bookmark_borderDo Atheists Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily? A Reply to Greta Christina

According to Greta Christina, atheists concede the ground of death too easily. She quotes or paraphrases the following sentiment.

“Sure, atheism may have better arguments and evidence. But religion is always to going to win on the death question. A secular philosophy of death will never comfort people the way religion does.”

In response, she writes,

I’ve heard this idea more times than I can count. And here’s the weird thing: It’s not just from religious believers. I hear it from atheists, too. It shocks me how easily non-believers concede the ground of death. Many of us assume that of course it would be lovely to believe in an eternal afterlife… if only that were plausible. And largely because of this assumption, we often shy away from the topic of death. We happily talk about science, sex, reality, other advantages the secular life has to offer… but we stay away from death, and concede the ground before we even fight it.

I think this is a huge mistake. I agree that the fear of death is one of the main reasons people cling to religion. But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones. And if we want to make atheism a safe place to land when people let go of their faith, we need to get these secular philosophies into the public square, and let the world know what we think about death. (italics mine)

I agree with Christina: the idea that “religious philosophies of death are inherently more comforting than secular ones” treats an emotional response to death as if it were an objective issue, rather than a subjective issue. Emotions are, by definition, a subjective state for the person who holds them. Emotions are properties of persons, not objects (including abstract philosophies). Talk about “religious philosophies of death as inherently more comforting than secular ones,” however, makes it sound as if “comforting” were a property of religious philosophies, rather than a property of the people who subscribe to those philosophies. This is wrong.

This leads to my second point. If the state of “feeling comforted” is a property of persons, not philosophies, then the italicized sentence above needs to be interpreted like this. “But I don’t agree, even in the slightest, that religious philosophies of death comfort more people than secular ones, when asked to consider both kinds of philosophies and after hearing explanations from proponents of both .” This is a testable, empirical claim. (I, for one, am very skeptical.) But what is the evidence? I don’t know of any. And Christina does not say. But if, as I suspect, most well-informed people do find religious philosophies of death more comforting than secular ones, then that largely vindicates the sentiment which Christina deems a “mistake.” The fact, if it is a fact, that a minority of well-informed people are just as comforted (or more comforted) by secular philosophies than religious ones does not refute or even undermine the fact, if it is a fact, that the majority of people feel the opposite.

bookmark_borderAre Reason Rallies Analogous to KKK Rallies?

Victor Reppert links to an article at the Catholic League website entitled, “Atheist Rally Draws Haters.” Reppert writes:

OK, as Ricky Ricardo would say, splain. Explain to me the difference between this and a KKK rally, other than the fact that, primarily, Christians were the targets, as opposed to Blacks and Jews.

Because I have so much respect for Reppert as a philosopher, I find it hard to believe he cannot tell the difference between a KKK rally and a Reason Rally. If I didn’t know him better, I would assume his post as a “troll.”

I did not attend the Reason Rally, so I am basing my comments solely upon the Catholic League’s report.

What are the similarities between KKK rallies and a Reason Rally? Let’s see:

  • They both have the word “Rally” in their name.

Here are the differences:

  • The KKK committed acts of violence against African Americans and Jews, whereas none of the organizations involved with the Reason Rally have ever committed violence against Christians. 
  • If memory serves me correct, the KKK opposed court rulings and/or legislation which supported racial equality. None of the atheist organizations at the Reason Rally suggest  that Christians should have less rights than non-Christians, much less than atheists.

It also interesting that, for the most part, the Catholic League article mainly describes what some atheists wrote on their signs; given the Catholic League’s purpose, it is safe to assume that the Catholic League focused on what it considered the most extreme signs. It’s far from obvious the signs mentioned by the Catholic League are even representative of all the atheists who attended. (For the record, I disagree the sign mentioned in the third paragraph of the article.) Also, with the exception of a very brief paragraph about Richard Dawkins, the Catholic League said nothing about the content of the speakers at the Reason Rally.

Probably the most accurate thing the Catholic League has to complain about is the overall tendency to mock or ridicule religious beliefs and the people who hold them. I disagree with the so-called “new atheists” about this. Not only is it adversarial, I don’t think mockery and ridicule is an effective public relations strategy for a minority group who is already viewed negatively by a large segment of the population.

Returning to Reppert’s post, none of this justifies the comparison to KKK rallies, however.

    bookmark_borderChecklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 6

    This post will briefly discuss the two final tests of “eyewitness evidence” (or rather, tests of the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts) from The Case for Christ (CFC) by Lee Strobel.

