I have to admit, when I read grumpypilgrim’s post that the evidence supporting Christianity is on par with the evidence supporting alien abduction, I got nervous. It sounded so very harsh. I couldn’t help thinking of the many sincerely Christians who would be insulted by such a comparison. I’m well aware that many Christians (including many of the people who regularly visit this site) are incredibly generous people who give much more back to this world than they take. I truly admire their good works. It is not my purpose (and I’m sure it’s not grumpypilgrim’s purpose) to insult them. I’ve tried to make this clear as part of other posts.
On the other hand, grumpypilgrim’s post reminded me of some of the many questions Daniel Dennett raised in his recent book, Breaking the Spell (2006). On page 210, for example, Dennett cited Richard Dawkins (from A Devil’s Chaplain):
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
I have often criticized believers who are so absolutely certain of their own beliefs, all of which are based upon a personal “feeling” and apocryphal writings, that they take political steps to disparage the beliefs and doubts of all other people. Jimmy Carter has termed such people “fundamentalists,”:
A fundamentalist believes, say, in religious circles, that I am close to God. Everything that I believe is absolutely right. Anyone who disagrees with me, in any case, is inherently wrong and therefore, inferior. And it violates my basic principles if I negotiate with anyone else or listen to their point of view or modify my own positions at all.
To me, the fundamentalists’ rampant certainty amounts to blaspheming the mysteries of the universe. Such people have lowered the bar for only a certain category of beliefs—their own beliefs, which are typically those with which they themselves were raised. Fundamentalists don’t lack skepticism, however. They apply more skepticism that I apply toward all religions other than their own. They scoff at the tattered sacred texts of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. They shake their heads with condescension or even derision at the ceremonies of those “misguided” Moonies and Wiccans.
Strong believers can be skeptics and they are skeptics. They are perfectly OK with their tool of skepticism as long as it is not aimed at their own precious beliefs. Those who are skeptical toward a believer’s own religion are termed misguided or immoral. In my experience, believers (included those big-hearted sensitive and heroic sorts of Christians I’ve met) try to change the subject as soon as one turns the lens of rigorous inquiry toward their own religion.
The types of evidentiary gaps that would justify a believer’s non-belief in someone else’s religion simply don’t show up on a believer’s radar regarding that believer’s own religion.
It will be interesting to see what happens upon the release of the movie version of the Da Vinci Code. Though clearly a work of fiction, the movie raises serious questions about the origins and accuracy of some writings most Christians hold to be sacred.
It is an important premise of most religions that the starting point for their beliefs is a set of holy writings that must be accepted without question. For Christians, it is as though the Bible fell out of a cloud fully edited by God. Certainly, Christians are extremely uncomfortable admitting the process by which the official set of scripture was written, selected and edited. Like the old saying that “making laws is like making sausage,” making scripture was also an undeniably human and contentious process. That the official hierarchies of official religions prefer to not discuss this process is revealing and disturbing, certainly from an evidence-based perspective. Why wouldn’t believers really want to know everything possible about the basis for their religion? Wouldn’t they really want to know whether the facts upon which they based the “Greatest Story Ever Told” were fudged? And if not, shouldn’t they show greater restraint whenever they get the urge to meld their religious beliefs with their political power?
If the presence of “gaps” bothers believers when they consider evolution, shouldn’t comparable evidence of gaps in their own sacred writings cause them to doubt their faith? It should, but it doesn’t.
A few months ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary site, Jesus Puzzle, run by an extraordinary man, Earl Doherty. This site includes numerous writings by Doherty concerning gaps in the holy scripture of Christians. Even more impressive than the detailed analysis of these Christian writings is Doherty’s tone: it is careful, even-tempered, intellectually rigorous and self-critical.
As a result of reading Doherty’s articles, I finally realized the importance of the 40-year gap between the alleged death of Jesus and the writing of the earliest Gospel (Mark). During this forty year gap, the only known Christian writings were the epistles. What the epistles lack is shocking to me and should be shocking—or at least disorienting–to all Christians [see http://home.ca.inter.net/oblio/silintro.htm ]:
If we were to rely entirely on the early Christian correspondence, we would know virtually nothing about the Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels. We would not know where he was born or when. We would not even know the era he lived in. We would be ignorant of the names of his parents, where he grew up, where he preached. Or even that he preached. We would not be able to identify a single one of his ethical teachings, for although the epistles often make moral pronouncements very close to the ones Jesus speaks in the Gospels, no writer ever attributes them to him.
Nor would we be aware that he performed miracles. Not that he healed, that he cast out demons, that he raised the dead to life. We would not know that he had been baptized, nor would we meet the figure of John the Baptist who performed that rite on him. We would not know that Jesus had walked the hills of Galilee (or the waters of its sea), that he tramped the dusty wildernesses of Judea or entered the ancient walls of Jerusalem. Did he alienate the Jewish leaders, who plotted against him and ultimately bore the stigma of having killed him? We would know nothing about that. Did he celebrate a Last Supper with his disciples? We would not know that for certain. His betrayer, Judas: he and his evil deed would be lost to us forever, as would another betrayal, the denial of him by Peter, his chief apostle.
And what of Pontius Pilate, his executioner? He surfaces only with the letters of Ignatius and in 1 Timothy, both written early in the second century—and there is some doubt about the authenticity of the latter reference. As for the details surrounding the climax of Jesus’ life: his trials before the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, his brutal crucifixion, details of which should have been indelibly burned into the consciousness of every Christian writer and believer from the day they transpired, nothing of them would have come down to us. Not the words he spoke—or refused to speak—before his accusers, not the scourging and the crown of thorns, not the raising up of the cross between two thieves or the words he spoke as he hung upon it. Nor would we know where that cross was raised, for the names of Calvary and Golgotha are never mentioned. We would not have heard about the earthquake, the rending of the Temple veil, nor the darkness that covered the earth for three hours at midday during the long agony. As to where he was buried, we would not know that either, and the dramatic story of the finding of the empty tomb three days later would have passed into oblivion along with all the other details of this mysterious life and career. With only the first century Christian epistles to go on, the darkness over the man who is said to have founded the greatest religion in world history would be complete.
This silence extended for at least forty years following what is alleged to have been the most spectacular miracle of all, the resurrection of Jesus three days after his brutal murder by crucifixion. In a separate article entitled “THE SOUND OF SILENCE – 200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles,” Doherty sets forth his “top 20” problematic passages. The “top twenty” include 1 Corinthians 15:12-16:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.
Regarding this passage, Doherty comments: “There are some devastating implications to be drawn from this passage. Paul expresses himself as though the raising of Christ from the dead is a matter of faith, not of historical record as evidenced by eyewitness to a physical, risen Jesus at Easter.”
Doherty does not simply point out a few problematic passages. His own analyses are comprehensive and persuasive. He presents a strong case that the most important events of the life of Jesus of Galilee were unknown to Epistle writers, but were constructed only after a 40 years hiatus on a series of Gospels that relied heavily upon a single writer, Mark. If the events described by the Gospels were true, a forty year gap in Christian writings (and the almost total lack of mention in non-Christian documents) doesn’t make any sense at all.
Doherty’s hypothesis sent me to my Bible (I keep the King James version by my bed). There is no substitute for a careful reading of the epistles themselves. It was a startling experience even to a longtime skeptic like me. Again, this incredible gap was based upon the writings of Christian writers who would be expected to put their best foot forward at all times. If one goes outside of Christian writings, Jesus is barely mentioned and there is absolutely no evidence of any miracles. An objective reading of this literature leads one to a single conclusion: there is no believable evidence regarding a supernatural Jesus.
I am not a bible scholar. I do know, however, that gaps like this are precisely the sorts of things that would cause Christian writers to summarily reject the teachings of other people’s religionq. Faced with gaps like this in other religions, Christians have no problem following the advice of Carl Sagan: “Precisely because of human fallibility, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Ironically, Sagan made this statement while speaking about the absence of hard physical evidence about alien abductions. He commented on the lack of convincing evidence:
To be taken seriously, you need physical evidence that can be examined at leisure by skeptical scientists: a scraping of the whole ship, and the discovery that it contains isotopic ratios that aren’t present on earth, chemical elements form the so-called island of stability, very heavy elements that don’t exist on earth. Or material of absolutely bizarre properties of many sorts — electrical conductivity or ductility. There are many things like that that would instantly give serious credence to an account.
But there’s no scrapings, no interior photographs, no filched page from the captain’s log book. All there are are stories. There are instances of disturbed soil, but I can disturb soil with a shovel. There are instances of people claiming to flash lights at UFOs and the UFOs flash back. But, pilots of airplanes can also flash back, especially if they think it would be a good joke to play on the UFO enthusiast. So, that does not constitute good evidence.
And, a very interesting example of this sort of thing is the so-called crop circles in England in which wheat and rye and other grains — these beautiful immense circles appeared and then — this was in the 70′s and 80′s — and then over progressive years, more and more complex geometries. And there were lots of people who said that these were made by UFOs that were landing and that it was too complex or too highly mathematical to be a hoax.
And it turns out that two blokes in Southern England, at their regular bar one night, thought it would be a good idea to make a kind of hoax to see if they could lure in UFO enthusiasts . . . And in their 60′s, they finally confessed to the press with a demonstration of how it was done. And, of course, the confession received very little play in the media. And the claims of alien influence had received prominent exposure.
In sum, grumpypilgrim has it right, as harsh as it might sound to many people who are inspired by Christian beliefs. If one defines “Christianity” as the belief that Jesus was a man with supernatural powers, Christianity is not well supported by the evidence. It is the same situation for alien abductions. Such abductions are not well supported by the (lack of) evidence presented by the believers of such abductions.
Non-Christian scientists and historians have no trouble discarding such beliefs, just as Christians have no trouble discarding the miraculous claims of other people’s religions.
When scientists and historians who are believers of Religion X start getting excited about the claims of Religion Y (the claims of which conflict with the claims of Religion X), that’s when I’ll start listening to claims of miracles.