Closed-Mind is in the Eye of the Presupposer

Closed-Mind is in the Eye of the Presupposer

Reasons to Believe is a creation advocate organization that generally earns my respect, if not my agreement. But a few recent articles caught my eye as uncharacteristically disingenuous.

In Pseudoenzymes Illustrate Science’s Philosophical Commitments, author Dr. Fazale Rana attempts to demonstrate what he feels is a “blind spot” in methodological naturalism (we’ll define this next, hold on) using an example of a recent discovery about the role of previously-underestimated pseudoenzymes.

Philosophical naturalism, as a point of comparison, is an overarching philosophy that the cosmos is driven exclusively by natural laws and forces, and that there is no spiritual or supernatural realm that interacts with our physical one.

Methodological naturalism, the type criticized by Rana, is a strategy that says when studying the natural world only natural causes will be considered. Basically, when scientists attempt to learn, they agree to limit their hypotheses to natural causes and effects. This says nothing about the supernatural convictions of any given scientist, nor is it a statement about a supernatural realm. It is merely a short-cut admission that there is no currently-known scientific method to know the supernatural. Maybe the supernatural exists, but our science cannot deal with it.

The cited research postulated that previous work in the field mistakenly considered pseudoenzymes to be dead, rather than active participants in cell signaling networks. “In other words,” Fazale rephrased, “the biases created by viewing pseudoenzymes as the byproduct of evolutionary processes hindered biochemists from identifying and characterizing the functional importance of pseudoenzymes.”

Fazale concludes,

In short, in fulfilling their vital role as regulators of cell signaling pathways, pseudoenzymes display elegance, sophistication, and ingenuity. As a creationist, this is the reason I view these systems as a Creator’s handiwork. Because the field of pseudoenzyme biochemistry is so young, I anticipate the evidence for design to dramatically expand as we learn more about these surprising biomolecules.

Yet, despite everything we have learned about pseudoenzymes, adherents to the evolutionary paradigm simply can’t see these biomolecules as anything other than the product of an evolutionary history.

Because of the blind spot created by their philosophical commitments, the design of these systems is occluded from their view—and that causes them to miss the mark.

From reading this, one might justifiably assume that researchers Eyers and Murphy were strong naturalism-rejecting intelligent-design proponents, who were prompted to overcome the oppressive shackles of their short-sighted peers after a robust prayer meeting.

However, the paper Rana sighted is called The Evolving World of Pseudoenzymes. The abstract for the paper includes a section titled, “How did pseudoenzymes evolve?” Eyers and Murphy, whatever their supernatural views, are clearly methodological naturalists who made this discovery within those parameters. It was obviously not a blind spot.

Meanwhile, creationists insist that belief in a god and the authority of the bible are presuppositions. That is, they are not proven with evidence, but are simply be accepted as true before looking at the evidence.

Imagine a scenario where Yahweh god decided to completely and instantaneously heal an entire cancer ward, restoring each patient to peak physical fitness. Now imagine two scientists sent in to investigate. Scientist A’s mind is open to the supernatural, and so proclaims the event a miracle, documents it as such and goes home to sing praise songs. Now imagine Scientist B, also a Jesus-follower, but adhering to her on-the-job methodological naturalism she rigorously studies everything about the ward to find out what happened. She looks at the air, the food, the water, the cleaning chemicals, common batches of medicine, the procedures of the staff and anything else she can think of. Not content with “god did it” and calling it a day, she perseveres to find out HOW it was done, and maybe she finds it and can use the knowledge to help others. Which type of science should we encourage?

It takes little thought at all to think about scientific discoveries that were hindered by a theological world-view… the Earth orbiting the sun (Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, all punished by the church), Newtonian physics, ancient earth geology, and biological evolution… to name just a few. Modern religious opposition to science includes stem cell research and climate change science (for reasons I do not understand).

Rana points out that a commonly held view about pseudoenzymes was wrong… but it was SCIENCE that discovered this. The role of pseudoenzymes was never a presupposition, just observation to that point. Science changes when there is new evidence. It is holy books that assume a conclusion and never change.


You may also have seen this week’s National Geographic article about a feathered dinosaur tail discovered in 99-million-year-old amber. This is a particularly exciting find for those who study the evolutionary connection between theropods and birds.

Again, Dr. Rana took to the Reasons blog to respond to this discovery. He relatively fairly summarizes that “for many in the scientific community this discovery further affirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, with feathered dinosaurs viewed as transitional intermediates.”

But Rana is skeptical.

Paleontologists interpret feathered dinosaurs from the fossil record as transitional intermediates between theropods and birds—including the feathered dinosaur tail found in amber. Yet, each occurrence of feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record appear after the first true bird, Archaeopteryx

It is hard to imagine how the “primitive” feathers associated with the dinosaur tail (again, dated at 99 million years in age) could be transitional if they appear over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx and co-occur with feathers from a bird belonging to enantiornithes.

This was so ridiculous, I had to ask Rana himself about it.

I went to the original research article itself to see if Rana was right, but the only reference to transition is this one…

The integration of developmental studies [5, 7 and 33] and paleontology yields enriched models of morphological character evolution that help explain major evolutionary transitions in key clades such as theropods, including birds.

So, Rana wasn’t really referring to the study’s authors, but most likely the imprecise reporting by numerous outlets. But to set expectations of these derivative articles, there seems to be more words dedicated to the plausibility of Jurassic Park in real life than evolutionary ramifications.

So I call “baloney”, Dr. Rana. The researchers are not saying that this particular individual dinosaur that got its tail caught in amber is personally the ancestor of modern birds. They merely hold this up as consistent evidence that birds and theropods had a common ancestor in the past. The fact that there are individual theropods that lived after archaeopteryx is no more surprising than two cousins being alive at the same time.

(Actually, he took me aback by referring to archaeopteryx as a true bird, because it has so many reptilian traits, but I won’t chase that rabbit today.)

