bookmark_borderBusted. Victor Reppert has Nailed Us. We Became Atheists for the Sex

OK fellow secularists, the game’s up. Victor Reppert has nailed us.
Secularist organizations seem to be having a lot of trouble with sexual harassment. 
 You have to ask “What did you think was going to happen?” One of the key selling points of secularism is that you don’t have to follow those benighted old restrictions on sexual conduct imposed by those nasty, prudish and repressive Christians. And then, lo and behold, vulnerable people are threatened by the out-of-control libidos of such “liberated” people.” 
 Surprise, surprise. Next thing you know, we will be finding out that gambling is going on in Casablanca.
Busted. Yes, we might as well admit it. We all became atheists for the same reason that Gene Simmons said he became a rock star, so that he could “BLEEP until his BLEEP fell off.” Confidentially to all you young guys out there, nothing, absolutely nothing, turns on attractive young women like dropping the hint that you are an atheist. “Read any Ingersoll lately, babe?” is a sure-fire pickup line. A Darwin Fish on the lapel is an irresistible magnet. Next time you are at a party, just put on some Jean Paul Sartre sophistication modified by a dash of Bertrand Russell cockiness and sidle up to the lady of your choice. Cock an eyebrow and ask if, while refreshing her drink, you might offer her a copy of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to peruse. If you go home alone, I’ll eat your copy of the Dialogues.

bookmark_borderJerry Coyne Criticizes A.C. Grayling’s Handling of God Arguments, But Coyne Gets It Wrong Himself

Jerry Coyne is a Harvard-educated, brilliant professor of biology who is an expert on biological evolution. His book, Why Evolution Is True, is a “must-read” for anyone interested in, well, why evolution is true.
He also likes to write about topics outside of his area of expertise, including the philosophy of religion. As I’ve explained before, non-experts have the right to write about topics outside their area of expertise, but they owe it to themselves and their readers to make sure they know what they are talking about. So, yes, Jerry Coyne has the right to publish criticisms of philosophical arguments. Furthermore, as I’ve written before, yes, Jerry, you have the right to criticize the entire discipline of the philosophy of religion.
It’s sad, however, that an atheist intellectual as influential as Coyne keeps making the same mistakes when writing about arguments for God’s existence. I’ve criticized his botched responses to various arguments for God’s existence before, including an argument from moral ontology (see here) and an evidential argument from moral agency (see here). (When I tried to submit a comment on Coyne’s website linking to the latter, Coyne blocked me from commenting on his website, lest I be allowed to present my side of the story to Coyne’s readers.)
We can now add cosmological arguments to the list bungled by Coyne. Allow me to set the context. Atheist philosopher Anthony Grayling recently debated Rabbi Daniel Rowe on God’s existence. I haven’t watched the video, but Coyne has watched it and was disappointed in Grayling’s performance. According to Coyne, Grayling made many mistakes, including the way he objected to Rowe’s cosmological argument.
First, here’s Coyne’s summary (or quotation?) of Rowe’s argument.

  • You can’t get a universe from nothing; there is a “law” that everything that begins has a cause. Ergo, God. In response to Krauss’s book about how you can get a universe from a quantum vacuum, Rowe responded, as do many theologians, that “nothing” is not a quantum vacuum—it’s just “nothing.”

Commenting on this argument, Coyne writes:

I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.” At any rate, the “law of causation” doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics, which has no such law. Some events really do seem uncaused.
Also, Rowe didn’t explain how one can get a god from nothing. Theologians like him always punt at this point, saying that God is the Cause that Didn’t Require a Cause, because He Made Everything. But that is bogus. What was God doing before he made something? Hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind?

These two paragraphs are simply embarrassing and unworthy of someone of Coyne’s intellectual stature. Let me be clear. I respect Jerry Coyne. He is undoubtedly far smarter than I am. I can only conclude that he could make such objections because he doesn’t take the topic seriously; if he bothered to take the topic more seriously, he’d have done a much better job. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why are these objections so bad?
Let’s go through them in detail.

I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.”

Coyne’s first mistake is his erroneous portrayal of the debate as if it were only ‘theologians’ who point out that, in the context of cosmological arguments for God’s existence, “nothing” means absolute nothingness (more on that in a moment). But that’s false. Atheist philosophers David Albert, Brian Leiter, Massimo Pigliucci, and Bede Rundle have also pointed this out. (I could be mistaken, but I think I can also add to this list atheist philosophers Paul Draper, Quentin Smith, and our very own Keith Parsons.) In fairness to Coyne, it should be noted that he never explicitly writes the words, “ONLY theologians disagree with Lawrence Krauss’s idea that a quantum vacuum is ‘nothing.'” But the fact remains that a reader who read nothing about cosmological arguments except Jerry Coyne’s website would get the false impression that it is ‘theologians’ vs. everybody else when it comes to the definition of “nothing.”
But his second mistake is the claim that defenders of cosmological arguments “never define what they mean by ‘nothing.'” Really? To cite just one example, William Lane Craig has clearly defined it. Commenting on a similar objection about the meaning of “nothing” made by Lawrence Krauss, Craig said in 2012:

Well, this is an incredible segment that you just played, Kevin, because here he accuses others of constantly redefining the word nothing, when that’s the project in which he is engaged. People like Leibniz and others who posed the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ knew what they meant by nothing. Nothing is a term of universal negation—it means, not anything. It’s Dr. Krauss who wants to redefine the word nothing to mean something, like the quantum vacuum or a state of affairs in which classical time and space do not exist. It is he who is engaged in the project of redefinition of nothing. So this is, I think, just completely wrong, and it illustrates, again, that he’s not answering the same question that Leibniz asked when he said ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Dr. Krauss is redefining the terms. Now, it’s also very interesting when he says the potential for existence is different than existence. The point is that potentialities lodge only in things that exist. So, for example, the potential for having a child lodges in the fertility of that woman and his own fertility to impregnate her, but you can’t have potentiality in non-being. Non-being has no properties; it has no potentialities. So the very fact that he’s talking about the potential for the existence of a universe shows that he is talking about something. He’s not talking about nothing. He’s talking about something that has potentialities and powers. And therefore this just underlines, again, that fact that he’s not dealing with the fundamental metaphysical question ‘why is there something rather than nothing at all?’ (LINK, emphasis mine)

Let’s go back to Coyne. Here’s the rest of the first of his two paragraph rebuttal to cosmological arguments.

At any rate, the “law of causation” doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics, which has no such law. Some events really do seem uncaused.

Although this response is a brilliant example of an ad hoc and uncharitable objection, it does not succeed. Let’s distinguish between (a) events which have a beginning in time; and (b) events which began with time, i.e., at t=0 (assuming that time did, in fact, have an absolute beginning). It seems to me that things which begin to exist in space and time — at least, those at the macro scale, i.e., excluding quantum particles — have a cause. To deny the previous sentence is equivalent to maintaining that it really is possible that cars, mountains, whales, or even planets could just pop into existence uncaused. I think that is not only false, but obviously false. So what, then, is the correct way to respond to the kalam cosmological argument, which says that “everything that begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause?”
One way might be to appeal to quantum indeterminacy: if events involving quantum particles can happen uncaused, then perhaps all of physical reality can begin to exist uncaused. To be charitable to Coyne, I’m assuming that is what he has in mind when he writes, “the ‘law of causation doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics…” In response, I’m going to pull a Coyne: I’ve heard this objection many times, but no one has ever explained how quantum indeterminacy is supposed to be relevant to the question of whether all of physical reality needs a cause.
My own, preferred objection is to point out the distinction between (a) events which have a beginning in time; and (b) events which began with time. We do know that events of type (a) have a cause; we don’t know that events of type (b) have a cause. We know of only one event of type (b) and that is the beginning of physical reality itself. And there is good reason to doubt that time (and so the beginning of the universe) have a cause. It’s logically impossible for time itself to have a cause since causes always precede their effects in time. So to say that time itself had a cause is to say, “Before time existed, something happened and then at a later time, time began to exist,” which is self-contradictory. (For more on this objection, including replies to counter-objections, see here.)
Let’s move onto Coyne’s next paragraph:

Also, Rowe didn’t explain how one can get a god from nothing. Theologians like him always punt at this point, saying that God is the Cause that Didn’t Require a Cause, because He Made Everything. But that is bogus. What was God doing before he made something? Hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind?

What is bogus is Coyne’s rude and condescending tone as he tries to saddle his favorite boogeyman, ‘theologians,’ with a position they have never accepted and, in fact, have always explicitly rejected. Presumably Rowe didn’t explain it because Rowe didn’t claim it. No theist claims that God came from nothing; that is a straw man of Coyne’s creation and an appallingly bad one at that. (In my opinion, Coyne’s objection to cosmological arguments is as bad as the creationist objection to evolution, “If humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” Both questions display a profound misunderstanding of the theory the objector seeks to discredit.) It’s as if Coyne has confused the definition of God (the triple-o, capital ‘G’ God of the philosophers) with gods (the lower-case ‘g’ gods of mythology, such as the Greek gods).
To avoid any misunderstandings, let me be clear: theism says that God (the triple-O, capital ‘G’ kind) exists and God did not ‘come from’ anything. Theists either claim that God is timeless (and so does not stand in temporal relations) or that God is eternal (and so God has existed for an infinite duration of time). Both options are incompatible with God ‘coming from nothing.’ So Coyne’s question, asking “How can God come from nothing?” is a category mistake, akin to the questions, “How much does the color lavender weigh?”, “What is the electric charge of the number 3?”, or “Why don’t mathematicians ever explain how it is possible to calculate the square root of 2 and get a rational number as the answer?”

bookmark_border25 Lines of Evidence Against Theism

Refutation of Anna Marie Perez

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First Paragraph

Here is Perez’s first paragraph:

Atheism is a religion.  Atheists act like Dracula confronting a cross when faced with the fact that their beliefs rely solely on faith.  They hate the word faith, even though it’s all they’ve got.  They try to make the claim that their religion is based on science, although actual science doesn’t support their claims any more than science can prove the existence of God.  When they are called out for having faith, they’ll say something like, “An absence of belief isn’t faith,” yet their claim of an absence of a belief is a lie.

