Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More on comparing the evidence for Christianity to other religions

For starters, there seems to be a lot of archaeological confirmation of, especially, some of the details in the book of Acts. Whoever wrote it knew precisely what forms of government were in place when Paul was supposed to have gotten to those cities. So that really places the author of the text close to the time and place of the events, because actually, those forms of government changed from time to time.

The reported events took place in public and involved leading figures of the time like Pontius Pilate. The Book of Mormon is about things that happened centuries before in the Americas, and archaeology is an embarrassment to Mormonism, but mostly helpful to Christianity. http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2006/11/teresa-nielsen-haydens-critique-of.html

You have several people writing the accounts of the whole thing, as opposed to just one persons statements. You have evidence of people engaging in extremely risky behavior to support these beliefs.

The events are more public, there is considerable more archaeological support, and you also find people taking martyrdom risks almost from the beginning and making fundamental changes to a time-honored religion based on what happened to Jesus.

And you find a lot of failed attempts to explain it all away. I mean, what's up with all these swoon theories, and theft theories, and wrong tomb theories, etc. You don't find that in Islam.

So even if you reject Christianity, I think it puts up more difficulties for the skeptic than does the founding of Islam or the founding of Mormonism. These are just a few things off the top of my head, but I think they suffice for my purpose.

33 comments:

JS Allen said...

Loftus's version of the outsider test always struck me as a bit odd. It seems like saying, "When you understand why you consider Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy to be wrong, you'll understand why I consider you to be wrong." It's kind of incoherent.

Edward T. Babinski said...

There's archeological evidence and anthropological evidence for what primitive religious beliefs were like. Does such archeological evidence constitute evidence for those religious or only evidence of a belief in them?

Moving from primitive to the beliefs of the first civilizations ruled by kings there's an increasing amount of archeological evidence of temples as well as shrines of all sorts. Does such archeological evidence constitute evidence for those religious or only evidence of a belief in them?

Even Homer's Iliad and the existence of Trojans has archeological evidence demonstrating that Homer's poem was based on more than pure fantasy. Does such archeological evidence constitute evidence for those religious or only evidence of a belief in them?

Victor Reppert said...

Of course, the Iliad wouldn't be a sacred text, now, would it?

Though, I suppose Zeusism is more likely to be true if Troy is where Troy was said to be in the Iliad, than otherwise. So, in an odd Bayesians sense, I suppose the founding of Troy was evidence for Zeusism.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

There are scholarly disagreements concerning how to view the book of Acts. Scholars do NOT agree that the stories in Acts are historical. They question who wrote Luke-Acts (both works are anonymous), when it was composed (1st or 2nd century?), and note problematical differences between Paul's letters and the book of Acts.

You should be able to find a copy of What Paul Meant that contains a section that sums up some of the scholarly disagreements and explaining why they exist. The Acts of the Apostles shares some traits with Hellenistic novels being written at the same time as Acts--wandering preachers, miracles, sea adventures, long rhetorical speeches.

http://books.google.com/books?id=NrPqV9f2OEgC&lpg=PA30&ots=M_4khPOysd&dq=wandering%20preachers%2C%20miracles%2C%20sea%20adventures%2C%20long%20rhetorical&pg=PA32#v=onepage&q=wandering%20preachers,%20miracles,%20sea%20adventures,%20long%20rhetorical&f=false

And on page 33 of What Paul Meant, the author describes some of the basic "problems" with the Acts account compared with Pauls letters.

I've been following such topics in New Testament Abstracts and in books reviews published by the Society for Biblical Literature, free book reviews of the latest scholarly works online.

Price does a pretty good job on a number of such topics, addressing conservative arguments with further questions in his latest work, The Case Against The Case for Christ.

Edward T. Babinski said...

City of Troy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy

Victor Reppert said...

Ed: How do YOU explain how Luke managed to get so many governmental details right. How would a historical novel from ancient times get so much right about details of how cities were governed in the ancient world.

Just lucky I guess?

