Monday, December 24, 2007

The "Atheism" of Adolph Hitler

You often hear it claimed that Hitler was an atheist, and this is supposed to demonstrate that atheism leads to moral depravity, or something of that sort. I've heard conflicting claims, but certainly the quotes here seem to indicate he wasn't an atheist.

Not that this shows that theism (or Roman Catholicism, if it can be shown that Hitler was Catholic) is proven to be deviant on the basis of Hitler's actions. Hitler may have thought that God was on his side, but he probably wasn't motivated by his Christianity to kill as he did. He had other motivations. In the same way Stalin was an atheist, but it's not clear that it was his atheism that motivated him to kill as he did. He had a communistic ideology that he thought validated his murderous actions.

On the other hand we do somewhat regularly see religious people do immoral things because of their religious convictions. The obvious example would be 9/11 hijackers. Muslims violence that resulted from the Danish cartoons stems from Islamic prohibition of the creation of graven images. Normal, moral people don't stone adulterers, but Muslims in some countries do because of their religious convictions.

It's easy to pick on Islam in this regard, but it's also easy to find examples of immoral behavior that stems from peoples' Christian religious convictions. Fred Phelps and his church delight in the death of U.S. soldiers because the Bible teaches that God wants to render punishment to nations that turn from him. They believe it is pleasing to God to render this punishment, so if it pleases God it should please us. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the very purpose of promoting Southern slavery. It is obvious that religious convictions motivate people to act in immoral ways. It would be interesting to see examples of people that are driven to act immorally on the basis of atheistic convictions.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Can Steve Hays Learn Empathy?

Steve over at Triablogue seems to think that posing the question "what does the world think of the United States and our foreign policy" reveals some sort of self-loathing on the part of the American questioner. I think what it reveals is Steves inability to empathize with someone on the other side of the fence, which was apparent to me immediately after I came into contact with him.

One way to help understand the perspective of some foreigners is to simply but the shoe on the other foot. Can Steve do this? I don't think he can. For people who can though, here is one way to think about some of the events that are now occuring some of the world's Muslim countries.

Let's suppose that the election in 1984 had just occurred and Ronald Reagan had been elected to a landslide victory with your support. Let's suppose further that his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, went to war in Mexico without Reagan's knowledge, so he fired him. In response Weinberger had Reagan arrested and would have hanged him without Canadian intervention. Weinberger then assumed power. Suppose that Weinberger was flooded with support from the Chinese and was able to sustain his grip on power because of their support. How would we feel about the Chinese? We would feel exactly the same way that people in Pakistan feel about us.

Let's suppose the Chinese had forcefully overthrown our government in the past. Let's suppose subsequent to that they had encouraged Vicente Fox of Mexico to attack us and they provided him with military arms to acomplish this. Let's suppose that war cost a million lives. Let's suppose that after this war the Chinese then declared that Vicente Fox was evil, and they invaded Mexico and attempted to set up military bases there. How would we react? Would we want to support the Mexican rebels against the Chinese? Would we want to develop nuclear weapons to protect ourselves from the Chinese? If you can understand why you would react this way, then you can understand why Iran reacts as they do.

But I don't think Steve can understand. In his world skeptics are nothing but evil people in rebellion against his God, and truths as he understands them are simply rejected due to pride and unwillingness. Iranians are simply insane and irrational for opposing our efforts. Osama bin Laden probably attacked us simply because he hates God and Christianity. Don't think about things too deeply. Just label these people evil, and bomb, bomb, bomb, and hope for the best. Life is pretty simple in Steve's world, and unfortunately he's not the only American with this attitude.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What Happened?

What did happen in the days following Jesus crucifixion? Here is what happened according to the gospels, as best as I can ascertain:

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea removed Jesus’ body from the cross, wrapped it in an enormous 100 lbs of spices. They placed him in the tomb there (Jn 19: 38-42). The women followed Joseph and saw how the body was laid. Thinking that 100 lbs of spices wasn't enough and that perhaps the next day they would want to remove the cloth that wrapped Jesus and stuff in more spices they went to prepare spices. (??) They then rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment (Lk 23: 55-56).

In the morning, just after sunrise (Mk 16:2), while it was still dark (??) (Jn 20:1), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome and other women (Lk 24:10) went and bought still more spices (??) (Mk 16:1). When they got there they saw that the stone had been rolled away (Mk 16:4). Apparently an earthquake had occurred and an angel rolled away the stone and sat on top of it (Mt 28:2). They ignored him and went in and saw a young man to the right (Mk 16:5). He spoke. 6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Then two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening stood beside them (Lk 24:4). They said "Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" 8Then they remembered his words. At some point the angel that had been sitting on the stone from Mt says "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."

The women fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid (Mk 16:8). They were also joyful and fled to tell the disciples (??) (Mt 28:8). On the way they met Jesus, clasped his feet, and worshiped him. He told them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee (Mt 28:9)

While they were on the way the guards reported to the chief priests what had happened and the chief priests bribed the guards to say that the body had been stolen. (Mt 28:11).

The women arrived to tell the disciples. They told these things to the disciples. (Lk 24:10). Mary Magdalene also shared her fears that the body had been stolen (??) (Jn 20:2). They did not believe the women (Lk 24:11). Peter and John then ran for the tomb and saw the strips of linen. John saw and believed. (Jn 20:3-9). Peter left, wondering what had happened (Lk 24:12).

Mary Magdalene stayed, weeping. She saw two angels in white. They asked her why she was crying. She told them it was because they had taken her Lord and she didn’t know where he was. (??) Jesus then appeared and she didn’t recognize him. (??) He asked her why she was crying. She thought he was the gardener and asked him if he had taken the body and if so, would he tell her where the body was so she could get it. Jesus then spoke her name and she recognized him. He charged her not to touch him (??) because he had not yet gone to the Father. Mary then went to tell the disciples. (Jn 20:10-18)

That same day Jesus appeared to two people about seven miles from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. (Lk 24:13-32). They left immediately and headed for Jerusalem to tell the eleven (Lk 24:33).

Later that evening (Jn 20:19) the men from the road to Emmaus arrived (Lk 24:34-35) and told of what had happened. While they discussed this Jesus appeared to them. He proved that it was he, and he ate with them. He charged them to stay in Jerusalem until they received power. (Lk 24:36-49). Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. When he heard of these things he didn’t believe. A week later Jesus again appeared and proved himself to Thomas (Jn 20:24-28).

Jesus then appeared to the 500 brethren, to James, and last of all to Paul (I Cor 15:6-7).

Despite the fact that Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem the disciples left for Galilee (about 70 miles away) to meet Jesus in the mountain he had appointed for his meeting with them as Mary Magdalene had said. They saw him, worshipped him, but some doubted. (Mt 28:16-17).

Jesus then lead them to the vicinity of Bethany where he ascended (Lk 24:51). Two men appeared and said: "Men of Galilee (??), why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Ac 1:11)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dembski on the Daily Show

Hey, I didn't know Dembski appeared on the Daily Show. Here it is:

And here's another Daily Show commentary on evolution.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What's the problem, Frank?

My recent mention of Frank Walton reminded me that he had disallowed my comments on his blog regarding the claim that Darwinian evolution was getting peer reviewed in a sense and was the worse for wear because of it. The proof is that a list of people, some of whom teach at Biola, some of whom hold doctorates in subjects like Electrical Engineering, have signed a statement saying they aren't so sure Darwinism explains everything. I didn't think that made a lot of sense, nor did I think the fact that some teachers at Biola dissent from evolution was all that surprising, and I said so in the comments section. Frank replied that he didn't see why it matters that they are from Biola, and I replied. Frank apparently didn't like my reply. Is it offensive or something? Here is what I wrote:

I happen to have a couple of relatives that have attended Biola (the Bible Institute of Los Angeles for those that don't know the acronym), and from what I can tell they're about as conservative as you're going to get this side of a padded cell. One relative had difficulty gaining admittance to the apologetics program because of his beliefs about evolution. You guys I'm sure would think that's great, but that's not the point. The point is, this list is intended to show some sort of surprising dissent from educated people about Darwinism. But it isn't surprising at all that Biology professors at Biola don't think that Darwinian evolution ENTIRELY accounts for the complexity of life (even if they do grant macro evolution). It isn't surprising that people with Electrical Engineering degrees (who for all we know are evangelical Christians) dissent from evolution. We have no reason to think they have a better understanding of the issues than anybody else, or if they've been pounded at church with absurd argumentation from ICR types. These type of people on this list just don't mean anything.

