“Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character

Question from Jamie:
I have a question about two types of evidence that Christians use to prove the Bible. What do you (and maybe most atheists?) think of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the historical record of at least 3 of the apostles being martyred for their beliefs as being any kind of proof that Christianity is true? They say that it is very unlikely that people would have died for a lie and Paul had no reason to suddenly convert. I’m not asking as a Christian but as kind of a skeptic.

Answer by SmartLX:
Doesn’t matter who you ask as, I’ll answer it the same way.

Christian-persecutor Saul had no reason to suddenly convert to super-Christian Paul that we know of, but that’s not the same as having no reason to do it. There are plenty of reasons you can imagine; guilt is an obvious one, but it could simply have been a very persuasive proselytising Christian. If Saul had any earthly reason to switch but didn’t want to admit to it, the story of Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was a great alternative that his new fellow worshipers would happily accept.

Perhaps something really did happen to him which he mistook for a divine experience. He’d never seen Jesus in life, so any man might have sufficed. The temporary blindness he reported could even be a sign of a stroke, so there are plausible ways in which his judgement could have been impaired.

The point is that supporting one’s claim by saying or implying there are no alternatives is a very weak argument unless one can actually establish that there are no possible alternatives. Otherwise you’re claiming that if you don’t know of a possibility, there is no such possibility. This is an argument from ignorance, the logical fallacy I most often see in arguments for the existence of God.

The argument about the apostles’ sacrifice is similar: that they had no reason to “die for a lie”. As you can see from the linked YouTube search, this is a major talking point for Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other prominent apologists. Again, the short response is that there are plenty of potential reasons. Maybe they believed the lie, or they thought the lie was worthwhile to advance the teachings of Jesus. Maybe the lie was a good short-term measure to keep them from being lynched by their own followers; not counting Judas an apostle was first killed eleven years after Jesus died, which isn’t bad considering. Maybe reports of their martyrdom are greatly exaggerated.

There are Christians who won’t tolerate a bad word about these arguments appealing to the integrity of the earliest disciples. Whenever I address one here, a long thread of comments follows where each of the hypothetical alternatives I’ve presented is attacked in great detail. It’s pointless because the alternatives aren’t limited to what I personally can imagine, but it shows that this topic genuinely and reliably strikes a nerve. That makes me think that behind the chaff of myriad apologetics Christians are taught and simply repeat, this is one idea that they actually use to reassure themselves that they’re right.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, defeated?

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible contains a long list of supposed contradictions in the Bible, but apologetics sites such as LookingUntoJesus.net have published articles reconciling every single one. Is there any remaining argument against the total internal consistency of the Bible, as befitting its divine origins?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve referred to this many times, but it’s always deserved its own piece.

The shortest answer is to point out the fact that the SAB contains links to the responses in each of its articles concerning an apparent contradiction (this one, for example, has three). Why would it do this if the responses in any way undermined the point it’s trying to make?

I’ve read a lot of the responses, and as far as I can tell they all take the same approach. Using this particular interpretation of the relevant passages, they say, there is no real contradiction. Very well, I say, but what is the evidence that this interpretation is the correct one, i.e. the meaning intended by its unknown author(s)?

More to the point, is it more likely that the 2000+ identified passages are each meant to be understood in the specific way a modern apologist has decided, or that the separate authors collectively got a few things wrong here and there when it’s all considered together? If you presume or presuppose not only the existence of God but the divine authorship of the Bible then of course it must be interpreted in whatever way means it’s not wrong, but the whole point of arguing for its incredible consistency is to advocate that it’s the word of God, so you can’t invoke this in the middle of that very argument or you’re “begging the question”.

So, with the thousands of SAB articles and thousands of attempted refutations, where does it ultimately leave us? There are thousands of potential contradictions, each one of which might indicate that the Bible was written by fallible people. For every one of them there’s at least one interpretation that makes it look at least okay. If we say for the sake of argument that no two of these reconciliations contradict each other either, then there is at least one reading of the entire Bible that is internally consistent, but there are still countless others that are self-contradictory, and no objective way to choose between them. Therefore it’s not certain that it’s perfect, and it’s not certain that it’s imperfect, so all we can do is consider probabilities. That approach, in my view, is not favourable to the book.

The Case for (and against) Christ

Question from Michael:
Hi again. So, although I’m an atheist, I try to keep an open mind and would consider the evidence anyone might provide for the existence of God or gods. To that end, I’ve started examining evidence for the other side. I’ve begun reading a book entitled “The Case for Christ”. I’m sure you’re familiar with it and I would like to know your opinions on this book in general.