Atheism is a religion in the same sense that baldness is a hair color, which is to say that atheism isn’t a religion at all. Although atheism, by itself, is not a religion; there can be atheistic religions. or example, I think some versions of Buddhism are atheistic, but I would definitely count Buddhism, in all of its forms, as a religion.
But let’s move onto her third sentence. Her third sentence is false. If she’s defining the word “faith” the same way as the Biblical book of Hebrews does (“confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”), then she’s wrong to assume that “atheists,” without qualification, hope that no God or gods exist and that there is no afterlife. Yes, there are some atheists who hope for those things, but there are other atheists who hope for the opposite, and many more atheists who are indifferent. But if she’s defining the word “faith” to mean “belief without evidence” or even “belief against the (weight of the total) evidence,” then she’s mistaken.
Let’s start with some definitions:

naturalism (N) =df. The physical exists and, if the mental exists, the physical explains why the mental exists.
supernaturalism (S) =df. The mental exists and, if the physical exists, the mental explains why the physical exists.

Naturalism (N) and supernaturalism (S) are mutually exclusive: they cannot both be true. But they are not jointly exhaustive: they can both be false. To account for the possibility that both N and S are false, we can introduce a third, ‘catch-all’ option:

otherism (O) =df. Both N and S are false.

If N is true, then atheism is true by definition because N denies the existence of all supernatural beings, including God. So one way to defend atheism is to defend N. And one way to defend N is to present evidence which is more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that theism (T) is true. That is precisely what I am going to do here, by presenting twenty-five lines of evidence which are more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true.
1. The Existence of the Universe
The universe–which may be defined as the sum total of all matter, energy, space, and time–exists. This fact is entailed by N: if N is true, then by definition the physical universe exists. But, although logically consistent with T, this fact is not entailed by T. If is true, God could create the universe, but God could also choose not to create the universe. Thus, contrary to the claims of both the Leibnizian and kalam versions of the cosmological argument, the existence of the physical universe is more probable on N than on T.[1]
In formal terms, the argument may be formulated as follows. If we let B be our background information; E be the existence of the universe; then the explanatory argument is as follows:
(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
(2) T is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(|T|) is not much greater than Pr(|N|).
(3) Pr(E | N & B) =1 > Pr(E | T & B).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & E) < 1/2.
2. The “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”
This argument may be summarized as follows:

(1) Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
(2) The universe had a beginning.
(3) Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material.

Now I think it is far from certain that (2) is true. Let’s make a distinction between:

(2a) The expansion/inflation of the universe had a beginning.


(2b) The universe itself had a beginning, viz., the universe began to exist.

It appears that (2a) is accepted by the vast majority of cosmologists. So let’s assume not only that (2a) is true, but that we know (2a) is true with certainty. It doesn’t follow that (2b) is true. In fact, as far as I can tell, (2b) does not enjoy the same widespread consensus among cosmologists as (2a) does. So there is reasonable doubt about (2b). But (2), like its theistic counterpart in the kalam cosmological argument, requires that (2b) is true. Because there is reasonable doubt about (2b), there is also reasonable doubt about (2).
But what if both (1) and (2b) are true? In that case, it would follow that (3) is true. But (3) entails the universe was not created ex nihilo, viz., created from (absolute) nothing. The falsity of creation ex nihilo is entailed by N (and physical reality’s existence is factually necessary and uncreated), but extremely unlikely (if not impossible) on T (and physical reality was either created ex nihilo or created ex deo [out of the being of God]).
3. The Continuing Existence of Physical Reality
Some theists, most notably Aquinas, talk about God as the “sustaining cause” of the universe. The idea is that even if the universe were eternal, it would somehow still require God to “sustain” it in existence. If God did not exist or, if God did exist but chose not to continue sustaining the universe, the universe would somehow cease to exist. So T is not only compatible with God never creating the universe at all, but also with the possibility of God creating the universe and causing or allowing it to cease to exist.
In contrast, if N is true, then there exists no being or thing capable of knocking physical reality out of existence. (If a multiverse exists, maybe there is a physical process which can “knock” baby universes out of existence just as there might be a physical process which can bring baby universes into existence. But there would be no physical process capable of knocking the multiverse as a whole out of existence.)
Since physical reality’s continuing existence is entailed by N but not by S, this is additional evidence favoring N over T.
4. The Scale of the Universe
Humans do not enjoy a privileged position in the universe, either spatially or temporally.[2] This fact is just slightly more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true. Why? Because it is slightly more likely on T than on N, though unlikely on both, that there would be a reason why we would have a spatially or temporally privileged position (e.g., God’s desire to relate to us immediately after His creation of the universe rather than waiting billions of years, God’s desire to emphasize our importance to Him, etc.).
Notice that this argument does not entail the claim that we would expect human beings to have a privileged position in the universe if T is true. I, for one, don’t think we have an antecedent reason on T to expect that humans would have a privileged position in the universe. For all we know, if God exists, God may have created embodied moral agents throughout the universe. Indeed, for all we know, if God exists, God may have created embodied moral agents in an infinite number of physical universes!
Just as it is easy to imagine antecedent reasons on T why humans would have a privileged position (e.g., God’s desire to relate to us immediately after His creation of the universe rather than waiting billions of years, God’s desire to emphasize our importance to Him, etc.), it is also easy to imagine antecedent reasons on T why humans would not have a privileged position (e.g., God’s desire that the non-human scale of the universe be an illustration of the vastness of God Himself, God’s desire to increase the maximize the beauty of the universe, etc.). Let’s call the former set of reasons “privilege-supporting reasons” and the latter “privilege-defeating reasons.” Based solely on the content of T, we have no reason to assign different probabilities to privilege-supporting reasons and privilege-defeating reasons.
While the last paragraph shows that we have no reason to give either set of reasons greater weight than the other, the privilege-defeating reasons are compatible with God giving many (to say the least) non-privileged positions to humans, while there are so few privileged positions.[3] Thus, the specific way in which humans have a non-privileged position in the universe is (slightly) more probable on N than on T, even if the non-privileged position of humans in the universe (generically speaking) is equally probable on both T and N.
5. Evidence from the Hostility of the Universe to Life
So much of the universe is highly hostile to life, such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth. This more probable on N than it is on T.
6. The Unimpressiveness of Human Beings Compared to the Abilities of God
The omnipotence of God is taken for granted in the context of theistic arguments like the cosmological argument, the cosmic design argument (aka the misnamed ‘fine-tuning argument’), and arguments about alleged miracles. But the relationship of God’s omnipotence to his alleged creation or design of human beings is neglected. As Draper explains:

Or consider the fact that the most intelligent and most virtuous life form we know to exist is merely 20 human. While we are no doubt wondrous simians in many respects, given theism one might have expected something more impressive, something more worthy of the creative capacities and concerns of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being.[4]

So the unimpressiveness of human beings, relative to the abilities of God, is much more probable on N than it is on T.
7. Complex Life Evolved from Simple Life
Intelligent life is the result of evolution. For a defense, see the Talk.Origins archive. See also my refutation of Perez’s third paragraph.
To be sure, biological evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution to create life. But if T were true, God could have also used many other methods to create life, methods which are impossible if naturalism is true. Here are just two examples. First, God could have created living things according to a literal interpretation of the Genesis chronology. Second, God could have created all things simultaneously, i.e., on the same “day,” in contradiction to a literal interpretation of the Genesis chronology. Both of these examples show that God, as an omnipotent being, was not required to use evolution in order to create life.
In contrast, if N is true, evolution pretty much has to be true. Furthermore, since T implies a metaphysical dualism, it is antecedently likely on T that minds are fundamentally nonphysical entities and therefore that conscious life is fundamentally different from nonconscious life. But this in turn makes it likely that conscious life was created independently of nonconscious life–that evolution is false. Thus, the scientific fact of biological evolution is more likely on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true.[5]
8. The Biological Role (and Moral Randomness) of Pain and Pleasure
Physical pain and pleasure plays the same biological role as other biological systems, i.e., physical pain and pleasure aid survival and reproduction. But from a moral point of view, the distribution of pain and pleasure appears random.[6]
For example, consider the horrific suffering endured by someone who slowly burns to death while trapped at the top of a burning building, or the pain endured by someone dying from a terminal illness. Feeling pain while burning is generally useful because it alerts and motivates the organism to a direct threat to their survival. But such pain serves no biological use whatsoever in situations where the organism is unable to avoid death. And from a moral point of view, it is intrinsically bad that they have to experience such horrific suffering. In such cases, it would be better if they could “flip a switch” and turn off the biological structure(s) which make pain possible.
Likewise, consider the orgasmic pleasure experienced by male rapists. It’s generally useful for men to derive pleasure from orgasm because of the role it plays in reproduction. But if anything is morally bad, surely rape is. Once again, it appears that pain and pleasure play a biological role but are morally random. It’s as if certain gratuitous experiences of pain and pleasure occur only because the biological system isn’t ‘fine-tuned’ enough to prevent such experiences.
This is precisely what we would expect if N is true (and blind nature is indifferent to the moral value of pain and pleasure), but very, very much surprising if T is true (and there exists a God who would have both the means and the motive to have the morality and biology of pain and pleasure better aligned). If N is true, then all living things are the product of unguided evolution by natural selection; there seems to be no way for creatures to have evolved so that they only feel pain when it will aid survival. In contrast, if T were true, God could “fine tune” humans so that they experience pain only when it is necessary for some greater good. If God did exist, what possible reason could He have for allowing people trapped in burning buildings or people with terminal illnesses to endure such agonizing pain until they finally die? The chances that such a reason would intersect with the biological goal of survival is pretty slim. Thus, the biological role of pain and pleasure is much more likely on N than on T.
9. Intelligibility of the Universe without the Supernatural
If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic (i.e., non-supernatural) explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on N–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on T. Thus the history of science is some evidence for N and against T.
10. Human Mental Dependence upon the Physical
Scientific evidence shows that human consciousness and personality are highly dependent upon the brain. In this context, nothing mental happens without something physical happening. That strongly implies that the mind cannot exist independently of physical arrangements of matter. In other words, we do not have a soul. And this is exactly what we would expect if N is true. But T predicts the opposite. First, if T is true, then God is a disembodied mind; God’s mind is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. Second, if T is true, then souls or, more generally, minds that do not depend on physical brains, are a real possibility. It is no coincidence that theists have traditionally believed in the existence of other supernatural persons, besides God, who also have disembodied minds, e.g., angels and demons. For these reasons, then, it is hardly surprising that until neuroscience discovered the dependence of the mind upon the brain, all or virtually all theists were dualists. It was not until after these discoveries were made, were theists forced to reexamine their dualism and consider ad hoc hypotheses like dualist-interactionism instead. But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that is evidence against both the existence of souls and the existence of any being who is supposed to have a unembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is unlikely if T is true, but what we would expect if N is true.
11. Neurological Basis for Moral Handicaps
In many cases, our ability to choose do morally good actions depends upon our having properly functional emotional capacities, especially empathy, i.e., our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.[7]  We now know, thanks to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that certain brain abnormalities cause people to experience less or even no empathy.[8] For example, violent psychopaths may know in some abstract sense that their behavior is morally wrong, but utterly lack the affective capacity for empathy which enables them to understand the impact of their actions on others’ feelings.[9]
While T is compatible with a neurological basis for moral handicaps, the fact that at least some moral handicaps can be explained neurologically is much more probable on N than on T. If T is true, then that means both

(a) God creates some human beings with moral handicaps that are not the result of the freely chosen actions of any human being;


(b) These moral handicaps make it more likely that they will harm others.