    I introduced this next test by asking Blomberg, “When the gospels mention people, places, and events, do they check out to be correct in cases in which they can be independently verified?”  Often such corroboration is invaluable in assessing whether a writer has a commitment to accuracy. (CFC, p.50)

    One could ask the question in somewhat more skeptical terms: ‘Do the gospels check out to be incorrect in cases in which they can be independently falsified?’  There seems to be a bit of bias in Strobel’s wording, but the idea is to check the events and details of the Gospel accounts against other sources of information, such as other historical documents, and archaeological findings, when possible.  This is a perfectly reasonable consideration when evaluating the reliability of the Gospels.

    However, in practice most of what the Gospels have to say about Jesus cannot be checked against other sources of information.  There are no video tapes of Jesus to watch; no photographs of Jesus, no tape recordings of Jesus, no newspaper stories or editorials about Jesus, no non-Christian biographies of Jesus or his disciples, no diaries of Jesus or his disciples, no lecture notes on his sermons, no court records of his trial, no video tapes or photos of his crucifixion, no autopsy report on his death, no death certificate, no video tapes or photos of his resurrection appearances, and so forth.

    If you want to know what Jesus taught, you have to read the Gospels.  If you want to know any details about Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, you have to read the Gospels.  There is no non-Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian biography of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian report of the teachings of Jesus.

    Blomberg makes the following astounding comment in response to Strobel’s questions:

    In addition, we can learn through non-Christian sources a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life. … it’s remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers… (CFC, p.50-51, emphasis added)

    I don’t know what Blomberg has been smoking or what he puts into his brownies, but it must be some good shit.  Zero examples are given by Blomberg to back up this dubious claim (in CFC), but perhaps he gives some examples in his own book (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, IVP).  I am very skeptical about this strong claim, especially when not a single example is given to support it, let alone the dozens of examples that would be required to provide sufficient  evidence to back it up.

    In any case, as with the ‘Cover-Up Test’ we need to look not just for examples where other reliable sources of information confirm an event or detail in a Gospel, but we need to look for examples where other reliable sources of information dis-confirm an event or detail in a Gospel.  We need to search for both confirmation and dis-confirmation of events and details in a given Gospel, and then come to some general conclusion about the degree of accuracy and reliability of that Gospel based on all of the various examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that can be identified.

    Because the Gospels are the primary source of detailed information about the life, ministry, teachings, crucifixion, and alleged resurrection appearances of Jesus, I don’t think there will be that many examples of either confirmation or dis-confirmation from reliable non-Christian sources or archaeology.  The examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that are available will mostly be for general events or persons, not for details in the Gospel accounts.  Not for critical details like: Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, Jesus was on the cross for about eight hours, and Jesus was buried in a stone tomb by Josephus, etc. 

    This test asks the question, Were others present who would have contradicted or corrected the gospels if they had been distorted or false?  In other words, doe we see examples of contemporaries of Jesus complaining that the gospel accounts were just plain wrong? (CFC, p.51)

    Again, this is a perfectly reasonable consideration to use in assessing the reliability of an historical account.  However, I don’t think Strobel appreciates the difficulty of applying this test to the Gospels.

    First of all, the Gospels were written decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, so memories would have faded and become distorted, and many of the eyewitnesses would have died off by the time the Gospels were written (and many more would have died off by the time the Gospels were duplicated and widely circulated).  

    Second, there were no printing presses, and no mass media, so it would take a while for the Gospels to be duplicated and to circulate to a wider audience.  Non-Christians in Palestine could not just go to the local newsstand or bookstore and pick up a paperback copy of the Gospels.  There were no critical reviews or editorials written about the Gospels in widely read magazines, newspapers, or journals.  There were no news programs or talk shows that would promote general discussion about the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  In short, the visibility and availability of the Gospels to non-Christians was fairly low for a significant period of time after the composition of the Gospels.

    Third,  with the possible exception of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels were written after the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem.  So, many of the Jews who were eyewitnesses of the ministry, teaching, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, were either killed or had left Jerusalem by the time the Gospels were written.

    Fourth, most people in Palestine at the time the Gospels were written were illiterate.  Only a small percentage of the population could read the Gospels, so only a small percentage of the population was in a position to criticize the contents of the Gospels.