There’s a lot of information in the book, but I’ve gotten the impression early on that the basic premise is that the Bible itself serves as proof of God and Jesus Christ as the son of God. This really doesn’t sway me at all because I don’t believe in the Bible either. That is to say I don’t believe that its ancient text is true or divinely inspired. If I did, I would obviously believe anything it said.

Is there any validity to the Bible as proof of God, divinity, or a creator? Why do Christians present it as such? Do you consider any part of the Bible to be factual? Or do you think of it merely as a work of fiction? I appreciate any insight you can offer. I’ve grown really tired of the “Because the Bible says so!” argument.

Answer by SmartLX:
The really annoying thing about a lot of Christian apologetic is that it sounds to Christians like it would be really convincing if they didn’t already believe, despite the fact that it’s not at all convincing to those who actually don’t believe. Arguing from the authority of the Bible is a prime example of this.

On a superficial level, Strobel takes the right approach with The Case for Christ: he spends the first half trying to establish the authority of the Gospels, and then argues that they’re saying Jesus actually did what Christians claim. The issue is that he does not establish the Gospels’ authority to anything like the extent that it can be trusted when it claims supernatural events. Any broad, well-accepted criteria for historical data which Strobel applies to the Bible were not created with claims of gods or miracles in mind for serious consideration.

The book’s style is that of a journalist interviewing various experts to get at the truth, but Strobel follows a hard and fast rule (feel free to correct me on this, folks): he never interviews anyone who does not already agree with him on the subject at hand. He does find some people who had previously disagreed and then changed their position, and he does ask a lot of textbook skeptical questions, but he is only ever setting up proponents of his own position with material they can use to make their case. That’s why he asks the skeptical-sounding questions himself instead of seeking responses from actual non-believers.

The Case for Christ is old enough and famous enough that it’s got plenty of fully researched responses, both in print (e.g. Challenging the Verdict by Earl Doherty, excerpts here) and online-only (example here), so I won’t reinvent the wheel by going point-by-point here. That said, if you or anyone reading has a particular argument from the book which you don’t think has been adequately rebutted anywhere, bring it up in a comment and we’ll take a look.

As for my own opinion of the Bible, while it doesn’t convince me of the truth of Christianity that doesn’t mean nothing in it is true at all. The parts concerning Jesus were most likely written long enough after the fact, and by people far enough removed from the living person(s) who inspired the story, that it’s quite possible that the authors thought they were largely writing the truth. There’s just too much material to dismiss out of hand, and I’m sure there’s a lot of real history to be gleaned from it, directly or indirectly. The hard part is separating the truth from the fiction, although some claims are easier to place in one category or the other.

Agreeing With Philosophers

Question from Sammy:
Maimonides was the greatest philosopher ever, his influence has spanned centuries and cultures, and he believed in God.

I am sure he was aware of atheistic theories, and still he believed. Isn’t that something to count on? Is it possible to be smarter than the smartest?!

I would appreciate some clarity, tnx!!!

Answer by SmartLX:
The claim that Maimonides was the greatest philosopher ever is highly subjective, especially given the competition from the rest of history. Just for starters, he’s up against Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tze and Buddha; from a quick online search, Maimonides rarely seems to make the top ten.

While most of the men on this impromptu list believed in some kind of divine presence they were completely at odds as to its nature, and therefore could not all have been right. So you can stack your Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal up against my Epicurus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell and it won’t mean much in the end, because it is demonstrably possible and in fact very common for even the world’s greatest thinkers to be dead wrong. Sometimes we don’t know which ones are wrong, but when they’re diametrically opposed at least one position has to be.

For Maimonides to actually affect the debate over the existence of gods (let alone his God) we have to look at what he actually contributed to that area of theology. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, his attempts to prove God all boiled down to variants of the cosmological argument, which I’ve covered. If you think one of his versions is beyond what I addressed in my earlier piece or the follow-up, put it in a comment and we’ll discuss it. Otherwise there’s nothing new or convincing to be had.

Importantly, Maimonides’ intelligence and his arguments for God are most likely not why he believed in the first place. From what we know of his life, he grew up in Spain during what’s known as its golden age of Jewish culture, when Muslim Moors ruled but Jews were accepted and their culture prospered. Just about everything he would have read or heard from either Islamic or Jewish sources simply assumed the existence of God, and used it as a premise to argue for other things. Chances are he did that himself in his youth, so when he eventually began to argue for God he was just looking for ways to confirm what he already “knew” and please his audience. That’s the thing about religious apologetic: in the end its actual use is usually not to convert unbelievers but to reassure believers.