What moral justification would God have for allowing both (a) and (b) to obtain? This seems utterly surprising and completely random from a theistic, moral point of view, but precisely what we would expect on N (and blind nature is indifferent to the moral consequences of brain abnormalities).[10]
12. Flourishing and Languishing of Sentient Beings
Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy. An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives, and almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives. If naturalistic evolution is true, this is what we would expect. If all living things are in competition for limited resources, then the majority of those organisms will not survive long enough to thrive. Moreover, even those organisms that do thrive for much of their lives will, if they live long enough, deteriorate. However, if T is true, why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Does anyone really believe that this could be morally justified? The fact that so few sentient beings ever flourish is more likely on N than on T.[11]
13. Self-Centeredness and Limited Altruism of Human Beings
Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.
As Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper has argued, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain on Darwinian naturalism.[12]  The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.
On T, either God created humans directly (special creation) or indirectly (Darwinian theism or theistic evolution).  Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, T entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. And that’s a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need.[13]
14. Triumph and Tragedy
There are three additional facts about good and evil which favor N over T.
First, to paraphrase Paul Draper, our world contains much horrific suffering and relatively little glorious pleasure. As he puts it, “Indeed, triumph is the exception and tragedy the rule on our planet, where the deepest and the best aspirations of human beings are routinely crushed by a variety of circumstances beyond their control.”[14]
Second, horrific suffering often destroys a person, at least psychologically, and prevents them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually.[15]
Third, many people do not seem to feel God’s comforting presence during tragedies.[16] Just as loving parents would, say, comfort a child undergoing chemotherapy, we would expect a loving God to comfort human beings who suffer as the result of tragedies. If T is true, then God loves his creatures and wants all of his creatures to love Him in return. However, many people find it hard to love God when they do not understand the reasons for their suffering and God seems so far away. In other words, even if God has a reason for allowing tragedies, He could still comfort victims of suffering so that they know He loves them. Yet there are many victims of tragedies who report not feeling God’s comforting presence. This is not at all what we would expect if T were true. However, if N is true, we would expect victims of tragedies not to experience God’s comforting presence for the simple reason that there is no God. Thus, God’s silence in the face of tragedies is much more probable on N than on T.
Now, ask yourself: if God exists, why is there so much horrific suffering and so little glorious pleasure? Even after thousands of years of theological reflection, theistic philosophers still have no idea. They just assume that there must be a reason for God allowing evil. For example, Alvin Plantinga, one of the most influential theistic philosophers of our time, admitted, “Many of the attempts to explain why God permits evil … seem to me shallow, tepid, and ultimately frivolous.”[17] Naturalists, on the other hand, have a plausible explanation: there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing being to intervene. Therefore, facts about triumph and tragedy are much more likely on N than on T.
Of course, it’s logically possible that God has a reason for allowing tragedies, a reason we humans do not understand. But it’s also logically possible–and no less likely–that God has extra reasons for preventing tragedies, reasons we also do not understand.
15. Ethical Disagreement
The philosophical discipline of ethics is notorious for its controversy. Not only do philosophers disagree over general ethical theory (such as utilitarianism vs. deontological ethics), they also genuinely disagree about the morality of specific acts, like war, abortion, the death penalty, gun control, and sexual behavior.
The problem is not just that people disagree about morality. The problem is also that theists, including Christians, disagree about morality. Now this tends to be very awkward for the Christian. A Christian, at least if he admits there is genuine ethical disagreement, has to believe both that God wants humans to behave morally and that He has left them in the dark about whether specific kinds of behavior are morally acceptable.
On B, however, there is no God, just impersonal nature. And impersonal nature gives us even less reason to expect moral agreement than T does. So ethical disagreement is more probable on N than on T.
16. Moral Progress and the Lack of Moral Prophets
Not only is there ethical disagreement in modern times, but there is ethical disagreement across different time periods throughout human history. To cite just one example: slavery was once widely considered moral, whereas it is now widely considered massively immoral. Ethical relativists will cite this phenomenon as evidence that morality is relative to culture, while moral objectivists interpret this same fact as evidence of moral progress.
If T is true, why aren’t there “moral prophets” in the sense that they clearly perceive objective moral truths which are ahead of their time, such as someone 2,000 years ago declaring that slavery, misogyny, and homophobia are wrong? Why do we instead observe moral progress? For example, why did much of humanity, for most of human history, believe that slavery was morally acceptable? What possible moral justification could God have for allowing people, on such a massive scale, to have mistaken moral beliefs about so many things?
If we make an analogy between God and human parents, believing in T and moral progress is analogous to a human parent letting children believe that it’s okay to, say, hit other people, until the children grow up to become teenagers, at which point the children “discover” that assault is not so morally acceptable after all. Since a good human parent would never do this, why would a good God do this?
In contrast, if N is true, blind nature is indifferent to whether people have correct moral beliefs.[18] Thus, moral progress and the lack of moral prophets is more likely on N than on T.
17. Nonresistant Nonbelievers
There are people who do not believe that God exists.[19] At least some of those people are “nonresistant” nonbelievers—that is, their nonbelief is “not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”[20] Such nonbelievers are open to having a relationship with God—in fact, they may even desire it—but are unable to have such a relationship.
Given that human beings exist, the fact that some of them are nonresistant nonbelievers is much more probable on the assumption that N is true (and blind nature is indifferent to religious belief) than on the assumption that T is true (and there exists a perfectly loving God who would ensure that a meaningful relationship was always available to those He loves).
18. Former Believers
As Schellenberg points out, such individuals, “from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief. If theism is true, indeed, then these individuals already were in relationship with God and the loss of belief has terminated that relationship.” [21]
19. Lifelong Seekers
Schellenberg defines lifelong seekers are ”individuals who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find.”[22]
20. Converts to Nontheistic Religions
As Schellenberg puts it, there are individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication.[23]
21. Isolated Nontheists
Here is Schellenberg again: “those who have never been in a position to resist God because they have never so much as had the idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful spiritual being who is separate from a created universe but related to it in love squarely before their minds–individuals who are entirely formed by, and unavoidably live their whole lives within, what must, if God exists, be a fundamentally misleading meaning system.”[24]
22. The Geographical Distribution of Theistic Belief
The distribution of theistic belief is uneven around the world. Why does the epistemic or moral defectiveness of non-believers vary dramatically with cultural and national boundaries? For example, why is more than 95% of Saudi Arabia Muslim, while Thailand is 95% Buddhist and only 5% theist? Given the widely held assumption that, generically speaking, epistemic and moral defects are evenly distributed among the world’s peoples, it is hard to see how that question could be answered.[25]
23. The Temporal Distribution of Theistic Belief
Maitzen argues that especially compared to naturalistic explanations, none of the theistic explanations of blameworthy or blameless non-belief accounts for how the global incidence of theistic belief has varied dramatically during the existence of the human species.[26]
24. God’s Silence About His Purpose(s) for Creating Humans
If humankind was created for a purpose by God and had a role to play in carrying out this purpose, then God would want us to have a possibility of achieving our role so that he would have a possibility of achieving His goal. For us to have a possibility of achieving the purpose for which we were created, we would need to understand our role in carrying out this purpose. The purpose for which humanity was created is unclear in the Bible and elsewhere. Despite the lack of clarity regarding the purpose of life, God has not provided any clarification about his purpose or our role. God would not have chosen to remain silent about our role in carrying out his purpose because, following from the first premise, this would be self-defeating. Therefore, humankind was not given a role to play in carrying out a purpose of God.[27]
This may also be categorized as another, more specific fact about divine hiddenness. Why? Despite the lack of clarity regarding the purpose of life, it is antecedently more probable on T than on N that God not only created humans for a purpose, but that humankind would be given a role to play in carrying out that purpose. For the same reason, the lack of any role for humankind to play in carrying out God’s purposes is evidence favoring N over T.
25. The Distribution, Types, and Effects of Religious Experience
Theists will often appeal to religious experience as evidence favoring over N. But the fact that people have religious experiences hardly exhausts what we know about the distribution, types, and effects of those experiences.[28]
First, not everyone has theistic experiences. Given that some people have religious experiences, the fact that not everyone does have such experiences is more likely on N than on T.
Second, those who do have religious experiences almost always have either a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to theistic religion. The distribution of theistic experiences we find is antecedently more likely given N than given T.
Third, the subjects of religious experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others. Theism gives us reason to expect that worshiping God is a source of moral strength, a source not available to those who do not worship God, and so T gives us some reason to ‘predict’ that theists would live significantly more moral lives than atheists. The fact, if it is a fact, that no one religious path has produced significantly more moral fruit than another would be more likely if all of these experiences are delusory (which follows from N) than if some or all are genuine revelations from God (and T is true).[29]
So once the evidence about religious experience is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that that it favors T over N.