Do you guys see how bizarre your actions are? Do you really think this is what constitutes peer review? Imagine a scientist that had a new theory about quantum mechanics. Can you imagine him trying to promote his theory by defending it in churches, by trying to get school board members to advocate his theory, by compiling lists of people, the majority of whom are not experts in quantum mechanics, to sign petitions saying they advocate his theory. I mean, it's just silliness. Why don't you do some science instead of trying to pass off your views with propaganda. How about some real peer review. How about proposing some real scientific tests that can be used to evaluate ID, rather than simply pointing to things in another theory that you don't understand. Evolution is about as well established as any scientific theory. This is a losing battle, guys. Try reinterpreting the Bible. It's your only hope.

Project Steve is an interesting counter to this type of reasoning.

Pentecostal Shysterism Spreading to Africa

We've all heard of horrifying actions committed by people in the name of Islam. The Islamic faith is motivating parents do execute their children for refusing to wear traditional head gear, or motivating the Saudi's to violently punish rape victims. But it's not just Islam that motivates people in this way.

We're seeing the Christian faith motivate people in the same way. This time the result is abandonment, violence, and in some cases execution of children, from infants to 8 year olds. The article begins as follows:
Children are targets of Nigerian witch huntEvangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities.
Read more here:

HT to Pharyngula.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Richard Dawkins on Hardtalk

Watch Richard Dawkins respond gracefully and brilliantly to what really is a somewhat hostile interviewer. Notice Stephen Sackur frequently interrupt Dawkins or not allow him to finish his point, whereas Dawkins goes silent when Sackur speaks always allowing him to clearly state his points. I was immensely impressed with Dawkins here. Thanks for the link Frank.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Friday, December 7, 2007

Clues to the Reliability of the Gospels

Ken makes the point in the comment section here that if you’re wondering whether or not the disciples believed that Jesus was raised physically from the dead, you might as well just accept the statements to that effect in the gospels. Why not?

The problem with this approach is that we have learned through analysis of the gospels that it is clear that these writers have an agenda, and the facts sometimes suffer in the face of that agenda.

A very interesting example of this is in Mark 7. To understand the issue a little background is necessary.

Mark is of course written in Greek to a Greek speaking audience. But Jesus likely spoke Aramaic. Certainly as Jesus argued with the Pharisees he was speaking Aramaic, and the Pharisees would have been using their Hebrew Scriptures, not the Greek Septuagint. In Mark 7 Jesus is debating the Pharisees, yet Mark places in his mouth quotations of the Old Testament Scriptures that are right out of the Septuagint.

This in itself is not a problem. We understand that Mark is translating what it is that Jesus is supposed to have said. So we don’t expect Mark to be telling us the precise wording Jesus used. When Mark refers to Jesus quoting the OT, of course he’s just going to grab a copy of the Septuagint and give us the standard Greek reading.

Normally this isn’t a problem for a fundamentalist Christian. But in Mark 7 things are a little different. In this case Jesus bases his very argument on a mistranslation found in the Septuagint. Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees about their hand washing practices (this also is another anachronism, because it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the Pharisees adopted this practice, because having been expelled from Jerusalem they were forced to live among Gentiles, but that is another matter). He quotes Is 29:13. Here is the text from Mark 7 in the NIV:

5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, "Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?"
6 And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:


8 "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men."

Here is what Is 29:13 says in the Septuagint:

They worship me in vain; / their teachings are but rules taught by men

And here is the Hebrew:

Because this people draw near with their mouthand honor me with their lips,while their hearts are far from me,and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote;

Jesus’ argument is established on the basis of the Septuagint translation, but in the actual Hebrew the point is a little different. There it is talking about how fear of God is pure charade, i.e. an act of going through the motions, not genuine worship.

We can see that for Mark Jesus is a ventriloquist dummy. He will put words in Jesus’ mouth simply to tell a story as he wants it to be told, not as it actually would have occurred had it really happened.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

But Paul Converted!!

Habermas and Licona list Paul's conversion from persecutor of the church to the church's great advocate as the third key fact which helps point to the fact of the resurrection. Somehow they expect that for the skeptic this fact, along with the others, is difficult to account for.

The obvious question is, why do they think this is so significant? Don't people convert from one religion to the other all the time? Habermas and Licona address this objection on page 65. The difference, they say, is that Paul's conversion is based upon primary sources (what he perceived as a personal encounter with Jesus) whereas other people that convert do so usually because they are persuaded by secondary sources.

Once again the skeptic is left wondering how people as intelligent as Habermas and Licona can make such claims. The follow up question is obvious. Don't people convert from one religion to the other based upon what they perceive as personal experiences all the time? Didn't Joseph Smith convert based upon a personal encounter with the angel Moroni? Didn't Mohamed advocate his god Allah as the one true deity based upon what he perceived as a personal encounter with the angel Gabriel? Don't many people become Roman Catholics based upon personal encounters with Mary? Don't Pentecostals convert based upon personal encounters with the Holy Spirit and with Jesus as well? Don't thousands upon thousands of people convert to one religion or another based upon what they perceive as personal encounters?

Skeptical readers may be wondering why I'm even bothering to review such silliness. This is again just nonsense that Habermas and Licona can't possibly think would be persuasive to anyone but those that want to be persuaded. Why bother with this book? Frankly I didn't expect the reasoning to be this poor when I started. And honestly it's not always as weak as this. But this book does raise issues that will lead to more interesting critiques in the future, so don't give up on me here.

One other point in rebuttal to Habermas and Licona. They haven't really argued that Paul really wrote things like Galatians and I Corinthians. I understand that most so called critics assume he did, but that doesn't prove it. I actually think there are good reasons to doubt this, as I argued in the comments section here, but of course even if he did write it, it really doesn't prove anything.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Maybe the Disciples Recanted

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Habermas and Licona did in fact address some of the skeptical rebuttals to common Christian arguments. Christians point out that the disciples were really willing to die for the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. One of the major problems with this argument is that it is not clear that the disciples understood Jesus to be raised in a physical sense. This is a key problem. Another problem is that we have no idea whether or not they tried to recant after they encountered threats. The former problem was not addressed, but surprisingly for me the later one was addressed.

Habermas and Licona reply on page 59 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus that even though it is possible they could have recanted, they would had to have known in the first place that getting involved in this sort of thing was dangerous. How would they know this? Well, if you take a look at the book of Acts it mentions the martyrdoms of Stephen and James. Hence the disciples would have known that proclaiming Jesus was dangerous.

This is a very disappointing response for me, and I have to wonder if even Habermas and Licona can't spot the transparently question begging nature of their rebuttal. Where is the argument that Acts records reliable history? With all of the talk about the "minimal facts" which are supported by the majority of scholarship, what is the scholarly position on the reliability of a book like Acts?

I'm inclined to assume that the scholarly consensus doesn't look good on this point, so it isn't mentioned. Further, the evidence we do have in fact indicates that there was nothing dangerous about being a Christian. Suppose the disciples knew very well that this was a fraud. As I mentioned in a previous post the reaction of the government is revealed in Pliny's letter to the emperor Trajan. He indicates that he asks people if they are Christians. If they are he threatens them and demands they offer incense to the state gods. If they do so, they are released. Trajan replies to Pliny and lets him know that this is an approach he approves of. If the disciples don't truly believe in what they are claiming, then where is the risk?

But had this happened, say Habermas and Licona, critics like Celsus would have made hay of this, using it to bludgeon his Christian opponents. Really? If someone as well connected as Pliny the Younger has no knowledge of even what it is that Christians believe while writing in the year 100 can we really expect Celsus to know the ins and outs of exactly who of the disciples recanted and who didn't while writing 80 years after Pliny? The gospels themselves can't even agree on who the disciples were. This just doesn't cut it as a response to the skeptical question, and hence I see no reason to think that we know that nobody recanted in the face of threats.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tax Exempt Televangelists

I'm a little behind the curve ball on this one, but it's good to see that the Senate is investigating some of these people. Watch Benny Hinn work his magic in this video. How can anyone deny that he's providing an important service that needs to be promoted with tax exemption?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Secular Case for Life-On Animals and Humans

The pro-choice advocate needs to justify a morally relevant distinction between fetuses and adults in order to justify abortion. In the face of this difficulty some will simply assert that all distinctions attempting to justify protecting human life are arbitrary anyway. We basically protect humans rather than other animals because we have the power to do so. So how can the pro-choicer be accused of being arbitrary when the distinction between humans and animals is already arbitrary?

I thought this was a formidable objection for a non-theist. But bd showed that it really isn't. Here is how he responds:

The diseases and disorders that we fear most are those that are extremely painful and those that affect our minds. Now pain is something that we have in common with animals, so let’s ignore those for the moment. What is it about diseases that affect our minds that we find so terrifying? After all, many insane people and Alzheimer’s patients appear to be quite happy. And some madmen have very interesting, entertaining, and pleasant personalities.

Clearly what we fear is the loss of our reason – our ability to make sense of, or understand, the world by means of abstract concepts. When anyone loses this ability, for example by going mad or becoming a victim of Alzheimer’s, we feel that they have in a real sense lost their humanity: they are no longer rational beings. The case of Alzheimer’s victims is particularly poignant because the loss is gradual, which means that the victims are aware to some extent (especially in the early stages) of what is happening to them.

Even a partial disappearance of this gift is felt as an inestimable loss. If someone suffers an accident that changes his personality we may find this sad, but not always: the new personality may be an improvement over the old one. But if the accident reduces him from being a highly intelligent person to a moron it is always considered a tragedy. And any parent will grieve to learn that his or her child is an imbecile, or even that it has Down’s syndrome. The last point is especially telling, because Down’s children tend to be very loving, trusting, and well-behaved, and they seem to be quite happy so long as they are cared for reasonably well. It is true that they also tend to have physical problems, but this is not the main source of the parents’ grief: it is that they are very likely to have serious intellectual deficiencies.

In fact, even our fear of extremely painful diseases is based to some extent on the fact that excessive pain can impair or even destroy our ability to reason. It is quite common for people with less intense (but sometimes quite serious) pain to refuse to take painkillers because they tend to fog the mind. They would rather be able to think clearly than be free of pain.

Although we have no experience of rational beings other than humans, it seems very likely that any rational being would have pretty much the same attitude toward losing his reason. It seems inconceivable that anyone who has experienced what it is to be a rational being will be indifferent to losing this precious gift. It is also pretty much universally believed that, if a being who does not have this gift were to receive it, he would be extremely grateful for it and would not willingly return to his original condition. This is illustrated wonderfully in the movies Awakenings and Charly. It is also captured in the old saying that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. We feel confident that even the pig would agree if it were capable of understanding the difference between itself and Socrates.

So although it might be said that the value we place on rationality cannot be demonstrated to be “correct” by pure logic, it is a value that appears to be inherent in the very nature of a rational being. Thus the distinction between beings who are capable of reason and those who are not, far from being “arbitrary”, is based on the most fundamental nature of things. If this distinction is not justified, no distinction is justified.

The Secular Case for Life-Equality Under the Law

In my previous post I presented arguments from bd-from-kg that showed that the moral justification the pro-choice contributors offered were flawed. As the discussion progressed the pro-choice posters would continue to throw up different criteria. It was obvious that they weren't starting with morally relevant principles and proceeding to find out where they lead. They were designing a criteria to allow the killing of fetuses while protecting the lives of humans that are further developed. One poster claimed that really not all life is equally worthy of protection. There is a difference between a 90 year old man and a 28 year old father. Here is how bd responded.

It saddens and frightens me that it is necessary to answer questions like this today from serious, intelligent people. It’s as though all the knowledge and understanding accumulated over several millennia has disappeared down a memory hole.

The idea of giving some people legal preference over others is not new; it is very old. In fact, it is the most natural idea in the world. It is what all governments did throughout most of history and what most of them do today. The justification is always that some people are more “important” to society, others are less important, and still others are positively harmful.

Of course this is really true; no sensible person can doubt it. The problem comes when you try to recognize these differences in the law. As soon as you do this, everyone’s legal status depends on how “valuable” those in power consider him to be. Those who are deemed sufficiently valuable are able to do as they please without having to worry about petty concerns such as whether they are breaking the law or destroying the lives of less “valuable” citizens. They can be sure that their lives, property, and interests will be vigilantly protected. Those deemed less valuable are far more vulnerable. They are essentially at the mercy of the privileged. And the authorities will not be nearly concerned about crimes that may be, or have been committed against them; it just won’t be worth much of their time. As for the least valuable – those who are considered a positive burden on society – they will be lucky if they are not driven away, or enslaved, or exterminated.

No doubt you do not intend all this. You want only those who are “clearly and objectively” more valuable to be given preference over those less valuable. But even if there were a “clear, objective” measure of a person’s worth, and even if it were desirable for the law to treat people accordingly, those in power would not apply such a standard. What they will apply is the measure of what is most useful to them. In practice any standard based on “objective value to society” is no standard of all; it is just an invitation to the arbitrary exercise of power. The experience of thousands of years, with every form of government known to man, has confirmed this sad truth. The standard of “objective value” – of treating each man according to what he is “worth”, or “deserves”, or “can contribute to society” (they all come to the same thing in the end) is the formula for tyranny. If the government is a democracy, it will be tyranny of the majority, but tyranny nonetheless.

Only one thing has ever been found to offer any protection against tyranny: the principle of equality under the law, or the “rule of law”. Thomas Jefferson expressed this idea eloquently in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. The idea was revolutionary precisely because it is so counter-intuitive: after all, it is self-evident that all men are not created equal. But the idea was that the law would not be permitted to recognize, or to take cognizance, of these differences, except insofar as they are manifested in violations of the law itself. And any such violation was to be treated the same, no matter who had committed it.

This principle has by now been implemented to greater or lesser degree in many countries by now, and the results have been phenomenal. There has been an explosion of freedom, and a corresponding increase of happiness, in the countries that have adopted this principle, even if imperfectly, while those that have not have remained mired in misery and oppression.

Obviously the principle of equality under the law has costs. Since some people really are more valuable to society than others, and others are quite worthless, treating them as equal under the law will result in suboptimal results in the short run in a great many cases. But the benefits of adhering to the principle have been found to far outweigh these costs.

It is often tempting to abandon this principle in specific cases when it appears that doing so will have some benefit to society. But to make an exception is to repudiate the principle. You cannot say that no one is above the law, but Smith is above the law. You cannot say that everyone is to be given the equal protection of the law, but Jones will not be given the equal protection of the law.

Another perennial temptation is to define whole classes of human beings as non-persons, and thus not entitled to equal treatment. Thus blacks can be enslaved, and Jews can be exterminated, because they aren’t “really” people, even though they are plainly human beings. (This is why the Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin”.) Needless to say, this subverts the principle to the point of annihilating it entirely. If we can define which human beings are persons, “equality before the law” is just an empty phrase. The whole point is to protect those who are not popular, those whom many do not sympathize with, those who are unwanted, those who are considered to be of little “value”. To declare some human beings to be “nonpersons” is to reject the whole concept of equal protection of the law. The principle is meaningless unless there are no exceptions. It is only the guarantee that there will be no exceptions that makes our rights secure.

Abandonment of this principle subverts the very foundation of our society. It is an arrogant refusal to accept the lessons of history, which the founding fathers knew so well, and which have been abundantly confirmed in the last two centuries. It must inevitably lead to the loss of our freedom. We cannot claim the equal protection of the law for ourselves while denying it to others. And nothing else will serve as a bulwark against arbitrary power.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Secular Case for Life-Preliminaries

I am reproducing the arguments from bd-from-kg, which are available in their entirety here. This is a post in a discussion forum that refers to other participants, whose comments are of course available at the link I provided.

To all:

I’m coming into this thread pretty late, but I have read the whole thing. It’s good to see an abortion debate that is focused on the real issue: the status of the fetus – that is, whether it is appropriate to accord it “rights”, and specifically the right to live. This has been formulated as a question of whether a fetus is a “person”, which is OK as long as we understand that being a “person” in this context means that one has certain unalienable rights, and that among these is the right to life.

I am not going to talk about the current law on abortion. We are talking about what the law should be; the current law is irrelevant to this question.

I am also not going to talk about whether a fetus is a human being, or whether it is a different human being from its mother. Obviously the fetus is biologically an individual organism, distinct from its mother, of species homo sapiens. I will simply refer to such a distinct biologically organism as an “individual” with the understanding that this means an individual of our species.

So basically I want to look at the question of what criterion or criteria must be satisfied in order for an individual to be considered a “person” – i.e., before it has a right to life.

Now let’s look at some things that apparently are controversial.

It is often claimed that an individual is not a “person” unless it can live on is own, or at least until it is not dependent on a specific person to live. Rhea, for example, has taken this position explicitly, and the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade supported this idea by distinguishing between viable and nonviable fetuses. But Rhea proceeded to refute her own position immediately by pointing out:

This means that science will advance the timing of personhood as it acquires the skills to intervene.

That is, whether an individual is a person depends on the current state of technology. I suspect that there are very few people in our society who would agree with this proposition if it is put to them directly, even though many of them take a position on abortion that logically implies it.

The case of the conjoined twins Mary and Jodie discussed by Jack the Bodiless may help to illuminate this issue. The thing that makes this case interesting, and relevant to the abortion controversy, is that Mary was dependent on Jodie’s blood supply. In the actual case both twins would have died if they had not been separated (thereby killing Mary). But one can easily imagine a similar case in which this is not true: one such twin is dependant on the other in this way, yet both can survive indefinitely if they are not separated. The question in this case would be whether is would be justifiable to separate them, thereby killing one of them, on the grounds that the dependent twin was not a “person” because of her physical dependence on the other. The answer here seems too obvious to me to warrant further discussion. (In fact, I suspect that there are many such cases, but they have not received the publicity that the Mary/Jodie case received because the decision in such cases is a no-brainer.) Unless you are willing to argue that killing the dependent twin would be justified in this case, the claim that physical independence from another specific individual is a prerequisite for “personhood” must be abandoned. And that means that the distinction made in Roe v. Wade between viable and nonviable fetuses is irrelevant.

Moreover, “separateness” is not a reasonable criterion; it is simply irrelevant. And how much of a normal human body an individual has is also irrelevant; as several people have pointed out, “personhood” is intimately connected with consciousness, which is associated with the brain and not any other organ.

But just what is the relationship between consciousness and “personhood”? Some like SingleDad, have argued that the correspondence is one to one:

We are arguing for a definition of personhood based on the physical presence of a cognitive brain...

A fetus, a finger, an ancephalic infant, a brain-dead body, none of those are a physical brain capable of cognition.

Sophie21/ Delilah reflected the same sentiment:

The fetus has *never* thought or felt, so it isn't a person.

Several others, like Valmorian and Jack the Bodiless, have made it clear that they share this view.

Others, such as Epitome, have argued that this criterion is unreasonable and ad hoc:

You prefer your definition of a human to only include the beings whose brains have begun to function.

Wouldn't another pro-choice person prefer a definition of a person as being someone who has a certain level of function higher than the one you've described ...

And earlier:

IMO, thinking and feeling is not a reasonable definition of person, but moving towards this place is.

Epitome clearly believes that the potential to think, feel, and do the other things that normal adult humans can do is what makes an individual a person. Jon Curry agreed, saying:

For instance, my 16-month-old boy lacks the ability to communicate. But he is still a human person because he is the sort of being that has the capacity to develop the ability to communicate and all the other functions that are necessary for us to completely function as persons.

This criterion has been strongly attacked. For example, SingleDad said:

Why should we protect "potential"? ... "Potential" means "you aren't worth a damn yet."...

Do you really want to protect the potential to grow a brain? Why cut it off before conception? Before ejaculation?

Several of the others posting here agree. This question seems to be the heart of the matter, so let’s take a close look at it.

Consider Smith, who has had a bit too much to drink and has passed out. Is he “capable of cognition”? Well, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “cognition” is “the mental process or faculty of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment”. Is Smith capable of these things? Let’s see: let’s try to awaken him. Nope, no luck. He is clearly not capable of “awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment”. So it would seem to follow, according to SingleDad and those who agree with him, that Smith is not a “person”.

But, you say, he clearly has a brain which is capable of these things. But that’s the point: he doesn’t. His brain’s ability to “function cognitively” has been disabled by alcohol. As long as it remains in this state it will not be capable of cognition. To be sure, we know that his body (like the body of a fetus) is working hard to change this situation. But until the rest of the body has done its job, Smith is unequivocally lacking a cognitive brain.

But, you say, his brain is close to being in a cognitive state. So what? This is not horseshoes; “close” doesn’t count. If his brain were permanently in this state, we would obviously not count him as a person according to the “capable of cognition” criterion. This is not a technicality. This criterion is designed and intended to exclude such individuals from “personhood”.

But, you say, his brain has in the past been capable of cognition. So what? So has a dead man’s. At any rate the “capable of cognition” criterion is inherently forward-looking: it looks at functionality. The point of choosing functionality as a criterion is that it is related to what an individual can do in the future. Looking at the past is completely contrary to the spirit of the “capable of cognition” criterion.

Finally, you may argue that his brain will soon be capable of cognition. So what? When he is capable of cognition, he will then be a “person”. Not until. In the meantime he does not have a right to life; it would not be wrong to kill him. That’s the criterion, and that’s what it means. To talk about what Smith’s condition will soon be is to talk about his potential to eventually be capable of cognition, which is precisely the criterion rejected by the pro-choicers, because a fetus also has this potential.

In effect, this argument replaces the criterion “capable of cognition” with the quite different criterion “will soon be capable of cognition”. But this is totally ad hoc. What is the “soon” doing there, other than to exclude fetuses? And what exactly does it mean? “Soon” can mean in a few months, or a few years, or a few centuries, or even a few millennia. Which definition of “soon” is appropriate here, and why?

Besides, it is difficult to see what an individual’s “soon-to-be” condition could have to do with whether he is a person now. To see the problem here, imagine another case. Suppose that a patient is in a coma from which he has no chance whatsoever of recovering without radical medical intervention. However, an operation is scheduled in a few hours which (it is hoped) will allow him to recover consciousness, and eventually full cognitive function. Does this make him a person now? Would he then not be a person if no such operation were scheduled? How can the possibility of such an operation in the future have anything to do with whether he is a person now? To put a finer point on this, suppose that the operation will consist of replacing part of his brain with someone else’s? Would you say in this case that he is a person now? (To my knowledge no such operation is possible with current technology, but it is very likely to become so before long.)

It really looks very much as though, in order to avoid absurdity, you are going to have to say that what makes Smith a person is that he has the potential to be capable of cognition. And what we mean by having the potential is that he is moving naturally and foreseeably towards having this capability. This is beginning to sound an awful lot like the criterion that Epitome proposed.

Nevertheless one might feel that it is somehow relevant that Smith is not only moving naturally and foreseeably toward being capable of cognition, but will reach this point soon. As noted earlier, this does not seem to be based on any ethical principle, but let us now see whether it is tenable at all.

As we all know, there have been many cases much like Smith’s, but with the difference that the time required for the brain to become “capable of cognition” is much longer. That is, it sometimes happens that an individual becomes comatose (or loses cognitive function) as a result of disease or injury, but has a good chance to recover eventually. Here “eventually” can mean days, weeks, months, or even years. Yet few would suggest that such people are not “persons” – that they do not have a right to live. Unless one is prepared to argue that such individuals are not persons, the “soon” in the criterion of “will soon be capable of cognition” must be abandoned.

Moreover, just as in the case of the conjoined twins, the mere fact that such an individual may be in need of some outside help to maintain his bodily functions would not disqualify him as a person. If he had to be given oxygen, or even be hooked up to a respirator, while he recovered, no one would say that this means that he is not a person until the external aid is no longer needed. In fact, removing the oxygen or respirator would be considered murder.

Finally, the fact that it is not certain that he will recover cognitive function is not considered by anyone to make him a non-person. The idea that it is all right to kill someone because he is not certain, or even likely, to recover, is barbaric. It hardly needs to be pointed out that there is no generally accepted moral principle (to put it mildly) that can be used to support this idea. And yet it has been advanced by several pro-choice advocates on this thread. I would like to know their reasoning here. This looks to me like a desperate ad hoc reason for rejecting the personhood of a fetus which they would never dream of applying in any other context.

