to celebrate every religions festivities.

These are the facts. Not only is it spelled out nice and clearly in Australian law (116), but it’s the way it damn well should be. You don’t get to force your religion (even the fun parts with fictitious characters that have little to do with the original religion) on other people, any more than they can force your children to attend their churches or wear a burka. Suck it up princess.

Here’s the quote taken from the ‘Commonwealth Of Australia Constitution Act’

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

I still feel a good long break at the end of the year to spend time with family and take a well deserved rest is something we shouldn’t give up. The fact it happens to fall on Christmas (or more to the point, Christmas was moved to fall at the end of the year) is just a coincidence. But that’s no excuse for forcing your ancient dogma on unsuspecting children. And as commercialised as ‘Xmas’ has got, it can’t be denied its originals are buried in religion and is still celebrated as a religious holiday.

So to all you people who will be bitching and moaning again this year about those evil Muslims who keep trying to destory Australia’s traditions…shut the fuck up. Try actually learning Australia’s true traditions; those that embrace other people and cultures, and allowing people to practice their faiths without forcing any particular religion on them. That’s True Blue.

 

Sydney school accused of stealing Christmas – One such article accusing schools of stealing Christmas.

 

Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

False Assumptions

I listen to quite a few different podcasts. One I got on to a couple of months ago is ‘The Accidental Creative‘. It’s a podcast about how to get the most creativity out of yourself in your day-to-day work. It’s directed specifically at the artistic type, however I think just about anyone can get something out of it as all of us are required to come up with creative problem solving techniques at work and even in our day-to-day lives.

The Accidental Creative

This podcasts covers a range of different ideas, but the one I listened to today was about false assumptions. Within the podcast Todd Henry explained a story involving his son that evoked some ideas in my head and I think is a great way to bring up a topic that tends to be a little sensitive. The story essentially goes like this:

His family was celebrating the 4th of July and had decided to go check out a fireworks display. One of his children put up a stink and said he didn’t want to go see them. Well, though luck. The family was going and so was he.

On the ride to the fireworks the kid continues to resist and upon arriving at the location he jumps out of the car and starts trying to run home.

When Todd finally catches up to him he tries to explain calmly to the child that the fireworks aren’t a danger and that he doesn’t have to worry about them falling on him.

The kid tries to explain to his father, ‘no, I’m not worried about them falling on me. Fireworks make my feet go fuzzy’.

What the fuck right? Well here’s the beauty of the story.

The previous year the family had made a trip to Disney World. The kid had spent a lot of the day riding around on his father’s back, as he was too young to walk around and keep up with everyone else. At some point during the day the family wandered past a show and at that exact moment a stream of fireworks got set off. By coincidence, at the same moment the young man realised his legs had fallen asleep.

The poor child had spent an entire year believing that fireworks somehow made him lose feeling in his legs!

True story. The podcast is freely available from iTunes. You can’t make this shit up.

 

Now Todd Henry has a completely different point he’s trying to make in the podcast, but I think there is something important we all need to learn from this. Sometimes what appears to be cause and effect can simply be a coincidence, and can severely mix up our learning and understanding of processes. We probably all think we’re a little too clever to make the same silly mistake as this child, but I see people making this error all the time.

If you think about it, this is probably how customs such as rain dances began. A group of people were probably celebrating some event with a dance and it happened to rain. Perhaps they were even really smart and tested the theory a few days later by trying it again and lo and behold, more rain! Naturally this linked the cause and effect idea in their heads and thus was born the traditional rain dance ceremonies.

Despite this ‘evidence’ I think we can say with reasonable certainty that dancing about outside has no effect whatsoever on the weather.

 

So it can happen. I’ll bet though, you still think you’re immune to this idea. Well, let’s go with a more modern-day example using the same principles.

 

Miracle healing. People who pray, then mysteriously get better, sometimes from diseases that frankly all the experts say they shouldn’t get better from.

I remember hearing a caller from another podcast I listen to, the Atheist Experience. This middle-aged woman called in saying she had experienced a miracle healing. She’d had breast cancer, had gone to her church and got the congregation to pray for her, and her cancer disappeared.

At face value it sounds pretty profound, but the podcast crew asked a few additional questions to try to get to the bottom of it. Here’s the part of the story the woman didn’t initially tell…She’d never been to the doctors. She’d never had her diagnosis confirmed. She had found a lump on her breast, prayed for it to be healed and the lump went away. At no point did she ever actually know it was cancer. And what’s worse, even once this was explained to her she couldn’t wrap her head around it.