[1] Indeed, when properly understood, it becomes clear that neither the Leibnizian nor the kalam versions of the cosmological argument are arguments from the existence of the universe. Rather, the former is an argument from the contingency of the universe and the latter is an argument from the beginning of the universe.
[2] This is based on a brief sketch of an AS in Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 199-200.
[3] I owe this point to Paul Draper.
[4] Paul Draper, “God and Evil: A Philosophical Inquiry,” 19-20.
[5] Paul Draper, “Evolution and the Problem of Evil” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (3rd ed., ed. Louis Pojman, Wadsworth, 1997), pp. 219-230; cf. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion (Mayfield, 2001), chapter 6.
[6] Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists” Nous 23 (3): 331-350 (1989).
[7] Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 16.
[8] Baron-Cohen 2012, 39.
[9] As Baron-Cohen points out, the neurological basis for moral handicaps challenges traditional views about moral responsibility. “If zero degrees of empathy is really a form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done? This gets tangled up with the free will debate, for if zero degrees of empathy leaves an individual to some extent “blind” to the impact of their actions on others’ feelings, then surely they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment.” See Baron-Cohen 2012, 160.
[10] Some theists have pointed out that moral evil, such as fallen angels or demons choosing to do evil, might explain so-called “natural evils.” This argument makes the inverse point: certain natural evils explain at least some moral evil.
[11] Paul Draper, “Darwin’s Argument from Evil” in Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion (ed. Yujin Nagasawa, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 49-70 at 61.
[12] Draper 2012.

[13] Draper 2012.
[14] Draper 2013, 73.
[15] Paul Draper, “Evil and Evolution,” unpublished paper. Cf. J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 243-69. Cf. Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” in The Problem of Evil (ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 209-221.
[16] William Rowe, “The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder, Indiana University Press, 1996), 276.
[17] Alvin Plantinga, “Epistemic Probability and Evil” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 70.
[18] For the sake of simplicity, I am using “moral beliefs” as a catch-all phrase to include beliefs about both ethical and non-ethical propositions, and so “moral progress” over time  includes correcting past, mistaken beliefs of both types.
[19] This sentence, of course, assumes that at least some (if not most) professions of atheism are genuine. Those familiar with intra-Christian debates on apologetic methodologies will notice that I have just ruled out the claim of some (or all?) presuppositionalists, namely, that there are no atheists and instead there are only professed atheists. I agree with  John Schellenberg: “it would take something like willful blindness to fail to affirm that not all nonbelief is the product of willful blindness (even if some of it is).” See J.L. Schellenberg, “What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof” God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (, 2008.
[20] Schellenberg 2008.
[21] Schellenberg 2007, 229.
[22] Schellenberg 2007, 233.
[23] Schellenberg 2007, 236.
[24] Schellenberg 2007, 238.
[25] Stephen Maitzen, “Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism” Religious Studies 42 (2006): 177-91.
[26] Maitzen 2006.
[27] Brook Alan Trisel, “God’s Silence as an Epistemological Concern” The Philosophical Forum, 43 (2012): 383–393.
[28] Paul Draper, “God and Perceptual Evidence” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992): 149-65.
[29] Paul Draper used this argument in a debate with William Lane Craig on the existence of God, but he now believes that there is insufficient sociological evidence to prove that theists do not live more moral lives than atheists. I have chosen to follow Draper’s lead, so I have presented this point tentatively.

bookmark_borderA Nasty Christian Apologist Defends the Indefensible

There are many nice Christian apologists out there. To cite just four of several examples, (1) Glenn Miller; (2) Randal Rauser; (3) Trent Horn; and (4) Sean McDowell have both been extremely gracious as dialogue partner (1 & 2) or host (3&4). But there are also some nasty ones who apparently didn’t get the memo about 1 Peter 3:15. About a month ago, I had a run-in on Twitter with one of the nasty ones: Anna Maria Perez (@A_M_Perez). She has roughly 100,000 followers and won’t hesitate to use that fact to put down critics who don’t command an equally large following. Perez describes herself as a “constitutional conservative” who is “Pro 2nd Amendment.” She runs a website devoted to the defense of the (U.S.) Second Amendment right to bear arms, but she also posts on a variety of other topics of interest to conservatives. Her modus operandi is verbal abuse (e.g., name calling, insults, put downs, chronic forgetting, blaming, etc.) and, like any narcissist, she does not handle criticism well–at all. Accordingly, she has zero interest in genuine dialogue with anyone who disagrees with her. People who have the audacity to challenge her statements–the horror!–will find themselves on the receiving end of a spew of insults before being blocked.
I learned all of this the hard way, when I dared to respond to a tweet promoting her October 12, 2015 post, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist!” Having already written a comprehensive rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s book by the same name, I was already very familiar with the kinds of arguments Geisler and Turek use in their book. So I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find Perez using the same, refuted arguments. When I pointed out the various fallacies in their (and her) arguments, I was called:

  • idiot
  • loon
  • retarded
  • moron
  • stupid
  • ill
  • buffoon

I’m surprised she left out “Village Atheist.”
Each of the tweets containing these insults were “liked” by many of her followers, some of whom piled on with insults of their own. My personal favorite was when one of her followers asked me, “Are you deliberately stupid, or can I sell you a bridge?”
The insults were so over-the-top that I actually found the entire experience rather funny. They were also validating, but not in the way Perez intended. In my experience, when an opponent relies so heavily on personal insults, it is often done to mask some deep feeling of inadequacy, such as not having the evidence or arguments to back up their claims. So when I find myself in the debate equivalent of a “street fight,” I just smile and think to myself, “I just won the debate.” But enough about her insults. Let’s move onto her fallacious arguments, which I will refute over the course of multiple posts.


Refutation of Anna Marie Perez

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bookmark_borderHate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Sigh. I miss Jerry Falwell. Of all the fundamentalist loudmouths and rabble-rousers, he was the one I most loved to hate. He was absolutely dependable. Whatever the topic or context he was reliably sanctimonious, unctuous, bigoted, and utterly detestable. Other soldiers in the army of the night were just as obnoxious, like Jimmy Swaggart (“I have sinned against you.”), but they tended to be so dumb that they were more comical than offensive. I used to laugh out loud when Swaggart would point to the TV camera and directly address all of us “evil-lutionists,” and “seck-u-lar humanists” and tell us how we were bound for “hay-ull.” Falwell, however, was clever. When interviewed by, say, Ted Koppel, he was always too slick to be pinned down. For instance, when Koppel or someone asked him how Christians could claim to be showing charity when they hated gay people, he replied that Christians did not hate homosexuals. They loved the sinner while hating the sin.
One often hears fundagelicals voicing some version of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mantra. How much credence should we give such pronouncements? To me, it was clear that Falwell’s statement was nauseating hypocrisy. Obviously, on the contrary, Falwell loved the sin and hated the sinner. He loved the “sin” because it have him a clear conscience to hate the “sinner.” His true feelings were absolutely transparent when his words dripped with contempt for gay people. I wondered how he would react if I turned the tables and said something like this: “Rev. Falwell, I think your beliefs are a sick joke and the God you worship is a moral monster. I despise everything you stand for. But, rest assured, I love you.” Would he have bought it?
Is it possible to hate the sin and love the sinner? Sure, in some cases. If your kid steals something, you will still love your kid while hating what he did. But what if the “sin” is not something like lying or stealing but a deep personality trait, something the person regards as fundamental to his or her identity, something like one’s sexuality? Is it possible to love someone while regarding his or her sexual nature as sick, depraved, and disgusting? Well, again, maybe in some cases, but what if the person embraces that sexual nature that you despise and even proudly identifies with it and insists that others accept it? Fundamentalists make it very clear that they regard homosexuality as just as bad as pedophilia or bestiality. Would they claim to love the brazen, unapologetic pedophile? If they did, would anyone but another fundamentalist believe them?
More to the point, when you hear someone attacking your sexuality, supposing that you unapologetically embrace it, are you not justified in hearing it as an attack on you? Whatever your sexuality, somebody will not like it, even if you are a completely boring, vanilla, non-kinky heterosexual. I recently read a review by Peter Debruge of Variety of the new movie The Shallows. The Shallows stars bikini-clad Blake Lively and a very large, very truculent CGI great white shark (I am a sucker for shark movies). In his review, Debruge decries the camera’s treatment of Ms. Lively:
“The camera is right there at bust level when she strips off her shirt to reveal a fluorescent orange bikini, and it shamelessly accentuates her curves as she paddles out to meet her fate, as if begging us to question which is more predatory: the shark or the lecherous gaze…”
Whoa! Is Debruge saying that if we shamelessly admire Ms. Lively’s curves we are being as offensively predatory as the shark?!? Now, I am old, but I am not dead. Even if I make it to 103, I imagine that I will still admire a young woman’s curves. (I reject the offensive term “dirty old man.” “Senescent sensualist” is correct.) In other words, it seems to me that Debruge is not attacking sexism but sexuality, mine and billions of others’.
The point is simply that when you perceive someone as rejecting your sexuality, it feels like a hostile act. Fundamentalists can go on as much as they like about loving the “sinner,” but they should hardly be surprised if the “sinner” does not perceive it as love.

