Sunday, April 23, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 5)

Dear D.,

Following my comments on the first seven chapters of your book [here, herehere, and here], we come to Chapter 8: Modern. I came to read it following a few weeks break after reading the last ones, so I was pleased to find you started the chapter with a recap. The problem with the recap is, however, it doesn't just recap the stuff you've already established in earlier chapters, but sneaks a few extra things in there to make it look like you've already provided more of a case than you actually have. Your recap covers:
  1. God, the creator
    You've not actually gone there yet. You've not even tried the cosmological argument. Up until now, God the creator is a presupposition underlying everything else in here, but you've not even tried to justify or defend this presupposition. Now you're implying that we can take this for granted? Sorry, you still have work to do here.
  2. Made humans in His own image
    Similarly, I don't recall you justifying or defending this claim either.
  3. Freewill and the fall of man, bringing creation down with us
    You've gone into the issue of sin a bit in previous chapters, but have provided no case that we have freewill. You've certainly not explained or justified the claim that the sin of man could ruin all of creation. Why should that follow?
  4. God's redemption plan: Jesus
  5. Jesus: his miraculous birth
  6. Jesus: taught God's message
  7. Jesus: showed God's power
    Ok. You definitely have covered these. I'm not convinced, but I'll grant that you went there.
  8. Jesus: died our death and suffered our hell
    Yes, you went there, but let me remind you that Jesus descending to hell isn't actually in the Bible.
  9. Jesus: raised from the dead, and ascended
    Have you talked about the ascension? I don't remember that bit.
  10. The Holy Spirit
    Yes, we've touched on it, or is it Him?
Hmmm. So while your focus in the book thus far has been almost exclusively on Jesus, you basically want us to take God, the Father and Creator, as a given. Not sure that's how apologetics (a defence of the faith) actually works. To defend something, you need to actually defend it, not simply presume it or assert it. But anyway, on with the chapter...

Your aim in the first part of the chapter is to show that Christianity isn't dying out and isn't bad or irrelevant. You take swipes at hypocritical Christians, celebrity atheists, Bono, Stalin and Hitler along the way. Your trump card here seems to be a quote from Matthew Parris, an atheist, who observed that Christianity is making a positive change in parts of Africa because Christianity changes lives in a 'real' way. Of course, you can't prove anything by anecdote, but this seems to you to settle the question.

Sometimes, converting to Christianity is hugely beneficial for people and makes them better, kinder, more hopeful people. Does that mean Christianity is true? Not necessarily, it simply means that the Christian worldview is better than their previous worldview. Maybe there's a better one beyond Christianity that they could move on to? Then they might be even more kind and even more hopeful. Maybe.

Of course, the flip side of all this is all the miserable Christians that we've all met. And the useless ones who are 'too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good', and the ones who are downright horrible people and yet use Christianity, the Bible or God to justify this. For every anecdote there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

All you've really done here is show that for some people, being a Christian is a positive thing. I don't deny that. But that doesn't mean that Christianity is true, just that it can work as a positive worldview.

You claim that the Church is growing, and that where it is growing, it is growing particularly through attracting young people. I can't deny either of those facts, viewed worldwide, there is a definite trend towards church growth in superstitious societies. People who believe in all sorts of nonsense are coming to believe the Christian message, because it is more rational than the thing they believed previously.

But. Have a look at societies where Christianity has been dominant for a long time, there the picture is different. When I was young, in the 1970s, I seem to recall that about 12% of Scots were regular church attenders. When I was a student, in the 1990s, the number had dropped to about 10%. Now, in 2017, the latest numbers show that only 7% of Scots regularly attend church. Following that trend, I fully expect that we'll see numbers below 5% within 20 years, and maybe as low as 3% in our lifetimes. The Church in Scotland is dying. In particular, the established church (CofS, Scottish Episcopal, etc.) has pretty much already lost all its young people and is slowly losing members as its congregations die off. Of course, you will offer statistics that show that some churches are growing. Indeed. An increasingly smaller number of non-traditional churches are growing. They're growing primarily by hoovering up all the younger Christians who still believe, but have become disillusioned by the traditional church. The church I still attend has a congregation of about 200 folk every week, where 3/4 of the congregation are families with school age kids. But it is the exception, not the rule.

And finally I want to get onto the question of church growth through attracting young people. Of course this is happening. Evangelistic campaigns aim to attract young people. Some of those young people convert. This is mostly a matter of psychology. Young people's minds are still 'plastic' - they can adapt to new ideas and belief systems much better than older people. As we age we do get more set in our ways. It is much easier to change the mind of a teenager than it is to change the mind of a retiree. That's a matter of human nature. So evangelistic organisations work primarily among schools, universities and other groups of young people. Thus it is not surprising that those churches which are growing by conversion (a tiny minority of churches in my UK-based experience) are seeing this growth among young people. Its because they don't aim for conversion of older people, and would find it harder to do if they tried.

Fundamentally, what you've shown in this chapter is that Christianity works as a worldview, and works better than some other worldviews, and may be justifiable in comparison to some other worldviews, but haven't in any way demonstrated that it is true.



Sunday, April 09, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 4)

Dear D.,

Following my comments on the first five chapters of your book [here, here and here], I now get to Chapter 6: Meaning. It is a strange beast, touching on a number of different topics, not as focused as the previous ones.

You start with the 'eyewitness testimony' of the disciples and the old claim that people don't die for a lie, again. Furthermore you claim that if Jesus had remained dead in the tomb, then the authorities could have just dug him up and demonstrated that the stories the disciples were preaching were false.

Once again, you are using a story told in one part of the Bible to 'prove' the historical accuracy of a story told in another part of the Bible. We have no secular evidence that the disciples preached anything at all about the death and resurrection of Jesus in the vicinity of the supposedly empty tomb, in the weeks or months following the alleged resurrection event. No, the only evidence that such events ever happened is contained in the book of Acts.

Of course, you believe the book of Acts is accurate reportage. To counter that assumption, may I mention that the "Acts Seminar" - a bunch of proper Bible scholars who spent years studying and debating the book of Acts - gave as the primary conclusion of their study that the book of Acts was a work of fiction, most likely written in the early 2nd century? Conservative evangelicals disagree of course, but I think the impartial observer has to at least consider the possibility that Acts is - or contains - fictional elements.

If the gospel was not preached until years or decades after the supposed event, and perhaps then not by the supposed eyewitnesses, who could dig up a body to prove anything?

From here you go off on a rant about some of the usual 'new atheist' authors and arguments. Fair enough. But you don't really present your own case, you merely attack their weaknesses. Eventually you get to your point, that Jesus is God, and we finally get to the Trinity. You call this the 'cornerstone of Christian thinking' but, of course, can't explain it, because nobody can. It is literally a mystery. Or possibly a nonsense. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. How can you believe something you can't explain?

You then touch on the 'but who made God?' question and don't really get anywhere. This discussion never gets anywhere because it is obvious to the believer that nobody made God and it is obvious to everyone else that the chain of cause and effect can't go back to something as complicated as an eternal and infinite triune Godhead. You can solve almost every finite problem by invoking an infinite and unseen solution, but you can't solve the problem of an infinite and unseen thing by invoking anything else.

You go a bit preacher for a while, revelling in the claim that Jesus is God, and then come back to some semi-apologetics questions, like why the Trinity isn't in the Old Testament (your answer: it is), and why did God have to become man to become our redeemer. 

Finally you get to the question of where Jesus is now and why could he not stay on earth. You don't actually address the first of those that well, considering that there are some biblical passages that imply that Christ remains in his human (perfected) body even now, i.e. he remains localised, while other passages speak of him 'filling all things' and the like, implying that he is anything but localised. I've heard your answer to the second of those before, and heard it from others than you. Of course Christ had to leave the earth, because if he didn't go, the Spirit could not come. Huh? So the Spirit and the Son are two distinct persons, but they can't both be on earth simultaneously? Why?

Through all of this you imply that the Trinity is the clear teaching of the Bible. It isn't. Sure, you can read the Trinity into the Bible in a good many places, but it is far from clear that all the Bible authors would agree with such a concept if you presented it to them. So at the end of this chapter I remain unconvinced that the Trinity actually makes sense. Oh well.

On we move to Chapter 7: Mission in which you defend the Church, by pointing out that it is made of flawed human beings. Yes it is. I don't really have much to comment on here. 

The only thing I really want to mention here is when you attack the straw man of "The Bible was compiled by the council of Nicea". While I have heard this claimed by Dan Brown and the like, this is a bit of a red herring. I'm far more convinced by David Trobisch's claim that the original NT was compiled and edited by Polycarp, and then widely distributed. But anyway, that's enough for now. I'll move on to Chapter 8 next time.



Thursday, April 06, 2017

The simplicity fallacy

Just listened to last week's Unbelievable show on "Can atheists believe in human rights?"

The basic argument put forward by the Christian guest on the show was that humans would have no 'human rights' if there was no creator God to give those rights to people. The atheist guest on the show more or less conceded this point and claimed that human rights are a human construct, and are not really inherent.

The details of the debate are largely irrelevant to the point I want to make here. But it struck me, while listening to this podcast, that I've heard the same basic form of argument for God in debates (both on Unbelievable and elsewhere) many times over.

The basic, underlying, argument is this:
The [thing we are talking about] is much simpler to explain in a universe created by a God than it would be in a universe not created by a God. Therefore we can conclude there is a God.
The same argument has been made concerning human rights, morality, reason, science, etc., etc.

Its just not a very good argument. The fundamental flaw in this argument lies in its implied appeal to Occam's Razor. Two options are presented, one is made to look simple, one is made to look complex, thus the simpler one is the preferred (by which it is assumed we mean 'true') option.

I agree, human rights would be much easier to justify if they were granted by a higher power, relative to if they were not. But the two opposing sides in this situation are not:

  1. Complex justification of human rights with no granting authority, vs.
  2. Simple justification of human rights with a granting authority, 
but rather:

  1. Complex justification of human rights with no granting authority, vs.
  2. Simple justification of human rights with a granting authority PLUS very complex justification of the existence of the infinitely powerful granting authority.
Given that the argument itself is usually being framed as an attempt to prove the existence of God, it usually overlooks all the circular reasoning and begging the question that is going on here. The whole thing presupposes that God can do anything, which of course makes anything that God can do into a simple task. But you can't have that presupposition when trying to justify the existence of God.

God is anything but 'simple'. Any argument suggesting that something would be 'simpler' by assuming God is fallacious. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 3)

Dear D,

While these posts may appear in quick succession, several months have passed since I read the last chunk of your book and formed my thoughts on it, so sorry if this appears a bit disconnected from the previous posts. My comments on the first three chapters of your book can be found here, and my comments on chapter four are here.

Now we get to Chapter 5 "Marvellous" in which you tackle the subject of the resurrection. You believe it happened, and you believe this because you believe that the Biblical stories are true. I don't think you have really given us any story of how you came to believe that these stories are true so far.

For myself, I believed that these stories were true because my family and Church family all believed that these stories were true and managed to embed that belief in me from an early age. I may not have made any personal commitment to be a Christian until I was in my late teens, but the fundamental belief in the truth of the Bible was always there from the word go. I suspect that much the same is true of you. We are both products of a Scottish Christian upbringing.

Suppose you weren't though. Suppose you happened upon this book with no preconceptions about its author or authority. What would it take to convince you that this book conveys truth? I've wrestled with this question in other posts on this blog, so I'll leave it out for now, but I do think there is something in John Loftus's "Outsider test for faith" idea.

Anyway, the resurrection... or rather, sin. You start by talking about sin. Indeed, you get to the doctrine of total depravity quite rapidly. I always find it interesting that the so called 'good news' needs to start with the 'bad theory' - once you've convinced people that they are bad, then you can sell them your way of fixing the perceived problem that you gave them in the first place.

Before really getting into the question of sin, though, you jump (abruptly) to the question of evidence. Your imaginary correspondent apparently raised this question somewhere off stage left. And you skirt around this issue in a really unsatisfying way by saying:
"There is plenty of evidence for what I assert. I can't list it. Whole books have been written..." 
Most of these books you don't cite, so I'm not sure how your reader is supposed to test your claims.

But the central claim of this chapter is that, unlike most of the other things you claim, that you can prove the resurrection. Strong claim. So let's look at your proof.

At least you start from common ground here: "Resurrections just don't happen." At least we agree on that. Then you dismiss a few straw-man theories, the 'swoon' theory, the 'conspiracy' theory and the 'cock-up' theory. All of these theories are bunk, I'll agree with you there, but the fundamental flaw in all of these theories is that they accept some of the details of the gospel story as true and accurate, and only cast doubt on one or two details. This is 19th century rationalism - only people who believe that the Bible is true, but that miracles don't happen have to resort to such theories. How about the theory that the whole thing is fiction? You don't go there. And yet that is the most likely scenario.

Resurrections just don't happen. But stories of resurrections do happen. Loads of them. This story could be complete fiction. Why don't you even consider this 'theory'? Because your responses to all the theories rely on the assumption that some of the details in the gospel stories are true, and from this basis you will attempt to prove that other details in the same stories must also be true.

Your first port of call is Bauckham's book (which I read and reviewed six years ago), which you take to be conclusive proof that the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses. The assumption is that if someone who was there wrote this, then the story is completely accurate. Really? Read some of the actual eyewitness testimony from the Salem Witch Trials! People who were actually verifiably somewhere at a given point in history can and did report absolute nonsense about what they apparently saw. With the gospels we don't even have that.

Next you raise the old turkey of the women. If this was made up, surely the fabricator would have made a man the central character!? Why? Why would a man go to the tomb? Culturally, it was the women who would go to embalm the body. In the context of the story, it has to be the women who are the first witnesses. The story demands that the women discover the empty tomb, whether the story is true or not.

Then you take the conflicting gospel reports head on and claim that the fact that they disagree with one another somehow makes the accounts more likely to be true. You don't really address the actual irreconcilable differences between the stories, you do broad brush strokes and paint a picture that works. Its a shame that a detailed look at the evidence shows the opposite. Have a look at my post "Why did the angels say what they said?" for more on this.

Next you (once again) use the evidence of some details in the story to demonstrate that other details in the story are true. The if the resurrection appearances are true then the resurrection must also be true. Well, yes, but claiming that 500 nameless people saw Jesus at one unspecified time, in an unspecified location, doesn't really help us much. As far as I know, the only other reference to 500 people (other than in Corinthians) who could have seen the resurrected Jesus comes from the Gospel of Nicodemus which specifies that there were 500 guards placed at the tomb. Not sure I believe that story, maybe the author of 1 Corinthians 15 did...

Finally you cite the evidence that nobody dies for a lie. Well, aside from the fact that that we know some folk have died for lies (Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, springs to mind), this doesn't help us much - the stories of the martyrdoms of the disciples are part of the same literary tradition that contains the Bible stories. Once again, you are using one part of a story to prove another part of the same story.

You close the chapter with anecdotes about people believing in the resurrection. The fact that people believe it is not in doubt. Whether they have good grounds for believing in it is the question, and I'm not sure your case for that is very strong.