Steven Carr said...

'Whoever wrote it knew precisely what forms of government were in place when Paul was supposed to have gotten to those cities. So that really places the author of the text close to the time and place of the events, because actually, those forms of government changed from time to time.'

What?

How does Victor, who is not close to the time, know that those details are correct, when he claims that *only* people close to the time could know those details?

And, of course, the second half of Acts has a Jesus who is almost entirely missing from the story.

In fact, in the second half of Acts, the Romans have no idea that there is supposed to be any crucified criminal called Jesus.

'How would a historical novel from ancient times get so much right about details of how cities were governed in the ancient world.'

How did Victor get those details right?

Lucky guess?

Or was Victor there at the time?

How did the anonymous author of Luke know that there had been a census in the days of Herod?

Just shoddy research?

How did the author of Luke know that 'myriads' (tens of thousands) of Jews in Jerusalem had converted to Christianity?

Didn't the author know the size of Jerusalem?

Why does Victor talk about Acts?

The reason is easy.

He is far too ashamed of the evidence for the Gospels.



Any minute now Victor will start admitting that Arimathea never existed...

Fat chance!

When it comes to the evidence for the Gospels, Victor will only talk about the second half of Acts.

The fact remains that not one single first-century Christian ever put his name to a document claiming he had even heard of Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Barabbas, Joanna, Salome, an empty tomb, Bartimaeus, Judas, Thomas, Martha, Jairus, Simon of Cyrene.

There is no evidence for these people.

Victor can search Acts as much as he likes.

He will never find any evidence for these Gospel characters, not matter how many times Victor explains that Luke talks about Malta, Crete and Rome - places that *have* been found.

When it comes to the cast of Gospel characters, the evidence for them is as good as the evidence for the Angel Moroni - not even Christians claim to have seen Judas.

Victor - produce the evidence that Judas or Thomas existed.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor getting some historical details accurately is not convincing at all to me.

I will write a manuscript that I performed miracle X at Mall of America. Someone discovers this writing in 1000 years. Will the fact that they can independently confirm that this mall existed be compelling evidence that X happened?

That's just nutty, dude. It's not how epistemic coherence works.

Better to focus on the fact that hundreds of people observed me performing the miracle, and started to follow my teachings. To focus on where I said I performed it would be a garden path.

Lies are more convincing when embedded in truths. This geographic line of argument shows a certain credulity IMO.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor a few times you have seemed to use the "familiarity counterargument." That is, listing a set of arguments, showing familiarity with them, as if that is supposed to convince us they are wrong. I mean things like:
And you find a lot of failed attempts to explain it all away. I mean, what's up with all these swoon theories, and theft theories, and wrong tomb theories, etc.

What's up with them? They are all plausible stories about how someone could be crucified, and then his tomb was found to be empty a couple of days later. And it is supposed to be a big problem that there are too many ways this could happen other than the one that violates how nature works?

Just listing the alternate theories isn't a refutation, it doesn't show they are improbable. It just shows you have heard of them. I don't see the argument here.

It seems now that I look because of your posts, there is tons of material on this topic, on all of these theories. More enlightening would be for you to say which of these many stories you find most plausible (being honest), and then proceed to dismantle the best stuff written on that story. E.g., whether the theory that Jesus was merely unconscious, or his body stolen, or people lied, or whatever.

Doctor Logic said...

Victor,

In thinking about it, I do think Christianity probably has a more persuasive case than other religions. However, I think you should estimate the reliability of the account in terms of probability. A resurrection is more than a billion to one against. Even if you thought the NT gave you million to one in favor, you would still be three orders of magnitude short.

Also, when you say you're looking for a good skeptic's alternative, let's acknowledge that the skeptic's alternative can still be highly improbable (say, 1 in 100, or 1 in 100,000) and still beat the Christian theory.

The Christian story is something like this:

1) Some average Joes were at work when Jesus walks by.

2) They're so impressed with Jesus and his miracles that they follow Jesus around.