bookmark_borderEven Trolls can be Useful for Rational Discussion

Secular Outpost prides itself on hosting serious discussions about serious issues. Many other sites, atheist or religious, are more devoted to dogmatic debunking and ridicule. Over the years, I have enjoyed and benefitted from many discussions with intelligent and informed believers who share my conviction that reasonable people of good faith can differ widely in their views, even on religious questions. Sometimes, a commenter will begin by sounding abrasive, dismissive, or sarcastic, but will wind up as a civil and rational interlocutor.
Then there are trollish comments that are hopelessly rude, dumb, and display an astonishing depth of ignorance. Generally, it is best to ignore these since any attempt at responding politely and rationally would be the proverbial casting of pearls before swine. Sometimes, though, a dumb comment will contain the germ of an argument that, in dressed-up garb, is found in much more sophisticated contexts. In this case, a boorish and fatuous comment can actually be useful. Such a comment can show clearly the fallacies that are less obvious in the more sophisticated versions, where the flaws are often hidden by the more intelligent and coherent presentation.
Here is a portion of a comment I recently got in response to my previous post “After Orlando: We need a Dave Dennis Moment.” My post decried homophobia and its murderous effects. The commenter seems to think that I have no right to make an appeal to human dignity:
“The irony here is that Parsons’s moral dignity is based on attacks on what, in his own view, are merely temporary chance arrangements of mindless material particles. The fact that they somehow generate consciousness for a flickering moment of cosmic history is just an accident and one that will soon be over as eventually the mindless cogs of the universe will extinguish them. The surprise is that anyone who holds this view would imagine that any one particular chance concatenation of matter somehow is more valuable than any other chance conglomeration of matter, say a blob of snot for instance.”
The problems with this statement are obvious. The writer makes gratuitous assumptions about what I or other atheists believe and then asks how his straw man can hold one “chance concatenation of matter” (a human being) to be more valuable than another (a blob of snot). Neither I nor any atheist I know holds that human beings are products of only random events. For instance, over the course of evolution, the variations that are preserved in succeeding organic populations are not selected at random; it is not the case that each variation has an equal chance of being selected. Rather, natural selection preservers the variations that are adaptive, i.e. those which give its possessor a competitive advantage in the ambient environment. Of course, natural selection is an unplanned and impersonal process, as are all natural processes. Exercising maximum charity, I will assume that the commenter meant only to say that I and other atheists hold that humans are the products of unplanned and impersonal causes. In that case, the conclusion about human dignity is a textbook non sequitur. Glaringly missing is a premise to the effect that no entity produced by an unplanned and impersonal cause can possess dignity.
What would supply the missing premise? It would blatantly beg the question to assert that personal dignity can only originate from another personal being. Further, whatever other qualities a theist might hold to constitute or underpin human dignity—e.g. rationality, moral responsibility, consciousness, love and compassion—could count for the atheist as well. The atheist simply sees no reason why a being with such attributes could not have developed from a natural, lawful, unplanned process. Humans could be “created in the image of God,” metaphorically speaking, even if God did not create them. At least, the burden of proof would be on the theist to show why this is not feasible.
In general, what can nature not accomplish? The only possible reasonable answer would come down to the powers and liabilities of natural entities as we have observed those to be. Which such observations would tell us that creatures with the qualities that constitute human dignity cannot be a product of the natural world? Until and unless we have such an account, sneers such as the above quoted comment can be nothing but sneers.
Maybe, though, in the end it would have been better just to reply to the comment with another that is equally sneering, hateful, and contemptuous. It would be good, clean, dirty fun, and I just cannot resist:
The irony here is that Christians base human dignity upon the idea that we are the creation of a primitive, jealous, and wrathful tribal god who is a homicidal ogre that has not the least compunction about committing gross atrocities. They somehow think that human dignity arises from slavish submission to this divine despot, the very image of the arbitrary tyrant. For Christians, therefore, human “dignity” consists in abject groveling before overwhelming power.
Sauce for the gander, and at least as polite and fair as the comment addressed to me.

bookmark_borderDebate: The External Evidence for Jesus – Part 1

Joe Hinman’s first argument for the existence of Jesus is based on references to Jesus in the Talmud:

We know Jesus was in the Talmud and that is a fact admitted by Rabbis.  Some references use his name (Yeshua) some use code words such as “such a one” or “Panthera”.  The reason codes are used, is that the commentators censored the works and removed overt reverences [sic] to Jesus (although they missed some) to prevent Christians from inflicting persecution.  We have many of the out takes in various libraries such as Cambridge.

According to Hinman, it is not merely the fact that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud that confirms the existence of Jesus but also the way that those passages speak about Jesus:

The point is he is always taken as a historical figure. 

Since there are allegedly multiple (more than one) references in the Talmud  that “use his name”  and there are allegedly multiple references in the Talmud that “use code words” to refer to Jesus, and since there are allegedly “many” references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored, and also some (a few?) additional references that were NOT censored, Hinman is implying that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud, at that ALL of these several references speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood “historical figure”.
Here is how I would summarize Joe Hinman’s first argument:

1. There are MANY references to Jesus in the Talmud that were censored but that were preserved in some texts.

2. There are A FEW references to Jesus in the Talmud that were not censored.

3. ALL of the references to Jesus in the Talmud speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.

4. IF (1), (2), and (3) are true, THEN the external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.


5. The external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.

In order to show that premise (1) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least five or six quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored.  In order to show that premise (2) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least three or four quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that were not censored.
If there were only about a dozen references to Jesus in the Talmud, then in order to show that premise (3) is true, I would expect Hinman to show that in each one of those references, Jesus was spoken of in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.  If, however, there were dozens of references to Jesus in the Talmud, I would not expect Hinman to walk through each and every such reference, but I would expect that he would discuss a significant sample of those references (perhaps a dozen passages) that included a number of passages from various areas of the Talmud, and that included both censored passages and non-censored passages.
Looking over the evidence that Hinman presents about the alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud,  it seems to me that his evidence is too skimpy to adequately support his factual premises (1), (2), and (3).  I also think that premise (4) is false or dubious, at least as it stands.  The principle stated in premise (4) will, I believe, need to be modified to be made plausible, and if it is modified to make it plausible, there may be some additional claims or premises required to make this argument work.  I suspect that repairing premise (4) will reveal a gap in Hinman’s first argument, and that he will have more work to do to fill in that gap.  We shall see.
Before we start to examine specific passages from the Talmud, let’s review some background information about the Talmud from the N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman:

The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings.  Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers.  The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.

The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law, based on oral traditions that had long been in circulation, and written in the early third century, some two hundred years after Jesus would have died.  Most of the Talmud, however, consists of a series of commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishnah, called Gemara.  there are two different sets of these commenaries, one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine, the other produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 66-67)

So there are two main categories of writtings in the Jewish Talmud:

  • the Mishnah (written in the early third century)
  • the Gemara (commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishna)

The Gemara contains two different sets of commentaries:

  • one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine
  • another produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon

In order to provide sufficient evidence to support the factual premises of his argument, Hinman needs to provide about a dozen quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, at least five or six passages that can be shown to have been censored, and at least three or four passages that were not censored, and a total of about twelve passages (if there are that many) that are ALL shown to speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Ideally, all of the quoted passages would be from the Mishna, which is the oldest part of the Talmud that was written down early in the early third century.  But if there are not that many references to Jesus from the Mishna, then as many as possible should be from the Mishna, and the remainder of the quoted passages would be from the commentaries on the Mishna that make up the Gemara.
So how many passages does Joe Hinman quote from the Talmud? How many of those passages are from the Mishna? There are zero quotes from the  Talmud on Hinman’s initial (overview) web page.  If you click the link for his details about references to Jesus in the Talmud, you will go to a lengthy blog post that contains numerous quotations, but only a few quotations in that post are from the Talmud.  More specifically, only FOUR passages are quoted from the Talmud by Hinman.  Hinman fails to provide the dozen or more quotations that are needed to do an adequate job of supporting the factual premises of his argument.
Furthermore, TWO of the quotations from the Talmud consist of a single brief sentence that is (apparently) found in two different sections of the Bablylonian Talmud.  Hinman provides a block quote from Encyclopaedia Hebraica that contains the one-sentence quotation from the Talmud. Here is the relevant portion of that block quote:

From the stories about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, it is evident that he was regarded as a rabbinical student who strayed into evil ways: “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself like Jesus the Nazarene” (Ber. 17b; Sanh. 103a; cf. Dik. Sof. ad loc.).

I’m generously counting this as TWO quotations, since it appears to be a sentence found in TWO different parts of the Babylonian Talmud.
Since the Bablyonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, these two passages were produced hundreds of years after the death of Jesus.  So, there is an OBVIOUS issue of historical relevance here, and an OBVIOUS issue of independence.  First, how do we know that these passages reflect the views of rabbis from the first or second century (as opposed to the third, fourth, or fifth century), in order for the passage to be of historical relevance?
Second, even if it could be shown somehow that these two passages accurately reflect the views of rabbis back in the 2nd century or even near the end of the first century, since the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE, how can we know that this view of those rabbis was not indirectly based on Christian beliefs and traditions that were in turn based on the Gospel of Mark (or one of the other 1st century writings contained in the NT)?
There is no argument provided by Hinman on these obvious issues, so these two passages cannot be taken seriously as historically relevant and independent information that supports the claim that there was a flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.
Thus, if we set aside this initial dubious set of two meager one-sentence passages from the Babylonian Talmud, we are left with ONLY TWO substantial quotations from the Talmud in Hinman’s lengthy blog post.  This is an insubstantial effort in relation to the dozen or more quotations that are needed to provide adequate evidence in support of Hinman’s factual premises.  Hinman has clearly failed to adequately support the three factual premises of his argument.
Before I proceed to examine the two substantial quotations from the Talmud that Hinman provides, let’s consider the views of some well-informed N.T. scholars about references to Jesus in the Talmud.
First, here is what Bart Ehrman has to say about the external evidence from the Talmud:

In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud.  This is not because it is relevant but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant.  (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)

For a long time scholars treated the Talmud as if it presented historically accurate information about Jewish life, law and custom from a much earlier period, all the way back to the first century.  Few critical scholars take that view today. In both its iterations, it is a product of its own time, even though it is based on earlier oral reports.

Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. … (Did Jesus Exist?, p.67)

These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are of very little use for us in our quest.  By the time they were set down, Christianity was a major force in the Roman Empire, and every single Christian telling stories about Jesus naturally assumed that he had really existed as a historical person.  If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p.68)

Ehrman firmly believes that Jesus did exist as a flesh-and-blood historical person, and he argues strenously for this conclusion in his book Did Jesus Exist?.   So, Ehrman is not rejecting the Talmudic evidence on the basis of prejudice against the conclusion that Jesus existed.  He is rejecting this evidence because he believes it is too late and of dubious independence.
Another N.T. scholar who has studied this issue closely is Robert Van Voorst, who wrote a widely-used book on the external historical evidence about Jesus.  Van Voorst also has significant doubts concerning the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud:

All this raises the issue of how the rabbis gained this information about Jesus.  Did they have independent chains of tradition on Jesus, passed from rabbinic master to rabbinic disciples, reaching back into the first century?  The evidence points to a negative answer.  While we cannot be sure, given the paucity and difficulty of the evidence, the third-century rabbis seem to have had no traditions about Jesus that originated in the first century.  Besides the rabbis typical disinterest in history and confused knowledge of the first century, what the rabbis say about Jesus appears to be the product of at least the second century.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.120)

All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. …

The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century.  They proceed instead from creative imagination, which ran free in rabbinic storytelling.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121)

Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.  A chain of tradition from the first century would have set this error straight.  The better explanation of all the rabbinic information on Jesus is that it originated in the second and third centuries.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121-122)

Like Ehrman, Van Voorst firmly believes that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, and he argues against the mythicist position (see Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.6-16), so Van Voorst does not reject the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud out of prejudice against the historicity of Jesus.  He has serious doubts about the Talmudic evidence because in his scholarly judgement this evidence is too late and of dubious independence to be of historical significance.
Finally,  John Meier, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century, has carefully reviewed the various alleged Talmudic references to Jesus and found them to be of dubious historical significance:

In my opinion, apart from the texts of Josephus we have already seen, this vast literature [i.e. ancient Jewish literature from around the time when Jesus allegedly existed] contains no independent reference to or information about Jesus of Nazareth.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.93)

…scholars of rabbinic literature do not agree among themselves on whether even a single text from the Mishna, Tosefta, or Talmud really refers to Jesus of Nazareth.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)

In my opinion, Maier’s arguments are especially convincing for the Mishna and other early rabbinic material: no text cited from that period really refers to Jesus. … Jesus of Nazareth is simply absent from the Mishna and other early rabbinic traditions.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)

The Talmud does not record even one talmudic teacher who lived at the time of Jesus or in the first half century of the Christian era as mentioning Jesus by name.  As for the rabbis of the 2nd century A.D., they were reacting to the Christ proclaimed by Christianity, not the historical Jesus.   (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95-96)

I tend to the view of Morris Goldstein, who finds no certain reference to Jesus in this passage [a passage from the Mishna cited by Joseph Klausner], and indeed in the Mishna and the tannaitic midrashim in general. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

…in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth.  Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written.  Hence, apart from Josephus, Jewish literature of the early Christian period offers no independent source for inquiry into the historical Jesus.   (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.98)

So, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century is on my side concerning this issue about alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud.  Joe Hinman has a serious uphill battle to fight here.
This post is now complete (as of Sunday, June 25, 2016, at 6:22 pm, pacific time).
Instead of providing a dozen substantial quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus,  Hinman only provides four quotations from the Talmud.  How many of the four quotations are from the Mishna, the oldest part of the Talmud?  ZERO.  All four of the quotations provided by Hinman are from the Bablylonian Talmud, which was produced in the 5th century.
In his case for the existence of Jesus, N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman limited his review of non-Christian references to Jesus to sources that were written close to the time of Jesus:

I will restrict myself to sources that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died since writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent and reliable witnesses to his life but were undboutedly based simply on what the authors had heard about Jesus, probably from his followers.   (Did Jesus Exist? p.50, emphasis added)

All of the quotations that Hinman provided were written down not 100 years after the time of Jesus, not 200 years after the time of Jesus, not 300 years after the time of Jesus, but about 400 years after when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died.  This is called “scaping the bottom of the barrell”.  It is reasonable to approach such “evidence” with a high degree of skepticism, as the leading Jesus scholar John Meier urges:

Our earliest collection of rabbinic material, the Mishna, comes from the end of the 2d or the beginning of the 3d century A.D.; all other collections are still later.  It would never occur to most Christian commentators to claim that early 3d-century Fathers of the Church had direct historically reliable knowledge of Jesus that was independent of the NT.  Likewise, one must be wary a priori of claims that a 2d- or early 3d-century Jewish document contains such independent traditions.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.94-95)

If we ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Mishna because it was written down 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, then we clearly ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Bablyonian Talmud, which was produced about 400 years after the time of Jesus.
Two of the four quotations provided by Hinman are just a single sentence (the same sentence in two different passages) from the Bablylonian Talmud, and Hinman provides no reasons to believe that those two passages derive from an independent oral tradition that stretches back into the 1st Century.  So, I will ignore those two brief quotes.
Hinman does provide two more substantial quotes, both also from the Babylonian Talmud, and he gives some reasons for viewing these quotes as deriving from ancient oral rabbinic tradition.  Before we take a look at those specific passages, there are some further general considerations that support a skeptical view of references to Jesus in the Talmud.  Here are several such considerations from Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament; hereafter: JONT):

  • “history is not a main concern anywhere in the rabbinic literature.”  (JONT, p.104)
  • “the Talmud rarely mentions historical events from the Second Temple period, at the end of which Jesus appeared. ”  (JONT, p.104)
  • “those few events mentioned are more often than not garbled and unreliable.”  (JONT, p.105)
  • “we have no rabbinic writings from the first or even the second century C.E.”  (JONT, p.105)
  • In the rabbinic writings there is only “scant mention of Jesus by name.”  (JONT, p.106)
  • Censorship of Jewish writings beginning in the Middle Ages led to “text-critical problems” concerning apparent references to Jesus or Christianity (JONT, p. 106)
  • There has been “continued scholarly disagreement…on the proper use of rabbinic materials to understand the New Testament.”  (JONT, p.106)
  • “Scholarly conclusions have varied widely on whether Tannaitic layers of rabbinic literature have any genuine reference to Jesus.  (JONT, p.108)
  • “modern scholars are correct to discount most ‘code’ references to Jesus, especially ‘a certain one’, Balaam, Ben Stada.”  (JONT, p.114)
  • “creative imagination…ran free in rabbinic storytelling.”  (JONT, p.121)
  • “Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.”  (JONT, p.121-122)

I will repeat the basic conclusions arrived at by Van Voorst:

All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. (JONT, p.121)

The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century.  (JONT, p.121)

There are more general reasons for skepticism, but I will just throw in one more key point: “Jesus” was a common name for Jewish males in the Second Temple period, so a reference to “Jesus” might well be reference to a person other than the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
First let’s consider the passage that is allegedly about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus:

It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus.  A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming], “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray.  Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.”  But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.  (b. Sanhedrin 43a)  (JONT, p.114)

The canonical gospels indicate that the Jewish trial of Jesus was rushed and unfair, and that the Jewish council sought false witnesses to make sure there was evidence to justify his condemnation.  This passage asserts the very opposite: that there was a lengthy effort to find witnesses who would support and defend Jesus.  As Van Voorst suggests, this “is a strong indication that we have here an apologetic response to Christian statements about an unjust trial.”  (JONT, p.118)
This passage does not fit with “the facts” Christians believe about the trial and death of Jesus.  There was no lengthy Jewish inquiry into Jesus innocence or guilt.  Jesus was not charged with practicing magic.  Jesus was not stoned to death.   “Hanging” is thought to be a reference to crucifixion, but the passage does not say Jesus was crucified.  In fact, the passage indicates that Jesus was executed by his fellow Jews, but Christians believe that the Romans executed Jesus.
What matches up with the “Jesus” of the Gospels is (1) the name “Jesus”, (2) the execution of this person, (3) the timing of execution close to Passover.  The charges are plausible ones that Jews would apply to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but they don’t match up to the Gospel accounts.
Many Jewish men were named “Jesus” at that time.  Many Jewish men were executed in the century before, during, and after the time when the Jesus of the Gospels is thought to have lived.  According to Van Voorst the conclusion that this passage refers to the Jesus of the Gospels is “almost universally agreed.”  (JONT, p. 118).  It might be correct to conclude that it is PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but given the several disagreements between this account and the Gospels, and given the fact that the name “Jesus” was a common name, and given the fact that executions were common, even execution by crucifixion,  I don’t see how one could conclude that it is HIGHLY PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels.   There is at least a significant chance that this passage refers to a “Jesus” other than the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
The primary problem with this passage, however, is that (assuming it is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels) it clearly appears to be an apologetic response to Christian accusations that Jesus was given a rushed and unfair trial by Jewish leaders.  If that is so, then it is very likely that this accusation was based upon one or more of the accounts of the trials of Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.  In that case, this passage from the Babylonian Talmud would be indirectly based on one or more of the canonical Gospels.  So, given that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels, it is very probable that this passage was indirectly based upon the canonical Gospels.
Bart Ehrman,  Robert Van Voorst, and John Meier do not believe this passage represents an early and independent tradition about Jesus.  We can add to these N.T. scholars, the agreement of the great N.T. scholar Raymond Brown:

According to Brown, it is clear enough that the passage does not give reliable early information about Jesus, but it does indicate that some Jews in the early third century saw their ancestors as responsible for the death of Jesus.  (JONT, p.106)

Like Ehrman, Van Voorst, Meier, and Brown, I think it is improbable that the Babylonian Talmud passage about the trial and “hanging” of Jesus is both early and independent.
Hinman has provided some reasons in support of this passage from the Babylonian Talmud, and I will now review those reasons.

…it is likely that these formulae are accurate [in indicating an early rabbinic tradition] because this helps to explain why the rabbis regarded this Jesus tradition as if it had comparable authority to Mishna.

I don’t see the force of this consideration.  Hinman needs to say a bit more to explain this point.

…an indirect attestation [by Justin Martyr about a Jewish claim that Jesus practiced magic and led Jews astray from their religion] brings the most likely date [of the origin of this tradition] before 150…

The fact that there was an early (i.e. before 150 CE) Jewish claim about Jesus practicing magic and leading Jews astray does not show that a Jewish tradition involving such a claim was also early.  In fact, this does not even make it PROBABLE that such a tradition was also early (i.e. before 150 CE). It merely shows it to be POSSIBLE that the tradition involving this claim was early.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we KNEW this tradition to have originated before 150 CE.  That still does not put the tradition in the clear.   The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE, which is 80 years before 150 CE.   Even if this tradition originated in 100 CE, that would have been three decades after the Gospel of Mark was written.

Kirby: “Since the New Testament gives no account at all of a charge of sorcery at the trial of Jesus…it is difficult to see this account as deriving from the Gospel story.”