Irreducible Complexity and Irredeemable Credulity

Question from Tomas:
What is your take on Irreducible Complexity? From what I have read, it appears to be Intelligent Design in a new wrapper but it does have some new arguments to it.

Also, it seems like any new religious “hypothesis” on the existence of God (or any god) is an old one that is simply retold to account for any existing argument against it. Isn’t that proof that their “hypotheses” are just efforts to grasp at straws since none of them have held up against any scrutiny?

Why can’t people who claim to believe in God (or supernatural entity) just simply have faith? Why must they try to prove it with facts which ultimately disprove their God?

Answer by SmartLX:
For those who came in late, irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological mechanisms such as the eye and the bacterial flagellum cannot have evolved gradually, because if they were one step less complex or if they were missing one component then they wouldn’t work at all, which is not beneficial and therefore would not be naturally selected. It’s a specific type of the general creationist argument that evolution can’t have produced something or other.

If something were actually established as genuinely irreducibly complex, then by definition it really couldn’t have evolved. Where it falls over is that nothing has ever been established as such. The mechanisms and physical features which are presented as irreducibly complex invariably have very good explanations of how they likely evolved. These explanations usually (always?) pre-date the idea of irreducible complexity, sometimes by over a century, which means those using the argument haven’t even checked to see if it’s valid for their chosen biological object.

To give you a general idea of the explanations that exist, before we move on, there are a few possible sources of the kind of complexity that can appear irreducible.
– Multiple components can evolve in tandem.
– A slightly less complex version of something might have served an entirely different purpose until one last mutation turned it to its current function.
– A delicate structure might have formed in the presence of other supporting structures which were later dismantled and discarded, like scaffolding.

My series on the Great Big Arguments covers almost every kind of argument for God that it’s possible to make. Even the latest apologetics are heavily based on what has come before, to the extent that after 9 pieces I really don’t know what further Great Big Arguments I can write about. Even the last one was only on a variation. (Folks, let me know if I’ve missed something.)

An apologist would say that just because an argument has not been universally acknowledged as sound doesn’t mean it isn’t dead right, and the fact that people reject the arguments for God doesn’t mean He’s not real (and it’ll be their own problem when they face judgement). I say that just because an argument has been regularly refuted for years, decades or even centuries doesn’t mean it can’t still convince people who don’t know the refutations, and therefore pretty much all of the existing arguments are still useful when proselytising. Some organisations (such as dedicated apologetics ministry CARM) have actually advised against using certain convoluted arguments, but even these archaic rejects still crop up everywhere.

Some believers do keep their faith to themselves; it’s just that since we always hear from the bible-bashers instead, it’s easy to forget about the quiet ones. Those who do try to spread the faith, apart from simply wanting those around them to agree with them, are often commanded to do so by their religious leaders at all levels. It’s certainly easy to interpret most holy texts as demanding followers to recruit. Religions themselves would not have survived so long or become so popular if conversion and assimilation wasn’t an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. It’s a part that some believers reject, but those who embrace the call of the missionary are motivated to do the work for everyone.

The Great Big Arguments #1b: Presuppositional, SyeTenB Style

Sample argument:
The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything. You must borrow from the Christian worldview, and a God who makes universal, immaterial, unchanging laws possible, in order to prove anything. By what standard can you know anything without God?

Answer by SmartLX:
This is the Transcendental Argument for God in a form made popular by Sye Ten Bruggencate and his fellows. The argument above is paraphrased from his automated, supposedly God-proving website. (Just click through the obviously desired responses to get to the meat.) I’ve already addressed the TAG here, but this version has a different emphasis and it warrants another look.

Presuppositionalist apologists work from two main presuppositions, both of which follow from a basic assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God:
– crediting all the universe’s unchanging laws, including logic and truth itself, to God (Jeremiah 33:25 among others), and
– the idea that all non-believers are actually believers in denial (Romans 1:18-20, with added derogation in verses 21 and 22).
The practical approach to witnessing is to deprive subjects of any basis for knowledge or reason except God while pleading for them to repent, in the hope that their supposed secret belief will reassert itself. For examples, look up any video or recording of Bruggencate, who proudly never does anything else.

Engaging this argument invariably boils down to arguing over one’s own ideas about truth and reason. If I say I look for evidence for truth claims, I’ll be asked how I know the evidence isn’t faked or imaginary. If I rattle off tests, I’ll be asked how I know they’re reliable, and so on. If I point out something crazy or immoral in the Bible, I’ll be asked by what standard I can judge it. It often goes nowhere in the end, with the believer thinking he’s “won” and the non-believer not only continuing not to believe but thinking a lot less of the believer.