By Rana’s logic, the Android operating system wasn’t inspired by Apple’s iOS if there is a Samsung Galaxy 2 that predates the iPhone 7.

I know he understands the science and theory. He’s better than this. Be better than this.


social-aviYou may have noticed that it’s been a while since I updated the blog. “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome”, depending on your perspective. 2016 has been a difficult year, and between the relentless waves of life’s arrows, I allowed myself to be distracted by some trivial pursuits including talking about comics and movies with my friend David on his YouTube channel.

As much as I enjoy writing, that experience has rekindled my love of the medium of video, and I’ve decided to take some of my thoughts and passions to YouTube in my own channel that I’m calling Paulogia. The first three videos will go public this week, and I’m a combination of proud and embarrassed, but it’s time to give birth. My intended audience is believing Christians, so perhaps you’ll join me and let me know what you think?

If you’re interested in what I might do there, I’d consider it a great favor if you would subscribe to the channel here. (YouTube shows favoritism to those with more subscribers, so a kick-start would help me out.) Alternately, you can follow Paulogia on Facebook or Twitter. (Don’t make me invite you.)

Short Story – The Beach Baby

Short Story – The Beach Baby

Long ago, about the place that would one day be New York, a journey began. The travelers did not know where they were going, but each day took a step in a direction that made them more content and more likely to continue the journey.

This journey continued, winding to and fro, for nearly 4500 km (2800 miles). None who began the journey remained, and many who joined for a time left to find their own paths better suited for them. But some particular travelers, over time uncharted, had arrived at the place that would one day be Santa Monica Beach, California.

Our travelers were weary from the difficult journey, having given everything they had to keep moving. In their final act of life, the travelers painfully extended outstretched arms 15 cm (six inches) through some bushes to gently place the last remaining members of their party into the soft sand. A newborn baby, and a puppy to watch her.

The baby awoke, her blinking eyes attempting to adjust to the sun overhead for the first time. She giggled at the tickle of the puppy’s lapping tongue on her tiny toes. The baby sat up and marveled at all she saw… the ocean extending forever before her, the warm golden sand on which she sat, and the trees that swayed overhead.

“I was made for this beach,” smiled the baby, “and this beach for me. We are new and wonderful and unlike anything that could ever be or have been.”

“Pardon me,” said the puppy, “but we are here as part of a long, long journey taken by many before us.”

The baby laughed at the foolish puppy. “Don’t be silly,” the baby said. “The beach began when I opened my eyes. There are no other places, for if there were I would certainly see them.”

The puppy tilted his head in adorable bewilderment, and shifted his gaze past the baby to the nearby edge of the beach. “Do you not see the bodies of your parents, their arms outstretched and decomposing in the sun? They brought you here.” Acknowledging the smell made the puppy’s nose wrinkle.

“Those are not my parents!” said the baby. “You have made up the idea of parents because this beach was made for me and not for you. No one has seen a birth. It is not common sense that I might come out of a dead creature. Those giants obviously appeared at the same time I did, but didn’t make it.”

Sniffing at the sand, the puppy urged the baby to turn her gaze from the ocean. “What of all these tracks in the sand?” the puppy asked. “They extend to the edge of the beach. If you look past the bush, the tracks extend as far east as my eyes can see or nose can smell.”

Crawling two steps toward the puppy, the baby scoffed. “Journeys are impossible. No one has seen a journey. The whole idea makes me laugh.”

The puppy nodded his snout toward the markings in the sand under the baby’s knees. “Just now, you shuffled forward two steps. A journey is simply that motion repeated over and over, covering incredible distances one shuffle at a time.”

The baby scowled at the obvious gibberish of the puppy. “Obviously I can crawl from one side of the beach to the other,” the baby chided. “We see crawling all the time. No one denies crawling. But there are limits. Crawling does not become a journey. Show me a journey, puppy! Show me one crawl that became a journey! I want to see it happen.”

“Journeys cover incredible distances,” pleaded the puppy. “You have existed only long enough to crawl a few strides along this beach. How do you suppose you might personally witness thousands of kilometers when you are physically limited to centimeters? We see only our portion, baby — not the beginning or the end — that is simply the nature of the journey.”

“The entirety of the universe was revealed to me when I opened my eyes,” sneered the baby. “I did not suddenly appear on this beach by accident.”

“But the diaper you wear,” said the puppy. “It is made of a cotton grown far from here. The image on your shirt depicts a cactus, a plant not found on a beach. The flower in your hair, it cannot grow near salt water. They are souvenirs your parents and grandparents left you, evidence of their journey now possessed by you.”

“These things I have do not show a journey, silly puppy,” said the baby, letting the sound of the waves down out his fanciful ideas. “Cotton and flowers and cactus may exist elsewhere, I don’t know. But they have always been here with me, just as your collar has always been on you.”

“But…”, the puppy began to object.

“Hush now, puppy,” the baby cooed, scratching her companion’s long ears. “I will hear no more of it. Let us simply enjoy this beach that was made for me.”

To Those Who Escaped the Maze

To Those Who Escaped the Maze

I don’t know if I could express my own emotions and feelings about my life on this side of atheism any better than this podcast host could in describing his listeners.

If you’d like to know the current me a little better, listen to the end. I guess attempt to find comfort that my story is so common.

“I know he’s given up a lot of himself to get there. I know he had to come face-to-face with a lot of demons, a lot of lies he’d been told by the people that love him and a lot of lies that he told to the people he loved. He had to simultaneously come to grips with both his culpability and his victimhood. He had to kick away pillars that had dammed back his doubts for decades and face that oncoming flood with no reward on the other side of it but knowledge.”