A fatal misunderstanding of cause and effect. Actually it’s more just a misunderstanding of medicine.

But here’s the thing. Even if she had been to the doctors and had a positive diagnosis of cancer, pray and got better, it still doesn’t mean anything. People get better from cancer all the time. Sometimes even without treatment. It’s still a bastard of a disease, but it’s not incurable.

But this is the problem with these false assumptions. People have a problem, they pray and get better and assume it was the praying that did the trick. But in an average day you do a thousand different things, and without you even knowing it your body is doing a million different things. The number of chemicals (most of them natural) that you bring into your body daily would dumbfound you. Every time you take breath, not to mention what you deliberately swallow. Then there will be things that are absorbed through your skin. Heck, even the thoughts in your head release chemicals into your body. The vast majority of diseases and ailments, people recover from naturally. Odds are you won’t even realise you’ve got half of them.

Of the hundred thousand things you did today, what makes you so sure it was the praying that healed you? Don’t get me wrong, it might have been. But you’ve simply got too many variables to just assume it was this one thing. It’s quite possible it was a combination of things really.

 

You see, this is why people’s personal stories of miracles aren’t accepted as scientific evidence. When some random dude off the street (or the internet) tells you they recovered from a debilitating disease because they prayed you really can’t be confident that’s true. Certainly I don’t think the person is likely to be lying to you. They probably believe wholeheartedly it’s true. But when there are so many variables available, the odds are stacked against them being right.

This is where science comes in. This is why when we hear a story of a miracle healer, or a psychic, or a homeopathic remedy, or any new scientific medicine, we should take the story with a grain of salt until someone has taken the time to evaluate all the possibilities.

^ Yes, this is a form of miracle healing.

I have no doubt that the guy who thinks he can heal people with touch alone is sincere. And odds are, once he’s touched you, you’ll get better! But you really need to stop and ask the question of whether or not it was the touch that healed you, or something else at play. Like I don’t know, your immune system!

So to all you people out there who think you have supernatural abilities, and the devoted followers who all think we skeptics are being killjoy’s, we are trying to protect you from yourselves! Testing these amazing claims is necessary, not just something we do out of intellectual snobbery. In an ordinary day there are just too many variables to take into account and the only way to be certain about what is causing these ‘supernatural’ events is to put it in a lab where you can eliminate as many of these variables as possible.

You see this is where we have a problem. The miracle workers, or those that believe in the miracles workers, all tend to have this idea that science is out to prove them wrong. That science and the skeptics are out to attack their pet project and bring it crumbling down.

You want to know the both sad and hilarious irony of that thinking? It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about; it’s a false assumption. For the past few hundred years people have seen science continuously bringing down supernatural empires with cold hard facts. When science studies something supernatural, it always arrives at a negative conclusion. Science has never proven something supernatural to be real. So it sounds like a reasonable jump. Science is trying to undermine the supernatural.

But here’s the thing; it’s not. Just like the rain dances, it’s a coincidence. It is pure coincidence that science always undermines supernatural. That’s not the goal. The goal is to find the truth, and by coincidence the best methods of investigation we have all come up negative on the supernatural.

That alone should be a hint.

 

-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

The ultimate meaning of life…or 42

I’ve been playing with an idea lately and I wanted to try putting it into words to see if maybe I can make sense of it. Bare with me while I do some massive brain farts.

Meaning of life? Check Google.

Obviously as an atheist I don’t think there’s any profound meaning to life. To be sure, that doesn’t make life meaningless, it just means there’s no purpose.

But a thought occurred to me the other day that I thought might be worth playing with, even if there’s no factual reason to believe it.

 

Hypothetically, what is God’s purpose?Meaning of life? Shrug.

This thought came to me because I’ve thought for a while now that no one, not even a God can give meaning to your life. All they’re doing is making you a pawn to their ideals, which you may or may not agree with.

It’s often said that God’s ways are mysterious (which I consider to be the biggest cop-out, but that’s another post), and that we just have to have faith in Him. So maybe it’s just that my feeble little human mind can’t possibly conceive of the wonderous plans God has in store for us all, but I just don’t see how adding a god to the equation makes any damn difference.

What possible plan could a god have that would magically add purpose to life? Usually this is the point where the believer steps up and talks about heaven and how God wants all of us to be there with Him, happy for all eternity.