There are different positions people can take, of course, but my approach to objective morality applies pretty well here too:
– If there are absolute laws of logic, morality, etc. then we probably don’t know what they are. Just because the God character in the Bible says certain things are absolute doesn’t mean those are the ones. (If you’re a presuppositionalist trawling this piece for absolutist statements to pounce on, that last sentence qualifies for one, and yes, I think some absolutes do exist. Just because I don’t know why they exist doesn’t mean a god set them up – see below.)
– Most or all of what we say that we know might be wrong, because we’re fallible people. However many things are testable, repeatable and consistent enough that we can be confident that they’re true, and behave as if we know them. Known absolutes are not necessary. A believer, by contrast, thinks he or she really does know some crucial things for certain, but might be wrong all the same.
– That laws (may) exist which are universal, immaterial and unchanging does not mean a particular book’s idea of a universal, immaterial and unchanging God created them. One simpler explanation is that, like God Himself is meant to be, the laws themselves are eternal and had no beginning.

I should also mention the circular reasoning inherent in the presuppositional approach. God exists, which is revealed to us in the Bible, which God apparently wrote because the Bible says he did. It’s no more complicated than that, and Bruggencate has admitted as much. It doesn’t concern him, firstly because he argues that everyone else does the same thing and secondly because if God is somewhere in the circle then it’s “just” or “virtuous” circular reasoning. I’ll let that speak for itself.

I’ve said before that much emphasis is placed on spreading the Word and very little on making it stick. The presupposition that there are no real atheists goes a long way towards explaining this, so I suspect it’s quite widespread. Further, Bruggencate and others regularly give it as a reason why this argument will Save(tm) professed non-believers. There are no statistics to suggest that any significant number of atheists or others are “renewing” their faith as a result of this argument, but measurable results don’t seem to matter. The apologists make their money from reassured believers regardless, so what’s the difference if they’re dead wrong about us atheists?

Christian Talking Points: a laundry list

Question from Chris:
I am just curious, if you dont believe in God, then what is the whole point of your life, and how did we all get here, we just suddenly appeared, I have never been brainwashed as to some people on this forum are saying, but your forum actually proves that there is a God just by the simple fact that an Atheist exists, the bible clearly says that there will be people who say there is no God, and will deny His Existence, One day weather you believe in God or not you will stand before God and if you believe in Him you will bow down in reverence and if you dont you will bow in fear, God loves you and wants you to love Him Back.

Answer by SmartLX:
Chris, you’ve managed to re-ask more questions we’ve already answered in a single post than anyone who’s ever written in. My answer will therefore read more like an index.

On the subject of purpose and meaning in life: see this list of pieces with the keyword “purpose”. We all decide the “point” of our own lives, whether we throw in with the demands of a religion or we strike out on our own.

On the subject of how we all came to be here, see these pieces on “origins” and these on “evolution” (over several pages). The idea that humans “suddenly appeared” is as far from the truth as you can get.

On the subject of possible brainwashing, see the pieces on “indoctrination”. There are many ways to bring people to belief, and though many (such as childhood indoctrination) are in some sense forcible, not all of them are. I wouldn’t dare to guess at your particular circumstances.

On the subject of Biblical prophecy, see my main piece on prophecies. The prediction that not everyone in the whole world would agree that there’s a God falls into the first category, High Probability of Success. Anyone could have guessed that at the time the Bible was written, or at any other time. It’s hardly a clear-cut case of divine foreknowledge.

On the subject of trying to frighten non-believers with the idea that they might be wrong (and that your specific beliefs might also be right, which is equally crucial), see the pieces which touch on “Pascal’s Wager”. You can’t scare someone with something they don’t think is there and, despite popular evangelical opinion, every atheist isn’t really a theist in denial.

Finally, I haven’t done a piece on God’s love yet, likely because it’s a theological topic which is moot until the existence of God is established. I’ll just say that if God exists and regularly sends people he loves to Hell, His love is worthless anyway.

The search field in the top right corner of the site is very useful for determining whether someone has already asked the questions you have in mind, so remember that for next time.

Ask the Christian, Ask Him Hard

Question from Conor:
I have a very annoying RE teacher. I always ask questions to catch him out but he replies by changing what he previously said. Normally when I ask a christian a question it’s OK because they don’t repeat themselves but he does.

I would like you to send me a couple of question to really catch him out but at the same time he is my teacher so i can’t be rude.

Thanks hope you reply.

Answer by SmartLX:
It sounds like you’d get farther with this guy by taking notes and then quoting his earlier responses when he contradicts them.