My Irrational Response to Irrational Science Denial

My Irrational Response to Irrational Science Denial

Despite my protestation that most theological beliefs are held with inadequate reasons, I fully support anyone who holds them. It took years of intense information pursuit to detangle myself from the indoctrination of my youth. While I wish I could provide an escape shortcut for some believers, ultimately I’m finding that I have a real peace toward those who hold to some form of theism or another. They are genuinely sincere and I remember thinking as they do.

What I find myself increasingly impatient and intolerant of, however, is science denialism.  Science denialists? People who just straight up deny science. People who are not scientists who proudly declare a contrary position.

Specifically, they selectively deny science. The fiber-optic cables, orbiting satellites, microscopic illuminated pixels and etched silicon that allows them to read this blog or tap like on an affirming sentiment overlaying the image of a sunset… whatever, could be faster. The specialized tubing threaded up to coronary arteries carrying a balloon to be inflated and implant a stent to prevent future heart attacks without invasive surgery… it’s a miracle. DNA sequencing that identifies parentage or puts an accused man in prison… undeniable.

However, when identical methods produce results that appear to be in conflict with economic benefit, lifestyle choice, or worst of all… the interpreted meaning of ancient holy books, the scientific method is suddenly in the reliability category of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey played by devious hucksters.

I can’t put my finger on it, but my emotions rise when this happens. I have visceral anger and physical response when an armchair observer thinks they have the secret data that undermines entire fields. As if, somehow, these gotchas have never reached the people spending their lifetimes dedicated to the fields in question. Or, more importantly, never reached competing scientists who could earn a Nobel prize and funding for life by calling out the Emperor’s new clothes.

Obviously, all scientific claims take on the burden of proof. If the evidence is not compelling to you, that is your right, privilege and duty as a skeptic to not accept. Everyone should be skeptical. However, if you do not take the time or effort to actually understand the claims and the evidence, then your conclusions cannot and should not be respected. Worse yet, if you had your conclusions before examining the data… your opinion deserves to be ignored.

(The potential irony of my feelings about science denial compared to my own deity denial is not lost on me. It is why I attempt to be relentless in seeking every argument for a god, every evidence for the Bible. A theist may assert that I’m just not seeing the evidence, as I might say to them about science. But I do all that I can to look myself in the mirror with intellectual honesty and know that I’m genuinely open to my position being challenged and shown incorrect. How sure is a position that refuses evaluation?)

Some deniers appeal to common sense. As if common sense has ever had anything to do with any scientific discovery. Frankly, it is the counter-intuitive nature of the universe that necessitates science in the first place. It is not common sense that the heavy objects and light objects fall at the same rate. It is not common sense that invisible microscopic organisms cause disease. It is not common sense that apparently solid objects are composed of atoms that are themselves largely made up of empty space. Intuition is not a way of knowing. Incredulity is not a counterpoint. Common sense loses to evidence and explanatory power.

Some deniers point to the changing nature of science, as if that fluidity makes its conclusions tentative or unreliable. Science improves. Science corrects. Science welcomes new data. At no time has science ever abandoned a natural explanation for a supernatural one.

Some deniers point to frauds (intentional and ignorant) of the past, well-known methodological limitations or unsettled details as if they might in any way taint other observations or conclusions. To add to the insult, all of the cited frauds, limitations and disagreements were discovered by other scientists… not science deniers. It is what scientists do… attempt to invalidate. Whatever the denier thinks, science isn’t ignoring these points, as science discovered them.

In the midst of this sea of intellectual irritation, I have found soothing solace in the sincerity and mission of ministries like Reasons to Believe and BioLogos. These are organizations comprised of scientists who are Christians who write to an audience of Christians who are not scientists. They believe that their god has revealed himself in two separate but equal revelations — scriptures and nature.

Because these groups “affirm that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God”, I prefer to refer to their resources on topics like

It removes the fallacy of differing worldview distraction from the equation. Deniers may not know it, but millions of Christians embrace the revelation of creation without threat to their faith.

If you are into science, that’s great. Please take the time to honestly understand and evaluate the claims being made by the communities that dedicate their entire lives to the advancement of knowledge.

If you’re not into science — if you don’t know or care about the magnetic, gravitational and gyroscopic factors taken into consideration to maintain the geosynchronous orbit that brings data to your cell phone — please be humble enough to acknowledge that while neither consensus nor authority is adequate to establish truth, it takes rare insight, aptitude and tenacity to justify breaking with them. There’s a reason why we remember names like Einstein, Newton, Galileo and Pasteur.

(If you think you have some gotcha tidbit in favor of a young earth, anti-evolution, pro-flood thinking, please check it against the Talk Origins index of creationist claims. At least know the counterpoint — whether you agree or not — before bringing it up. On the other hand, if you have something new, I’d genuinely love to hear it.)

If your god needs protection from science, then he isn’t much of one.

The Magician-Free Illusion of Objective Morality

The Magician-Free Illusion of Objective Morality

Based on the frequency it has been posed to me, Christians find that objective morality is particularly convincing evidence of their God. The “Moral Argument” contends not only that objective morality is a thing that exists, but that a God is required for it…. therefore God.

Despite my persistent asking, no one has ever given me an example of this objective morality. However, moral argument proponent William Lane Craig was kind enough to provide a definition that I think we can work with. “To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so,” he writes.

The evidence presented for the existence of this objective morality tends to rely exclusively on appeal to emotion, appeal to intuition, scripture verses or references to Nazis. Of course, none of these things are actual evidence.

I have yet to be presented with a compelling case that objective morality exists. As far as any philosopher or layperson has demonstrated, morality is subjective. Any objectivity you cling to is as illusory as the flat, stationary ground we stand on while the sun goes down. More importantly, I trust you will see that this illusion requires no external magician to explain it.

Evaluating Behavior

Objective or subjective aside, I think we can all agree that morality is primarily concerned with behavior, and determining which behaviors are better than others. Some will simplistically label behaviors with a binary “right” or “wrong” system. Most, however, will be sophisticated enough to acknowledge that morality is more of a spectrum.