Now I have some issues with the idea of heaven, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume heaven really is that wonderful. So what? Don’t get me wrong, happiness for all eternity sounds kinda nice. But what meaning does that add exactly? How is being happy purposeful?

A beer on a hot Sunday afternoon around the BBQ is my idea of true happiness, but I don’t consider that to be meaningful. And being in a place that offers that every Sunday for eternity, with the best tasting beer, snags dripping with flavour and tomato sauce, my Mum’s homemade potato salad and still not putting on an ounce isn’t going to add any additional meaning.

I worry that religious people haven’t stopped to consider this. When they think about the meaning of life they get to God and stop. But what meaning does your god offer to your existence?

Pretend for a moment you are your chosen deity. You have infinite power, infinite knowledge, a swarm of worshippers and all the potato salad you can eat. What would you do with all of it?…

No really, think about that. Seriously, I’ll wait…

I’m already fucking bored.

You see this is the problem. Give someone infinite power and it loses its appeal. This is especially obvious to me as someone who plays a lot of computer games. I can’t for the life of me understand why people use the ‘God mode’ cheats (for those not gamers, that’s the cheat that makes you invincible), it makes everything too easy and therefore dull. But God always plays with God mode on. He doesn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter.

Now aside from being dull, what meaning does this new-found ‘God mode’ power give you?

I don’t mind waiting again.

Maybe I’m just not creative enough, but I can’t think of anything. So you have the power to create life. Awesome, so what? Just because you can doesn’t make it meaningful. Really, you can even give these little saps free will and let them choose whether or not they like you? Neat party trick, but again, so what? You’ve done a good job at giving them the illusion of a meaning to life, but what about yours? Has it added any profound meaning to your existence? I’m mean sure it gives you something to do to kill time, but when you have the power to wipe them from the face of the universe with merely a sneeze, how important are they?

You see this is the problem; a god can’t add any meaning to your existence because the god itself doesn’t have any reason to exist. Any profound reason you find in your religion is just you doing the bidding of your chosen deity and trusting that there’s some point to it. But if you stop and think about it, having ultimate power doesn’t add any more meaning to life.

It would be like saying just because you’re really rich your life is more meaningful. Or because you have more degrees your life is more meaningful. Or because you own a monopoly on potato salad your life is more meaningful. It doesn’t make any fucking difference!

I’ve got to the point where I really, really hope there isn’t a god. Because if there is he/she must be the most lonely, sad and pointless creature in all of creation. Ultimate power. Ultimate knowledge. And still no meaning…

Oh screw it, we can’t leave it on that depressing note! Okay, here’s what I think you should take away from this. No one can add meaning to your life. Not your parents, not your government, not your peers, not even your God. There is only one person who can make your life meaningful and if I have to tell you the person is you then you deserve a good hit around the head.

Any meaning derived from an outside source is just doing the bidding of someone else, whose ‘meaning’ you may not agree with. And if you do happen to agree with it, then that’s your choice. Don’t assign that meaning to the outside source; all it did was made you aware of what you wanted to begin with.

Own your choices and own your own meaning to life. It’s the only one that really matters, because it matters to you!

 

Oh, and to all you idiots out there who think Douglas Adams was hiding something deep and profound behind his joke that ’42’ is the meaning of life…you don’t fucking get it!

Meaning

 

– Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

Roy Williams: What is your verdict?

Well it’s taken me about 5 months, but I’ve finally got through reading ‘God Actually’ by Roy Williams. Yes, this is a book from the perspective of a Christian believer. I think the question of a God and the meaning of life isn’t something to be taken lightly and as much as I feel pretty safe in my atheistic beliefs, hearing the point of view of the ‘other side’ is something I find very worth while. I think it’s put me in a position to better understand the believers perspective, even if I don’t share it.

And if nothing else it was fun to read a book that made me rave and rant. I’ve probably annoyed my housemates to no end!

To be fair, Williams presents a solid argument, and if you were already inclined to belief (i.e. want to believe) I can see how you could very easily buy into his arguments. Generally I don’t buy his arguments for one of three reasons:

1. Misinformation.

There are some arguments Williams pushes that seem to be based either on his own personal opinions (that he never backs up) or on information that I think is inaccurate or just simply made up. the entire second last chapter (Heaven and Hell) is little more than this. His entire view of Hell, although I freely admit it is a much better view than that depicted in the Bible, is a concoction of his own mind.

