bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 3

One objection to my cognitivist view of religion and of Christianity goes like this:
“Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
In the previous post in this series, I argued that (1) Christianity is a religion according to the Bible.  So, Christians who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, should accept the view that Christianity is a religion.
I also argued that (2) none of the definitions of “Christianity” found in various dictionaries characterizes Christianity as a relationship, and that dictionary definitions either categorize “Christianity” as a religion or refer to some phenomena that are conceptually tied to the concept of “the Christian religion”.  This implies that educated speakers of the English language use the word “Christianity” to refer to a religion or to phenomena that are conceptually tied to the concept of “the Christian religion”.
I have a third initial point to make in support of the view that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION:
Of course, we need to use our brains when reading the Bible and use our brains when reading a dictionary, so what I have in mind here is using our brains to understand a specific simple bit of logic:
1. If Christianity is a RELATIONSHIP, then Christianity is NOT the sort of thing that can be TRUE.
2. If Christianity is NOT the sort of thing that can be TRUE, then it is NOT the case that Christianity is TRUE.
3. If Christianity is a RELATIONSHIP, then it is NOT the case that Christianity is TRUE.
On the other hand, if Christianity is a religion, then Christianity IS the sort of thing that can be true (or false), so the claim that “Christianity is true” at least makes sense, if we assume that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.  As I explained previously, a cognitivist view of Christianity is one that sees Christianity primarily as a system of beliefs, as a philosophy of life, as a worldview.
A system of beliefs is composed of beliefs, and beliefs are the sort of thing that can be true or false.  Since the elements that make up a system of beliefs are things that can be true or false, we can make sense of the idea of a system of beliefs being true or false (although some sophistication and complexity is involved in talking about the truth of a system of beliefs, because it would be unrealistic to require that 100% of the beliefs in a system of beliefs to be true in order to consider the whole system to be true).
So, if someone wants to claim or to believe that “Christianity is true”, then he or she will need to give up the claim that “Christianity is a relationship”, becuase these two claims are logically incompatible.  If Christianity is a relationship, it follows logically that it is NOT the case that Christianity is true.
It is very common for a defender of Christianity to claim that “Christianity is true.”
Here are some examples of defenders of Christianity who believe that Christianity is the sort of thing that can be true (or false):
As I think about your question, I think it will be helpful if we distinguish between the role of emotions in warranting Christianity’s truth and their role in our deciding whether Christianity is true. – William Lane Craig
Christianity teaches many things no other religion teaches, and some of them directly contradict those others. If Christianity isn’t true, why be a Christian? – Peter Kreeft
Second, apologists do not believe that apologetics saves anyone. It only provides evidence in the light of which people can make rational decisions. It only provides evidence that Christianity is true. One must still place his faith in Christ in order to be saved. – Norman Geisler
What I want to show you, however, is that it is possible to have faith and acknowledge its importance while simultaneously knowing (not just believing) that Christianity is true. What’s more, I want to talk to you about how we can know that Christianity is true. – Steven B. Cowan
For every weekday in April 2010, Apologetics 315 will feature an essay contributed by a Christian apologetics blogger in response to the question: Why is Christianity True? The goal of this project is a simple one: to share the reasons that we have found compelling to believe that Christianity is true“. – Brian Auten
Finally, in the context of all of the above, one can assist the sceptic to adopt the stance of a sincere seeker; to get him to put him or herself into the kind of position where he or she can come to have the requisite encounter with God so as to see that Christianity is true. This is ultimately how one shows that Christianity is true. – Matthew Flannagan
How do I know Christianity is true? The facts behind it along with my experience of God’s promises confirm it.- Patrick Zukeran
Defending Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent is right; to do so for the wrong reasons is wrong. – Douglas Groothuis
The New Testament makes the assertion that the truth of Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. – Josh McDowell
When I say that Christianity is rational, I do not mean that the truth of Christianity in all of its majesty can be deduced from a few logical principles by a speculative philosopher. There is much information about the nature of God that we can find only because God himself chooses to reveal it to us.  –  R.C. Sproul
Here I am, all set to present my best arguments for the truth of Christianity, and the person I am talking to dismisses it all cavalierly. “Sure, Christianity is true,” he concedes, “but then again, all religions ultimately teach the same truth.” – Winfried Corduan
Simply put, I believe Christianity is true because Jesus said it was. – Greg Koukl
The truth of Christianity uniquely stands or falls on Christ’s resurrection. – Kenneth Samples
“Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Christianity is true and that we are not being deceived.” – Matt Slick
But here I want to offer my unique perspective on why Christianity is true: I believe that the social world of the first century was, on a large number of counts, ideologically in opposition to Christianity. Response to Christian claims would have been… – James Patrick Holding
You can come at the truth of Christianity through several angles of apologetics and reasoning. – John Piper
So in light of what I’ve written elsewhere, and the resources I’ve provided, I think there is good reason to conclude that Christianity is true.  – Carson Weitnauer
Part 1 of this series ‘Christianity is True‘ addresses the nature of truth and revelation to be found in the Bible – bethinking.Org [author of this series: Ranald Macaulay]
“Only some of the offensive claims of The Da Vinci Code pertain directly to the Catholic Church. The remainder strike at the Christian faith itself. If the book’s claims were true, then all forms of Christianity would be false (except perhaps for Gnostic/feminist versions focusing on Mary Magdalene instead of Jesus).” – Catholic Answers
It is difficult to find a defender or advocate of Christianity who does not believe that “Christianity is true”, and that Christianity is thus the sort of thing that can be true (or false).  This widely held view is logically incompatible with the claim that “Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ” but makes perfect sense in relation to the assumption that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.

bookmark_borderWhy Do So Many People Have a “Winner Takes All” Approach to Evidence about Gods?

If you’ve a regular reader of this blog — or any other blog or website devoted to the existence of God — you’ve probably noticed how often partisans for one side or the other have a “winner takes all” approach to the evidence. In the past, even I was guilty of making statements like, “There is no evidence for God’s existence.”
It now seems to me that one should be very cautious before making such statements (or the theistic equivalent, “There is no evidence against God’s existence.”) The more I study the nature of evidence in the abstract, the more hesitant I am to make the blanket statement “there is no evidence at all for God.” Yes, you read that correct.
Why on earth would an outspoken atheist such as myself say that? Three reasons. First, I think it’s very hard to defend such a statement. I cannot think of a successful “in principle” argument for that conclusion, which means you would have to give an empirical argument for it instead. But that, in turn, would require showing that every argument for (or against) God’s existence fails. That’s a time-consuming task at best.
Second, I think way too many people talk about evidence without really thinking deeply about what it means for a piece of data to be evidence. Once a person thinks long and hard about what it means for something to be evidence, they will learn that there is evidence and then there is evidence. Some piece of evidence, e, can be weak evidence for a hypothesis h, strong evidence for h, or somewhere in between. This is why in real life there are many cases where there is weak evidence for H1 but stronger evidence for H2. It may even be the case that most empirical questions are like that, rather than a situation where there is zero evidence for H1 and all of the evidence supports H2. This leads to my third point.
Third, the “winner takes all” assumes there are only two options: (1) ALL of the evidence supports theism, or (2) ALL of the evidence supports atheism (or naturalism). But why are those the only two choices? Why can’t a theist say this:

“I’ll admit that the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness are some evidence for theism, but I think they are outweighed by the evidence from the beginning of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning of the universe, consciousness, morality, etc.”

Likewise, why can’t a naturalist say this:

“I’ll admit that fine-tuning, libertarian free will, and consciousness are some evidence for theism, but I think they are outweighed by the evidence from the course-tuning of the universe / hostility of the universe to life, biological role (and moral randomness) of pain and pleasure, evolution, mind-brain, dependence, and divine hiddenness.”

Finally, why can’t an agnostic say this:

“I’m an agnostic, but not because I believe there is no good evidence for or against God’s existence. Rather, I’m an agnostic because I think there is good evidence both for and against God’s existence. I think fine-tuning, libertarian free will, and consciousness are some evidence for theism. I also think the coarse-tuning of the universe / hostility of the universe to life, biological role (and moral randomness) of pain and pleasure, evolution, mind-brain, dependence, and divine hiddenness are evidence against God’s existence. And I don’t know how to weigh the former against the latter.”

My own view is that so-called the fully stated evidence about ‘fine-tuning’ isn’t evidence for God’s existence; I haven’t decided (pun intended) if I believe libertarian free will exists; and I think consciousness is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. But I believe that evidence is outweighed by all of the naturalistic evidence.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 2

One objection to my cognitivist view of religion and Christianity is this popular little bit of stupidity:
“Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I have three initial responses to this statement: (1) read your freaking bible, (2) read your freaking dictionary, and (3) use your freaking brain.
In Chapter 26 of Acts, the apostle Paul defends himself before King Agrippa and speaks of “our religion”:
1  Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:
2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews,
3 because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.
4 “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem.
5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.
(Acts 26:1-5  New Revised Standard Version)
Clearly, the phrase “our religion” in this passage refers to the religion of the Jews, which we now call “Judaism”.
But in a letter that is attributed to Paul, and that is also part of the Christian scriptures, the phrase “our religion” is used to refer to something else:
15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
16 Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:15-16 New Revised Standard Version)
The pronoun “He” in this passage clearly refers to Jesus.  So, the “religion” that Paul (or whoever the author of this letter was) refers to here is clearly NOT the religion of the Jews, because the Jewish religion did not include any beliefs about the life and (alleged) divine mission of Jesus.
What “religion” does include beliefs about the life and (alleged)  divine mission of Jesus?  Not Judaism. Not Hinduism.  Not Buddhism.  Not Confucianism.  Not Zoroastrianism. Not Taoism.
Islam, however, does say something about the life and (alleged) divine mission of Jesus, but Islam did not yet exist at the time that the New Testament was composed, so this is clearly NOT a reference to Islam.  The reference of the word “religion” here is obvious: it is referring to CHRISTIANITY.  Thus, according to a letter that is part of the sacred scriptures that Christians believe were inspired by God, CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.
The biblical case for viewing Christianity as a “religion” is not actually as clear and straightforward as the above comparison of passages from Acts and 1 Timothy makes it seem.  The New Testament was written in Greek, not English, and the English word “religion” did not exist when Acts and 1 Timothy were composed. The English language itself did not yet exist at that time.
Furthermore, the Greek word translated as “religion” in Acts 26:5 is different than the Greek word translated as “religion” in 1 Timothy 3:16.  Most translations of Acts 26:5 translate the Greek word θρησκείας in that verse as “religion”, which makes a lot of sense given the context.  However, a number of translations of 1 Timothy 3:16 do not translate the relevant Greek word εύσεβείας in that verse as “religion”.  For example, here is how the New American Standard Bible translates the initial phrase of 1 Timothy 3:16:
 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
Nevertheless, one can argue that “religion” is a better translation of the Greek word εύσεβείας than “true godliness”, based on the context of this particular passage.  The general context of this passage is Paul’s concern about Christian believers being fooled into accepting false teachings or doctrines.  Part of his solution is to emphasize the use of memorable creeds, such as the one quoted in the rest of this verse.
The Oxford Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy 3:16 supports understanding this passage to be about the Christian religion:
The ‘mystery of our religion’ is described in the quoted formula which follows.  For similar passages, see 1 TIM 2:5-6.  The word translated ‘religion’ is eusebeia; normally in the Pastorals eusebeia and its cognates  denote piety or godliness, here it carries a sense of the system of belief that inspires piety.  (Oxford Bible Commentary, p.1225, emphasis added)
Because the context is a concern about Christians being tempted to accept false doctrines, and because the key phrase relates to a brief creed that reinforces what Paul (or the author of 1 Timothy) believed to be true and important Christian doctrines, it makes good sense to translate the Greek word εύσεβείας as “religion” in 1 Timothy 3:16, rather than to translate it as “true godliness”.  Thus, the New Testament does provide Christians, who view the N.T. as sacred scripture, with a good reason to believe that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.
Let’s start simple.  At Cambridge Dictionaries Online, you get a single definition of “Christianity”:
the ​Christian ​faith, a ​religion ​based on the ​belief in one ​God and on the ​teachings of ​Jesus ​Christ, as set ​forth in the ​Bible
(Definition of Christianity from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary © Cambridge University Press)
What sort of a thing is “Christianity”?  According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, it is “a religion”.  This definition says nothing about “Christianity” being some sort of “relationship”.
If we turn to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we get a “simple definition” of “Christianity”, which is similar to the above definition:
the religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ
What sort of a thing is “Christianity” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary?  It is a “religion”, not a “relationship”.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary also provides three different definitions:
Full Definition of Christianity
1: the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies
2: conformity to the Christian religion
3: the practice of Christianity
What sort of a thing is “Christianity” according to these Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions?  Definition (1) tells us that it is a “religion”, not a relationship.  Definition (2) speaks about “conformity” to a “religion”, namely “the Christian religion”.  Thus, although the second sense refers to some sort of “conformity” (which might be either intellectual conformity or conformity of actions); the specific sort of conformity is qualified in relation to a “religion” not to a “relationship”.
Definition (3) is, strictly speaking, circular since it uses the word “Christianity” to define the word “Christianity”, but in the context of definition (2), one naturally reads the word “Christianity” here as meaning “the Christian religion” thus making definition (3) parallel to definition (2).  So, definition (3) refers to a specific sort of “conformity”, namely conformity of one’s actions to a “religion”, namely to “the Christian religion”.  Definition (3) refers to a set of actions that have a certain character, namely the character of conforming to “the Christian religion”.
An even fuller set of definitions of “Christianity” can be found at
1. the Christian religion, including the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.
2. Christian beliefs or practices; Christian quality or character:
Christianity mixed with pagan elements; the Christianity of Augustine’s thought.
3. a particular Christian religious system:
She followed fundamentalist Christianity.
4. the state of being a Christian.
5. Christendom.
6. conformity to the Christian religion or to its beliefs or practices.
Definitions (1), (2), and (3) support the view that Christianity is a religion and not a relationship.  Definition (5) is consistent with Christianity being a religion, and does not fit well with the idea of Christianity being a relationship.  Definition (6) is similar to previous definitions we looked at from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and it is logically tied to the concept of “the Christian religion”.
Definition (4) is the ONLY definition here that could possibly be connected to the idea of having a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many Protestants have the view that conversion to Christianity puts one into a “state” in which one has a permanently good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  From a Catholic point of view, conversion to Christianity puts one temporarily into a “state” in which one has a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, but that positive “state” can be damaged or destroyed by sin, especially by serious (i.e. mortal) sins.  From a Catholic point of view, one must be in a good “state” or good relationship with God when one dies in order to obtain eternal life in heaven.
I think that the Catholic view could reasonably be stated this way:  “A Christian believer can die and go to hell for eternity, if that Christian believer commits a mortal sin and dies before repenting and returning to a state in which he/she is in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.”  In other words, being a Christian, accepting Christianity or the Christian religion is not sufficient for salvation and eternal life.  If this is an accurate representation of the Catholic point of view, then from this point of view the “state of being a Christian” is not sufficient for salvation and eternal life from a Catholic point of view.  What matters is the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, particularly at the moment of death.
In this case “Christianity” does NOT mean “being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ”.  However, since from a Catholic point of view what matters MOST is whether one is in a state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ at the moment one dies, from a Catholic point of view CHRISTIANITY or the Christian religion teaches that what matters MOST is whether one is in a state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ at the moment one dies.  Thus, for Catholics, there is a close connection between Christianity and having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, but being a Christian, accepting Christianity, is something different from being in that good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
What about Protestants who believe that salvation is a once-for-all-times event?  For such a Protestant being a Christian or accepting Christianity, entails being in a state in which one is, and always will be, in a good relationship with God and Jesus.  This makes it harder to distinguish between the “state of being a Christian” and the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus, because such Protestants believe that the two states always exist together.
However, from a Protestant point of view, one state is the result of the other state.  Accepting Christianity is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  Thus because there is a relation of dependency between the “state of being a Christian” (or of accepting Christianity) and the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, these must be considered to be two different and distinguishable states.  Therefore, although “Christianity” in sense (4) has a causal or logical connection with having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, “Christianity” in sense (4) is something that is different and distinguishable from the state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
Thus, from a Catholic point of view as well as from a common Protestant point of view “Christianity” in the sense of “the state of being a Christian” is NOT equivalent to the idea of “the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ”.
Furthermore, for both Protestants and Catholics, their views about the connection between “the state of being a Christian” and “the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ” is spelled out in central Christian doctrine, is spelled out in their understanding of the Christian faith or “Christianity”.  The religion or theological doctrines that they accept provide them with a point of view about the relationship between these two states.  Catholics and Protestants, obviously, have differing views about the relationship between these two states.  Nevertheless, from a Catholic as well as from a common Protestant point of view, “Christianity” even in sense (4) is directly connected to a religion, and only indirectly connected to a relationship.
No matter what definition of “Christianity” we look at, all definitions in respected dictionaries point to the view that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION, and not a relationship.
In the next post, I will cover my third point:

bookmark_borderAtheist Scholar Phil Zuckerman: OK to Criticize Christianity, but Not Islam

You should read both the article and the comments.
I could be wrong, but my hunch is that Zuckerman is probably right. Also, I don’t know this for a fact either, but I suspect that the same fear which stifles atheist criticism of Islam also stifles Christian criticism of Islam. Yes, there are atheist and Christian critics of Islam, but it seems very easy to believe that there are less critics than there would have been if Islam did not have the kind of reputation it does.
Speaking only for myself, I’ve written almost nothing about Islam. I know very little about it, don’t come from a Muslim background, and don’t live in a Muslim country. But supposing I were an ex-Muslim living in the United States, I would probably have to think twice before openly criticizing it.
What do you think?
(H/T: Joe)

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? – Part 1

Since I am planning to invest the next ten years (or more) of my life in an effort to investigate and answer the question “Is Christianity true or false?”,  I need to start out by clarifying and defining the word “Christianity”.
There are those who would argue that Christianity is not the sort of thing that could be true, and is not the sort of thing that could be false.  If Christianity is not the sort of thing that could be true, and is not the sort of thing that could be false, then I would be investing ten years (or more) of my life on a wild-goose chase, so it is important to do a bit of thinking now about the meaning of my basic question, and whether this question even makes any sense.
[Note: “As wild-goose chase literally means ‘a chase for wild geese’, it is usually hyphenated as shown for clarity. The form without the hyphen is also commonly seen, and can be construed as a ‘wild chase’, not an inevitably fruitless one, after a possibly domesticated and flightless goose, rather than after a wild goose.”Wiktionary article on wild-goose chase.]
What sort of a thing is “Christianity”?  The genus seems fairly obvious: Christianity is a religion.  There are many different religions, and Christianity is one of them.  What is a religion?  Is a religion the sort of thing that can be true or false?  People sometimes talk about the question “Which religion, if any, is the true religion?”.  Does this question make any sense?
I am a cognitivist when it comes to the concept of a “religion”.  To me, a religion is fundamentally a point of view, a philosophy of life, a worldview.  I focus in on the intellectual or cognitive aspect of religion.  This way of looking at religion is somewhat controversial.  Not everyone thinks about religion in terms of claims, ideas, and beliefs.  Some people are opposed to a cognitivist view of religion, so I need to consider some of the main objections to my cognitivist view of religion, and consider alternative views of the nature of religion, to see whether there is a different view about the nature of religion that is as plausible or perhaps more plausible and more reasonable than my cognitivist view.
If religion is fundamentally about ideas, claims, and beliefs, and if Christianity is a religion, then it would make sense to ask the question “Is Christianity true or false?”  Ideas, claims, and beliefs are the sorts of things that can be evaluated as true or false, so if religions are fundamentally sets of ideas, claims, or beliefs, then we can evaluate the ideas, claims, or beliefs that constitute a particular religion, and make an overall evaluation of the truth of the whole religion that way.
Suppose that my cognitivist view of religion is correct, and that a religion is fundamentally a collection or system of beliefs.  There are at least two dimensions of evaluation that can be applied to a set or system of beliefs: (1) each individual belief can be evaluated as true or false, and (2) the logical relationships between the beliefs can be evaluated to determine whether some beliefs contradict or disconfirm other beliefs in that system (and whether some beliefs imply or support other beliefs in that system).  Note that if we discover that one belief in a system of beliefs contradicts another belief in that system, this should cause us to reconsider previous judgments that both of these individual beliefs were true.
Ideally, we would find a system of beliefs such that (1) every belief in that system is true (as far as we can tell, based on a careful evaluation of each individual belief), and (2) none of the beliefs contradict or disconfirm any of the other beliefs.  However, reality is rarely so kind to us.  It seems reasonable to suppose that in virtually every human system of beliefs there are some beliefs that are false (as far as we can tell, based on a careful evaluation of each individual belief), and that in virtually every human system of beliefs there are some beliefs that contradict or disconfirm other beliefs in that system.  I don’t expect to ever come across a human system of beliefs that is completely flawless.
If there is no such thing as a flawless human system of beliefs, does that mean that ALL human systems of belief are FALSE?  Should we conclude that all religions are false? and that all secular worldviews and philosophies are false?  I don’t think so.   Everything we touch, see, hear, smell and taste is imperfect and flawed in some way and to some degree.  Nevertheless, there is a difference between eating a delicious steak hot off the grill and eating a dry moldy crust of bread.  The steak might not be absolutely perfect, but it is clearly better than the dry moldy crust of bread.  I see no reason to have a different view about imperfection in the intellectual realm.  Given a choice between two systems of beliefs, even if neither one is perfect or flawless, one might well be much better than the other, much closer to the truth.
This is partly a matter of quantity.  If 95% of the beliefs in system X are true, and only 75% of beliefs in system Y are true (as far as we can tell), then system X is to be preferred over system Y, other things being equal.  But quality is also important.  A set or system of trivial beliefs that was 100% true might well be less desirable than a system of significant beliefs where only 80% of the beliefs are true.  Thus, truth is not the only relevant consideration in evaluating a system of beliefs.
In any case, declaring ANY particular system of human beliefs to be TRUE will require some degree of qualification and some degree of sophistication in spelling out what that means, since it presumably does NOT mean that every single belief in that system of beliefs is true and that no belief in that system contradicts or disconfirms any other belief.  We need to allow some room for imperfection in systems of belief, while still drawing a line between systems that are epistemically GOOD and systems that are epistemically BAD, with probably a significant portion of systems of belief residing in a gray area between epistemically GOOD and epistemically BAD.
While composing this post, a few objections against my cognitivist view of religion have come to mind: (1) What about the important role of rituals and symbols in religions?  Doesn’t that imply that a religion is more than just a system of beliefs?  (2) What about the importance of ethics and morality in religions?  R.B. Braithwaite, for example,  argued that the primary function of religious assertions was not to make factual statements, but to express a personal commitment to a certain ethic or way of life.  Doesn’t that imply that religion is not the sort of thing that can be evaluated as true or false?  (3) What about Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of religious language?  If Wittgenstein or philosophers of religion who follow in his footsteps (e.g. D.Z. Phillips) are correct, then religious assertions that appear to be making factual claims actually have a different purpose and meaning, and thus are not the sort of assertions that can be evaluated as true or false. (4) “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”  – I cannot neglect responding to this popular little bit of stupidity.
I will start dealing with objections to my cognitivist view of religion in the next post in this series.

bookmark_borderEvil: Still no Good Answers

Here is an essay written by my friend Eddie Tabash. He is a Constitutional lawyer, legal scholar, and one hell of a defense attorney. Here he tells of his experiences growing up as the son of an Auschwitz survivor.
Eddie also provides enlightening and incisive comments on evil and theism. When confronted with instances of atrocious evil, and asked how this squares with the belief in a God who is both all-powerful and perfectly good, theists have basically three types of responses:
1) Reject the question as presumptuous. This is the approach of the Book of Job. Job, a righteous and upright man, is made to suffer atrociously, seemingly so that God can win a bet with Satan, who cynically charges that Job’s righteousness is only due to his great good fortune. God therefore permits Satan to smite Job by destroying all that he has and inflicting him with a painful and loathsome disease. Job’s worst torment comes from his “comforters,” self-righteous and condescending assholes who try to make Job admit that his misfortunes are all his own fault. Job rejects the charge again and again, reasserts his innocence, and insistently demands that God tell him why he was treated so unjustly (the bit about the “patience” of Job is a load of hooey that must have been invented by some Sunday School teacher). At last God appears, speaking out of the whirlwind, and, in poetry of unsurpassed splendor, basically tells Job to shut up. God never denies that his treatment of Job is unjust; indeed, he condemns the slick sanctimoniousness of the “comforters.” In response to the question of why he permits injustice, his answer is essentially “Who wants to know?” Pointing to the overwhelming and incomprehensible grandeur and beauty of creation, he demands to know who puny man is to think of questioning His ways.
2) Offer a theodicy. Giving an explanation of “Shut Up!” may be good enough for the Bible, but not for philosophers. Philosophers have traditionally sought to supply a theodicy, an explanation of God’s ways, showing that God’s permission of evil is fully compatible with his omnipotence and perfect goodness. That is, the theodicist attempts to show that there are higher, justifying goods that God can achieve only by permitting evil. The stock answer here is to appeal to the good of human free will or moral responsibility. For instance, Richard Swinburne says that if God is to make humans genuinely responsible for themselves (a great good), he must permit them to harm each other, and not only to harm each other slightly but to do terrible things to each other. A God that hovered over us, preventing us from making mistakes and saving us from life’s hard knocks would be like today’s grossly overprotective “helicopter parents,” and we would be like their inevitably spoiled rotten and worthless children. Instead, God writes the Moral Law on our hearts but lets us decide whether and to what extent we will abide by it. As for non-moral evil, this is somewhat tougher to explain since, prima facie it is due to impersonal forces and not a matter of any being’s choice (except for God, who chooses to let it happen). Thus, disease, disorder, mental illness, natural disasters, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to all appear to be instances of suffering that have impersonal causes written into the natural order and depend on no one’s choice. Gamely, though, some theodicists have tackled natural evils, explaining them as necessary to show us the consequences of our possible actions. Thus, tornadoes can show us what happens when a community is destroyed, so we can know what will happen when we do it with bombs. Natural famines show us the consequences of human-made ones. God, in His mercy, has provided us with copious natural evils to show us what we may cause or prevent. (I am not making this up. See my book God and the Burden of Proof for full bibliographic references here.).
3. Offer a defense. A “defense” is not a theodicy; it does not attempt to explain why God permits evil. Alvin Plantinga, for instance, offers a defense and freely admits that he has no idea why God permits evil. Instead, a defense puts the burden of proof on the atheological objector to theism and demands that the objector show that God’s existence is impossible or improbable given the facts of evil. In other words, the defender does not construe the “problem of evil” as one inherent to theism (as does, say, The Book of Job), but rather sees such issues as raised by pesky atheologians in their attempts to discredit theism. The theist only has the duty of showing that the atheological arguments from evil are inconclusive, that is, that they fail to show that theistic belief is in any sense unreasonable or untenable. Instead of offering a positive account of evil like the theodicists, the defender is content to take a skeptical approach. The defender is sure that God has a reason for permitting evil even though the defender is utterly incapable of saying what that reason might be. So, for instance, William Rowe gives the instance of a fawn burned to death in a forest fire. The painful death of an innocent creature is one that has no easily imaginable justification. An all-powerful being surely could have prevented that incident, and a loving, compassionate being surely would have wanted to do so (Wouldn’t you have saved Bambi if you could have?). Therefore, in a world in which there are myriad examples of such prima facie pointless evils, surely the staggering total of such evils constitutes evidence against the existence of a being that is purportedly both all-powerful and perfectly good. But the skeptical defender replies that our inability to see what good could come from an event is no evidence that God (an all-powerful being who has eternity to work with) in fact has no justification. My cat has no idea why she must be taken to the vet for her annual shots, but that does not mean that I am without justification in doing so. For all we know, therefore, “…eye hath not seen, or ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man (I Corinthians, 2:9)” the goods God has in store that will justify all evil. As William Lane Craig put it:
We aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things. Suffering that appears utterly pointless within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted in God’s wider framework. The brutal murder of a child may have a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for not preventing the evil may emerge only centuries later or in another country. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1998)
These are the traditional theistic responses to the occurrence of grotesque evil. Unfortunately, each has deep problems:
1) What gives Job the right to question God? His suffering gives him that right. Preventable suffering always deserves an explanation. Why? Because of the inherent value of sentient creatures. If it does not matter that sentient beings suffer, then such beings are not important. But they are important, and therefore it does matter. If it matters, then, the parties responsible for permitting the suffering must explain why it was permitted, or we rightly presume that they have no excuse. This is our universal moral practice, and there is no reason to modify that practice if the responsible party is God. Some theists have maintained that, on the contrary, since God is our creator, he has the right to treat us any way he pleases. Really? So, if you, say, were to create a race of sentient beings, would you be perfectly permitted to condemn them to lives of lonely torture? Surely no decent person actually believes this. This is one of those instances in which some theists say things and I refuse to believe that they are as bad as they seem to be portraying themselves to be.
2) All theodicies are shown to be empty, flat, and superficial—even trivial—when compared to the actual evils they are meant to explain. The simple fact, as Eddie points out, is that many evils appear genuinely pointless. It is impossible to see that they do any good at all, or, if they do, it is good that could be obtained by far less horrendous means. Take mental illness, for instance. It cannot be claimed that some forms of mental illness make the sufferer better. On the contrary, the illness itself prevents them from becoming the sort of morally responsible persons that God supposedly wants them to be. Far from prompting them to struggle heroically against the malady, it often has the effect of convincing them that they have no malady, but only those who try to help them. Well, then, does the suffering of the mentally ill permit the laudable efforts of those who strive to care for them or cure them? Is this what justifies it? As yourself: Which would be better in my judgment: (a) My child has severe autism, and I demonstrate selfless love and supreme dedication in devoting my life to caring for my child. (b) My child is happy and healthy, and we enjoy the usual ups-and-downs of a loving parent/child relationship? Would anyone choose to have their child suffer a significant disability in order to give themselves the chance to demonstrate moral superiority? If a test revealed to an expectant mom that the baby would very likely be autistic, but a simple, effective, and harmless procedure could prevent the autism, would any sane and decent person not opt for the procedure? If they wouldn’t fail to act to prevent the autism, then why wouldn’t a sane and decent God? If any theodicist has a plausible answer to this, I have not seen it.
3) The skeptical theist’s hope, as expressed in the quote from William Lane Craig, can never be anything other than a speculation or a statement of faith. If you have no idea at all how an evil can be redeemed, then you just cannot be sure that it will be. Indeed, for all Craig knows—or anybody can know—the murder of the child might never be justified. Perhaps no realizable good would be good enough to redeem that murder, or, if something is, the murder is not a necessary condition for obtaining that redeeming good. God could realize the good without permitting the murder. If we are not in a position to know which evils might be redeemed, then we just do not know. Period. Note that Craig admits that we cannot know that it is either probable or improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evils. In short, we just cannot say whether some evils are likely to be gratuitous or not; neither possibility can be ruled out. The position that would seem to be most harmonious with that conclusion would appear to be agnosticism; the facts of evil indicate that God either possibly exists or definitely does not, and we cannot know which. Further, evil is a problem intrinsic to theism, as Job realizes. It is not something maliciously invented by hostile atheologians. The problem follows from the basic predicates of God. If God is the omnipotent creator of the universe, then everything—everything—that exists or occurs is ultimately due to him. “All things bright and beautiful” may be due to God, but, as Monty Python noted, so are all the awful things:
All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot
Each little snake that poisons
Each little wasp that stings
He made their brutish venom
He made their horrid wings
All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all
Each nasty little hornet
Each beastly little squid
Who made the spiky urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did.
God made kittens and rainbows. He also made Hitler and brain cancer. Theists are sure that God has good reasons for those last two, but they have never succeeded in articulating plausible reasons for their conviction.

bookmark_border“Atheism” According to Matt Slick

Somehow I wound up on the website of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Since the website has a section on atheism, I decided to take a look. I found problems in the very first article I read, “What Is Atheism?”
The Definition of Atheism
I’ll begin with something positive. Unlike virtually every other Christian apologist I have read, Slick seems to be willing to engage his opponents on their own terms. He accepts the idea that there are both strong and weak varieties of atheism. Corresponding to these two varieties of atheists, Slick says that atheists typically hold one of two positions about God and evidence. The first position says the evidence for God’s existence isn’t sufficient. The second position says that the evidence points against God’s existence.
Arguments for Atheism
It’s unfortunate that Slick’s only example of an argument used to support the second position is is a rather weak version of the argument from evil; he evinces no awareness of the work of atheistic philosophers of religion (see here). For my part, drawing upon the work of Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper, I’ve defended a cumulative case for naturalism (and so atheism) here.
Atheism and Morality
In the final section of his article, Slick gives a list of eight alleged ‘tenets of atheism.’ Two of his tenets (#1 and #4) are logical implications of strong atheism, as Slick defines it. Three of his tenets (#2, #3, #7) are more properly associated with naturalism, while the final three remaining tenets  (#5, #6, and #8) are more properly associated with materialism. While atheism, naturalism, and materialism are all related, they are not identical (see here). But let that pass.
The major problem with this section is #8 on his list, the claim that atheists “tend to adopt” the tenet that “Ethics and morals are relative.” In fairness to Slick, many atheists are guilty of this mistake also. But, as I’ve explained many times before, atheism is neither a metaethical nor an ethical theory. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. See, for example, herehere, and here.
Slick wraps up his article by promising “very good answers” to atheistic criticisms in his “coming papers.” We shall see.

bookmark_borderTen-Year Plan: Revised Scope

I am going to start my Ten-Year Plan this year.
However, I have decided to EXPAND the scope of the project; I will attempt to eat the whole enchilada, so ten years might not be enough time.  I wrote a previous post (offsite) on my Ten-Year Plan.
The question at issue:  Is Christianity true or false?
Here is the overall logic that I plan to use to do my evaluation of Christianity (click on image for a clearer  view of  the chart):
Evaluation of Christianity
Although it might require more than ten years to complete the writing of the series of books that will be needed to fully investigate each of the four questions,  I might be able to do a first pass of the four questions in less than ten years.  Perhaps I can do a first pass of one year per question, and try to sketch out my views on all four questions in just four years, and then I could go into greater depth and detail on the four questions for the following seven or eight years.
Note that even if the arguments of Christian philosophers and apologists win the day on each of the four questions, it does not follow that Christianity is true.  What follows is only that a few of the central beliefs/doctrines of Christianity would be true (i.e. God exists; Jesus exists; Jesus rose from the dead; Jesus is God incarnate.).
There are other important Christian beliefs that are not included in those beliefs.  For example: humans have souls; humans are sinful and in need of salvation from divine judgement; the death of Jesus on the cross made it possible for God to forgive our sins; faith in Jesus is sufficient for salvation and to obtain eternal life; the Bible is the inspired Word of God; the Holy Spirit is a separate person from Jesus and from his Father God; the Holy Spirit is God, etc.

bookmark_borderBen Carson is Also a POLITICAL Nutcase – Part 1

It looks like Ben Carson’s popularity is fading away, according recent polls (Thank you baby Jesus!).
However, he was clearly the number two choice of Republicans from the end of August until early December, and for the first half of November, Carson was neck-and-neck with Trump, tied for first choice of Republicans.  Furthermore, the primary elections/caucuses have not yet occurred, so Carson still has a shot at becoming the Republican nominee for president.
In my first post on Carson, I argued that he was a religious nutcase because of his extreme views on abortion and his opposition to established science on evolution, the Big Bang, global warming, and homosexuality:

  •  No woman (and no one who cares about women) should vote for Carson, because not only would he “love” to see Roe v. Wade overturned but he is opposed to abortion in cases of rape and incest.  In fact, Carson is unsure about whether abortion should be allowed even when the mother’s life is at risk.  Carson wants to lead the Republican war on women.
  • No elderly person (and no one with elderly parents) should vote for Carson, because Carson wants to end both Medicare and Medicaid.
  • No college-educated person should vote for Carson, because Carson rejects scientific thinking on evolution, the Big Bang, global warming, and homosexuality.

In my second post on Carson, I began to argue that he was a political nutcase as well.  I provided some evidence about Carson’s obsession with and admiration for W. Cleon Skousen, an anti-communist crackpot from the 1950s.
In the meantime, I have obtained a copy of the book that Ben Carson wants EVERYBODY to read:  The Naked Communist by W. Cleon Skousen, and I have been viewing and transcribing various speeches and presentations by Ben Carson from 2014 and some from 2015 too, where Carson spews his crazy extremist political views.
I’m now fully convinced that Ben Carson is a political nutcase who should not be allowed to obtain ANY political office in ANY place at ANY time.   Carson is a delusional extremist who poses a great threat to our country if he were to become President of the United States of America.
I realize that The Secular Outpost is focused on Naturalism and Atheism, and not on American politics.  However, it is important for the sake of freedom of thought and freedom of religion and for the sake of liberty and justice for all that we atheists and naturalists who live in America do whatever we can to prevent religious and political nutcases, such as Ben Carson,  from obtaining powerful positions in our government, and there is no more powerful position than the presidency.
Ben Carson represents one of the ugliest and most obnoxious intrusions of religion into politics that I have ever witnessed; furthermore, there is a striking similarity between the irrationality of Carson’s religion and the irrationality of Carson’s political views.  So, although this post is primarily political, it also touches upon the problematic relationship between religion and politics in America.
Here is the striking similarity between Carson’s religion and his political views:  both arise out of foolish alarmist prophets.  Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist.  This protestant sect was founded by Ellen G. White, who had many “visions”, wrote many books of a religious nature, and who is considered to be a modern-day prophet by Seventh Day Adventists.  Ellen grew up in a family that was part of the Millerite movement:
 Millerite movement
In 1840, at age 12, her family became involved with the Millerite movement. As she attended William Miller’s lectures, Ellen felt guilty for her sins, and she was filled with terror about being eternally lost. She describes herself as spending nights in tears and prayer, and being in this condition for several months. On June 26, 1842, She was baptized by John Hobart in Casco Bay in Portland, Maine, and eagerly awaited Jesus to come again. In her later years, she referred to this as the happiest time of her life. Her family’s involvement with Millerism caused them to be disfellowshipped by the local Methodist church.
Marriage and family
Sometime in 1845 Ellen came into contact with her future husband James Springer White, a Millerite who became convinced that her visions were genuine.
The Millerite movement was started by William Miller, and it is famous for it’s failed prediction of the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus, referred to as “The Great Disapointment”.  A brief account of this historical event is found in Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, pages 12 to 14.
After fighting in the American War of 1812, Miller turned to the Bible to find “the Truth”.  His study of the Bible renewed his faith in God and Jesus and led to an obsession with biblical prophecy, which he studied in detail for two years. Based on his own interpretation of the book of Daniel, Miller concluded in 1818 that the end of the world would take place in 1843.  Miller did not initially try to spread the word and convince others that the end was at hand, but after five more years of study, “he began to tell neighbors and friends, and eventually ministers.” (Jesus, p.13).  A Christian movement began and blossomed , and “As the fated date approached, huge tent meetings and camps were arranged; thousands of people came to hear the good news, and many of them converted.”  (Jesus, p.13).
Many Millerites expected Jesus to return by the end of 1843.  But in January of that year, William Miller clarified his prediction to be that Christ would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.  “Those who had expected Christ’s return by the last day of 1843 were disappointed when the new year appeared, but they placed their hopes on the revised terminus ante quem in the spring.  The movement continued to thrive, picking up thousands of converts, until that date, too, came and went.”  (Jesus, p.13)
You would think that the failure of the predicted date would have put an END to the Millerite movement, but the followers of Miller were too emotionally invested in their  religious beliefs to be put off by mere facts.  Some enthusiastic Millerites began promoting October 22, 1844 as the new and correct date for the end of the world, and Miller came to endorse this prediction early in October:
This time the failure of the end to appear created particular hardship.  Their fervent hopes completely dashed, Millerite believers were subject to abject ridicule and, in some cases, real physical hardship: some of the faithful had quit their jobs to devote themselves to the mission of spreading the word; some farmers had left their crops in the field unharvested; some people had given away all their possessions…. Some never recovered from the non-event that historians have come to call “The Great Disappointment.”  (Jesus, p.14)
Ellen White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism, grew up as a Millerite.  She and her family embraced the foolish alarmist predictions of William Miller.
Ben Carson also embraces foolish alarmist prophecy that currently circulates in Seventh Day Adventist circles.  See, for example, his sermon at Avondale Memorial Church on July 12, 2014 ( Sermon begins at 17:05).  More importantly, Carson embraces the foolish alarmist political predictions of W. Cleon Skousen in The Naked Communist.  Not only does Carson personally embrace the alarmist predictions of Skousen, but Carson continually promotes the book The Naked Communist as well as some of Skousen’s key ideas from that book.
Carson spoke at the 108th Annual Meeting of The Manufacturers’ Association of South Central Pennsylvania on April 23rd, 2014, and he recommended this book:
It’s easy to find the literature on this: Marxist and neo-Marxist literature.  But it indicates that it is necessary in order to bring the United States under subjugation that you have to break its most powerful pillars.  And that is the family structure and their Judeo-Christian belief system.  And if you can bring those things under control, then you can definitely knock the people down, and if you can make the people dependent, then you can definitely bring the United States down.  And I encourage people to read those things, so they understand what’s going on. There is a book called The Naked Communist, written in 1958 by Leon [sic] Skousen, which outlines, back in 1958 it outlines everything that’s going on today, and the whole plan, and how it was to roll out. And I must give the secular progressives their due, because they have been very effective in bringing about the kind of change that they wanted to in this nation.  [53:33-55:24]
Carson spoke at the 2014 Annual Gala of the National Organization for Marriage on June 19th, 2014, and he recommended this book:
And there are so many forces that are there to try to destroy that unity–the only way to bring America down. If you look in a lot of the writings of the neo-Marxists, when they talk about the New World Order; they say there is only one stick in the mud: the United States. How do you get them out of the way? Or how do you change them? And they said there were two fundamental things: their Judeo-Christian faith and their strong families. Those were the things that had to be attacked, and those things have been systematically attacked over the last several decades. There is a book called The Naked Communist by Cleon Skousen, the same guy that wrote The 5,000 Year Leap, lays out the whole agenda of how to attack the family and the Judeo-Christian values to weaken the structure of America.  [18:19-20:02]
Carson was interviewed for WND TV by the founder and CEO of WND Joseph Farah on July 4th, 2014, and Carson recommended this book in the interview:
The mainstream media is never going to give you the right answers, because they’re part of the problem. There’s a book called The Naked Communist, it was written in 1958, uhh..Cleon Skousen, lays out the whole agenda, including the importance of getting people in important positions in the mainstream media so that they could help drive the agenda. Well, that’s what’s happening now. And, uh, we need to just move around them. [20:09-20:35]
Carson was interviewed on Fox News by Megyn Kelly on July 16, 2014, and he recommended this book during that interview:
That’s why I tell them to go read it for themselves: Vladimir Lenin, Saul Alinsky, Karl Marx. You know, uh, I mean these people, umm, just laid all this stuff out. And there was a guy who was a former CIA agent, by the name of Cleon Skousen, who wrote a book in 1958 called The Naked Communist, and it laid out the whole agenda. You would think by reading it, that it was written last year, showing what they’re trying to do to American families, what they’re trying to do to our Judeo-Christian faith, uh, what they’re doing to morality.  [5:05-6:45]
Carson was interviewed on Newsmax TV by J.D. Hayworth on September 9, 2014, and Carson recommended this book in the interview:
Well, I would say, uh, people should, uh, read a book called The Naked Communist. It was written in 1958 and it sorta shows the whole timeline of what would be necessary in terms of gaining control of school systems, of unions, and eventually being able to get a foothold in government, uh, the executive branch, uh, included, which includes the DOJ, and what could be done under those circumstances.  It was written in 1958. If you read it, you would think it was written last year.
Carson spoke at the  Iowa National Security Action Summit (hosted by The Center for Security Policy, in partnership with THE FAMILY LEADER Foundation and High Frontier) on May 16, 2015, and he recommended this book:
I think you’re absolutely right. This [anti-American agenda] has been going on long before this administration, though. This has been going on for thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s called “the progressive agenda”. And, uh, there’s a book, there’s a book called The Naked Communist by Cleon Skousen. It was written in 1958, and it goes through the agenda that they have here to fundamentally change our country. I recommend that book, because you would think it was written last year. But I, I believe that this is well orchestrated, and the thing that they need in order to finally achieve their goal is for people with common sense to keep their mouths shut. And that’s what we can’t do; we have to stand up for what we believe in.  [28:00-29:48]
Please don’t buy The Naked Communist.  Please don’t read The Naked Communist.  It is a big steaming pile of CRAP.  In the next post in this series, I will tell you all you need to know about this idiotic book and why Carson’s repeated recommendations of this book show that he is a political nutcase in addition to being a religious nutcase.

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 10

Here is my main objection to William Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus:
It is not possible for a person to rise from the dead until AFTER that person has actually died. Thus, in order to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, one must first prove that Jesus died on the cross. But in most of William Craig’s various books, articles, and debates, he simply ignores this issue. He makes no serious attempt to show that it is an historical fact that Jesus died on the cross.  For that reason, I’m convinced that Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.
Here is WLC’s main reply to my objection:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 
Craig supports this point by giving examples of biblical scholars who express great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross: Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.  In Parts 2 through 8 of this series, I have argued that the example of the biblical scholar Luke Johnson fails to support his point.  I will now argue that the same is true of the biblical scholar Robert Funk.
Craig quotes a part of a comment by Robert Funk:
In fact, the death of Jesus is so well established that according to Robert Funk, who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, the crucifixion of Jesus was “one indisputable fact” that neither the early Christians nor their opponents could deny.
The footnote for this quoted three-word phrase is rather vague:  “Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.”  The Jesus Seminar was in operation from 1985 to 1998, so a Jesus Seminar videotape could have been produced anytime in that fourteen-year window.  I have little hope of locating the particular Jesus Seminar videotape that this quote was taken from, so I have no way to either confirm the accuracy of the quote or to determine the meaning of the three-word phrase in the context of what Funk was talking about at that point.  I do not find this to be convincing evidence that Funk believed that the crucifixion of Jesus is a certain or nearly certain historical fact.
Furthermore, based on Funk’s comments in his book Honest to Jesus (published in 1996, hereafter: HTJ), it seems to me that although Funk believes that it is probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, Funk believes that this claim is less than certain, and that there can be reasonable doubt about this claim:
There is nothing in the Christian story, so far as I can see, that is immune from doubt.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question….We do not know for a fact that he was buried.  His body may have been left to rot on the cross, to become carrion for dogs and crows….Even the existence of Jesus has been challenged more than once and not without justification.  We should begin by admitting that all of these myths and legends may rest on nothing other than the fertile imagination of early believers. (HTJ, p.219-220)
The crucifixion is NOT “beyond question” according to Funk.  Even the very existence of Jesus as an historical person is NOT beyond question according to Funk.
This openness of Funk to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus is in keeping with Funk’s general skepticism.  In Chapter 1 of Honest to Jesus, Funk proposes seven ground rules for the quest of the historical Jesus.   Three of Funk’s seven ground rules clearly support a skeptical outlook in the study of Jesus:
Rule One
Human knowledge is finite.  It is fallible, limited, subject to correction.  If it were not, study and learning would be unnecessary.  This applies, willy-nilly, to the Bible, to the pope, to ecclesiastical bureaucrats and contemporary preachers alike.  And to scholars. (HTJ, p.24)
 Rule Five
In spite of the sciences, impressive methodological advances, and the knowledge explosion, we still cannot be certain that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality.
Aspects of what we think we see and hear, of what we believe we know, are almost certainly illusory.  The social world we inhabit as human beings was created for us by our historical and social contexts and by our own imaginations.  We are products, to a greater or lesser extent, of our own creative activity….One consequence of this arrangement is that we are constantly being deceived….illusion and error are a part of the human condition.  (HTJ, p.26)
Rule Seven
No matter how many illusions we dispel, no matter how firm the conclusions we reach this time around, we will turn out to be wrong in some way, perhaps in many ways, down the road.  Someone, somewhere, sometime will have to come along and correct our mistakes while adding their own. (HTJ, p.26)
Given this skeptical outlook, it is no surprise that Funk is open to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus and even to doubt about the existence of Jesus.  Funk rejects the view that the existence of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus are beyond question.
It is not merely this general skeptical outlook that casts doubt on the crucifixion, but a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk that cast significant doubt on the crucifixion of Jesus and the on the claim that Jesus died on the cross.  I will argue that if one accepts Funk’s various skeptical assumptions, then one cannot rationally conclude that it is nearly certain that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross.
Before I discuss Funk’s specific skeptical assumptions, however, I would like to touch on another aspect of Funk’s general viewpoint:  his cynicism.  I appreciate Funk’s cynicism.  Though Funk believes in God, and has some sort of very liberal belief or faith in Jesus, he is a kindred spirit, as far as I am concerned.   I appreciate Funk’s skepticism and his cynicism.
My own skepticism, I believe, arises out of cynicism, at least in part.   I suspect the same is true for many other skeptics, and it appears to me that Funk’s skepticism might also arise out of cynicism, at least in part.  So, I would like to share a few selected quotes that reflect Funk’s cynicism.
In the Prologue of Honest to Jesus, Funk lists ten of his personal convictions.  Two of them embody cynicism about human thinking:
8. I believe in original sin, but I take original sin to mean the innate infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.
9.  I have come to see that the self-deception inherent in “original sin” prompts human beings to believe that what they want is what they are really entitled to and what they will eventually get–things like unending life in another world and absolute justice in this.  I doubt that it will work out that way.  (HTJ, p.11)
Funk experesses cynicism about his own conversion experience (and about other Christian believers):
…in the exuberance of youth, I thought it extremely important to hold the correct opinions.  I didn’t really know what the correct opinions were, but friends and others around me seemed to know, so I embraced theirs when I could understand them and sometimes when I couldn’t.  Among them was the good confession.  In response to prompting, I said Jesus was my personal savior.  Nobody explained to me what that entailed.  It has taken me several decades to get even a hint of what it could mean.
Most of us cling to opinions received secondhand and worn like used clothing. … (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Americans in general:
I am happy to report that I am the victim of a good education.  I would undoubtedly have grown up opinionated, narrow-minded, and bigoted like many Americans, but I had the misfortune, or the good fotune, of having excellent teachers. (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Christian ministers:
I started out to be a parish minister but soon learned that passion for truth was not compatible with that role.  In self-defense I became a scholar. (HTJ, p.5)
Funk expresses cynicism about churches and seminaries:
In Jesus as Precursor, a book I wrote while teaching in the Divinity School, I concluded that theologians should abandon the cloistered precincts of the church and seminary  where nothing real was on the agenda.   I soon followed my own advice.
The longing for intellectual freedom drove me out of the seminary and into a secular university. … the university had become my church and learning my real vocation. (HTJ, p. 5)
… I discovered that by and large what my students learned in seminary did not get passed on to parish memebers; in fact, it seems to have little or no bearing on the practice of ministry at all.  I was chagrined to learn that I was investing in an enterprise with no prospect of return. (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about universities and academia:
The University of Montana taught me another hard lesson:  universities are much like churches, replete with orthodoxies of various kinds, courts of inquisition, and severe penalties for those who do not embrace mediocrity and the teacher’s union.  Preoccupation with political trivia and insulation from the real world eventually pushed me to abandon that final sanctuary.  (HTJ, p.5)
…my academic colleagues and I were trapped in a perpetual holding pattern dictated to us by a system of rewards and sanctions in the university.    That system prevented us, or at least discouraged us, from entering the public domain with learning that mattered.  In their book, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman define intellectuals as experts whose specialized knowledge is not wanted, is not even tolerated, by the general public.  (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about the general level of knowledge about religion and the Bible:
In our time, religious literacy has reached a new low in spite of our scholarship, in spite of the remarkable advances in research and publication our academic disciplines have made. (HTJ, p.5-6)
Jesus is a topic of wide public interest, and the ancient gospels are the subject of profound public ignorance. (HTJ, p.7)
All of this cynicism from Funk is found in the short Prologue of Honest to Jesus, and there is much more of this cynicism expressed in Chapters 1, 2, and 3, but I will spare you from any further cynical comments, and move on (in the next post) to taking a closer look at a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk.
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.