For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that we can plot actions on a two-dimensional grid. In the center, we would find the most moral action – point A. For all other potential actions, we would evaluate their morality based on the distance from point A. The further from the center, the less moral. The closer, more moral.

graph-paper-objective

So points D and E are equally moral, though less moral than C, which is in turn less moral than B. This evaluation of distance is true regardless of whether you believe it or not. In this way, we can objectively evaluate behavior. The moral argument seems sound so far.

All the Starting Points

However, if you’ve been around humans for any length of time, you may have noticed that determining a “most moral action” is likely to cause some disagreement. To determine it, some would factor in theology, or ideology, or pragmatism, societal pressures, or perhaps merely personal preference. This perspective is unique to each individual. As such, we end up with a new graph.

graph-paper-purpledots

We are now confronted with the view that determining the morality of an action depends on the point from which you measure. Actions B, C, D and E are different distances from the different purple dots. Our observation of the present, and analysis of history, tells us that this accurately reflects how humans make decisions about behavior. Different groups, right down to different individuals, choose their own starting point and act accordingly. And these starting points change over time.

Of course, that there are many adopted starting points tells us nothing about the existence of an objective point A. Indeed, by the apologist’s definition, point A needs to be correct whether anyone believes it or not.

But you can see that any given action will have an objective assessment relative to each subjective starting point. And, of course, a person standing at any given point feels equally entitled to the objective correctness of their view as anyone standing at any other point. It is all relative.

At this point, you may protest that while everyone has an opinion, some opinions simply must be more right than others for we “just know” in our head/heart/gut that generosity is more moral than genocide.

Animal Kingdom

Let’s set aside human morality for a minute and take a look at behavior in the animal kingdom.

Apart from the advantages of warm-bloodedness, one of the keys to the flourishing of mammals on the earth has been their tendency toward being social animals. Despite varying degrees, the list of social mammals is extensive… bats, cats, chimps, dogs, dolphins, elephants, gerbils, gorillas, horses, hyenas, leopards, lions, meerkats, orca, rabbits, rats, wolves and zebra, to name a few.

It is a common misconception to think of the phrase “survival of the fittest” in terms of the slowest gazelle in a herd, who will more likely be dinner than a parent. But it is to the advantage of a species to exhibit what biologists call reciprocal altruism — when an organism acts in a manner temporarily reducing its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness. The sacrificing organism carries the expectation that the other will act in a similar manner at a later time. Such actions increase the fitness of the species.

For example, vampire bats who fail on a given night’s hunt will beg another bat for food. The fed bat may regurgitate some blood to sustain the other member. While any bat may donate to any other bat, researchers have found that the sharing does not happen proportionally. Bats are most likely to share with relatives, next most often with bats from the same colony, and least likely with those from outside the colony. This is an example of tribalism — a hierarchy of loyalism to those most likely to further an individual’s genes or species.

Of course, some animals go beyond altruism and develop negative reciprocity where individuals who fail to provide for the group are punished or shunned by the group. These non-cooperative individuals are excluded from breeding, thus ensuring the next generation is more likely to have the altruistic traits. For example, macaques that find food without giving food calls to others become the target of aggression. Domestic horses that are fed separately within sight of the group will be attacked upon return. As such, these animals learn social consequences of their actions.

In more complex social structures, individuals are allowed levels of individual expression so long as that expression does not jeopardize the group. While elephants are lead by a matriarch, she will listen to and accommodate requests from adults and juveniles alike. Some elephants become popular while others do not, outside of leadership and lineage. Dolphins researchers identify that each individual dolphin has a unique whistle that identifies him to other members of his pod, and that the pod will respond uniquely depending on the perceived behavior of the individual.

Naturalist Morality: Well-Being

Christian apologists tend to hold that morality is a trait unique to specially created humans, so would think of animal behavior as instinctual rather than moral. A naturalist would claim that social behavior has given some species an evolutionary benefit and these were honed in millions of years of natural selection. Either way, one could identify a moral system that would arise from the behavior of social mammals.

As for all animals, the key priority would be survival of the species, followed by the flourishing of the group and then individual self-preservation and preference. Morality would be determined by a blend of…

  • altruistic reciprocity – a kind of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you “golden rule” (as made popular by the writing of Confucius some 500 years before the events of the New Testament)
  • consequentialism – if everyone in society acted a certain way, what would the consequences be? what are the consequences of an act to the individual?
  • tribalism – greatest loyalty for those closest in genetics or proximity… family, clan, tribe, species, territory, continent, planet (for when Independence Day happens for real), universe
  • individual rights – when not in direct conflict with the needs of the group, the preference of the individual is honored. (My right to swing my fist stops at the point your nose begins.)

Such a moral code would require no divine revelation as it would be determined solely by biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage. We will call this naturalistic moral system “well-being”.

The Necessity of God

A moral system based on natural “well-being” requires no divine revelation to find consensus. Biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage are all that is needed.

graph-paper-green

“Well-being” is not “borrowing from a religious world view” as a theist may charge, though the confusion is understandable. On the “obvious” moral values — murder, theft, assault, kindness, and the like — the various surviving world theologies are predictably aligned with natural survival traits. (Theologies or ideologies that promote destructive behavior will ultimately go extinct as adherents disappear.)

Please be clear, I am not advocating that a “well-being” morality system is in any way objective. It is every bit as subjective as any other theology or ideology, despite having my personal endorsement. No, I present it here to demonstrate that what theists point to as objective morals “divinely written on our hearts” is adequately, if not superiorly, explained without need of a supernatural source.

But you may object, this “well-being” morality doesn’t explain how we know that witcheshomosexuals and atheists must be put to death, where to buy slaves and how badly to beat them, that rape victims should be forced to marry their rapist, that the teaching of a woman is less desirable than that of a man, and that polyester / cotton blends are immoral. That’s true. Those things have nothing to do with well-being. For those judgements, you would need a never-changing decree from a god.