To be sure, almost everyone would agree on reflection that the chances that an individual will actually be capable of cognition eventually are relevant to whether he has a “right to life” if they are low enough. If the odds of this are less than, say one in a million, most people would agree that there is no obligation to keep him alive, and perhaps even no reason to punish someone for killing him. There is no well-defined probability of recovery below which an individual is no longer considered to have a “right to life”, but few people would argue (in any context but abortion) that an individual with, say a 5%, or even a 1%, chance of becoming capable of cognition, does not have the right to be allowed to have that chance, or that denying him that chance by killing him is not murder.

Now let us return to the “capable of cognition” or “will soon be capable of cognition” criteria for personhood. So far I have not discussed the most obvious and important reason why no such criterion is acceptable, namely the fact that it excludes babies from being persons. Remember, we are using the word “person” to mean someone who has an unalienable right to life, so in excluding babies we are saying the they do not have this right.

At one time I considered the fact that criteria such as these obviously excluded babies was a completely decisive and unanswerable argument against them, since no reasonable person would deny that babies have a right to life. However, the fact that Peter Singer, who most emphatically does deny this, has been appointed to the prestigious position of Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, is a clear indication that this is no longer true. The comments on the thread Peter Singer's moral viewpoints regarding abortion made it clear that many of the people posting to this forum agree with Singer’s views, or at least have no serious problem with them in principle. So it seems that one cannot simply take it for granted that readers here will agree that babies are persons.

It must be clearly understood that anyone who does not consider a baby a person is committing himself to saying that it is sometimes all right, and generally not a serious offense, to kill a completely healthy baby. To be sure, such a person can give reasons why it would usually be wrong to kill a baby, but the reasons that can be offered do not apply to all babies, and fail to show that it is seriously wrong even in cases where they do apply. For example, the most obvious such reason would be that it would upset the parents. But even when this is true, the same could be said of killing a pet. Many people are very attached to their pets, and killing them would be just as upsetting to them as killing a baby would be to most mothers. Yet few would argue that killing a pet is anywhere near as serious an offense as killing a baby. And if the parents do not want the baby, it would seem to be difficult (once we have denied its personhood) to offer any convincing reason at all why it should be illegal for them to kill it.

At any rate, it is obvious that the vast majority of people in our society do consider babies to be people – that is, they believe that they have a right to life. Discussion of an ethical question can only proceed on the basis of shared values – that is, on moral premises that the parties agree on. There is no way to choose premises that everyone agrees on, but one must start somewhere. The most natural thing is to start from premises that the great majority of people in the society agree with. In our society, the principle that a baby has an unalienable right to life is such a premise.

I have given what I think are conclusive reasons for rejecting the “capable of cognition” and “will soon be capable of cognition” criteria for personhood, but beyond that I do not intend to offer a comprehensive argument on this thread as to why babies should considered persons. If someone does not agree with this they are discussing the wrong question. Rather than asking “How can you define ‘person’ to include a 12-week-old fetus?” they should be asking “How can you define ‘person’ to include a newborn baby?” I would be happy to participate in a thread devoted to this question, but I think that it would be inappropriate to debate it here. Anyone who does not consider a baby to be a person will obviously not consider a fetus to be a person; case closed.

At any rate, anyone who favors legalized abortion but understands that it can only be defended by denying that babies are persons has a duty to say this plainly. I believe that there are a great many people who support legalized abortion who do not understand that a principled defense of it necessarily involves denying that babies have a right to life – that is, that they are entitled by virtue of being babies to legal protection against being killed, whether anyone “wants” them or not. I think that many of these people, if they understood that their position logically requires them to deny that babies are persons – that they must choose between saying that abortion is wrong-in-itself or saying that baby-killing is not wrong-in-itself, would reverse their position on abortion. Intellectual integrity compels us to make it clear what being “pro-choice” really entails.

When I first came to understand that Roe v. Wade was logically incompatible with the idea that babies had a right to life, I feared that if this decision were to stand it would eventually lead to the erosion, if not the complete abandonment, of the idea on which this country was founded, that “all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Or as a Christian would put it, that it would destroy the concept of the “sanctity of life”. As Richard Weaver said, ideas have consequences. It would seem that my fears have been tragically borne out. It is now necessary to argue, almost on a case-by-case basis, for respecting human rights that have heretofore been taken for granted. The progress of the last two millennia in this area are now being reversed. We seem to be plunging headlong back into barbarism, ignoring the hard-won wisdom embedded in the moral understandings developed over many centuries of human experience. Everything must be learned anew; we must start with a blank slate and work out everything for ourselves with no regard for what has come before. This is madness. If we persist in this arrogance it can only lead to our destruction.

The Secular Case for Life

I first began posting in discussion forums on at the Secular Web in the later part of the year 2000. Watch me defend the existence of God and the truth of Christianity here for instance. It took about 5 years of study and debate for my view to change. I went back to the Sec Web discussion forums and let people know that I had changed my view here.

There are lots of obnoxious trolls in these forums. But there is also a lot that can be learned. One guy is a person that has 5 years of post graduate study in logic. He goes by the name bd-from-kg. He was one of those people that I learned a lot from.

I was stunned to watch him defend an objective case for morality against a gaggle of skeptics, and do so in a way that was just as persuasive, if not more so, than any Christian I had read. A good example is found here.

This made me suspicious of his views on abortion. Yes, I knew that some skeptics were pro-life, but I don't think I had met one in the discussion forums themselves. Sure enough I discovered that he was pro-life as well.

His arguments were presented in a way that was more persuasive than any I had seen before, and I had read Francis Beckwith's book. This was quite surprising to me. It may not be rational, but I believe that bd's efforts on abortion were instrumental in paving the way for me to come out of Christianity. I was so firmly convinced that abortion was wrong, that I thought if your worldview couldn't account for that, your worldview would have to be wrong.

Beckwith's book doesn't rely on the truth of Christianity to make its case, or the existence of God. But since I hadn't seen a skeptic make a persuasive case against abortion, in the back of my mind I kind of thought the reasoning required to refute abortion demanded theism. After reading bd I realized that wasn't true.

Had I not realized this as I considered leaving Christianity, I might not have gone through with it. If leaving Christianity also met becoming pro-choice, mentally I'm afraid that just may have been too high of a hurdle.

For this reason I want to make a few posts presenting some of bd's arguments as he made them. He writes better than I ever will.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Paul's Beliefs about the Resurrection

Habermas and Licona present a smattering of arguments in support of their claim that the disciples believed that a dead and buried Jesus had arisen and appeared to them. I want to look at their major arguments.

The focus starts on page 51 with Paul and his claim that he had seen the resurrected Jesus. This is contained within I Cor at chapter 15.

Something that provides continuous irritation throughout The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (CRJ) is that the authors often don't provide basic and important common rebuttals from skeptics. This would be a case in point.

The evidence from Paul comes primarily from 1 Cor 15:3-11. Here we're told that Paul is passing on the gospel which he had received from others, which is presented in the form of a creed. The apologists tell us that he probably received it from such men as Peter and James.

If this is true, why is it that Paul's testimony in Galatians is exactly the opposite? In Gal 1:12 Paul says that he did not receive the gospel from any man, but got it directly by revelation.

Now, let's suppose that the gospel of Paul and the gospel of James/Peter represent rival gospels, one representing a Gentile version, free of the works of the Torah and the other representing a more Judaizing version where things like circumcision are necessary for salvation. This is a view held by many critical scholars. Let's further suppose that later Catholicizing of the church lead to an effort to merge these rival conceptions of the gospel. Wouldn't this conception of Paul as being good buddy's with the Jerusalem apostles and receiving the gospel from them and being in agreement with them fit nicely? I think so, which is one reason why others do suggest that there are post Pauline interpolations within I Cor 15 (not to mention claims of some scholars that I Cor itself is not an authentically Pauline text). Given the obvious conflict between Gal 1 and I Cor 15, it must be granted that it isn't obvious the author of I Cor 15:3-11 is the same person as the author of Gal 1:12.

The apologist will tell you that Paul isn't claiming that he got the gospel from the Jerusalem apostles, only that he already knew the gospel (as in Galatians 1) but later learned this cool formulaic expression of it, and he's passing that on. This is just blatant harmonization from the apologist which is nowhere expressed in the text itself, but is only presented because the apologist basically needs these things to be consistent. This doesn't make the apologist necessarily wrong, but why assume this? The bottom line is we just can't be certain Paul said this. That doesn't bother me. The apologist however needs high confidence. The fact is we can't have it.

But what if he did say it? Even still, uncertainties remain. He merely says that Jesus appeared to him. But in what sense? Could it have been like the appearances to so many of my Pentecostal acquaintances? It certainly could have been. Paul says nothing that requires otherwise.

Habermas and Licona are trying to smuggle in the concept of appearances that are entirely like modern evangelical conceptions of what appearances should have been. They can't be Docetic. They can't be Gnostic. They have to be just like what a Southern Baptist thinks they are. But where is the argument?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Intelligent Design On Trial Airs Tonight on PBS

It starts at 8 tonight for me. Hat tip to Atheism Sucks for drawing my attention to this (even though so far Frank hasn't approved my comments on his blog).

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fact #2-The Disciples Sincerely Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead and Appeared to Them

This is the second fact that supposedly is agreed upon by the majority of scholarship regarding the life of Jesus and his followers. Before delving into the evidence used to support this claim, I want to consider first a key assumption in this claim that in my mind somewhat undermines its usefulness to the Christian apologist.

I don't think the evidence supports the claim that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. But let's assume that the majority of scholarship is right, and that they did. Does this mean that the disciples thought Jesus appeared to them in a physical sense? It doesn't. In fact, according to Greg Koukl, who admitted this to me in a phone conversation July 8th, (11-13-07 edit. As per Melinda's comments, it appears that Greg and I misunderstood each other and in fact he did not make the admission I claimed he made) scholars do no think the disciples believed that Jesus appeared to them physically.

This is a very important element of the apologists' argument. People even today claim that Jesus appeared to them. They don't always think it is a physical encounter. Yet some of them would be willing to give their lives for the messages they think they received from Jesus, who appeared to them. I know such people personally.

Paul doesn't actually say that he encountered Jesus in a physical way, nor does he say that the disciples experienced Jesus in this way. Habermas and Licona of course want to believe that Paul taught that when we rise from the dead we rise physically. I disagree that this is what he taught, and I'll be dealing with their arguments that it is in a later post. But even if it were true that he thought that, this would not mean that he claimed to have seen a physical Jesus. He would have to think that Jesus could appear to him in a vision even if in fact Jesus was raised physically.

Licona and Habermas number the supposed undisputed facts as "4+1". That is, the first four facts are supported by the vast majority of scholarship. The fifth fact (the empty tomb) is supported by a majority or scholars, but not as strong a majority as the previous 4 facts. They claim that 75% of scholarship accepts the empty tomb, while the other facts are supported by a larger majority.

If in fact the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead in a non physical way, then really it becomes pretty easy to make sense of the first 4 facts in a non-supernatural way. And as Habermas and Licona themselves admit (p82) natural explanations should be considered before supernatural ones. Jesus was crucified, some of the disciples and some others (Paul and James) thought he had in some sense appeared to them. Why they thought this we can't exactly be sure, because they don't give us a lot of details. Paul and James became followers. It's really not too hard to imagine that this could actually happen.

If a person were to accept that Jesus was buried in a tomb, then a natural explanation would need to account for that, and the naturalist might posit theories that seem unlikely. Perhaps the body was stolen by somebody other than the disciples, or by other committed followers that we don't know much about. Perhaps followers went to the wrong tomb. Perhaps Jesus survived and slipped away from the public eye. These theories seem pretty unlikely (and are dealt with by Licona and Habermas on pages 95-103 in a very weak fashion in my opinion). But you know what else seems unlikely? It is unlikely that a person that was dead for three days was supernaturally raised from the dead. We have zero confirmed cases of that event, as opposed to a handful of cases of the unlikely scenarios that I mentioned. Weighing one unlikelihood against another, a person must decide which they think is more unlikely.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Did Antony Flew Have Anything to Do With This New Book Published in His Name?

Would Christian apologists take advantage of an elderly man and treat him as a ventriliquist dummy, placing arguments in his mouth that he would never make, all to advance their agenda? Richard Carrier is very suspicious of this new book, and provides just a little of the evidence he has available to him that indicates that the writer of There Is a God: How the Worlds Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind seems unfamiliar with the mind of Antony Flew.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Peter Popoff Still At It

I was kind of confused to see Peter Popoff on TV recently. Wasn't he exposed as a fraud in a very public and destructive fashion? How can he still be peddling what is widely known to be nothing more than religious hucksterism? You'd think he'd be ashamed to continue with this line of work. You'd think he wouldn't be able to make a living doing this.

But he's obviously smarter than I am. He lives in a $2.1 million dollar mansion, drives a Porshe worth $100K. He's selling miracle water and special salt, and in the process bilking the most uneducated and underprivledged of our citizens out of their money. He understands the mind of the faithful better than I do and he knows how to exploit it.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Does Tacitus Justify Belief that Jesus was Crucified?

As I explained in my previous post, I just don't see how the writings of Josephus can be used to justify belief that Jesus was crucified. The evidence provided by Tacitus is a little better. But good enough? I don't think so.

Writing in 116 Tacitus tells us that Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. He explains that Christians follow "Christus" who "suffered the extreme penalty" under Pilate, and that the sect was in check for a moment, then broke out and became more popular.

If Tacitus' source for this information is reliable, then we have pretty good evidence that there was a founder of the Christian religion that was executed. But where did he get this information? Is he merely repeating what a Christian has told him, several decades after the supposed time of Christ? Or is he repeating information that he obtained from official Roman records, independently of simple converts? He doesn't say, so we're left in the dark.

One plausible answer is that he found out about Christians from his good friend Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking him how he should handle these people that call themselves Christians around 100 CE. He tells Trajan how he's going about dealing with them, and wants to be sure that he is acting appropriately. He tells Trajan that he asks them if they are Christians. He threatens them and tells them they need to worship the state gods. If they refuse, he has them executed, but if they relent he releases them. He says that he really didn't know what it was these Christians believed, so he brought in a couple and had them tortured so that they would tell him their beliefs. In this way he obtained information about Christianity.

Trajan replies to Pliny and tells him that he's acting appropriately. He says that he shouldn't bother seeking them out to punish them, but if they are brought before him and refuse to offer supplication to the state gods, they need to be punished. But if they recant, let them go free, even if they are known to be Christians.

Pliny the Younger is a very well connected guy, so if he is ignorant of what Christianity is in the year 100 CE you have to conclude that it is somewhat insignificant. He had to bring in Christians himself to find out. So what did these Christians tell him? The way mystery religions often operate is they tell outsiders the "outsider" story. Only initiates are given the secret, true information.

Did Pliny get true information, and convey that to Tacitus? Possibly. It's also possible he got information from gullible converts that received the information from second, third, and fourth hand sources. Or he may have received the "outsider" story from these adherents to the new Christian mystery religion. It's possible that Tacitus didn't even get this information from Pliny, but got it from a reliable source. Or he may have interrogated some Christians himself, and again got the outsider story. There's really just no way to know. And so unfortunately we just can't form confident conclusions about Jesus crucifixion from this type of data.

Habermas and Licona also appeal to Mara bar Serapion and Lucian. We're getting very late with these texts. I again don't see how firm conclusions can be drawn from these sources.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Fact #1-Jesus Died by Crucifixion-Can Josephus Justify this Claim?

Continuing my review of Hambermas and Licona's book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, I'm going to start looking at the facts which they consider undisputed. The first is the claim that Jesus died by crucifixion.

When you consider that in fact most of scholarship does assume that Jesus was crucified, it's a little surprising to discover the paltry evidence on which this claim is based. I will here consider the first major piece of evidence used to support this claim by Habermas and Licona.

They start on page 49 by stating that the gospels record it. They haven't argued that the gospels should be considered reliable, so this doesn't get us too far. So they next list what I suppose they consider their major piece of evidence. They assert that Josephus records that Jesus died by crucifixion.

This to me is already an obvious clue that we really don't have much to go on here. Everybody knows that the famous Testimonium Flavianum is a text that is at a minimum heavily edited by Christians. Josephus is an orthodox Jew that owes his very life and station to the claim that Emperor Vespasian is in fact the Messiah. Yet in the TF Josephus supposedly asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, that he supposedly is so wise and wonderful that it is not clear that we should call him a mere man, that he also performed miraculous deeds, and that after being crucified he was reported to have appeared to his followers after three days in accordance with many Jewish prophesies that had been made about him previously.

Christians admit this can't be what Josephus said, but they want to preserve at least a portion of this. Otherwise there are absolutely zero non-canonical references to Jesus in the 1st century, which is a little strange when you consider the great stirs he supposedly caused. So Christians speculate that perhaps there was a central core to this text that did refer to Jesus. That may be. But it's hard to say. Especially when you consider that the text flows quite naturally without the TF and also that no writer Christian or non prior to Eusebius in 315 knows anything of the TF despite the fact that some of them were familiar with Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and used them.

Maybe Josephus did write something about Jesus. But can we really know what it was he might have written? How can we be sure he actually mentioned the crucifixion? It's just too bad for modern historians that early Christians could not resist the temptation to unethically modify the text to suit their own agenda. There may have been something there, but how can we ever know? And how can we base a foundational historical claim on such a flimsy piece of data?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Inerrancy Matters

On page 45 Licona recounts a tale where he responded to a critic of Christianity regarding inerrancy. He says that proving errancy "would not matter at all in proving that Jesus did not rise from the dead."

Yet during one of Licona's formal debates he made the following claim, which I try here to reproduce from memory. He said that if Jesus rose from the dead, then this would be confirmation of his radical claims. In other words, if Jesus rose from the dead, then his claims are right.

I agree with him there. If Jesus rose from the dead, this would have to mean that his claims were true.

But what Christians often don't seem to realize (though William Lane Craig has sort of acknowledged the problem) is that this is a double edged sword. Bill and I have been pointing this out for a long time. A logical corollary to this claim is that if Jesus said anything wrong, then he isn't raised.

Did Jesus teach inerrancy? A lot of Christians think he did, including J.P. Moreland. William Lane Craig seems to think so in the article I link to from him. He quotes approvingly Friedrich Schleiermacher who says “We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.” This explains why Craig expends so much effort defending inerrancy. If Jesus did teach inerrancy, and he's wrong, then he's not raised. This seems to be Licona's view. So for Licona, inerrancy matters. He can't pretend that it doesn't.

Craig is willing to jettison his belief that Jesus taught inerrancy if it comes to that. But this doesn't help him when it comes to other errors from Jesus, such as his claim that he would come again before the disciples died. If these are errors, then we are dealing with things that are completely destructive to the brand of Christianity Licona and Craig hold to. If Jesus can simultaneously be raised from the dead and also be completely wrong in his claims, then conservative Evangelical Christianity is completely doomed.

Licona and Habermas would have us pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. They don't want to have to defend this claim. Why? Because it is supremely difficult, and makes them look foolish. This is where they are on their weakest footing, and they know it. They want you to believe it doesn't matter. It does.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Embarassing to Who?

On p29 Habermas and Licona argue that the criteria of embarrassment supports the claim that Jesus must have predicted his own resurrection. This is because as recorded in the Gospels, the disciples response to these predictions portray them as dunces. They, having heard Jesus predict his own resurrection, and having seen him perform miracles already, and then discovering the tomb is empty just as Jesus predicted, they're just too stupid to figure out that maybe he rose just as he said he would. This must be all accurate history, because it is unlikely that they would be portrayed in such an unfavorable way if this were mere invention. They would have been portrayed as heroes. The author must have simply recorded what to him was an embarrassing, but true fact.

What's surprising to me is that this kind of reasoning was ever persuasive to me. It is obvious to me now that these are all clues to the fictive nature of these stories. I discussed this at some length at Triablogue, and the point was really never grasped by my opponents. This is over the top buffonery. Jesus performs miracles. He predicts that he will be betrayed, tried, scourged, killed, then he would rise on the third day. So what happens? The disciples watch as he's betrayed, tried, scourged, then killed. Then when they hear reports that the tomb is empty it doesn't occur to them that perhaps he's performed another miracle, not unlike miracles he himself had performed previously (Lazarus)? Is that realistic? No. But it is quite a bit like fictional stories that we often hear. For instance, Watson is the dunce foil for Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has no need to verbalize his explanation for what happened at a crime scene. He has it all figured out and has no real need to tell anyone. But the reader wants to know. What to do? Insert a dunce that asks the questions, so that Holmes can explain for the reader's benefit what is really "elementary." Mt 16 would be one example. "Be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees." "Oh crap. He's mad that we forgot bread." "No, you stupid idiots. Do you think I care about bread. I just fed thousands with just a couple of loaves. How stupid are you people? Let me explain what I mean." Etc, etc. This is a plot prop.

But back to my main point. Supposedly this would be embarrassing to the author. But is that really true? We need a little more information to know if this would be embarrassing to the author. First of all, we need to know who the author was so that we can determine what his attitude towards the disciples was. Do we know this? Absolutely not. Habermas and Licona have not defended traditional authorship as far as I can see (I've read through page 164). They are not defending every disputed point that Christians believe. This is about minimal facts accepted by the majority of scholarship and the conclusions that they think follow from those minimal facts.

We simply don't know that the gospel authors had a problem with embarrassing portraits of the disciples. We do know that Marcion was not a big fan of the disciples. He thought they completely blew it, and Jesus had to start over with Paul. Marcion was very influential in the early church. Could Marcion have influenced the Gospel of Mark? Could Mark and Marcion be one and the same person? That is a question I can't answer. But I can say that there does appear to be Marcionite content in the gospels. That will have to be a subject for a later post.

Bottom line, the criteria of embarrassment only works if we know the author would have been embarrassed. We don't know that. So we can't make judgments about the historicity of these claims on this basis.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Habermas and Licona on "Minimal Facts"

Habermas and Licona are calling the thrust of their argument in their book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” the minimal facts approach. That is, they consider certain facts agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars (including critical scholarship apparently) and they then consider what those facts imply about the resurrection. These include:

1-Jesus died by crucifixion
2-The disciples sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them
3-The church persecutor Paul converted to Christianity
4-The skeptic James converted to Christianity
5-The tomb was empty

Licona and Habermas do present arguments in favor of the claims. But heavy emphasis is placed on the fact that scholars accept these claims.

I have a couple of problems with this approach. The first is simply that majority opinion does not determine truth. This is something that was drilled into me as a Christian by my apologetic mentors and the Christian authors I read. The majority of biologists believe that man evolved from lower life forms. That doesn’t make it right. The majority of geologists do not believe that a flood occurred which caused the waters to rise higher than the tallest mountains. That’s OK. Truth is not determined by majority opinion.

The next major problem I have with this is that Habermas and Licona seem to only focus on those facts accepted by the majority of scholarship that benefit the Christian apologetic argument. I haven’t done a survey, but I strongly suspect that the majority of scholars do not believe that the apostle Peter wrote 2 Peter. I strongly suspect that the majority of scholars believe that Jesus made erroneous predictions about his own imminent return (even C.S. Lewis agreed). What would happen if we took these things as brute, unassailable facts and worked out what they implied? I don’t think the apologist would be happy with the conclusions that we drew.

Finally, I have my doubts about just how “critical” these scholars really are. Habermas admits in an interview here that of these scholars that are part of his survey, a majority actually believe that Jesus was in fact resurrected! If these type of scholars qualify as critical scholars, then critical scholarship is in a pretty sad state.

What matters is not the number of people that agree with you. What matters is the validity of the arguments. I’ll be considering some of those in subsequent posts.

Gullibility of Early Christians

It is transparently obvious to most unbiased people that ancient people were generally more superstitious and gullible than modern people. This isn't a criticism. It's just an obvious truism. Modern people have the advantage of more learning. We can stand on the shoulders of the geniuses that preceded us and so we have view of the world that is better informed. I've had discussions with Christians that want to deny this truism. It is apparent that the writers at Family Guy get it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus

I've started reading a book from Gary Habermas and Mike Licona called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. I'm planning to write a few posts commenting on some of the arguments as I go through them, then perhaps writing a more comprehensive review at a later stage summarizing those comments in one single more extensive review of the entire book.

Licona and Habermas seem to both be pretty sharp guys. Robert Price has good things to say about Habermas. I purchased a DVD that contained a series of debates from Mike Licona and I was pretty impressed with him. The DVD contained his debates with Shabir Ally, Dan Barker, and Richard Carrier. All participants did well. (The debate with Carrier is available here. I don't see that the DVD I got from Licona is available anymore.)

So I expect this book from Licona and Habermas to be decent. So far it appears to be somewhat of a surface level treatment of the issues. I'd say this is intended to be a handbook of introductory arguments that are intended to rebut the lay skeptic. Maybe like somebody you'd meet at the cafeteria where you work. In terms of its intended purpose, this tool would successfully rebut a typical ignorant layman.

It suspect it wouldn't work on a person that is more informed on these issues. I can't say for certain, because I've just started it, but I am confident this is how it will work. The arguments so far are made in such a way that they take a lot of key assumptions for granted. The skeptical position is misrepresented. I'll begin exposing some of these issues in subsequent posts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Timeline for the Death of Jesus

It can be difficult to make sense of the timeline for Jesus death when considering the data presented in the Synoptics vs what is presented in the Gospel of John. What seems clear is that in the synoptics the lambs are slaughtered on the Day of Preparation, and the last Supper is the Passover meal (e.g. Mk 14:12-16). For John it is important to stress the theological point that Jesus is the lamb of God. So for John Jesus is crucified at the same time the Passover lambs would normally be slaughtered, and the crucifixion is already done and over with by the time he would supposedly have consumed the Passover meal as per the synoptics (Jn 19:14-15,31).

To fuller understanding of this timeline, a helpful table was created by a man named Felix Just which is available here. This table compares Mark's passion presentation with that of John so that the distinctions are apparent.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Own Blog

I've been commenting on blogs for a while. Mostly over at Triablogue. Sometimes also at Debunking Christianity, Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, and STR. Triablogue worked the best for me. It's not too big, where comments get lost. There aren't a whole lot of non-Christians there, so as one of only a few I'd get lots of attention and criticism. This makes for faster paced learning. The drawback at Triablogue is that the contributers are generally more obnoxious and rude, being mostly Reformed types. STR and Catholic blogs are not nearly as bad. So you have to hold your nose though insult after insult. If you can tolerate that you can learn.

Unfortunately I was banned. Why? Well, it's not too clear. The only thing specific mentioned is my use of "google and Wikipedia". Kind of weird. But the "staff" at Triablogue does not want to elaborate. Anyone that would want to discuss it over there would risk being banned as well.

I think I was mostly banned because of another person. A guy that went by the name of Touchstone. Touchstone was an old earth evolutionist Christian, and he had been spending a lot of time exposing Triabloggers as ignorant and irrational on the issue of origins. They hurled insult after insult at him trying to scare him off, but like me it didn't seem to bother him too much. I think the guy just has enough confidence in his own positions that he wasn't intimidated by their attempts to malign him personally.

But the real kick in the crotch came here, where Touchstone explained some of his reasons for spending time at Triablogue. Apparently he had been witnessing to people, and those people as they considered Christianity came upon Triablogue, with all of its vitriol, condescension, arrogance, and ignorance. They would say to Touchstone "This is Christianity? This is the movement you suggest I join?" They wanted him to address Triablogue nonsense, and so he did. Touchstone showed what he had argued in many cases before. In many cases Triablogue does far more harm to Christainity than Richard Dawkins type skeptical bloggers ever could do.

I think it was this commentary that really sealed his fate, and mine. Nothing hurts more than the truth. The realities of the impact Triablogue has on potential converts was a real sucker punch for these guys. What to do? They had been trying name calling for a long time, and that works for most people. It obviously wasn't working on Touchstone. They had no choice. They had to ban him. But on what grounds? You can't ban him for his truthful arguments about the effects of Triablogue. Pretty much they didn't bother with specific reasons for banning him. Discussion with him I guess is unprofitable.

Basically Touchstone makes Triabloggers work very hard. His arguments are good and he's just as tenacious as they are. He wears them out. Dave Armstrong sometimes pops in. John Loftus sometimes pops in. Other skeptics from Debunking Christianity pop in. By Triablogue logic discussions with these people are just as unprofitable as discussions with Touchstone. But the difference is, these people are not quite as tenacious. They might go elsewhere in the face of insult.

Orthodox and I are more like Touchstone than we are like some of the skeptics that don't take much time. We make these guys work a little bit. If they are going to be unfair and ban Touchstone, why not also eliminate others that are sometimes difficult to deal with and make the load a whole lot easier. I think that's why I'm gone.

It seems to me that this action is entirely emotional, rather than rational. Triablogue is very slow to ban people. They allow anonymous comments from people that really do nothing but heckle. They of course think I engaged in poor reasoning, but when I posted, it wasn't about heckling and harassing. It was about engaging in substantive arguments. Same with Touchstone and Orthodox. I wasn't a big fan of Orthodox' reasoning, but he was clearly there to engage. So they've banned their three primary opponents that engaged their reasoning at levels deeper than any other. This meant long, extensive comments' sections at the end of their posts. Since we've left there's been less extensive debate in the comboxes. I think there is less that can be learned.

So this partly explains why I started this blog. I enjoy participating in this debate, and perhaps I'm not sure I'm entirely happy with other formats available to me. So I'll try it here and see what happens.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Christian Camp

Many have heard of the movie Jesus Camp. Yeah, I suppose you'd have to consider them a little crazy. But I will say this. Crazy Christian Camp is loads of fun. I spent about 5 summers there. Excellent memories.

For us it was a very out of the way place near Lima, OH for a couple of years, then Fa-Ho-Lo during my High School years. What a riot. Now, it is true that they engaged in some behavior that some might consider abusive during worship service. During one service at the place near Lima (I don't remember where exactly it was located. I was only about 10) they for some reason got it into their heads that this service was going to be about our guilt as sinners, and our need to love one another. They poured on the emotional rhetoric to the point where some started crying. I believe this was perceived as evidence of activity by the Holy Spirit. This brought on even more impassioned statements and emotional appeals. They would not quit until the entire room was full of a bunch of sobbing 8-10 year olds. What a bizarre scene it must have appeared to a sane outsider had one been looking on.

But after the service it was time for fun and games. We played a game in the middle of the night where all the kids were split into two teams. One team had tube socks filled with flour. The other had items in hand which needed to be placed in a bucket in a remote corner of the woods. The challenge was to reach that corner without getting slapped with a tube sock that left a white mark due to the flour. That was great fun.

At Fa-Ho-Lo they had two daily worship services, which were similar to those at Lima. They ran us ragged all day long. But at night the challenge was to get up and try to get away with a few pranks without getting caught. Our greatest success was running a pair of my brothers huge, smelly, stained yellow (we washed our clothes with well water that always seemed to leave our white's a little discolored), brown streaky underwear up the flagpole. Every morning at 7 the entire group of campers (a couple of hundred people) met at the flagpole for the flag raising ceremony. We watched as they first were forced to run the underwear down before raising the flag. Awesome.

The other great thing about Fa-Ho-Lo was the chicks. Me and my brothers were on cloud 9 mingling with all of those hotties. I don't know what our problem was when it came to girls. We were just so uncomfortable around girls that we always avoided them in fear. There was no reason to. We were a pretty good looking group of guys (back then anyway). Everybody is at least 6 feet tall, wide shouldered, etc. Personality wise I don't think we really lacked. But around girls we would become so nervous that we just couldn't function, so we'd avoid them, and that would of course perpetuate our own awkward behavior around them.

Anyway, being put in a position where we had to mingle with girls (at least the ones on our own team) was good for us and we liked it.

So what's the point? Well, the point is it's probably true that Jesus Camp is a little weird. Probably they do some things that some might consider hazardous to your emotional health. But for my part I certainly don't feel the worse for wear due to it, and I wouldn't trade it for one additional summer week with nothing do.

About Me

I'm a former Pentecostal Christian turned Southern Baptist Christian turned agnostic that's looking for a place to collect my own thoughts and engage in friendly dialogue. We'll see how this goes, or if I even manage to keep it going for a prolonged length of time.