3) They still harbor doubts about Jesus, and don't get crucified with Jesus.

4) The apostles claim the body is missing, and we should take them at their word.

5) They witness Jesus physically returned, although he sometimes wasn't recognizable.

6) If they were lying about Jesus, they would have been called on their bullshit, and their game would have been up.

7) The apostles later died while spreading Christianity.

continued...

Doctor Logic said...

The only thing independently verifiable in this story is (7). (6) is known to be false because there are thousands of minor cults that believe patently false claims, and their games are not up, even after being called on their bullshit.

Everything else comes to us by way of a rehearsed script provided by the apostles themselves.

First of all, anyone who thinks the apostles comprise multiple independent sources isn't being academically honest. A group of people who have common ideological goals, and who collude about their experiences are not independent sources. They constitute a single biased source.

However, Christians can still ask, "if these guys were not for real, why did they die for their beliefs?"

The implicit assumption is (1), that these guys were not the types of people who would martyr themselves. The Christian picture is that average Joes became martyrs primarily because it was a rational response to their actual experience.

I don't think that stands up to scrutiny. If you're trying to convince people to follow you, you're not going to present yourself as the kind of person who is subject to religious hysteria or martyrdom fantasies. You want to convince your listeners/readers that you're just like them, and that your listeners would become you if they had the same experiences. I'm not saying that the apostles didn't believe what they were saying (although it's conceivable that their beliefs aren't quite what conventional Christians believe they were).

But consider the possibility that their willingness to die and their belief in the Resurrection were essentially independent variables. Consider that, a person with a deep desire to die for a cause, will probably find one.

A certain fraction of the population is subject to martyrdom fantasies. Today, in the Middle East, there are many thousands of people for whom martyrdom is a dream. It's part of their culture. Most people would agree that while the religious views of these wannabes are only peripherally involved, and a much bigger factor is culture and conditioning. For example, Tamil Tigers have suicide bombers, and they're not even religious (well, their religion is nationalism). Anyway, suppose that there are several hundred such people in and around Jerusalem in the first century. What fraction of them would be interested in (and susceptible to) religious hysteria? I think it would be the same or higher than it is today because first century Jerusalem was pre-scientific.

As I said, you may find this possibility improbable, but it's far more probable than a resurrection.

Steven Carr said...

6) If they were lying about Jesus, they would have been called on their bullshit, and their game would have been up.

7) The apostles later died while spreading Christianity.

CARR
I guess Madoff wasn't a fraud.

All he had to do was say 'The game was up. It was a fraud', and he would have walked free.

Of course, there is no evidence that the apostles were persecuted on the issue of resurrection.

In fact there is no evidence that Thomas, or Judas, ever existed.

Paul says in Galatians 6 that Christians were persecuted on the issue of circumcision.

Steven Carr said...

BDK
Victor getting some historical details accurately is not convincing at all to me.

CARR
Mormons close to Joseph Smith got historical details of Utah, Missouri, Ohio correct.

This is just like 'Luke' getting his geography correct in Acts.

Isn't it?

Bilbo said...

I think you guys are missing Victor's point. He's not trying to argue that Christianity is true. Just that it is more difficult to explain away than Mormonism or Islam.

Steven Carr said...

SO the more bizarre the belief, the more it becomes impossible to fathom why any sane person would have had such thoughts, the more firmly Christians claim it is true?

Bilbo said...

Hi Steven,

No, I don't think you accurately represented Vic's argument. Try again.

Steven Carr said...

I did accurately represent his views.

His views are that things which are harder to explain are more likely to be true.

Therefore, totally bizarre beliefs are more likely to be true than beliefs where we can see why sane people would come to that belief.

And Victor also implies that if a Mormon got details of the US government correct, then we can believe his story about the Golden Plates,especially if Mormons were persecuted for their beliefs.

Why did Joseph Smith read the Book of Mormon for comfort, if he knew it was a fraud he had devised himself?

Steven Carr said...