    Strobel’s ‘Adverse Witness’ questions are perfectly legitimate and reasonable, but for the reasons discussed here, there was not much opportunity for non-Christians who had personal knowledge about the life, ministry, teachings, or crucifixion of Jesus to read and criticize the contents of the Gospels.  Thus the alleged absence of criticism and skepticism towards the Gospel accounts may be due in large part to the fact that the potential critics died off, left Palestine, did not have access to the Gospels, or had access to them but could not read them because of illiteracy.
    UPDATE (5/24/12 at 5:15 pm Pacific Time):
    It appears I owe an apology to Mr. Blomberg.  I no longer believe that he had been smoking some good shit just before Lee Strobel interviewed him about the reliability of the Gospels.

    In order to be fair to Blomberg, I took a glance at his own book on this subject (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; hereafter: HROG) to see if he might have provided dozens of examples of passages about  Jesus in non-Christian sources that  give us “…a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life.” (CFC, p.50) and thus showing that it is “…remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers…”  (CFC, p.51) from such non-Christian sources.

    Chapter 6 (“The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels”) of Blomberg’s book deals with this issue.   Blomberg devotes a whopping five pages (actually 5.3 pages) to evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources in a section called “The Testimony of Non-Christian Writers”(HROG, p.196-201).  

    No, Blomberg does NOT manage to present dozens of examples of corroboration of the Gospels by non-Christian sources in those few pages.  So, why then do I need to apologize to Mr. Blomberg?  Because his view of non-Christian sources about Jesus is close to my own view and that of most Jesus scholars: there ain’t much there.  Thus, it appears that it was Mr. Strobel who was high during the interview, and that the quotation of Blomberg above is a misunderstanding or distortion of what Blomberg actually said.

    Here are a few highlights from Blomberg’s assessment of non-Christian sources about Jesus:

    Graeco-Roman historians:
    “None of the Graeco-Roman historians of the first generations of the Christian era has much to say about the life of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.196)

    “But apart from these references to his crucifixion and the movement which outlived him, one discovers nothing else from Graeco-Roman sources.” (HROG, p.197)

    Rabbinic Traditions:
    “At the end of the day, one must admit that the rabbinic traditions offer precious little independent testimony to the ministry of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.199)

    Blomberg is a bit more cheery about the famous references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus.  But there is one main paragraph in Josephus about Jesus, and at least a portion of that paragraph was inserted by Christian scribes who copied and preserved these historical accounts written by Josephus.  Even so, there are only a few points of corroboration in that paragraph, not the dozens of examples required to substantiate the strong claim that Strobel stuck into the mouth of Blomberg.

    So, if you want to refute the dubious claim that Strobel attributes to Blomberg, the best way to do so is to go straight to Blomberg’s own book on this subject, and quote Blomberg against Blomberg.  I suspect that Blomberg did not become an ignorant fool in the ten years (or so) between the publication of his book on the reliability of the Gospels (1987) and Strobel’s interview of him for Strobel’s book The Case for Christ (1998).  Rather, it is much more likely that Strobel’s biases on this issue led him to misunderstand something that Blomberg said during the interview.


    I’m fortunate to often run into students whose interests in physics go beyond what they encounter in class, and who might even develop their interests in philosophical directions. Anyway, one of my previous students has apparently been taking the ambitions of physics to describe everything very seriously, and has been worrying about the classic free will vs. determinism problem.

    So I emailed him a response, which aside from directing him to the literature, tried to give a quick and dirty description of compatibilism:

    It seems to me that you’re taking what’s known as “libertarian free will” (“spontaneously generating actions out of nothing”) as our unreflective, folk-psychological “theory” about what we do. But that’s debatable. Even in everyday folk psychology, we don’t say our actions arise out of nothing. They’re affected by the information we have, our values, our ability to think through the consequences of our actions and similar uses of reasoning, our personal history that led to our being the sort of person we are—that constructed our dispositions, values etc.—and so forth. That is, we often think that what we do is at least somewhat determined, though the determining factors are understood in psychological, personal terms, rather than going into further detail about of what is happening at a neuronal or even physical level. 

    In that case, a “freely willed act” is largely equivalent to “an action we chose ourselves” as opposed to being coerced, reflexive or otherwise not involving conscious deliberation and choice. 