He simply cannot accept that the God he has come to love would invent such an atrocity as the Hell described by Jesus. And I agree with his assumption. If God truly is a just and caring individual then a Hell full of fire and brimstone doesn’t fit. But considering Jesus quite specifically describes this nasty place (and I don’t see any good reason to view it as a metaphor) I feel more inclined to call into question the existence of that god, rather than trying in vain to reinterpret the words of said god to suit my own desires.

2. He doesn’t push the argument far enough.

There are several arguments Williams presents that do actually come across quite well. The problem is that there is often one or two more steps he could take that I feel would invalided his initial assumptions.

3. He ignores certain information.

Several times throughout the book Williams brings up certain interesting ideas, then disregards them for absolutely no reason. He gives the impression he will return to them in future paragraphs (and sometimes he does) but quite often these ideas just get forgotten. If Williams were to return to them and think about them a little longer I think he would have to seriously reconsider his position.

In Chapter 8: Christianity and Politics (Pg 266) Williams writes:

“On the third of the ‘Big Four’ issues, human rights, there are also qualifying Christian principles to consider. Put to one side the Bible’s alleged ‘support’ for slavery and the subjugation of woman”.

Williams never returns to this point. He never bothers to explain why the Bible’s support of slavery is only ‘alleged’ or give his own take on what it actually says. To me this is an extremely fundamental part of why the Bible shouldn’t be taken seriously. No just god would ever say that one group should be slaves to another, and the idea that one sex is somehow inferior or should be entirely devoted to the other is absurd. I can’t help but feel that if Williams were to return to the point and follow it through to its inevitable conclusion he’d be forced to properly question the God he puts so much trust in.

 

But, as interesting as these points all are and as much as I’d like to spend several hundred pages tearing his arguments apart one by one, I actually want to skip to the end. The epilogue is entitled “What is your verdict” and asks non believers (it seems specifically directed at Atheists) to answer a large number of questions if they still fail to believe in a god. I thought I’d give it a shot.

 

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

    Well said

We don’t know enough about the Universe to really answer this one properly. If there’s some truth to string theory it’s possible this universe may be one of an infinite number. Odds are one of them would hold something rather than nothing. Maybe we just lucked out?

Truthfully, we need more information on this question. I don’t think jumping to the conclusion of a god is the right way to go about answering it.

  • How did that something come into being?

Again, really not too sure on this one. There’s far too many gaps in our knowledge. There are however theories in quantum mechanics that say that if you start from nothing, you must end with something. I honestly don’t know enough to argue the point, but the point is that there are answers out there that we’re beginning to understand.

It may take many years, but having my nose buried in enough books for enough time I hope to understand these theories.

  • Why are the fundamental physical laws that govern the Universe just right for life?

I don’t quite understand why some people make this stand. The Universe as a whole is clearly not designed to hold life. To the best of our knowledge we have one very tiny spec of dust in our solar system that contains life. There may be many others, but considering how much empty space there is in the universe compared to the number of places that might contain life, it’s terribly obvious the Universe was not designed with us in mind.

  • How and why did life on Earth begin?

A fundamental assumption I find the religious jump to is that everything needs a ‘why’. I don’t think there is a ‘why’ to life on earth. It’s an inevitable progression of the way the physical laws govern matter.

Moon hitting the earth

A little early for biogenesis, but still cool

As to the how, again this is a question that hasn’t been fully answered. A solid understanding of abiogenesis will begin to lead you down the right path however. So far all the evidence we have points to this being the case. Just because the theory isn’t complete yet doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on the good progress that has been made.

  • Does Darwinian evolutionary theory fully explain the organised complexity of life on earth?

No, I don’t think it does, at least not yet. The more we learn about evolution the more we expand the theory. As well as mutations we have natural selection, genetic drift, genetic hitchhiking and a whole mass of others. The current theory needs to be expanded to truly explain life’s complexity. So right now, no. But I think in time, yes.

  • Why is the incidence of genetic mutation just right to enable the process of Darwinian evolution to work?

Do you not understand how evolution works? The process is just right because it evolved to be just right. If it hadn’t life would probably have died out quite quickly. If the rate of mutation is too high we end up with unfeasible offspring. Too low and species can’t adapt fast enough. This is one reason why we see species dying out, so clearly in some cases it’s not just right.

  • Why are human beings able to decode nature?

Because our brains have evolved to do so. What difference does it make either way?