Regardless, if you want all-purpose difficult questions for Christians they’re all over the place, so there’s no point repeating them here. Try here, here and here, and if you still need more just google “questions for christians” (without the quotes).

Just consider beforehand whether it’s worth scoring a few rhetorical points against your teacher. The thing about all these questions is that Christian apologists have probably answered every one of them somewhere or other. It seldom matters whether it’s a good answer or even an understandable one; just the fact that there is an answer is enough to reassure many confused Christians that their apologist idols have routed the atheist onslaught, and may actually strengthen their faith in the long run.

There are a few who don’t accept the apologists’ answers and become more skeptical, though. (I was one of these. It meant a lot to me when I was young that there were too many different answers to the Problem of Evil). It ultimately depends on whether you want to deconvert individuals or decrease belief overall, because with this approach you’re more likely to do only the former.

Lewis’ Polylemma

“Lewis’ Trilemma” according to William Lane Craig:
1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.
3. Jesus was Lord.

Other short versions:
“Liar, lunatic or Lord?” (most common; the order may change)
“Mad, bad or God?”

Answer by SmartLX:
This argument by C.S. Lewis remains puzzlingly popular, despite the fact that apologist idol Craig introduces it in Reasonable Faith and calls it unsound on the same page. It’s a comparison of the different possibilities suggested by the story of the Gospels.

A trilemma, if you’ve never seen one before, is like a dilemma but with three difficult options or “horns” instead of two (therefore “tri” instead of “di”, from the Greek roots). We’ll consider them one by one.

1. Lord
Jesus was genuinely divine – he was God, or the son of God, or both (let’s avoid the whole Trinity quagmire).

The whole point of the Trilemma is to convince people that the other options should be dismissed and this, as the only remaining option, is the truth. (Outside of the Trilemma, people attempt to support this using either arguments for a historical Resurrection or supposedly fulfilled prophecies, and I’ve discussed both plenty. Look around the site.)

2. Liar
Jesus only claimed to be divine, knowing it wasn’t true.

This would mean that Jesus was a fraud and a hypocrite, preaching honesty in the midst of a great deception, and on that basis alone most Christians dismiss it. To me, the main objection boils down to, “Jesus wouldn’t lie. He was Jesus.”

I don’t see an insurmountable conflict here; if he had to lie about himself to get his teachings across, perhaps it was worth a bit of secret hypocrisy by him, his closest followers or everyone involved. Cognitive dissonance has caused other similarly striking contradictions in behaviour.

3. Lunatic
Jesus genuinely thought he was divine, but was not.

Is someone who believes what Jesus supposedly believed, and is wrong, necessarily a lunatic? Misguided, yes, delusional, probably, but fundamentally of unsound mind? Would it really be impossible to convince a sane person of the same thing? “Lunatic” is a needlessly harsh word for a scenario in which Jesus was simply mistaken on a major issue. (This is moot if you establish that the Resurrection happened, which many try to do, but that’s another subject as I said.)

That covers Lewis’ Trilemma, but as you may have realised it is in fact a false trilemma because it does not cover all the possibilities. If you’re going to establish one option as the truth by eliminating everything else, you can’t leave anything out of your considerations. Thus, we use related Greek roots to turn the trilemma into a tetralemma:
4. Legend
Jesus either did not claim to be divine, or did not exist at all.

This essentially challenges the reliability of the Gospels where the non-supernatural acts and words of Jesus are concerned, which again is a separate battlefield. The relevant point for this topic is that it’s yet another possibility.

Shall we go for a pentalemma?
5. Lunkhead (or Lamebrain)
Jesus was not the true source of the teachings now attributed to him, including the idea that he was divine. He got it all from somewhere else. (Of course this wouldn’t actually mean he was stupid, but the other one-word options are needlessly derogatory, so what the heck.)

It seems to be very seldom considered that Jesus might have learned what he taught from other human beings, perhaps during the period when he travelled east and disappeared from Scripture for years. What if he found spiritual masters who convinced him of his own divinity? (Modern cult leaders come close to this fairly often.) There’s some overlap between this and “Lunatic”, given that Jesus is misguided in both cases, but it goes to show how many different ways the true story might have gone.

6. And so on…
Think of another possibility which is at least possible, and you’ve made it a hexalemma. And then you can keep going for as long as you keep thinking. Ultimately we must throw up our hands and apply the root for “many”, leaving ourselves with a polylemma. Apologists have limited it to a trilemma to keep it small and manageable, but ancient history is not determined through a process of elimination; at least, not one that simple.