Victor's other argument is that the Book of Mormon mentions places like 'Arimathea' which nobody has ever found.

(I may have misread....)

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: you are right, though I think people are simply chipping away at some of the reasons Victor gave.

Steven: the point isn't that something that is harder to explain is more likely to be true. It's that if giving a naturalistic explanation of something is harder, then it is more likely that an alternative non-naturalistic explanation is more likely to be true. This is sort of his tactic with the argument from reason too. In a technical Bayesian sense I think he is probably right, though I frankly haven't worked out the technical Bayesian details.

Bilbo said...

Hi Steven,

Wrong again. If you want to be taken seriously in a debate, it is important that you denonstrate that you understand your opponent's arguments.

Bilbo said...

Hi BDK,

Bingo!

SteveK said...

Vic,
I think your objectors are missing the point. That point being there are more reasons to accept the Christian account as historically true than there are for the historical accounts of Islam, Mormonism, etc.

If a person is going to believe one historical account to be true over the others -- the differences that give Christianity an advantage are public events, multiple independent reports, archelogical support, follow through consistent with belief, lack of motive or gain, etc.

By disagreeing, the objectors are saying these are not meaningful reasons to believe one historical account over another - that they don't tip the scales in any particular direction. Nonsense.

Blue Devil Knight said...

SteveK: My take is that people get the point, but are just attempting to take out the legs of the chair he is standing upon Mormonism and Islam.

Gandolf said...

SteveK said..."the differences that give Christianity an advantage are public events, multiple independent reports, archelogical support, follow through consistent with belief, lack of motive or gain, etc"

Blue Devil Knight said..."Steven: the point isn't that something that is harder to explain is more likely to be true. It's that if giving a naturalistic explanation of something is harder, then it is more likely that an alternative non-naturalistic explanation is more likely to be true."

1,public events

2,multiple independent reports

3,archelogical support

4,follow through consistent with belief

5,lack of motive or gain

1,2,3- Most any movements that happen to become extremely engrained in a society, are bound to produce plenty of all 1,2,3 .

Today the Taliban for instance.Produces plenty of public events.Multiple independent reports.And any archelogical work will follow up much that had happened.

Points 1,2,3 have easy natural explanation in the sense that any movement that takes hold so dramatically, cannot help but leave its mark.

Point 4.Even the Taliban follow through consistent with their belief.Its what happens when people have strong overbearing beliefs in things.Kim Jong-il follows through today too,even if most of us see his beliefs are mostly connected to total madness.Does it matter to Kim Jong-il that many other countries place embargo or prohibition against him,does this modern day persecution help in curtailing his faith.Not really,if anything it make both Kim Jong-il and the Taliban push onward,why then would we have reason to expect any less of the Christian movement.

Point 5.

I fail to see any evidence of a lack of motive or gain with regards to Christian movement.

For starters Christian believed in a afterlife with heaven and hell, and that ancient thought has been enough to motivate plenty of people.Dishonesty isnt often thought the biggest crime either, specially if it helps in retaining many faithful in faith,i see no good reason this should be thought any less likely in days of old with ancient Christians.Use of deceit for the purpose of furthering the future faith practices,seems to have often been thought a very forgivible sin.A sin with great honour.

Conclusions about gain are held in the eye of the faithful beholder.Members of the Taliban that flew planes through the twin towers,in all honesty gained little more than death, yet surely they must have felt they had much more to gain.Kim Jong-il drags his country further into poverty,yet Kim Jong-il must feel its about some sort of gain.

In time to come there may very well even be, more good reasons to see the Kim Jong-il account as being more historically true, than there are for the historical accounts of Christianity.

But it will simply have far more to do with "how much" the movement happens to effect us all,how strong the impression mark is it leaves behind it as a legacy.

Faithful folks wondering why and trying to understand how the christian movement might have ever managed to prevail against all odds, through times of attack and extensive persecution according to their faith,really need look no further than the modern day Taliban ,a band of a few desert stragglers who sadly still manage to defy the might of many very much stronger forces than themselves.

