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.
Question from Kaitlyn:
I need some help with a question that is really confusing me. I just watched a video regarding Jesus in the Bible. It said that Matthew and Luke wrote about how Jesus was born, his miracles, and his resurrection. It also was said that they may have not known each other. How were they able to write about the same thing, for example that Jesus came from a virgin? Even though they don’t have the exact same story, how could they both all of a sudden think he came from a virgin? I am an atheist, but I question all theories because I would rather be 100 percent about everything before completely crashing it down. This question is one I can’t find myself to answer on my own, and is really making me question what to believe. Please, some help would be awesome! Thanks.
Answer by SmartLX:
There’s quite a lot going on here. Your question touches on several different issues of Biblical authorship, so I’ll address them separately.
If the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were in fact written by the apostles Matthew and Luke who knew and followed Jesus, then of course they knew each other and could collaborate on their accounts. As you probably know, though, these gospels were written years or even decades after the given timeframe of Jesus’ crucifixion, and very possibly by other people.
Though the authors might not have known each other, they could have had access to the same accounts from earlier on. As it happens, a popular hypothesis is that the authors of Matthew and Luke shared two principal sources, which explains much of the overlap: the Gospel according to Mark, and an as-yet-undiscovered and therefore hypothetical second document known as the Q source. To summarise, there are credible alternative explanations for the claims made by Matthew and Luke ‘independently’ to the false dilemma of pure coincidence or divine advice.
When the Book of Isaiah, which contains the prophecy relating to the Messiah’s birth, was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the word almah regarding the mother was translated to parthenos. The easiest way to explain the significance of this is that the equivalent of the word maiden, which might mean ‘virgin’ in some circumstances but otherwise just means ‘young woman’, was changed to the word virgin and all ambiguity was eliminated. (The literal Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ is betulah, which wasn’t used.) The Greek translation was made around 200 BC(E) and was therefore available to all the authors of the Gospels if they did basic research. Even if the above hypothesis is wrong and ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ had no common direct sources for the life of Jesus, they both knew that the Messiah’s life had damn well better match the centuries-old prophecy’s call for a virgin mother.
There are many negative stereotypes about Christians. And, unfortunately many of those stereotypes prove to be true. Are there any Christians in your past or present that you admire and feel are misrepresented by the stereotypes? Thanks
Great question Jimmy and very original. We haven’t had that one here yet. Thanks.
There are many people who are christian that I admire. They range from my friends and family to politicians. What makes a person admirable to me isn’t what faith or political side they swing towards, it’s how they treat other people. I don’t care what a persons faith or lack of faith is as long as they lend a hand to someone who needs one. Christianity teaches that “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8 KJB) but few Christians actually practice this, which in turn creates the stereotype you’re referring to.
Jimmy Carter is a great example to me of a devout christian who practices charity. Instead of sitting on his ass after his presidency, he went out and built homes. He helped feed the hungry. He works toward improving the conditions of those that society has brushed aside. He also believes in the separation of church and state. If more Christians, hell, if more people of faith were like him, atheists wouldn’t have as much of a problem with them.
Question from Alfredo:
The “What is an Atheist?” video did a terrific job of explaining the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “theist,” pointing out that it is possible to be an atheist-agnostic. Logically, if one can be an atheist-agnostic, one can also be a theist-agnostic, but the video made no mention at all of theist-agnostics. (Logically, it should even be possible to be an atheist-gnostic in the same way that one can “know” that super-position, quantum-entanglement, and quantum tunnelling are real phenomenon, but be unable to (really) believe that the universe works this way in one’s gut.)
At one point in the video, Jake addressed the popular notion that an agnostic falls somewhere between an atheist and a theist. He used the analogy of being a little pregnant to convey the idea that believing and not believing at the same time seems a bit muddled. I’m inclined to think that the reason that most people think of an “agnostic” as being half-way between a theist and an atheist is that popular culture often muddles “belief” and “knowledge.”
A theist believes in God, but also KNOWS that there is a God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God and (as many understand the term), KNOWS that there is no God. Therefore, an “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t know FOR SURE, the way that an “atheist” does.
My question addresses the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, and how it contrasts with the DISBELIEF-AGNOSTICISM of the “weak atheist” and the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong atheist.” (I’m posing this question within the context of the full-broad issue of whether or not there is a god or gods– not the narrower, and much easier to answer, question of whether or not the Islamic-Judeo-Christian God exists.)
Even Richard Dawkins defines himself as an atheist-agnostic with regard to the full-broad question of whether or not any sort of god or gods exists. I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.
Belief and faith are intimately interconnected, but there are two kinds of faith. There’s conventional religious faith, in which one defines one’s belief to be knowledge– to be fact– either because one wants it to be fact really, really badly and thinks this justifies defining it as fact, or because one is incapable of distinguishing between belief and fact. Then there’s secular faith– the faith that one has in one’s children, in one’s country, or in the human race. If my daughter has cancer and I say that I have faith that she’ll be okay, I’m actively and willfully marginalizing the thought that she may die in my mind, but I’m not denying the possibility. I also have some rational justification for believing that she’ll be okay, otherwise my secular “faith” is actually nothing more than hope. Secular faith is more than hope, but less than knowledge.
So, here’s my question in a nutshell: If we can differentiate between agnosticism and atheism, why can’t we differentiate between faith and psychosis? Why can’t we make a distinction, conceptually and verbally, between a religious person who believes and has faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of god– in the same way that Richard Dawkins disbelieves and lacks faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of God? Why, in other words, is being a theist synonymous with being batsh*t crazy?
Answer by SmartLX:
Being a theist, from the perspective of an atheist, is simply synonymous with being wrong, or at least likely to be wrong. There’s no need to lump crazy in with it at the conceptual level. Of course it is sometimes accompanied by some level of crazy, but so is atheism or any other position. I wrote about this once before, and I’m still happy with my earlier piece.
A rational mind can accommodate an irrational faith if it has a “rational justification” which is flawed, and does not see the flaws. Rational is not the same as infallible, and no one expects us to be right about everything, only to try to be.
Otherwise, the “rational mind” can simply be somewhat irrational with regard to the object of faith, not accepting its flaws, and mostly rational the rest of the time. A parent with a deathly ill child might be like this. Some degree of irrationality is intrinsic to our nature as instinctive, emotional beings. It’s why we should try to be rational when we can, to compensate for the other times.