It might come as a surprise to you, but if you don’t follow everything listed in the paragraph above, then you have created your own subjective morality where you evaluate what is right and wrong using your own personal criteria. I applaud this… a system to decide is much better than an inflexible, incomplete, authoritative decree.

Well, Why Should Anyone Care about Well-Being?

It is about at this point that I hear theists throw up their hands and question why a secular-minded person would care about well being in the first place. (Maybe they throw in a “since we’re just a collection of atoms” for good measure.)

This is obviously a non-sequetor to the moral argument being presented, since the assertion is that objective morality is independent of anyone agreeing or adhering to it. If it’s ok to ignore objective morality, it must be ok to ignore subjective.

This is like discussing the relative health merits of jogging vs. eating a bag of potato chips, but trying to end the discussion by asking why anyone should even care if they are being healthy. Obviously, many people do not care about their own health. You cannot make someone care about health, despite what may seem like self-evident reasons. This has no bearing on an attempt to evaluate the health benefit of actions. We just agree to a common reference point that health is better than non-health, whether such an assumption is justified or not.

Two people have to agree to a common goal in order to commonly evaluate morality. That’s just the way it works. That’s why all morality is relative.

If we can agree that well-being is better than not-well-being, then discussion can begin. If we can’t, we can’t. No god required.

This is the only life we know we have, and the only society and planet that we are likely to have access to in our lifetimes. That is plenty of justification for a typical secular person, not that it matters.

Burden of Proof

Obviously, the assertions “if God exists, objective moral values exist” and “objective moral values exist” are positive claims that require proof. They do not need to be disproven. I could be completely wrong in every word I wrote, and they would remain unproven assertions.

However, I do believe I have properly demonstrated plausible naturalistic explanations for this intuitive morality that theists appeal to.

Moreover, if this theoretical objective morality does exist, it is of no practical use to we humans, since we cannot identify it. If we could, Christianity would not have thousands of denominations.

The morality you cling to is subjective, your own personal cherry-picking interpretation, because the objective one is no more identifiable than the square root of zero — and no more useful in a proof.

graph-paper-no-a

 


If you’re interested in more on this topic, allow me to suggest any of Matt Dillahunty’s clear discussions on morality, like this one.

 

 

MQFABSS #6 – What Would Change Your Mind?

MQFABSS #6 – What Would Change Your Mind?

The final question from My Questions For a Bible School Student was highly unoriginal. It has been asked in countless debates between theists and atheists, and should continue to be asked every single time.

The answer that most theists give is some variation of “nothing”. You can imagine what it would take for you to change your mind about the love of your spouse, your biological relation to your children or parents, your own name, or your memory-wiped history as a secret spy assassin. Are you really honest with yourself if your answer is “nothing”?

Question From Me

What would make you change your mind about your faith?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“The Apostle Paul lays out in chapter 15 verse 17 of 1st Corinthians what would make me change my mind about my faith: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” If this is the case, then Paul writes two verses later that, “we are to be pitied more than all men,” for we have falsely testified about God.”

From this, I infer that you mean that only evidence that Christ has NOT been raised would make you change your mind.

Of course, Christ being raised from the dead is a positive claim, and it is the positive claim must be proven, not the negation. I cannot expect someone to prove that Santa doesn’t deliver all the presents… we would want evidence that Santa does deliver presents.

The question is… is there sufficient evidence to believe that Christ DID rise from the dead? (For those interested, I looked in detail at An Evidence Attested Resurrection? earlier this year.)

“I know Christ is risen from my experience, which is likewise in agreement with countless other believers as well.”

As we explored in the previous question, personal experience is not a reliable way to know anything. Billions of other believers in thousands of other faiths had equally visceral and compelling personal experiences, and you would consider them to be mistaken. (As they would consider you.) How do you know that you are not fooling yourself, as I once fooled myself?

But more to the point, since disproving Christ’s resurrection would cause you to change your mind, and since the way you know this is from your experience only, then what would change your mind is for you to doubt your own experience. To doubt experiences that you agree cannot be easily distinguished from well-known psychological and neurological phenomenon.

It sounds like you owe it to yourself to take an honest, dispassionate look at those experiences. Since you build your entire faith upon them, it would be good to be sure.

“But thats the beauty of faith, my salvation is riding on me. Because God’s word is true, this hope will not be put to shame (Rom. 5:5).”

I assume that the assertion that “God’s word is true” is similarly established only by personal experience.

“It is not what I have done, for I am not perfect and surely cannot meet God’s standard.”

“In order to know that Christ was not raised from the dead and that there is no God, I myself would have to be God.”

I guess that depends on your definition of “know”, which is always slippery.

Though, again, you appeal to the proof of a negation, which I would again point out is a logical fallacy. It is the positive claim that requires evidence. You would similarly have to be God in order to know that there are no unicorns, fairies, Smurfs, nor the pantheon of gods sitting at Mount Olympus. Do you accept all of these as existing, since only an omniscient being can know for sure?

Fortunately, to know that Christ was raised from the dead would not require you to have to be a god. Mere mortals could know that there is a god. All it would take is evidence, and a god willing to provide it.

My Response

Concluding this exercise, I will endeavor to answer my own question. What would it take for me to change my mind about the existence of God?

Evidence.

That’s it. That’s all. Sufficient evidence.

You may rightfully ask, “But Paul, what kind of evidence would possibly be good enough for you?” And this is an excellent question.

My answer? I don’t know what evidence would be sufficient for me to accept the existence of God… but if there is a God, HE KNOWS what it would be, and he chooses not to reveal it.

Until then, I wait. Unconvinced.

An Evidence Attested Resurrection?

An Evidence Attested Resurrection?