    Now, if you agree with that, you might go further and adopt a “compatibilist” position regarding free will. In other words, you can say that yes, there are physical processes that underlie our choosing things, in that brains doing certain things is precisely what constitutes deliberation and conscious reflection on choices. On the one hand, everything coming down to physics means that there is no “self” running the show in anyone’s brain, if you understand “self” as a kind of immaterial soul capable of spontaneous creation of decisions, assuming that such a thing is even intelligible. On the other hand, you still have selves that own their actions, except that now there are physical processes that we can investigate that constitute these selves and enable their deliberative capabilities. 

    Let me try an analogy, even if it’s a rough one. We talk of a university having institutional interests, having a mission, and we even speak of a university making choices and taking action as an institution. But there isn’t any sort of magical “soul” of a university—all we have are buildings, equipment, students, faculty, administration, staff and so forth. None of those singly drive an institution. Students and faculty come and go. University presidents come and go without usually affecting institutional continuity. And institutional deliberations have definite processes involved—a lot of mostly boring and narrowly focused committee meetings and so forth come together and give the university an overall direction, even an overall character. 

    With institutional actors, we have a pretty good idea of what the processes are, and few would be tempted to attach anything like libertarian free will to an institution. But with individuals, perhaps the difference is largely one of complexity and lack of transparency about the processes that make up our psychologies. If so, well, we genuinely make choices, and we make choices because of the physical processes that constitute our choice-making.

    There it is, anyway. I’m not sure I’m completely happy with it, but it’s quite difficult to do this in a way that’s short and doesn’t get bogged down in technicalities.

    Does anyone have a better analogy or other device that can help quickly describe compatibilism?

    bookmark_borderChecklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 5

    In the Chapter 2 of The Case for Christ (hereafter CFC), Lee Stobel puts forward eight tests for determining the credibility and reliability of the Gospels.  I briefly discussed four of those tests in Part 3 of this series.  In this post I briefly discuss two more of  the tests.

    This test analyzes whether the Gospel writers had any biases that would have colored their work.  Did they have any vested interest in skewing the material they were reporting on? (CFC, p.48)

    In part, the Gospels are clearly examples of religious propaganda.  That is, they represent efforts to persuade people to adopt a Christian point of view and way of life.  They also were intended to serve as materials for the religious education of Christian believers, especially to preserve the Christian belief system for future generations which would not be able to learn directly from Jesus nor from his inner circle of disciples.
    These purposes of the Gospel authors clearly introduce bias (or a significant potential for bias) into their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus is not only a great teacher and prophet in the view of early Christians, but the Messiah and the savior of mankind.  Faith was not only to be placed in the teachings of Jesus, but also in the goodness and power of Jesus as savior who could bestow forgiveness and eternal life on those who follow him.

    Given the exalted status of Jesus for early Christian believers, there would clearly be a strong tendency of Christian authors who wrote accounts about the life and ministry of Jesus to present Jesus in a positive light, to present stories about events which support the view that Jesus was a great teacher and a great prophet and the divinely ordained savior of mankind.  Clearly the death of Jesus on the cross, and his resurrection appearances to the disciples are basic and important to Christian faith in Jesus as the divinely appointed savior of mankind.

    Would such authors be likely to doubt and reject third or fourth-hand stories about Jesus that supported these Christian beliefs about Jesus on the grounds that such stories would be of questionable reliability and accuracy?  Probably not.  Would such authors be likely to accept and publish stories about Jesus that clearly contradicted these Christian beliefs about Jesus, even if such stories came from reliable eyewitness sources?  Probably not.

    So, would Christian believers who are writing for the purposes of persuading others to become followers of Jesus, and for teaching the faith to future generations of Christians, be likely to accept and publish stories of events and details that contradict or cast significant doubt upon the assumption that Jesus died on the cross?  Probably not.  Would they be likely to doubt and reject stories and details about the crucifixion or resurrection appearances of Jesus that support Christian belief on the basis that the source of information was not an eyewitness or was an unreliable eyewitness?  Probably not.

    Blomberg comments to Strobel: “Besides, these disciples had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism, and martyrdom. They certainly had nothing to win financially.” (CFC, p.48).  While fame and fortune were probably not a motivation for the authors of the Gospels, their worldview and self-image as Christian believers was tied up with assumptions about the goodness, power, wisdom, and even the divinity of Jesus, as well as the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, their basic beliefs and values and self-image was at stake in the subject about which they were writing.

