“I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism.”
Question from Rob:
In the comments here I looked at the extra-Biblical documents mentioning Jesus.
Shortly afterwards I examined the mention by Josephus in particular.
Something more relevant to your point: in the comments here I respond to Simon Greenleaf’s well-worn piece, Testimony of the Evangelists.
Most relevant of all: back on the old site, I responded to the argument that the apostles wouldn’t have made it all up, as put forward by Lee Strobel.
1.I’ve been reading through some of the discussions on the site. I just wanted to explain why I believe what I believe but at the same time ask about your approach to evidence. You say in one post that you hold to an atheist position because of an absence of available, substantive evidence for God. But I can’t find anywhere on here a thorough discussion of the evidence of Jesus’ life as recorded in the new testament. Sorry if I’ve missed something!
For example, you say that the claim that Jesus is God doesn’t stand on its own merit, partly because the writers of the gospels wanted their readers to believe they were true (“whether or not they were true”). But the question of their motives is irrelevant – indeed they tell us of their motives (eg Luke – “I wanted to write an orderly account…so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Or John – “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life…”). Similarly, some of the most reliable and thorough accounts of the holocaust are written by Jews who have motives (to open people’s eyes to the horror of what happened and to ensure it never happens again), but these motives don’t render their accounts untrue. On the contrary – they are particularly passionate about preserving the truth, and so their accounts are the best place to go. All recorded history is biased in some way, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it.
The question then is “ARE they in fact writing the truth, as they claim to be?”. And I think it’s important to realise that these accouts were not written in a vacuum, as it were. They reference real places, and real dates, and real people. And into that context they place this extraordinary life. And what persuaded me as I looked into this was that if they had fabricated all these stories, the accounts wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of weeks – because the inhabitants of the towns where these astonishing events were supposed to have happened before large crowds would have been the first to pipe up and say “Hang on, I’ve lived in Capernaum/Bethany/Jerusalem etc all my life, and that never happened.” Worth remembering too that 1st century Jews were far less religiously gullible than we are – any claim to be God in such an entrenched monotheistic culture was outrageous (as indeed it proved), so Christianity never had a tougher audience than the very society in which it began (who would be hugely suspicious, and who had access to the people and places named in the gospel accounts and therefore every opportunity to disprove it if they could).
Added to this is the question of the disciples’ own transformation. If we think they made it up, we must ask “Why would they make this up?”. They had nothing to gain – in fact they lost everything and nearly all were martyred for what we would then be saying they knew to be untrue (as an aside, this sets them apart from, say, suicide bombers today – both groups sincerely believe that their views are true, but the disciples were in a unique position to KNOW if their stories were UNtrue). Furthermore, something transformed them from a terrified and defeated group locked in a room fearing the worst (after Jesus arrest, trial and execution), to a fearless, committed and convinced group of preachers and missionaries. The Bible explains that what happened was Jesus appeared to them risen, and that is what they preached.
There’s lots more I could say, I just wanted to begin a slightly fairer discussion on the subject of evidence.
2. Perhaps you could clear something up for me. I’m always confused when atheists campaign against Christianity (in particular) and other religions. Thank you for a balanced and reasonable approach on this website! But why do the so-called New Atheists have such an agenda against Christianity? If faith is a virus, as Dawkins suggests, should he not be pleased as he sees competitors in the gene pool being disadvantaged and losing a lot of street cred (which I have, believe me!), rather than rail against it. For if I’m merely a sack of particles that will soon be redistributed underground, why should it matter to me what other sacks of particles think whilst they are “alive”. How indeed can I think evaluate that a world without “religion” would be better for subsequent generations (if that is the driving force) without importing some external set of values about what is “good” or “bad”?
3. And a cheeky personal one for you! Do you see all these messages merely as things that need rebuttal? Is there no part of you that gets tired of having to explain away and thinks “Wow, maybe this is true!”?
Arguments based on Jesus are rather popular with Christians, so we’ve been through a few.
Of course the fact that the authors of the Gospels wanted to convince people of the divinity of Jesus doesn’t simply invalidate the idea, because they’d want to convince people just as much if Jesus were actually divine as if he weren’t. It certainly doesn’t support the idea, though. We expect bias, but it’s not easy to get a clear picture of an event if all known sources are explicitly biased the same way.
Best guess is, the Gospels first saw wide distribution about 30 years after the fact. That doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was the high end of the average lifespan. Consider that combined with the estimated literacy rate in the area: 3% or less. By the time the story was exposed to criticism, few citizens who would have seen Jesus pre-crucifixion were still alive, and few if any of those could have written a contrary account at the time. Nor would they have bothered if they could, in most cases, because as far as everyone but Jesus’ followers was concerned his death was a non-event – just another self-proclaimed Messiah easily scooped up by the authorities. Placing real places and people in the stories therefore wasn’t much bolder than Winston Groom writing JFK and the White House into Forrest Gump.
Your last paragraph on the subject is very directly addressed by what I wrote on the old site years ago. Here I’ll just say that even if they knew it was untrue (and there are scenarios floating around where the apostles were taken in like everybody else), then sticking to their story and maintaining their following (instead of having everybody turn on them) was actually quite a good survival strategy in the short term. The first apostle to die after Judas apparently did so eleven whole years later, despite persecution by both Romans and Jews.
To respond to your piece directly, as briefly as I can (naturally, comment if you want to delve into something):
Religion isn’t the only source of altruism. Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists” are against religion itself, not trying to wipe out the religious. They, and I, see it as beneficial to religious people for them to abandon their faiths, which is part of why they attack those faiths. They’re doing people a service. (They seem to attack Christianity more often than other faiths simply because Christianity is the major faith in the countries where they live, and therefore the most immediate instance of religion. Their criticisms usually apply to other faiths, however.)
Religions often claim to be the only absolute authority on what is good and bad, but that’s only true if the religion is. Otherwise you’re appealing to an authority which isn’t there. There are many ways to measure merit on objective bases, rather than absolute, which are actually known to exist. Historical experience and research, common sense, the law, the minimisation of harm, the maximisation of resources and our instinctive empathy and altruism are examples. Any of them can be challenged, but especially if they all agree on something then you can reason that something is good or bad. You literally have a reasonable basis.
We care for others, knowing that they’re sacks of particles, because we are sacks of particles and we know what it’s like. It can be hard sometimes, and we generally don’t like to see other sacks suffer. We’re wired that way, thanks to millions of years of interacting with sacks like ourselves.
When those who disagree with you have apologetics organisations like CARM which devote tremendous resources to producing material that they challenge others to “explain away”, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining whether you’re right or wrong. The sheer volume of Christian apologetic is proportional to the sheer amount of Christian proselytisation (and by extension the sheer number of devout Christians), and by itself says nothing about the truth of the subject matter.
I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism. I came to a place where all the great big arguments would be championed by the faithful, to see whether they were in fact convincing and whether I’d missed something. They weren’t convincing at all, and now I run the place.