There are times I miss being enveloped in the dry-but-rich four-part harmonies of my old Mennonite church. Around this Easter time, the music pastor would break out the mismatched plodding melody and joyous lyrics of I Serve a Risen Savior. In the chorus, the congregation liltingly professes, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”

Popular apologist and leading defender-of-the-faith, philosopher William Lane Craigcommonly admits he “believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive.”

Yet Craig, and others like him, understand that their individual purely-internal woo cannot serve as evidence to an outsider. They defend a theology that requires the resurrection of Jesus be a historical event, as the Apostle Paul (probably) wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

TL;DR warning! Click here to jump to conclusions.

Anyone who has spent any time in a pew has probably repeatedly heard the mantra that “the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested fact in history” (or some variation of this). It passed through my ears many times. This phrase was taught, without qualifier, in Accelerated Christian Education textbooks. While it may well have morphed from John A. T. Robinson’s similar claim in 1973’s The Human Face of God about the burial (not resurrection) of Jesus, can this assertion be backed up in any way?

I’d like to take a look at the four so-called “facts” that the Dr. Craig ilk systematically present in any articles, books, lectures or debates on the historical resurrection. From these facts, Craig argues that Jesus rising from the dead is the only reasonable hypothesis that explains them. More on that later.

Jesus Lived

OK, Craig doesn’t actually claim this one, but it seems a reasonable inference from (and prerequisite to) “Jesus was buried”. The Jesus who has been conclusively proven to have risen from the dead must have irrefutable proof of having lived, right?

This will be worthy of an entire entry at some point, and I am by no means dogmatic on the non-existence of a historical Jesus. My world view doesn’t change a breath if there was a Life of Brian-style figure on whom the Jesus legend was based, or if the character was created whole-cloth or as an amalgam of multiple historical men. That said, I find the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus was purely a non-historical myth to be a compelling one.

The point here is that, outside the Bible, there is remarkably little evidence that Jesus even walked the Earth. The first extra-Biblical (and Biblical, for that matter) references to Jesus are from decades and centuries after the alleged events. The earliest of these are almost certainly forgeries, and even then all merely attest to the beliefs held by Christians rather than lend historical weight to them. A report of what someone believed is not an endorsement of the factuality of the belief.

I don’t see how we could convince a jury of even this first one.

Jesus Was Crucified

Craig doesn’t claim this fact either, but in a way I’m surprised. Of all the things that the extra-Biblical sources on Jesus do allegedly attest to, it is the crucifixion.

Both the Testimonium Flavianum (a passage found in surviving copies of Flavius Josephus’ first century Antiquities) and Tacitus’ second century Annals reference the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate. The latter, and less disputed, doesn’t reference a cross nor resurrection, but both revisit the Christian beliefs about Jesus’ death.

I cede not this point, but find it particularly conspicuous in the apologetic absence.

Jesus Was Buried

Craig’s first claimed fact is that “after his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb”. His evidence is the record in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the letters of Paul — what he calls five independent sources. He also asserts that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, is unlikely to be a Christian invention due to early church hostility toward Jewish leaders.

Please forgive the length of discussion on this initial point. We will make up time with reuse as we go.

Sources – Not Independent

If you read my entry “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”, you’ll recall that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actually embellishments and expansions of Mark as source material, as attested by centuries of theistic and secular scholars alike.

In 2014, the movie The Imitation Game depicted the life of controversial war hero and father of computing, Alan Turing. The screenplay for the movie was an adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. As such, the movie does not suddenly become a second source to attest the book’s claims. They are two works, but the same source.

So too, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are at best one source, not multiple sources as disingenuously asserted from pulpits.

You’ll recall the gospels were written a generation after the time of Jesus’ reported death. They were composed in affluent literary Greek rather than the pedestrian Aramaic that the disciples would have spoken. The authors do not claim to be eye witnesses. Regardless of the count, these are not the kind of sources that historians look for.

Paul Doesn’t Help

It is curious that Craig would throw Paul’s letters into the mix. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage has the benefit of being written earlier than Mark — 25-or-so years after the time of Jesus’ death. However, the extent of what Paul writes is the tiny phrase “he was buried”. Nothing about a tomb. Nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. From the textual evidence, Paul might just as well have meant a mass grave, as was the established practice for the dozens of Roman crucifixions each day. The tomb tradition emerged after Paul’s writings.

Joseph of Arimathea

As for the tomb benefactor, Joseph of Arimathea, he debuts in Mark and there are no Biblical nor historical references to him outside of the gospels. (Later tales of Joseph visiting and founding the church in Glastonbury are apocryphal legends started in the 10th century as part of an effort to establish a British church pedigree separate from Rome. Poet Robert de Boron attached Joseph of Arimathea to his 11th century King Arthur legends, casting him as keeper of the Holy Grail. This landed Joseph a mention in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which the Lucasfilm in me could not fail to mention.) As such, naming this official adds no additional evidence or historical legitimacy to the burial assertion.

Is occupational distaste evidence that Joseph could not be an invented figure? The author of Mark made clear efforts to connect his Jesus figure to Messianic prophecies. He would have been aware of Isaiah 53:9‘s prediction, “and he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” If there was indeed hostility toward Jewish leaders, what better character to represent the rich and wicked than a member of the Sanhedrin? Joseph’s vocation is literarily perfect, not a historical sore thumb.

Women Found the Tomb Empty

The second presented fact is that “on the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers”. Again, Craig points to the gospels, mentions in Acts and an implication by Paul as multiple, independent attestations. He points out that the testimony of women was unacceptable in the courts of the time, so it is unlikely that female characters would be used in a fictional account.

We’ll start with the gospels again. As above, they cannot be called multiple sources, they were not written close to the time of the events, they are not unbiased, the writers are anonymous and didn’t profess to be eye witnesses. They may be fine as theological sources, but they are not what a historian would like as historical sources. (If they were reliable historical sources, the resurrection would come along for free. Apologists wouldn’t cherry-pick a handful of elements to try to defend.)

