Atheism and the Case Against Christ by Matt McCormick

I’ve spent a great deal of time reading and researching the (a)theism debate. When asked for reading suggestions, I usually stick with either Arguing about Gods by Graham Oppy, and Logic and Theism by Jordan Howard Sobel. While these books are great at examining the arguments for theism in general, they usually seem far removed from the personal beliefs that many individuals hold. I am hesitant to recommend popular atheism books because I generally find their arguments less than satisfactory. Now, I finally have a worthwhile recommendation. Professor Matt McCormick’s Atheism and the Case Against Christ examines the central tenets of the Christian faith: the resurrection, claims of the supernatural/miraculous, the reliability of Biblical testimony, religious epistemic standards and faith.

As I see it, the central question that McCormick’s work attempts to address is “Should we believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead based on the evidence provided to us by the Bible?” Typically, we can anticipate two claims from the believer. The first is “Yes, we should believe based on sufficient evidence.” The second option is more fideistic in nature, “Although we lack sufficient evidence, we should believe based on the evidence we do have.” There may be intermediary responses (i.e. I have personal evidence, such as divine revelation, that justifies my belief but doesn’t necessarily justify the belief of others), but his work primarily deals with these more popular responses. You can find some responses to the other range of responses on his blog, and in the chapter Why So Serious? in the book. (here, here, and here are some starting points.)

One of the most popular arguments from Christian apologists is the historical argument for the resurrection. They argue that the best way of explaining the accounts found in the Gospels (which they argue are historically reliable), is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. No naturalistic explanation can adequately account for the history found in the gospels, and the most likely explanation is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Atheists have generally attacked the premise that the Gospels are historically accurate: pointing to inconsistencies between accounts, alleged inaccuracies, and point to the other sensational accounts from gospels which were left out of the Bible. McCormick takes a novel approach which I think best exemplifies why relying on the Bible as historical evidence for the resurrection is problematic.

In a chapter titled The Counterevidence Problem , McCormick introduces the “counter-evidence principle”:

“It is reasonable to draw a conclusion C on the basis of a body of information E only if it is reasonable to believe that the evidence that would show the opposite conclusion, if there were any, would have been included in E.”

Imagine a police detective who obfuscates the evidence in order to procure a “guilty” decision from the jury. The jury, who is far removed from the process of gathering and organizing the evidence, is coming to a decision based on the assumption that those who were compiling the evidence share their concern for truth. If the jury had knowledge about the detective’s motives, they would have reason to doubt their own conclusion of “guilty”. It is likely that the police detective ignored evidence that might have proven the criminal’s innocence, and framed the narrative of the available evidence in such a way to procure a guilty verdict.

If we use this principle to examine the account of the resurrection of Jesus, McCormick argues, we can see that it is not satisfied. From a body of psychological research that McCormick surveys in an earlier chapter, we know that people “who are motivated to arrive at a particular judgment or conclusion engage in a biased memory search to access hypotheses, inference rules, and instances from past behavior that are most likely to support their desired conclusion.” (McCormick 143) If there were evidence that the story of the resurrection were not true, we have no reason for suspecting that it would survive the centuries of motivated believers who sought to thread together a narrative that would substantiate their creed.

Further, we know that the epistemic status of believers in first century Palestine was far less developed than our own. The basic scientific knowledge that we take for granted, such as the Earth orbits the Sun, was simply not known. Only a tiny sliver of the population was literate, and their mathematical abilities were roughly equivalent to a modern third-grader’s knowledge. Even the most well-educated, knowledgeable first century Palestinian simply did not have access to the knowledge about how the natural world operates that we have today. We know today that highly motivated believers still think that Elvis or Tupac Shakur are alive, despite pictures of their corpses, reports in the media,

and hospital records. With a sophisticated argument that can’t be fully explored here, McCormick argues that if this evidence doesn’t deter motivated believers in the case of Elvis or Tupac, it’s not difficult to imagine that a less privileged epistemic community would accept sensational accounts about a person whom they deeply admired and cherished.

McCormick then turns his attention towards the second answer to the original question, those who take the claim of the resurrection based on faith rather than sufficient historical evidence. The most poignant chapter towards this end is You Already Don’t Believe in Jesus: The Salem Witch Trials. I have previously reviewed a version of this chapter when it was featured in The End of Christianity, but I’d like to expand on it here. This chapter suggests that believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ based on the evidence available to us is inconsistent with the rejection of other supernatural theses. In particular, McCormick argues that in order to be epistemologically consistent with our standards of evidence, one would have to accept that there were witches in Salem.

The chapter begins with a survey of the historical evidence we have for the resurrection, and highlights one of the more popular versions of the historical argument from Gary Habermas. The historical accounts found in the Gospels are often being confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence. We have early Christians that were willing to be martyrs for their faith, including Paul who originally persecuted Christians but after a spiritual experience became convinced of the truth of Christianity. We have hundreds or thousands of purported witnesses for Jesus’ various miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead, turning water into wine, etc. The historical argument concludes from the available evidence that the best explanation for the evidence is that the resurrection literally happened. Naturalistic explanations, such as a hoax or group illusion, simply don’t fit the explanatory bill. 

In other parts of the book, McCormick takes to task the reliability of these claims, but the focus on this section is the uncomfortable conclusion that a believer must reach if they wish to be consistent in their standards for sufficient evidence.

During the late 17th century, over 150 people were accused, tried, or prosecuted for witchcraft. We have accounts of testimony from witnesses, from respected experts, and from the accused themselves. The investigations were thorough, the accusers came from a diversity of backgrounds. We have court transcripts that involve community leaders, medical experts of the time, and religious leaders. Arguably, we have a greater amount and better quality of evidence for witchcraft in Salem than we do for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The believer has a few lines of response: (1) bite the bullet and admit that there were witches in Salem, (2) deny the analogy between Salem and Jesus Christ, or (3) deny that evidence matters (which leads the believer back to the Believe it anyway! response that is examined in the book as well). Option (1) is uncomfortable for most believers – they won’t want to acknowledge that those in Salem were guilty of witchcraft, especially with the wide variety of more plausible explanations available. 

The second option seems ad hoc, and inevitably results in special pleading on behalf of the Jesus story. Any explanation that attempts to purport a difference between the two will have to acknowledge how much more evidence (not to mention better quality, including court transcripts and eye-witness accounts) we have for the Salem Witch Trials. Consequently, we need not be committed to the Salem case in order to make the point. We could concentrate on any seemingly supernatural case that has similar justification and run the same argument. Ultimately, all of these responses fail. If the believer wishes to be epistemically consistent, they must give up their belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is a testament to this book that with this review I was only able to scratch the surface of the material available to the reader. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy and reading through it in its entirety. It is available on Amazon here. Professor McCormick will also be giving a series of talks on the book, which you can find a list of on his blog.