Obviously, the charges were not derived DIRECTLY from “the Gospel story”, but it seems fairly clear that the charges were based INDIRECTLY on “the Gospel story.”   The Gospels include many stories about Jesus performing miracles.  An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as practicing magic or sorcery.
The Gospels also include many stories about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher who attracted devoted Jewish followers and sometimes even large crowds of interested Jewish listeners.  An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as a deceptive heretic who promoted religious beliefs and practices that were contrary to the Jewish religion.
Although it is clear that the charge of sorcery and the charge of leading the people of Israel astray did not come directly from the Gospels,  it appears very likely that these charges were an apologetic response of Jewish rabbis to Christian preaching about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher, and about Jesus’ crucifixion, and about a Jewish trial of Jesus, and such preaching was in turn probably based upon one or more of the canonical Gospels.

Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …First, a rabbinic author or their Pharisee predecessors would want the order of the charges to mirror Torah and rabbinic halakha.”

This seems like a fairly weak point.  I see this as relevant, but not as a strong or compelling consideration.

Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …Second, rabbinic traditions and the Pharisaic schools tried to dissuade people from working on Passover Eve, so they would not have invented a tradition which said that they decided to try Jesus on this date.”

The basic point here is reasonable.  I agree that the rabbis and Pharisees probably “would not have invented a tradition” placing the execution of Jesus (by Jews) on Passover Eve.  However, if this tradition was, as it appears to many NT scholars to  have been, an apologetic response to Christian preaching about the trials and crucifixion of Jesus, then it is PARTIALLY an invention of rabbis or Pharisees that is constrained by the content of the preaching of Christians about this subject.
So, the Jewish trial and Jesus’ crucifixion occurring near Passover, even on Passover Eve, may have been part of Christian preaching (derived from one or more of the canonical Gospels), while the charges involved in the Jewish trial are an apologetic response to Christian preaching about Jesus performing miracles and about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher with devoted Jewish followers and crowds of interested Jewish listeners.

Because the Jewish leaders of the first century were in a position to know the circumstances of such an execution, which would have been remembered for taking place on an unusual date, it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.

The Jewish leaders were “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus ONLY IF there was in fact a Jewish trial of Jesus.  But many leading NT scholars believe there was no Jewish trial of Jesus, so there is a significant probability that the Jewish leaders of the first century were NOT “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus.
The week of Passover brought large crowds of Jews to Jerusalem every year, and this made the Roman prefect nervous about Jewish troublemakers and about the potential for a Jewish rebellion.  I doubt that crucifixions were uncommon during the week of Passover.
Perhaps “it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.”  that does NOT mean that this is PROBABLE.  What is plausible is not necessarily what is probable.  Based on the considerations for and against this hypothesis, I believe it is much more PROBABLE that this tradition was partially invented by rabbis in response to Christian preaching about Jesus, which was in turn based upon the information about Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.
Another substantial quote from the Babylonian Talmud that was provided by Hinman is from the tractate Aboda Zara (16b – 17a).  In that passage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is portrayed as telling the story of hearing a saying of “Jesus the Nazarene” from a disciple of Jesus:

I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me:  It is written in your Torah…. Said he to me: Thus was I taught by Jesus the Nazarene, For the hire of a harlot hath he gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return.  They came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth.  … (quoted by Hinman on his web page about Jesus in the Talmud)

Assuming that this is a correct quotation of a good translation of the Talmud, then it does seem likely that this passage is talking about the “Jesus” of the Gospels.  The passage talks about “Jesus the Nazarene” who is a teaches wise sayings to his disciples.  Nazareth was a small town, so there were probably not many people named “Jesus” from that town in the first century, and add to that the characteristic of being a person who teaches wise sayings to his disciples, and that makes it probable, even very probable, that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
But the Babylonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, so we still have issues about the reliability and independence of this tradition.
John Meier says about this passage:

I am skeptical about a tradition in which Eliezer ben Hyrcanus hears about Jesus’ teaching that the wages of a prostitute should be used to buy the high priest a latrine…  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Joseph Klausner argued for the reliability of this passage, but Meier is not impressed by his argument:

To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today.    (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Meier also notes that another leading N.T. scholar, Joachim Jeremias,  is also skeptical about this reference to Jesus:

Joachim Jeremias weights the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly, in my view.  The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Rabbi Eliezer was the brother-in-law the Patriarch Gamaliel II, and became a member of the Sanhedrin while Gamaliel II was the leader of the Sanhedrin.   The above story supposedly relates to when Rabbi Eliezer was kicked out of the Sanhedrin for being a heretic.  Gamaliel II became the leader of the Sanhedrin about ten years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so he became leader of the Sanhedrin about 80 CE.  Rabbi Eliezer joined the Sanhedrin sometime after 80 CE, and was removed from the Sanhedrin sometime after that.   So, the above remarks, if made by Rabbi Eliezer after he was removed from the Sanhedrin, were probably made around 85 CE, at the earliest.  If these remarks were made no earlier than 85 CE, then Rabbi Eliezer might have met the “disciple” of Jesus about 80 CE.   If so, then this “disciple” of Jesus is unlikely to have actually learned anything directly from Jesus.
So, what we can reasonably conclude from this passage, even assuming it to accurately report the words of Rabbi Eliezer near the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), is that a learned Jewish Rabbi believed near the end of the first century that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.   But by 85 CE, the Gospel of Mark had been available for more than a decade, so Christians would already believe and preach that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to his Jewish disciples and followers.   Thus, Eliezer’s belief that Jesus was a  flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to Jewish disciples and followers may have been based on more than just this one incident where he met a man who called himself a “disciple” who had learned a saying from Jesus.
So, some leading NT scholars who have reviewed the relevant evidence, have concluded that this passage is NOT early and reliable.  Furthermore, even if the passage accurately describes the words of Rabbi Eliezer on the occasion of his being condemned as a heretic, it would still be doubtful that he spoke to a person who was directly taught by the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
Hinman quotes Origin’s quoting from the book True Doctrine, an attack on Christianity by Celsus.  Here is the key part of the quote:

Let us imagine what a Jew…might say to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumourss [sic] about the true and insavoury [sic] circumstances of your origins?…Is it not the case that when her [your mother’s] deceit was uncovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a roman soldier called Panthera she was driven away by her husband…

Hinman comments that some of “the material of the Talmud” about Jesus “was around in at least the second century”, and that since Jewish sources would not have been readily available to Celsus, “it seems reasonable to assume that this information had been floating around for some time…”.   Hinman concludes that this material “at least went back to the early second, late first century.”
Celsus composed the book True Doctrine about 175 CE.  According to Celsus, he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity from a contemporary Jewish person.  If Celsus was being TRUTHFUL, then all this passage shows is that there was a Jewish polemic response to the story of the virgin birth in the canonical Gospels (Matthew and Luke) that was in use about a century AFTER the composition of the canonical Gospels.  On this scenario, there is no implication that the sources of the Talmud about Jesus go back to the “early second, late first century”, unless we count the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as being among those sources!
On the other hand, if Celsus was being UNTRUTHFUL about how he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity, then he might well have invented this objection on his own, based on his knowledge of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
He had read widely in Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and had a passing knowledge of other Christian books… (JONT, p.67)
Celsius might have just used an imaginary Jewish contemporary as cover for his own derogatory comments about Jesus.
According to Hinman,
Celsus was obviously reading the Talmudic sources…
It is not obvious to me that Celsus obtained this particular view of Jesus from “the Talmudic sources”, even if the Talmud contains a similar view about Jesus being the illegitimate son of a roman soldier called Panthera.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Celsus obtained this Jewish view from “the Talmudic sources”.  True Doctrine was written about 175 CE.  So, if Celsus found this view in “the Talmudic sources” in 170 CE, that would be adequate to explain his writing about them in 175 CE.   If “the Talmudic sources” had this view of Jesus’ birth in 170 CE,  that is completely to be expected even if Jesus never existed, for the canonical Gospels were composed about a century BEFORE  170 CE, allowing several decades for Christians to preach about the virgin birth and for Jewish rabbis to develop this Jewish polemic in response to that preaching.
Even if “the Talmudic sources” about Jesus being an illegitimate child had been in existence for 50 years before Celsus learned about this Jewish viewpoint,  that would still place the origin of the tradition in 120 CE,  which is three to four decades AFTER the composition of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  In that scenario, it would be very probable that this Jewish tradition about Jesus has no historical basis, but is merely an apologetic response of Jewish leaders to Christian preaching and storytelling, which was in turn based upon “information” from the canonical Gospels.

bookmark_borderThe Debate about Jesus has Begun

The debate between me and Joe Hinman about the existence of Jesus has begun.
We are focusing on just the external (non-biblical) evidence.
Joe has published his positive case for the claim that:
…the external (not in Bible) evidence is strong enough to warrant belief in Jesus’ historicity.
Here is a link to Joe’s initial post that summarizes his positive case:
Joe has divided his case into five arguments, four of which are based on specific external sources:
I. The Talmud
II. Papias
III. Josephus (mainly the brother passage)
IV. Polycarp
V. The web of historicity
I plan to respond to each of these arguments/sources with a separate post here at The Secular Outpost, so I plan to write five posts.
I believe that Joe will respond to my posts over on the Christian CADRE blog.
After Joe responds to my five posts (either with five posts or with one long post), I believe that we will write one more post each to wrap up the debate, summarizing the issues and arguments and what we think the debate has shown.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 16

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his previous analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).
I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).
In post 15, I argued that Sire’s belief that the Christian worldview is true contradicts his belief that worldviews, including the Christian worldview, are “ways of life”.   A way of life can be neither true nor false, so on the assumption that the Christian worldview is just a way of life, it follows that the Christian worldview is neither true nor false.  The claim that the Christian worldview is true seems to be the most important belief to Sire, so he ought to give up the view that the Christian worldview is a way of life.
In this post I will consider some of Sire’s comments in support of the view that a worldview is a story or a “master story”.  The comments that I will now consider are all from a section of Chapter 5 of NTE called “Worldview As Master Story” (on pages 100-105).
Sire’s initial comment in the first paragraph of this section concerns the cross-cultural phenomenon of story telling:
Folklore, myth and literature around the world and from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.  They act as orienting patterns.  (NTE, p.100)
It is important to understand what Sire is saying about the function of stories found in folklore, myth and literature:
They put X in the larger context of Y.
In the case of such stories, X refers to “present human reality”, and Y refers to “universal cosmic and human meaning”.
It seems to me that whenever we put something “in the larger context” of something else, we are doing something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.  Furthermore, if we go beyond the vague and abstract phrases that Sire uses to describe X and Y here, it becomes very clear that he is talking about something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.
The very general phrase “present human reality” might refer to feelings, experiences, observations, or events in the lives of humans.  One example of a “present human reality” is death.  More specifically, the death of a parent or the death of a child.  The “present human reality” involved in the feelings, experiences, observations, and events concerning the death of a child can have a great impact on the human who is the parent of the child.
Religions, especially the Christian religion, provide stories to help and guide people in dealing with such difficult experiences and events.  A religious story can put such an experience “in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.”  But in order for such a story to have any significant impact on a person, the story must have some meaning or significance, and the meaning or significance must have some logical relationship or relevance to the experience or event of the death of a child.  Otherwise, the story will be meaningless, insignificant, and irrelevant.
Some Christian beliefs are obviously relevant to such a difficult circumstance:

  1.  All humans die sooner or later.
  2. Death is the result of human sin and disobedience towards God, the creator of human beings.
  3. Although death puts an end to our ordinary earthly life, it also marks the beginning of another life in a spiritual realm.
  4. If one has faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then one can obtain eternal life in heaven, and upon death such a believer in Jesus will begin an eternal life of happiness.
  5. When a loved one dies, that is not necessarily the last time one will enjoy the company of that person, for if he or she had faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then that person will enjoy eternal life in heaven, and any friends or relatives who also have faith in Jesus will one day be re-united with that person in heaven.