The Acts references are 2:29 (“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day”) and 13:37 (“But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.”) But the first one isn’t about Jesus, it’s about David. The second doesn’t mention a tomb at all. As such, these are not independent attestation of Jesus’ empty tomb.

The referenced “implication” by Paul is 1 Corinthians 15:4 (“that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”). Paul gives us a when, but not the whowhat or where. No women. No empty. No tomb. We’ll discuss later, but this phrase doesn’t even lend evidence that Paul was speaking of a physical resurrection. None of the epistles mention a missing body, so lend no additional evidence for this particular “fact”.

As to the unlikely invention of tomb-finding women due to their gender being considered second-class citizens… that’s exactly why the tradition probably started. The expected Messiah wasn’t supposed to die, so the early Christian narrative had to explain how Jesus family, religious leaders and disciples all missed the point. The author of Mark emphasizes that only outsiders recognized who he was, and who more outside than a group of women to serve the literary purpose of discovering the resurrection ahead of the late-to-understand men?

(As I am editing this, the book “Not the Impossible Faith” has come to my attention. I’m told it provides transcript evidence that first-century women were held as trusted witnesses in Jewish, Roman and Greek courts. I haven’t had a chance to investigate myself, but this might be another case of Christian repetition making a common claim go unquestioned by believers.)

Post-Mortem Jesus Appeared to People

The third presented fact says that “on different occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead”. As evidence, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 list of eyewitnesses is cited, since Paul and other members of the early church would have known these people personally to fact-check. Once again, the records of the gospels and Paul’s letters is held up as a breadth of independent sources.

Paul’s Attestation

Paul includes himself in the list of those to whom a raised Christ had appeared, but neither Paul’s letters nor the account in Acts ever claim that Paul (nee Saul) saw Jesus in raised, physical form.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. (Acts 9:3,5,7)

Science and medicine has learned much about experiences like this, which we now call hallucinations. Fully-real-to-the-experiencer hallucinations happen all the time, all over the world, including religious visions that contradict Christianity. It is clear that most of these experiences are not real. Indeed, we have no scientific evidence of any that are not. While it is possible Paul was an exception, it is certainly the least likely explanation… and not useful as evidence for an actual resurrection of Jesus.

An apologist might say that Paul met with the disciples to get his information, but those are not Paul’s claims. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” And, after his revelation, “my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia.” Clearly, Paul’s first several formative years of doctrine-forming were purely internal, from his visions only. “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.

Since the list in Corinthians draws no distinction between Jesus’ appearance to Paul (a vision) and the nature of the appearances to others, should one not infer that all of the appearances in question were understood by the author to be visions? More on this in the next section.

Some have claimed that this section of Corinthians is based on an early-tradition creed that Paul is reciting. While this speculation might make the words closer to the time of Jesus’ death (this is all guessing), it would actually make this even less Pauline attestation and even more heresay.

Gospel Attestation

An apologist might also point to the tale of doubting Thomas, who wanted a physical inspection of Jesus’ wounds. This story is found only in John, the latest-in-the-line and most spectacularly embellished of the gospels, which was written around 50 years after the writings of Paul. As such, we cannot confidently say it is reflective of Paul’s resurrection understanding.

Which brings me back to the repetition that the gospels do not serve as independent sources as they were built upon each other from non-first-hand sources.

Jesus’ Disciples Believed in the Resurrection

The final fact suggests that “the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.” The evidence is that Jewish beliefs precluded the rising of the dead and the Jewish Messianic expectation of an earthly conqueror. For good measure, it is noted that the disciples were willing to die for this belief.

Disciples’ Belief

The obvious most important question is… what evidence do we have as to what the original disciples believed?

Did they sincerely believe or know that they were seeing Jesus’ actual risen physical body? Or did they understand the appearances to be non-physical appearances of Jesus entity?

Ancient people had no difficulty thinking that a divine appearance was not an actual physical appearance but rather phantasmal. Such appearances are common in all writings of the time – Jewish, pagan and Christian. Historian Bart Ehrman suggests that anyone doubting this “might start with the Christian texts of the second century, such as the Acts of John or the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter or the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, or he might consider the arguments used by Basilides, who was the disciple of the follower of Peter. For ancient people, post-death appearance was not the same as the reanimation of the body.”

But one needn’t look that far, even according to the gospels, Moses and Elijah appeared (and then disappeared) to Jesus, James and John with enough physical presence that shelters were proposed. Did these apostles believe that Moses and Elijah came back to life? Or was this a vision?

Resurrected Jesus himself was more like an X-Men character, doing things normal bodies cannot do. He walks through locked doors. He is some kind of shape-shifter appearing in “a different form” to some and manipulating the appearance of his face to others. It ascended into the clouds. These are more consistent with visions than with a historical physical body.

We don’t actually know what the disciples believed. Paul clearly acknowledges that his appearances are visions, not interaction with physical Jesus. The epistles do not address the nature of their post-resurrection interactions, so we are left with the gospels as our only source.

Disciples’ Predisposition

As for the disciples’ predisposition against a resurrection, we know that Jews were looking for the messiah to be a great warrior and king. When Jesus was crucified, the man they thought was Messiah failed all expectations. They would have turned to the scriptures to see where they went wrong, and found passages like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 referring to the righteous one’s suffering death and vindication. With precedents like Elijah and Enoch, it’s not a stretch to assume their vindicated Messiah was in heaven and coming back to finish what he started and establish the earthly kingdom. If he’s exalted, he’s not dead. Eventually, as the stories grow over the years, this exaltation turns into a resurrection. Belief in the resurrection prompts visions (like Jesus’ face in toast today) and tales of visions, and the legend grows. Or something like that… the point is that the disciples predispositions were turned on their heads and had to pivot. The change can be explained as much by Jesus’ death itself as by a claimed resurrection.