    When people testify about events they saw, they will often try to protect themselves or others by conveniently forgetting to mention details that are embarrassing or hard to explain.  As a result, this raises uncertainty about the veracity of their testimony. (CFC, p.49)

    First of all, the authors of the Gospels were probably not eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, nor to his crucifixion, nor to his resurrection appearances.  So, it is misleading for Strobel to speak of these writers as if they were eyewitnesses.

    It is tempting to leave out embarrassing or hard to explain events and details.  So, if someone does so, then that reveals some degree of a lack of integrity and honesty in that person.  Of course, a very dishonest person will lie about anything and mislead and stretch the truth for the slightest of reasons, even when there are no embarrassing or hard to explain events or details to worry about.

    Interestingly, Strobel immediately and unthinkingly modifies the above test in a way that provides a classic example of confirmation bias

    So I asked Blomberg, “Did the gospel writers include any material that might be embarrassing, or did they cover it up to make themselves look good?  Did they report anything that would be uncomfortable or difficult for them to explain?” (CFC, p.49)

    Strobel’s purpose in writing The Case for Christ is much the same as the purpose of the Gospel writers- to persuade people to become followers of Jesus and to believe that Jesus is not only a great prophet, but the divinely approved savior of mankind.  So, he is interested in selling his readers on the idea that the Gospels are historically reliable (see my comments on 5. THE BIAS TEST above).  So, Strobel is interested in looking for evidence to confirm his view of the Gospels, and switches from looking for evidence of dishonesty (which is how he presents the test initially) to looking for evidence of honesty.  So, Strobel migrates from looking for examples of Gospel writers covering up embarrassing events/details, to looking for examples of Gospel writers being honest and straightforward in recording embarrassing events/details.

    Because Strobel has a clear bias in favor of Christianity and the reliability of the Gospels, he wants to look for evidence that
    supports his religious convictions, and he is less interested in looking for evidence that would cast doubt on Christianity and on the Gospels.  Because that is the sort of evidence he is looking for, it is no surprise that that is the evidence he finds and publishes in his book, which was written for the purpose of persuading people to become Christians and followers of Jesus.  The temptation of
    confirmation bias is to look for evidence to support one’s cherished beliefs but to fail to look for evidence that goes contrary to one’s cherished beliefs.  In order to be objective and fair minded, one must learn the discipline of looking for both sorts of evidence.   Since our natural tendency is to look for evidence that confirms our cherished beliefs, what we especially need to work at is looking for evidence that runs contrary to our cherished beliefs.

    Strobel gives a few examples of instances in the Gospel of Mark that appear to be embarrassing or hard to explain: Mark 6:5 and Mark 13:32 present events that suggest that Jesus is less than omnipotent and less than omniscient, and thus suggest that Jesus is not God  incarnate.
    These verses are somewhat embarrassing to Trinitarian Christians, but it is not clear that they were embarrassing to the author of Mark, since it is not clear that the author of Mark believed Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, or God incarnate.  The presence of these verses in Mark, it might be argued, is evidence that the author was NOT embarrassed by these events, and thus that the author held a different view of Jesus than held by Strobel and other Trinitarian Christians.  In any event, one would need to build a case for the view that the author of Mark was a Trinitarian Christian who would in fact have felt embarrassment or discomfort in reporting these incidents. Strobel does not do so.

    Giving a few examples of embarrassing events/details in one Gospel does not show the author of that Gospel to be generally honest and candid, nor does it show other Gospel authors to be generally honest and candid.  One needs to take a broader view of the evidence, looking at each of the Gospels for examples of both embarrassing events/details as well as looking for examples of cover-ups and truth-stretching in the service of avoiding embarrassment.  For each Gospel one must weigh up both positive and negative examples to come to some sort of overall conclusion about the honesty and candor of each author. 
    Furthermore, in ordinary cases of legal testimony, we often have many different sources of information to draw upon, in order to check whether a particular person’s testimony leaves out some embarrassing events or details.  But in the case of the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus, our sources are pretty much limited to the Gospels.  So, it is more difficult in this case to  find examples of leaving out events or details.  However, because Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus, we can look to see whether they leave out or modify events and details from Mark that they would consider embarrassing or hard to explain.  So, although we don’t have much in the way of independent information about Jesus from outside the Gospels, we can look at how Matthew and Luke treat the information they had from the Gospel of Mark.