Does this mean God is with the Taliban,no it doesnt.But still you can be sure many followers will believe thats exactly what it means.In much the very same way Christians do.A natural explanation.

Steven Carr said...

BDK
...that if giving a naturalistic explanation of something is harder, then it is more likely that an alternative non-naturalistic explanation is more likely to be true.

CARR

In other words, the crazier the belief , the more firmly Victor thinks it is true....


And if there are independent sources, then it must be true.

After all, if 4 Scientologists say something , it must be true.

Blue Devil Knight said...

It does smack a bit of Dembski's filter, which has well-known flaws. OTOH, Dembski's filter is passive: by virtue of having no explanation of X, that is evidence that it is the product of design (e.g., magnetic field reversal in the earth).

Victor is different, in that he says he has an alternative explanation (i.e., that Jesus did actually rise from the dead), and this gains support as he eliminates alternative naturalistic explanations (assuming it has any initial plausibility whatsoever--obviously this depends on your priors--we could say that aliens kidnapped Jesus after all).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the resurrection details form an intellectual Rorschach test, as they so underdetermine the actual facts of the matter.

SteveK said...

For public events, there's a big difference between alternate theories founded upon mere possibility, and alternate theories founded upon information tied to the event and surrounding events.

For example, the wrong tomb theory is a possibility. The problem is we have no information or reports of that, nor data tied to surrounding events that enable us to have reason to think it actually happened.

Victor Reppert said...

It is a Rohrschach test of sorts, in that different rational people might come to different conclusions, depending upon antecedent probabilities.

My overall theory is that as you go through the alternative scenarios, you start running into problems. I don't think you can get around these problems by just saying, "Well, all those people were just a bunch of irrational religious fanatics" just doesn't wash.

Doctor Logic said...

Victor,

My overall theory is that as you go through the alternative scenarios, you start running into problems. I don't think you can get around these problems by just saying, "Well, all those people were just a bunch of irrational religious fanatics" just doesn't wash.

What does it mean to not "wash"?

Remember, an alternative doesn't have to make the story of Christianity seem probable. It just has to make it look more probable than a resurrection, which is at least a billion to one against.

Victor Reppert said...

Those aren't my priors. I believe in the existence of a being who has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, and who also has the motivation.

Steven Carr said...

VICTOR
Those aren't my priors.

CARR
'Priors'?

Why does Victor believe in a being who has the power to raise Jesus from the dead?

Because Jesus rose from the dead?

Not even a philosopher would have such a circular argument...

Doctor Logic said...

Victor,

Those aren't my priors. I believe in the existence of a being who has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, and who also has the motivation.

I've come upon this sort of response before. It feels like, as skeptics attempt to knock out a leg of the table, Christians eventually admit that the leg would indeed collapse if the table weren't supported by the other three legs. And this is fine, but it can't apply to ALL the legs!

So, are you saying that you believe God would spawn someone like Jesus and then resurrect him independently of the lore of Christianity?

Of course, it's logically possible for a God to resurrect a person. So, if God would resurrect Jesus, why not Ronald Reagan? Or Mother Theresa? Or Carl Sagan? Or me?

Presumably, you'll say that, according to the disciples of Jesus, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and led a perfect life.

Now, suppose I claimed that Mother Theresa led a perfect life. Would you believe me? How would you assess the probability that I was right? Are your priors such that a perfect life is not remarkable for people like Mother Theresa?

Because it seems to me that you have to put infinite faith in the authors of the NT before you could say that Jesus was the one and only type of person God would resurrect.

Generally, it seems to me that even a theist should be skeptical of Christianity. Even if you thought God was likely to resurrect someone, the odds of a person being the one person God would resurrect are one in a billion.

Steven Carr said...

VICTOR
I believe in the existence of a being who has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, and who also has the motivation.


CARR
So no outsider test for Victor, unless we are talking about the Book of Mormon.