Willingness to Die

As to the claim that the disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection, this is quite a specific claim… not only must the apostles die as martyrs, but also in a situation where recanting would have saved them. So what evidence do we have for the disciples’ fate?

The Bible records the death of only two disciples: Judas Iscariot (with two conflicting accounts, one suicide and one bursting) and James, son of Zebedee, whom Herod had “put to death with the sword.” John speaks of “the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God“, but does not clarify any details about Peter’s demise.

What do non-Biblical sources tell us about the deaths of the others? John is said to have died of old age. The Acts of Peter ends with Peter accepting a voluntary crucifixion. The Acts of Andrew tells of Andrew being martyred on an X-shaped cross. The Acts of Philip spins a tale of Philip dying upside-down hung from iron hooks, thousands dying in a resulting abyss, and Jesus scolding him. Bartholomew may have been crucified in Armenia or beheaded in India. The Acts of Thomas records that Thomas was stabbed in India, and also that he was the twin brother of Jesus! (Parent Trap resurrection-switch theory, anyone?) Matthew, um, probably died of natural causes or maybe we don’t know. There are too many guys named James to know, but maybe stoned by Pharisees or crucified in Egypt. The Acts of Thaddeus has Jude dying naturally. Simon the Zealot was either crucified with Jude (who died naturally) or himself dying naturally in Edessa. Unfortunately, even early church fathers considered all of these second-century-or-much-later apocryphal (yet entertaining) works to be spurious and heretical. They are rejected out-of-hand by Christian scholars of all eras.

There is no historical evidence that the apostles died, or were willing to die, for the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is merely assertion based on legends that even the most open-minded Christians reject.

(Of course, we have plenty of examples in history of people willing to lie and die for a cause they believe has a greater good beyond their lives. See Joseph Smith.)

Bonus Facts: Jerusalem Zombie Attack!

This isn’t a fact listed by apologists, but if we’re considering the gospels as authoritative historical accounts, then we should probably heed the words of Matthew 27:51-53

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

With the Romans crucifying hundreds of people every day, it is reasonable that this particular carpenter’s son doesn’t appear in any records. Earthquakes aren’t a daily event, but not every one will be noted in the detailed Roman documents.

However, it seems entirely unreasonable to think that “many people” returning from the dead, taking walks in the most important city of the region, and appearing to “many people” would not be an event worthy of mention in at least one secular annal.

Similarly, but less spectacularly, the synoptic gospels all record three hours (noon until three in the afternoon) of “darkness” coming over “all the land“. One could read this as a heavy cloud over local area, but Luke adds the striking detail “for the sun stopped shining“. No external sources, including the meticulous Chinese culture of the day, record any such three hour physics-defying event.

These are but two examples of the gospel writers inventing details (people, private events, even public events) that never happened to communicate their message through symbols, metaphors and parables. We also have dozens of apocryphal gospels and writings that tell us that Christians were making up stories without remorse, as it supported specific views. Given this, even if there are historical nuggets to be found in their works, we have no way to know which details are history and which ones are allegory without corroboration of outside sources. As far as evidence goes, none of it is solid.

Conclusions

Despite the long-held opt-repeated claim of great attestation, the “four facts” of the resurrection of Jesus have only two sources — the gospels and the epistles.

The epistles, which were written first, do not mention a tomb, Joseph of Arimathea, women visiting a tomb, or a missing body. The limited mentions of post-death appearances clearly indicate visions when specific, and make no distinction between visions and other types of appearances — treating all the same. No physical appearances of Jesus are specified.

This leaves the gospels as the single source for these alleged facts. And as such, it is a strange exercise to arbitrarily label some of the gospel claims as facts, then use those as evidence to support the explanatory (less factual?) claims from the same source.

Historians try to determine what is most probable about the past based on available evidence. If one was to play along with this game of cherry-picking isolated elements as factual, they would need not look beyond naturalistic explanations. Most missing bodies don’t go missing because of miracles. Most appearances of gods and dead people are hallucinations. Most religions are started on false ideas (all but one?). Even if there are some that are miracles, most are not. By definition, a miracle would be the least likely explanation. A miracle may have happened, but it is least probable, so cannot be attested.

But that aside, the entire idea of using four details found only in the gospels as proof of the gospel’s claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is really no different than presenting four details from Harry Potter books to prove the existence of Voldemort from the Harry Potter books. (If there’s no Voldemort, where did Harry get his scar?)

If you believe that the gospels are historically accurate and reliable, then you already accept a miraculous resurrection as part of the package. You don’t need to do any kind of rationalization. It comes along as part of the deal, and you have no need for external validation.

If you don’t accept the gospels as accurate and reliable, then you don’t see the four facts as facts at all. No rationalization for a burial, empty tomb or post-mortem appearances are needed, as you would view the mundane details as equally unsupported as the resurrection claim. At least you should, since there are no external validations for them.

The hymn was right. The reason to believe this Easter season are the warm feelings you feel, not external evidence.

 


This article is the product and amalgam of my lifetime of study as a devout Christian, followed by listening to hundreds of hours of debates over the past several years, featuring people like Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Matt Dillahunty, Peter Atkins, David Silverman and others, alongside the reading of many books on the subject by some of the same authors. I regret that I didn’t have time to further footnote and document. If any of the individual ideas presented here were insightful, they belong to the group above.

Craig often appeals to a consensus of Biblical scholars as his authority. During my writing, I was made aware of Gary Habermas’ 2005 survey Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?  in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Of those publishing on the subject, Habermas finds “approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the [historical] empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it.” While, that is obviously a majority in favor, it is far from the unchallenged verdict that Craig represents. It also does not adjust for the (presumably) overwhelming majority of publishing Biblical scholars who have a theological bent to believe. Has anyone seen any stats on the secular proportion of Biblical scholars?