    Note that by failing to look for examples of cover-ups in the Gospels, Strobel fails to find any such examples.  If he had actually done a careful search for such examples, he would have found several of them.  By failing to look for evidence of dishonesty, Strobel avoids having to report such examples to his readers, which would be embarrassing to Strobel and hard for him to explain in terms of his view that the Gospels are highly reliable and trustworthy.  

    Or perhaps Strobel did look for and find some examples of cover-ups in the Gospels, but he conveniently forgot to mention them, and thus was not honest and candid enough to share those with his readers.  Strobel’s failure to look for examples of dishonesty in the Gospels (or his failure to report such examples after finding some) raises uncertainty about the veracity and honesty of Strobel’s investigation into the reliability of the Gospels.

    I must say that it is quite clever how Lee Strobel illustrates both bias and cover-ups in his discussion of these tests for the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels.

    bookmark_borderIs Bayes’s Theorem Irrelevant to History?

    On his blog, R. Joseph Hoffmann published an essay by Stephanie Louise Fisher which, among other things, argues that Bayes’s theorem (hereafter, BT) is irrelevant to historical scholarship. In her words, BT is “completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to historical occurrence and therefore irrelevant for application to historical texts.”


    Whenever a historian argues that such-and-such an event probably did or did not happen, the historian is implicitly appealing to probability. For example, suppose that B is our relevant background knowledge and we have some historical text T which says that event E occurred. T’s report that E occurred does not entail that E occurred. T could report E and E could have occurred, but it also possible that T could report E and E did not occur. At best, then, T’s report is simply evidence that E occurred.

    In mathematical notation, Pr(x | y) is the probability of x conditional upon y. So when we say T’s report is simply evidence that E occurred, we ordinarily mean that Pr(E | T & B) > Pr(E | B), i.e., E is more probable conditional upon T and B than on B alone. In other words, we are implicitly relying upon the concept of conditional probability. Furthermore, as is well known, BT can be derived from the axioms of the probability calculus and the definition of conditional probability. So BT is relevant to history in this sense.

    In order to prevent some potential misunderstandings, I want to clarify two points.

    1. I am not a mythicist; in fact, I have defended the historicity of Jesus elsewhere. I mention this solely because the context for Fisher’s essay is a response to Richard Carrier, who apparently is now a mythicist. My interest in the applicability of BT to historical claims is purely logical, not based upon some agenda to promote mythicism.

    2. There are many interpretations or theories of probability; BT is compatible with all of them. Perhaps (?) one reason Fisher objects so strongly to the use of BT in history is the mistaken assumption that BT presupposes the frequency interpretation of probability, i.e., BT requires empirical data about the relative frequency of certain types of events. That assumption is false, however. BT is also compatible with the epistemic interpretation of probability, which is better suited for the assessment of historicity.

    bookmark_borderThe Unending Story

    This was in the Manchester Guardian last February: Like movie monsters who keep getting killed but keep coming back for more (and more tedious) sequels, anti-science activism keeps rising from the crypt. No surprise here. This is truly the unending story. What does surprise me a bit is that it apparently took so long for the two main forces of anti-science animus–evolution denial and climate change denial–to pool their efforts. Of course, as the article notes, those who advocate one often overlap with those who advocate the other. This fact itself, however, seems prima facie odd. Why should there be a correlation? After all, the motivations behind the two species of denialism seem very disparate. The most obvious motivation behind evolution denial has always been that it is “agin the Bible.” The animus against evolution is apparently essentially religious in origin. On the other hand, the basis of the opposition to climatology could not be more secular: The findings about human caused global warming threaten the profits of big oil, big coal, and other polluting industries. “Pro-business” and anti-government ideologists, often at industry funded “think” tanks like the Heartland Institute,therefore rush to condemn the findings of climatologists. So is the cooperation between anti-evolutionists and anti-climatologists just a marriage of convenience, or is there, despite appearances, a deeper motivational link? I think that there is such a link and it is not really too hard to spot. Anti-intellectualism has always been a current in American life, but in recent years that current has become a deadly undertow that drowns rational discussion and decision making. As Charles P. Pierce shows in his hilarious and horrifying book Idiot America, the forces of militant stupidity have never been stronger. Those who inculcate stupidity do so by getting us to think with the gut, what Pierce calls the “inner idiot” that does our thinking for us when we are in the grip of strong emotions that derail rationality. Inner idiots are highly susceptible to anti-science rhetoric. Why? What are the strong emotions that make inner idiots listen to anti-science? The usual ones: fear, suspicion, and bias. Science, whether evolutionary biology or climatology, is done by smarty-pants scientists and academics who think that they are better than just plain folk. When right-wingers talk about “elites,” they do not mean the real elites–people like the Koch brothers. No, when right-wing pundits condemn “elites” that is code for intellectual elites. These are the “elites” Rick Santorum was condemning when he called Obama a “snob.” Evolution and climatology are advocated by a bunch of over-educated, pointy-headed liberals who drive Volts, wear sandals, sip Chablis, and eat argula. They think that they are so much better than us pickup drivin’, PBR drinkin’, gun-totin’, red-blooded Real Americans. As Thomas Frank Shows in What’s the Matter with Kansas, the great success of American “movement conservatism” was to get the good ol’ boys to hate the same people that the big business people despise.