Any stories from the Christian religious tradition that help to communicate some or all of these BELIEFS will obviously have some significance and relevance to Christian believers who experience the death of a child.  Any stories which have no connection with any of these (or other important Christian beliefs about death or loss) will be a story that either fails to have any relevance or significance, or that fails to have any specifically Christian significance.  We see from this specific example, that to “put X in the larger context of Y” is essentially and necessarily an INTELLECTUAL or COGNITIVE activity that involves connecting various beliefs to particular experiences or events.
In the remaining portion of the first paragraph in the section called “Worldview As Master Story”  Sire identifies worldviews with stories:
In short, they [stories that constitute “Folklore, myth and literature”] function as worldviews or parts of worldviews.  The worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism and primal religion are embedded and embodied in stories.  …these are the stories by which societies interpret the universe and life around them. (NTE, p.100)
Once again, Sire’s language implies INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity: “by which societies interpret the universe and life…”  Interpretation essentially and necessarily involves the use of beliefs and the formation of beliefs.  Interpretation is an INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity.
Sire uses a metaphor here that is very similar to the previously discussed metaphor of “incarnation”.  My cognitivist analysis of the concept of a worldview fits very nicely with the idea that a worldview can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.   In other words, stories can be used to communicate beliefs, to teach or inculcate beliefs, and to reinforce beliefs.  So, beliefs and systems of beliefs can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.
But, it is also possible for a STORY to be “embedded and embodied in [other] stories”.  In fact, the idea of a “master story” suggests that a general overarching story can be incorporated into various other more specific stories.  So, it is not plausible to use my previous line of reasoning to dismiss Sire’s idea that a worldview IS a story.   Both my cognitivist view of worldviews as systems of beliefs and Sire’s proposed view that a worldview is a story fit with the metaphor of being “embedded and embodied in stories”.
Sire expresses doubt about his previous conception of worldviews, based on the idea that stories play a very important role in how we understand life and make important decisions:
Both in the works of most Christian worldview analysts–such as James Orr, James Ulthuis, Arthur Holmes and Ronald Nash–and my own Universe Next Door, worldview is first described in intellectual terms, such as “system of beliefs,”  “set of presuppositions” or “conceptual scheme.”  I want now to ask whether this is quite accurate.  Does it not miss an important element in how people actually think and act?  Isn’t a story involved in how we make the decisions of belief and behavior that constitute our lives?  Would it be better to consider a worldview as the story we live by? (NTE, p.100-101, emphasis in original)
I think the main objection I have to this comment by Sire is that stories must be interpreted and understood in order to have meaning and significance, in order to influence our thinking and behavior.  Interpretation, understanding, meaning, and significance are all essentially and necessarily intellectual and cognitive in nature.  Stories have impact and influence only if they are relevant to what we believe and what we value.
A second objection, or perhaps another way of getting at the first objection, is that at the heart of Christianity there are some non-fiction stories, and a non-fiction story IS a set of beliefs (that is organized in a certain way).  Therefore, to the extent that non-fiction stories are essential to the Christian worldview,  a “set of presuppositions” or a “system of beliefs” are essential to the Christian worldview.   The idea that the Christian worldview is a story (a non-fiction story) is NOT an alternative to the idea that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs; rather, this IMPLIES that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs.
There are two basic types of stories: fiction and non-fiction.  With a fiction story, such a story can have meaning and significance even though the story is not true, and it is not intended to be viewed as being literally true.  Jesus sometimes used parables to communicate his point of view.  Some parables are fiction stories, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Those parables consist of short fiction stories that make a significant point in a memorable way.  So, clearly fiction stories sometimes play a role in communicating a religion or a part of a religious point of view.
However, for Christianity at least, the stories that are of greatest importance are non-fiction stories.  Non-fiction stories are put forward as being true,  as something that should be viewed as being literally true.  A non-fiction story can, however, turn out to be false.  People sometimes lie to detectives who are investigating a crime, and sometimes people misremember the details of an event and so unintentionally provide false information to detectives.  The accounts or stories that these people tell the detectives are false, or are partially false, but these stories are still non-fiction; they are non-fiction because they are stories that are put forward AS being true, AS being factual, even though the stories are not true, or are not completely true.
The Gospels tell stories about the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, and they also tell stories about Jesus coming back to life after being crucified and buried.   These stories about Jesus include theological claims and about events in the life of Jesus.  Almost all Christian believers, including liberal Christians, take the Gospel stories about Jesus to be non-fiction stories.  This is clearly the case with conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians.  Liberal Christians doubt some or all of the miracles in the Gospel accounts, but they do not doubt that there was an historical Jesus, and that Jesus gathered several disciples or followers, and that Jesus taught many of the things that the Gospels say that he taught, and that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  Liberals will often accept the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, they just shy away from the idea of a physical or bodily resurrection.  But liberal Christians generally believe that Jesus overcame death and that Jesus is active and alive today.
In any case, very few Christians are willing to say that the Gospels are purely fictional.   Christians sometimes reject some of the details of the Gospel stories.  Christians sometimes reject some of the miracles reported in the Gospels.  But Christians usually believe that the Gospels are at least partially true accounts of the life and death of Jesus, and of the teachings of Jesus.
The liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar, for example, are very skeptical about the contents of the Gospels, but most of them believe that Jesus was an actual historical person, and that the canonical Gospels (as well as some non-canonical gospels) contain sayings and teachings that do in fact originate with the historical Jesus.   So, although the scholars of the Jesus Seminar reject a large portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus and a large portion of the sayings of Jesus presented in the Gospels, they still view some of the stories and some of the sayings as being historical, as being more-or-less true information about the historical Jesus.
News stories are examples of non-fiction stories.  A news story can, of course, be false, or be partially false.  But a news story is presented AS being a true story, as presenting information that is literally true.  Here is a recent news story that most of us have heard:


Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance

By Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Updated 11:05 AM ET, Mon June 13, 2016
Orlando, Florida (CNN) An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, authorities said. …

Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting, killing 49 people and wounding at least 53, officials said.
After a standoff of about three hours, while people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.

This story is composed of a series of claims:

  1. An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
  2. This event was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States (according to “authorities”).
  3. This event was the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11 (according to “authorities”).
  4. Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting (“officials said”).
  5. The shooting by Mateen resulted in killing 49 people and wounding at least 53 (“officials said”).
  6. After a standoff of about three hours, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.
  7. During the three hour standoff, people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives.

Some of these claims are qualified with phases like “officials said” and “authorities said”.  In this case, these phrases function basically as evidence for the claim in question.  The intention is to ASSERT the claim, and to back up the claim with the evidence that the claim came from a reliable authority.  So, this news story IS just a series of factual claims.  It could be the case that some of these claims are false, or that some of these claims are inaccurate, but the intention of the reporter is to present this as a TRUE story, and that means that the intent of the reporter is to assert a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about some events.  This news story is an example of a non-fiction story, and we can generalize from this example to non-fiction stories in general.  A non-fiction story presents a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about a person or animal or place or thing or event.
Thus, to the extent that the Christian worldview is concerned with non-fiction stories about the life and death of Jesus, then to that extent the Christian worldview is concerned about a series of factual claims about the life and death of Jesus that are presented as being true claims or true beliefs about the life and death of Jesus.  If the Christian worldview is primarily concerned with non-fiction stories about Jesus, then the Christian worldview is primarily concened with factual claims about Jesus that are asserted to be true claims or true beliefs about Jesus.  Sire goes on to argue that the Christian worldview involves and is primarily concerned with a story or stories about Jesus.  I will have more to say about this in the next post.

bookmark_borderDunning-Kruger Effect in Action: How NOT to Defend a ‘Best’ Explanation

I’m not going to name names, but I recently read something that could have not said more loudly, “I have no clue about inductive logic, Bayes’ Theorem, or inference to the best explanation. I definitely should NOT be defending my position publicly because I have no clue what I am talking about, but I’m going to keep doing that anyway because I am clueless–even about my own cluelessness!”
The context was this. Person #1 said that X is the best explanation for the data, and so probably true. Person #2 objected, “But X doesn’t actually explain anything! It doesn’t explain the data it is supposed to explain.” Person #3 comes along and says, “I’m going to come right out and admit that I don’t see much force at all in that objection.”
I have deliberately not identified X or the data to be explained because I think that is only a distraction. Looking at it in the abstract makes it obvious just how mind-numbingly bad this objection is.
If we’re told that we should believe that X is true because it is the best explanation for the data, but it turns out to be the case that X doesn’t explain the data at all, that’s a decisive refutation of the stated reason for believing X. If X were a city and objections to X were analogous to military weapons, the “X doesn’t explain the data at all” objection would be equivalent to detonating a nuclear bomb. There is literally nothing left (to talk about).