  • Why do human beings have a conscience?

An evolutionary trait that allows us to reproduce easier. We are also not the only species that has one.

  • Why are there basic moral laws which all human beings recognise?Moral Laws

These laws are also solid laws for living long and prosperous lives. That makes them universal for survival and reproduction. Again, evolution is the key.

  • Why can human beings make and respond to music?

Believe it or not but music can be broken down and explained mathematically. I’m not versed well enough in the subject to properly explain it, but it’s quite incredible. Regardless though, what difference does this make to belief?

  • Is faith a mere incidental by-product of Nature?

Yes.

  • Is love a mere incidental by-product of Nature?

Yes. Many species develop something similar. It assists with child-rearing and is thus an evolutionary trait.

  • Will science ever be able to explain everything?

Maybe. Hopefully. What difference does it make?

  • Was Jesus of Nazareth merely an invention of human minds?

I don’t think so. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest he was likely a real person.

  • If Jesus lived, then who or what was he, if he was not divine?

There’s really only two answers to this one. Either he was a very well disguised alien, or he was human. I put my money on the latter.

  • How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s perfect life?

What reports exactly? We have exactly zero first hand reports of Jesus’ life, and those only focus on bits and pieces of a few years of his life. That’s hardly enough evidence to start claiming perfection. I also suspect these accounts may have been a fraction biased. Even then I don’t think these reports show Jesus as perfect. He got angry on a number of accounts and even violent (overturning the tables in the Temple).

  • How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’ miracles?

Again, what reports? We have quite a few Gospels (including the ones not in the Bible), many of them with differing reports. None of these authors had the opportunity to meet Jesus or view these miracles personally. St. Paul doesn’t even mention miracles, aside from the resurrection which he didn’t have the privilege to see.

  • How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s large following among the common people, and the conversion even of some Jews and romans in positions of authority?

You assume that people of different faiths and in positions of power won’t buy into nonsense? That just seems silly. As for his large following I’m rather skeptical. There were apparently 5,000 people who he feed on a mountain with a measly number of fishes and bread loaves. Yet none of these people wrote about him or defended him at his trial. I really have no idea just how many followers he had, and I don’t think anyone else can definitively say either.

As for actually explaining them, there are hundreds of reports of groups of people following their chosen ‘messiah’-like prophet. Anything from the horrible Jonestown Massacre to the larger religions such as Islam. Although Williams does give credibility to other religions, he doesn’t accept them as the truth. Why should we accept his?

  • How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion?

Again, what accounts? There are the Gospels. Then there are some Roman reports that speak of Jesus’s crucifixion, but they all refer to what the Christians believed and don’t necessarily back up the actual event. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible this did happen. So what?

  • How otherwise do you explain the reports of the Resurrection?

This is probably the most challenging question Williams poses and the portion of his book that deals with it is probably the most persuasive I’ve read. There are many explanations though and it would take several posts to cover them all even at a superficial level.

The most recent I’ve heard though is that the Resurrection is actually a metaphor for ancient Jewish tradition whereby the tribe would metaphorically load all their sins onto a lamb or goat and send it out into the desert to die, thus relieving them of their sins. This is where the phrase ‘Lamb of God’ originated.

There are many other explanations though and I encourage people to read up on them.

  • If the Resurrection did not happen, how do you explain the Apostles’ conduct, St Paul’s conversion, and the establishment of the Christian Church in the face of overwhelming odds?

All religions have come into power in the face of overwhelming odds, so that’s not terribly surprising. St. Paul had a vision that led to his belief. Why should we take his visions any more seriously than those of the Islamic or Mormon prophets?

As for the Apostles, I refer once more to the Jonestown incident and will simple say, ‘Don’t drink the kool-aid’.

  • How do you explain the reports of personal religious experiences by many millions of people down the ages?

The same way you explain away the ones you don’t believe, such as those had by other religions or worse, those had by people in cults. Again there are any number of explanations depending on the experience. Often it’s as simple as a feeling of euphoria interpreted as God, other times a form of peer pressure and social acceptance and at worse, an exploited mental illness.

  • How do you account for the nature and incidence of suffering, and it’s many beneficial by-products?

How do you account for suffering that doesn’t have beneficial by-products? You don’t get to pick the incidents that back up your belief system and ignore the others.

  • How do you account for the phenomenon of grace?

I’m not convinced that there is a phenomenon of grace. You’ll have to read the book to properly understand where Williams is coming from and make up your own mind.

  • Why has Man not yet been destroyed by nuclear holocaust?Nuclear Holocaust

Because man is smarter than you give us credit for. And when and if nuclear holocaust does happen you’ll say it’s the predicted Apocalypse. Either scenario backs up your beliefs.

  • Is there really a fundamental dichotomy between Christianity and left-wing politics, or does Christianity reflect some seminal left-wing principles?

I honestly don’t care as I don’t see how this has anything to do with the truth of Christianity or any religion.

  • Why is it that Christianity as a whole does not conform to either left-wing or right-wing ideology?

See above.

  • Is there further evidence of Design in the operation of the democratic system of government?

Absolutely. Our democratic system shows a fantastic example of humanities ability to design good and moral legal and governmental systems. Of course they’re not perfect, but given more time man will make them better.

The monotheistic religions however, promote a dictatorship with the chosen god at the top.

  • How do you account for the fact that atheism is, and always has been, an unpopular minority creed?Arrogant Atheists

Firstly I call bullshit on it being a minority. I’m not at all convinced of this. Atheists have been persecuted throughout history, often violently when they have spoken out against the religion of the time. Many people avoid the term atheism, preferring to stick to the majority religion or at the very least calling themselves agnostic to avoid the issue. Atheism has been on the incline for a while now and with modern sciences, knowledge, morals and philosophy I think it’s only going to continue to grow.

But giving the assumption that Williams may be right, I’m still not surprised. Atheism offers very little while taking a lot. The idea that we are alone and there is no meaning to our existence is hard to come to terms with. I can easily understand why people would shy away from it. That doesn’t stop it from being true.

  • How do you account for the many commonalities between different religions, and in particular the commonalities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity? Is it more likely that all people of faith are completely wrong, or that they are all (to varying degrees) partly right?

Why do you stop at religions? Believers often have very similar morals to atheists, at least at the core values. Again, this is a by-product of evolution and most of humanity shares these commonalities.

I also think that most religions do have a great deal right. Care for each other. Don’t kill or mistreat. As an atheist I follow many of these philosophies. I just think they’ve got it wrong on the idea of a god. Heck, even some religions don’t believe in a god!

As for the three major monotheistic religions being so similar…fucking dah! They all stem from the same religion. I’d be dumbfounded if they didn’t share quite a few commonalities.

  • If you now better understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, would you at least agree that it represents a comprehensive attempt to explain God, and many earthly phenomena besides?

After reading Williams section on the Trinity I don’t feel I understand it much if any better, so no.

  • Is there any afterlife, or is does love die with our bodies? Will we never be reunited with our loved ones once we or they die?

No, yes, no.

  • If there is no afterlife, why is Man capable of imagining it?

I invoke the flying spaghetti monster. He doesn’t exist, but I can imagine him.

We can imagine an afterlife because it’s not that dissimilar to actual life. It’s actually not that far a stretch. We can imagine things much more out there than an afterlife.

  • If there is no afterlife, why did Jesus say there was?

Did he? All we have is third hand accounts of people saying that people said that Jesus said that. And if he did say it? Maybe because he was Jewish and the Jews had a belief in an afterlife. It was quite different from what Christianity speaks about, but maybe, like Williams, Jesus didn’t like the idea his religion taught him to believe in and just made up another one.

  • How do you explain the consistency of the visions of the afterlife reported by people down the ages, including people revived after clinical death?

What bloody consistencies? Again, you don’t get to pick and choose which reports you want to include. There are just as many reports of nothing in the afterlife as there are those of a heaven or hell. They just don’t get reported as frequently because they’re not news worthy.

How do you explain the visions of people of other religions who talk about completely different gods and prophets, with completely different ideas of heaven and hell? This is what I mean by Williams conveniently ignores very important information as it suits his beliefs.

 

So that’s it. An answer for every question. And I was able to answer them as I read them.

That said I do still think Williams has one of the better theological books I’ve read. The arguments as they stand within his book are quite compelling, although with additional study they begin to fall apart.

I would recommend Williams book for anyone looking to expand your knowledge. As a believer it’s likely to be quite compelling. As an atheist it will be a solid challenge for your lack of beliefs and a good way of getting an insight into a believers mind. Although I don’t agree with his conclusions I can at least understand how he’s arrived at them and for that he’s earned my respect. Give the book a shot. 

– Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.