    bookmark_borderChecklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 4

    A reader comment (by ‘downtown dave’) on Part 3 of this series suggests that I take a look at Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (hereafter: CFC).  I don’t find Strobel’s case to be persuasive, but the criteria for evaluation of the Gospels that he puts forward in Chapter 2  (“Testing the Eyewitness Evidence” ) seem reasonable and helpful, even if the eight tests he outlines fall short of being a comprehensive list of criteria for evaluation of historical claims about Jesus.  

    So, I will note those eight tests here, for future reference when I review my own criteria for comprehensiveness (to make sure I have not left out any important considerations).

    This test seeks to determine whether it was the stated or implied intention of the writers to accurately preserve history. (CFC, p.39)

    Obviously, if the intention of a writer is to present an entertaining fictional story, then we would not expect the events described to be historically true or accurate accounts of real events.  Also, if the intention of a writer is to present fictionalized history, then we would not expect all of the details in the account to be true or accurate, while we would reasonably expect the overarching events to be historical or actual events.  

    The fact that a writer intends to present an accurate account of actual historical events does not prove that the account is true or accurate or reliable, but it does make it more likely that the account will be true, accurate, and reliable, as compared to documents written with the intention of presenting an entertaining fictional story.

    Even if the writers intended to reliably record history,  were they able to do so?  How can we be sure that the material about Jesus’ life and teachings was well preserved for thirty years before it was finally written down in the Gospels? (CFC, p.42)

    Stobel seriously biases the second question by assuming a thirty year gap between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.  Mark is generally dated about 70 CE (forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion), while Matthew and Luke are generally dated about 80 CE (fifty years after Jesus’ crucifixion), and John is generally dated about 90 CE (sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion).

    Matthew and Luke also include stories about Jesus’ birth, so if we assume those Gospels to have been written around 80CE, they were written about eighty-five years after the event of Jesus’ birth.  There is a story about Jesus as a child in Luke, so that story would have been written about seventy-five years after the event.

    But setting aside Strobel’s misleading comment, the question is clearly relevant to determining the historical reliability of the Gospels.  Good intentions are fine, but good intentions (such as the intention to write an historically accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus) are not sufficient to ensure that the objective will be achieved.  One must also have the appropriate means, knowledge, and abilities in order to accomplish the objective of composing an historically accurate and reliable account of a person’s life.

    This test looks at whether it was in the character of these writers to be truthful.  Was there any evidence of dishonesty or immorality that might taint their ability or willingness to transmit history accurately? (CFC, p.45)

    A dishonest person might claim to be presenting an accurate and reliable account of events, but might be lying or stretching the truth in making this very claim.  

    Furthermore, if a generally dishonest person has the good intention of composing an accurate and reliable account of events, he or she might well give in to the temptation to introduce false or inaccurate information into the account at various points, because of not having the sort of inner strength or character required to stick to the original intention.  Sometimes it is easier or more pleasant or more in one’s self-interest to be dishonest or to stretch the truth than to be a straight shooter.  Honesty and accuracy can sometimes be difficult or costly in terms of one’s self-interest or self-image.

    Note: It may be difficult to apply this test to authors whose identity is unknown, as I believe to be the case with the authors of the four Gospels.

    Here’s a test that skeptics often charge the Gospels with failing.  After all, aren’t they hopelessly contradictory with each other?  Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various Gospel accounts?  And if there are, how can anyone trust anything they say? (CFC, p.45)

    I believe there are problems with the Gospels in terms of each of the first four tests outlined above, so although skeptics might tend to focus on Test 4, some of the other tests might well also seriously impact our evaluation of the reliability and credibility of the Gospels. 

    When two accounts are logically inconsistent that means that at least one of the accounts must be mistaken.  So, the more contradictions and inconsistencies there are between the Gospel accounts, the more reason we have for doubting the reliability of those accounts.

    It is often argued that the Gospels are in agreement on major and general points, and only disa
    gree on some of the details.  This may well be true (of the synoptic Gospels), but when it comes to the question of the crucifixion of Jesus and the claim that Jesus died on the cross the same day that he was crucified, the accuracy and reliability of the details becomes very important.  

    Agreement on major and general points is not sufficient, for example, to show that Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while hanging on the cross.  Nor is this sufficient to show that Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross.  Nor is this enough to establish that Jesus was on the cross for about eight hours (as opposed to two or three hours).  On these questions reliability and accuracy of details is critical.

    bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 23

    In Joseph “Rick” Reinckens’s webpage A Lawyer Examines the Swoon Theory we get a short snippet from Origen that allegedly confirms a Roman practice of stabbing victims of crucifixion with a spear: 

    In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, says the lance thrust to Jesus was administered “according to Roman custom, below the armpit.”  (See Humber, Thomas.  The Sacred Shroud. New York, Pocket Books, 1977)

    Neither Reinckens nor Humber give us details about where this comment is to be found in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew.  

    I believe I located the passage in question in a standard Latin text of Origen’s Commentary on Matthew.  Here is the part that lines up with the snippet given by Mr. Reinckens:

    non iussit, secundum consuetudinem Romanorum de his qui crucifiguntur, percuti sub alas corporis Iesus (GCS, His Origenes Werke, v. 11, p. 290)

    Since I don’t read Latin, I have to rely on Google Translate, at least for an initial take on this passage:

    he did not Command, according to the custom of the Romans, they crucify to them that, under her wings, the body of Jesus to be smitten

    If the pronoun ‘her’ in the phrase ‘under her wings’ refers to ‘the body of Jesus’, then this phrase could be talking about a blow or strike below or under the arms of Jesus.  I wonder if ‘under her wings’ might also be understood as a reference to Rome.  At any rate, there is no mention of a spear or spear thrust, just the idea of a strike or blow (i.e. ‘smitten’), and it is not clear to me that the blow is to below Jesus’ armpit, as opposed to a blow below his arms, which is an  unclear specification of a location on the body.

    If I enter the entire lengthy sentence from this Latin passage, Google Translate gives the following translation:

    According to the mode of the other, for he happened to all the people who said to Pilate,  willing to offer, “Crucify him, crucify him”, and one that feared the noise of the people of the whole, it is not ordered, according to the custom of the Romans, they crucify to them that, under her wings, the body of Jesus to be smitten–what they do at any time he that condemneth the wicked deeds of those who are found in more important things (for those who do not, therefore, struck after the torture they endure greater fixionem, but they will live with a great deal of pain, and at any time, however, and all the night, and still, after that all the day long).

    Google Translate could not interpret the Latin word ‘fixionem’.  Clearly the general topic here is the crucifixion of Jesus, and there does appear to be a reference to some sort of Roman custom or practice related some way or other to crucifixion, but this translation, at any rate, leaves the nature and purpose of  this Roman custom very unclear.  So, until I can find a better translation of this passage from Origen, I remain unconvinced that this provides any significant evidence for the existence of a Roman practice of thrusting a spear into the chest of a victim of crucifixion in order to ensure the death of the victim.

    Here is the entire lengthy sentence in Latin, for anyone who wants to work on producing a better translation:

    Update (11:45 am Pacific Time on 5/20/12):
    I have confirmed that the above Latin passage from Origen’s Commentary on Matthew is the correct passage.  

    I did a search on the key Latin phrase ‘percuti sub alas corporis Iesus’ and found a book (on Google Books) defending the resurrection that was published in 1744. This book cites the same Latin passage that I located from Origen as evidence supporting the spear wound incident. So this bit of Christian apologetics has been around for over two and a half centuries!

    The witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ re-examined: and their testimony proved entirely consistent. By Samuel Chandler
    printed for J. Noon; and R. Hett, 1744
    Original from
    Oxford University
    Apr 20, 2009
    170 p

    The reference to Origen occurs on page 117:

    In a footnote at the bottom of page 117, Chandler quotes the same Latin passage that I located:

    INDEX to Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts: