Tag Archives: Evidence

When talking with a non-Christian, make truth – not behavior – the main issue

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Pastor Matt posted about something that I think all Christian apologists believe, deep down. (H/T The Poached Egg)

He writes:

Typically, the church has defined loving one’s neighbor as in line with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and Christ’s teaching in passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, in which we are commanded to love the imprisoned, the homeless, the hungry, etc. as if they were Jesus himself. Of course all believers should do so whether by volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating money to ministries like World Help.

But there is more to loving one’s neighbor these days than caring for the poor, as important as that is.  Those of us who live in a first world western country now dwell in a post-Christian society.  Our neighbors are inundated with naturalism masquerading as good science and sound philosophy.  Non-Christians believe the faith is intellectually vacuous.

It shocks many people when those trained in apologetics point out that atheists cannot answer questions like, “How did the universe come into existence?” “Why is our planet so finely tuned for life despite all the odds against it?” “How did life begin?” “Why do humans have consciousness?” “How is there truth or right and wrong without God?” “Why did the disciples die horrible deaths as impoverished traveling peasants rather than deny the resurrection of Jesus?”, etc.

If we are to help bring our neighbors to saving faith, we must first destroy their false ideas of what Christianity is and is not.  That means we must preach the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:21), knock down specious views of the faith and present the truth of what we believe.

Apologetics is not just an intellectual exercise for nerds like me or a debate to be won on college campuses but an increasing tool in loving our neighbors.  For if they do not understand the faith, they will likely not come to faith and that is what the God we love wants and how we must show love to our neighbors.  So, let’s study not just to win arguments but to love others.

That reminds me of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5. Our job is to beat up on false ideas and speculations.

Pastor Matt’s point is critical, I think. Just stop and think for a minute about your non-believing co-workers. Do they know that the universe began to exist? Do they know that the initial conditions and the cosmological constants have to be finely tuned to support things like galaxies, stars, planets and elements heavier than hydrogen? Do they know how much information is in a protein, and how many proteins would be needed to make the first living cell? Do they know what it takes to make a planet that can support life? What facts from the gospels and the Pauline letters pass the tests for historicity? What is the best explanation of those minimal facts?

These are the facts that we share when we discuss spiritual things with people. They are not Christian facts, they are public, testable facts. And yet, almost no one in the culture who is not already a believer is curious to find out these things on their own. But without the evidence, how are they supposed to take the first step towards a relationship with God through Jesus Christ? It’s not possible. This is a propositional faith, and we know it’s true by evidence. To share the evidence with someone so they can decide is as loving as sharing the evidence about retirement planning, or the evidence about nutrition, or the evidence about fitness and exercise, or the evidence about career planning. When you love someone, you tell them the facts, and then they decide. Evangelism is the same thing.

Here’s something from a recent post by J. Warner Wallace, where he talks about doing apologetics with people who have not yet decided whether God exists or not.

The Undecided

In many ways, this group holds the most promise. People who are undecided usually fall into two categories. Some have never really given the issue much thought. They’re neither for nor against; they’ve simply been living unaware. You may be the first person to introduce them to the issues you are trying to share. If so, remember the importance of a first impression. What you say or do will have an impact on the work of those who follow you. The second group of “undecideds” are people who have given the issue some thought, but are just beginning to make their decision. For this group of people, your defense of Christianity may very well be the deciding factor. The responsibility you and I have with the undecided is daunting, but it’s a privilege to play a small part in their decision.

OK, so I want to make a point about this. So often, I see Christian parents and leaders trying to focus on changing people’s behaviors, and not by giving them evidence. Instead of trying to convince them about what’s true, they tell them Bible verses, or maybe tell them they are going to Hell. But given what Matt and J. Warner said, I don’t want us to be focused on changing outward behavior. I want us to be focused on showing people what is true and showing our work – how we arrived at these true beliefs. You are doing Christianity wrong if you focus on getting behaviors from people by shaming them, overpowering them or scaring them.

So in my case, I’m not trying to get non-Christians to act like Christians when they have no reasons to be one. I’m trying to get them to settle on true beliefs – so that each of them and God can shake hands and be reconciled, responding to his drawing them of their own free will. Then, they can decide how they are going to act. And how they act might be even better than what we had in mind for them when all we wanted was for them to quit swearing and eat their vegetables. The Christian life is bigger than just making people do what we want them to do.

William Lane Craig debates Peter Atkins: Does God Exist?

Here is the video of a debate with Peter Atkins, from the Reasonable Faith speaking tour in the UK:

This is a must-see debate. It was extremely fun to watch.

Details:

On Wednesday 26th October 2011 William Lane Craig debated Peter Atkins on the topic: Does God Exist? This debate took place at the University of Manchester  as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig. The debate was chaired by Christopher Whitehead, Head of Chemistry School at the University. Post-debate discussion was moderated by Peter S Williams, Philosopher in Residence at the Damaris Trust, UK.

Dr. William Lane Craig:

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).

Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich in 1984.

Dr. Peter Atkins:

Peter William Atkins (born 10 August 1940) is a British chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical ChemistryInorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins studied chemistry at the University of Leicester, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and – in 1964 – a PhD for research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy, and other aspects of theoretical chemistry. Atkins then took a postdoctoral position at the UCLA as aHarkness Fellow of the Commonwealth fund. He returned to Oxford in 1965 as fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry).

You can get the audio of the debate here, along with links to their previous debate from 1998. This debate is accessible and understandable to novice-level Christians.

I am happy when debates like this come out. I have friends who are Christians who doubt the importance of apologetics in evangelism, because they don’t think that apologists can prove anything or win arguments. I have friends who are skeptical of using arguments that assume a 14-billion year old universe, because they think that the Big Bang is compatible with atheism (!). I have friends who think that philosophical arguments have no persuasive force. I have friends who think that nothing can be proven from history, beyond a reasonable doubt. I have co-workers who ask me whether anyone wins these debates. I think that this debate answers all of those questions.

This debate clearly shows why Christians should not shy away from studying science, philosophy and history. We will not discover anything that harms Christian theism by thinking logically and by looking at the evidence. To the contrary, it is the atheist who makes war on the progress of science, and who is forced to resist the clear experimental evidence, and to resort to baseless speculations and blind faith. If you want to see a good debate with an intelligent atheist, I recommend watching the debate between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican instead. But if you want to see a really, really overwhelming defeat for atheism, watch this debate. It is very clear at the end of this debate why Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig at Oxford.

SUMMARY OF THE OPENING SPEECHES

I only had time to summarize the first two speeches. Keep in mind that Dr. Craig always shines in his rebuttals, and this debate is no different. So you’ll want to watch those rebuttals. Dr. Atkins literally says in this debate in his first rebuttal “There was nothing here originally. There is nothing here now. But it is an interesting form of nothing which seems to be something.” And the audience laughs nervously. This debate is like that. You will see a clear winner and clear loser in this debate. This fight is decided by knockout.

William Lane Craig opening speech:

1. the origin of the universe
2. the moral argument
3. the resurrection of Jesus

Peter Atkins opening speech:

1. Dr. Craig is stupid, lazy and evil:
– Dr. Craig’s arguments are old: from the 11th century! Old arguments can’t be true
– Dr. Craig is just asserting that “God did it” because he is lazy
– Dr. Craig feels pressured to agree with the theistic majority
– Dr. Craig needs a psychological crutch to comfort him
– Dr. Craig is fearful of death
– Dr. Craig is just wishing for an eternal life of bliss
– Dr. Craig is driven by his heart, and not by his head

2. Origin of the universe:
– Maybe the universe is eternal and has no beginning – we don’t know
– Maybe mommy universes can give birth to daughter universes
– It is naive to think that a cause is needed to cause the creation of the universe from nothing
– Science is just about to show how it is possible that something appears out of nothing without cause
– Some scientists have already begun to speculate about about how something can come into being out of nothing
– Maybe nothing is not really nothing, but it is actually something
– It would be admitting defeat to say that God created the universe out of nothing

3. Fine-Tuning:
– It could be the case that the fundamental constants are not variable
– It could be the case that the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants is a happy accident
– It could be the case that there are billions of billions of unobservable universes that are not fine tuned
– It could be the case that the cosmic constants in these billions and billions of unobservable universes are all random so that some are fine-tuned
– Anyone who infers that an intelligence is the best explanation of a finely-tuned set of life-permitting cosmic constants is lazy

4. Purpose:
– Philosophers and theologians are stupid
– I don’t think that there is purpose in the universe
– I think that the universe is more grand if there is no purpose, so there is no purpose

5. Miracles:
– I don’t think that miracles happen
– The resurrection is a fabrication
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t exist
– It could be the case that Jesus wasn’t really crucified
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t  really die after being crucified
– It could be the case that the disciples stole his body
– It could be the case that the women went to the wrong hole in the ground
– the gospels are political propaganda written long after the events they are reporting on

6. Theodicy:
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing humans to perform actions that result in suffering
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing nature to cause suffering

7. Morality:
–  customs and conventions emerges arbitrarily in different times and places based on an awareness of the consequences of actions, as well as various anecdotes and experiences
–  these customs and conventions are decided based on the goal for survival, in much the same way as politeness and manners emerge for decorum and to avoid offense
– it is childish to presume that there is an umpire God who decides moral values and duties

8. Religious believers are stupid, lazy and evil:
– the notion of God has arisen because people are stupid and want to be comforted
– there are no arguments or evidences for belief in God
– people who believe in God do not think, but instead take refuge in incomprehensible nonsense

William Lane Craig debates Alex Rosenberg: Does God Exist? Video, audio and summary

Below, please find my summary of the Craig-Rosenberg debate, which occurred on February 1st, 2013 at Purdue University.

The debaters

Below is the summary.

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

The topic: What are the arguments that make belief in God reasonable or unreasonable?
First speech: arguments for reasonableness of belief in God
Second speech: respond to arguments against reasonableness of belief in God

Eight arguments:

  1. Contingency argument: God – a transcendent, personal being – is the explanation of why a contingent universe exists.
  2. Cosmological argument: God is the cause of the beginning of the universe, which is attested by physics and cosmology.
  3. Applicability of mathematics to nature: God is the best explanation for the applicability of mathematics to nature.
  4. Fine-tuning argument: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe to permit life.
  5. Intentionality of conscious states: God is the best explanation of the intentionality of our mental states.
  6. The moral argument: God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
  7. The resurrection of Jesus: God is the best explanation for the core of historical facts accepted by most ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
  8. Religious experience: God is the best explanation of our immediate experience and knowledge of his existence.

Dr. Rosenberg’s opening speech

First argument: The fallacy of ad hominem

  • I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry
  • Dr. Craig has said all of that before in other debates
  • You didn’t need to come out on this cold night
  • Craig’s arguments have all been refuted
  • Dr. Craig just doesn’t listen
  • Dr. Craig is not interested in getting at the truth
  • Dr. Craig is just interested in scoring debate points
  • The adversarial system is the wrong approach to decide truth
  • Dr. Craig is very confident about his take of physics

Second argument: The fallacy of arguing from authority

  • 95% of members of the NAS are atheists
  • Therefore Dr. Craig cannot use science

Third argument: Effects don’t require causes

  • I am going to pretend that Craig said that “every effect requires a cause”
  • Quantum mechanics shows that some effects occur without causes
  • A particle of uranium (which is not nothing, it is something) decays without a cause
  • This uncaused effect is the same as the universe coming into being out of nothing uncaused
  • Therefore the principle of sufficient reason is false

Fourth argument: Silicon-based life and the multiverse

  • If these constants had been different, maybe we would have other kinds of intelligent life, like silicon-based life
  • Carbon-based life is not the only kind of life, maybe you can have other kinds of life, none of which have been observed
  • There could be different kinds of life in other areas of the universe that we can’t see
  • There are things we can’t see that disprove the current physics that we can see
  • Quantum foam is evidence that a multiverse exists
  • The multiverse would solve the problem of fine-tuning

Fifth argument: The Euthyphro dilemma

  • The moral argument is refuted by Euthyphro dilemma
  • Dr. Craig is such a moron that he has never heard of the Euthyphro dilemma ever before
  • This is found in the first and simplest of Plato’s dialogs
  • Why is Dr. Craig so stupid that he has not read this simple dialog ever before?
  • Evolution explains why humans evolve arbitrary customs and conventions that vary by time and place
  • Alternative moral theories: utilitarianism, social contract, etc. that don’t require God

Sixth argument: Mormonism undermines Dr. Craig’s three minimal facts about Jesus

  • Why is Dr. Craig so stupid and ignorant to persist in pushing such an ignorant, stupid argument?
  • Mormonism is a silly religion that is not historically well founded
  • Therefore, Jesus was not buried
  • Islam is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
  • Therefore, the tomb was not found empty
  • Scientology is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
  • Therefore, the eyewitnesses didn’t have post-mortem appearances
  • Eyewitness testimony is unreliable in some cases
  • Therefore, eyewitness testimony was unreliable in this case
  • Apparitions of Mary are bizarre
  • Therefore, the majority of historians are wrong to think that the disciples saw post-mortem appearances

Seventh argument: Deductive problem of evil

  • Evil and suffering are logically incompatible with an all good, all powerful God

Eight argument: God is not just to allow evil and suffering

  • God cannot make the evils of this life right in the afterlife

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr. Rosenberg sketched the deductive argument from evil.

Dr. Rosenberg presupposes naturalism. Naturalism is a false theory of knowledge:

1. It’s too restrictive: There are truths that cannot be proved by natural science.
2. It’s self-refuting: no scientific proof for naturalism exists.

That’s why epistemological naturalism is considered false by most philosophers of science.

But more importantly than that: Epistemological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. (E.g. – W. Quine)

Dr. Rosenberg has to present arguments in favor of (metaphysical) naturalism, not just assume that (metaphysical) naturalism is true.

Dr. Craig presented eight arguments against metaphysical naturalism taken from Rosenberg’s own book:

1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism

Metaphysical naturalism is false: it is irrational and it contradicts our experience of ourselves.

And epistemological naturalism is compatible with theism.

Rebutting Dr. Rosenberg’s responses:

1. Contingency: no response

2. Cosmological: he mis-states the first premise to say every effect… when it is whatever begins to exist…, the origin of the universe was not from a vacuum, virtual particles come from a vacuum not nothing, there are interpretations of QM that are compatible with determinism. Rosenberg has to believe that the entire universe popped into being from non-being.

3. Mathematics: no response

4. Fine-tuning: the multiverse is refuted by empirical observations of the universe. Without fine-tuning, it’s not that we still have silicon to make life out of. It’s that we lose basic minimal things like chemical diversity, matter, stars, planets, etc. No life of any kind, not just no carbon-based life.

5. Intentionality: no response.

6. Moral argument: the answer to the dilemma is that you split the dilemma: God is the standard of good, and the commands flow from his unchanging moral nature. The commands are not arbitrary, and the standard is not external to God. Dr. Rosenberg is a nihilist and he cannot ground good and evil on his nihilistic view.

7. Resurrection: The Gospels are early eyewitness testimony. Mormonism and Islam have nothing to do with the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus agreed to by the majority of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum, general statements against eyewitnesses do not refute the specific eyewitness testimony in this case.

8. Religious experience: No response.

Dr. Rosenberg’s first rebuttal

I wrote a book and you should buy it, because it got me invited to this debate. Let me repeat the title a few times for you. Please buy it.

Dr. Craig is right, there are multiple interpretations of QM, not just the one I presented, including deterministic ones.

All the disturbing implications of naturalism that Dr. Craig stated follow from metaphysical naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism is true. (Note: he equates science with metaphysical naturalism)

Science proves that metaphysical naturalism is true, but I won’t say what specific scientific tests prove my philosophical assumption of metaphysical naturalism.

I’ll pretend that the Big Bang (science) doesn’t disprove naturalism, like Dr. Craig said. Again. (covers ears) La la la, there is no Big Bang.

We didn’t come here to debate epistemological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism.

Let me explain the problem of intentionality since I’m so smart and no one knows what it means.

There are many answers to this problem of intentionality.

My answer is that most scientists are naturalists, therefore naturalism is true, regardless of the argument from intentionality of mental states.

That’s how I would respond to one of the eight problems with naturalism that Dr. Craig raised. I won’t answer the other seven problems.

It is an argument from ignorance to argue that the applicability of mathematics to the universe requires a designer, because there are non-Euclidean geometries. Craig’s argument, which he gets from people like respected physicists like Eugene Wigner, is bizarre. It is bizarre, therefore I refute Eugene Wigner and all the other scholars who make that argument. It is bizarre! Bizarre!

Deductive problem of evil: there is no response to this argument, certainly not Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. The deductive argument from evil has not been entirely abandoned at all! It’s not like arch-atheist J.L. Mackie himself admits that the deductive problem of evil doesn’t lead to a logical inconsistency between evil and God.

Dr. Craig has to tell me why God allows evil or God doesn’t exist.

It is offensive that Dr. Craig cannot tell me why God allows every evil and suffering that occurs.

He literally said this: “I will become a Christian if Dr. Craig can tell me why God allowed EVERY EVIL THAT OCCURRED IN THE LAST 3.5 BILLION YEARS”

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal

We are not in a position to know why God allows specific instances of evil and suffering.

God cannot force people to freely do anything – freedom is not compatible with determinism. Freedom is a good, but freedom opens up the possibility of moral evil. You cannot have the good of free will without allowing people to choose to do morally evil things.

God can permit evil and suffering in order to bring more people into a relationship with him.

The atheist has to show that God could allow less evil and achieve more knowledge of God in order to say there is too much evil.

The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God.

Dr. Craig quotes agnostic Paul Draper (Purdue) and Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame) to state that the deductive problem of evil is dead because of free will and morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.

1. Contingency: no response.

2. Cosmological: QM does not apply, because the universe came from nothing, not a vacuum, and QM only works in a vacuum.

3. Mathematics: He mentions alternatives like non-Euclidean geometry, but we have to explain the structure of THIS universe.

4. Fine-tuning: ???

5. Intentional states: intentional mental states proves that minds exist, which fits with theism better than it fits with atheism.

6. Moral argument: You need God to ground morality, and Dr. Rosenberg believes in morality. He needs God to ground objective moral values and duties.

7. Historical argument: He has to respond to the minimal facts supported by the consensus of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.

8. The problems of naturalism: He says that you can’t have science without naturalism, but you can have science with EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURALISM, and theists accept science and methodological naturalism. We don’t accept METAPHYSCIAL NATURALISM because of the eight problems Craig presented, like intentionality, first-person, persistence of self, etc. You can believe in both science and theism, by embracing epistemological naturalism, while rejecting methaphysical naturalism.

Dr. Rosenberg’s second rebuttal

Dr. Craig hasn’t answered many of my points, I won’t say which ones though.

Debates don’t work as a way of deciding what’s true, so we should overturn the entire criminal justice system.

The principle of sufficient reason is false because it is disconfirmed by quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics (vacuum and virtual particles that exist for a short time) is similar to the origin of the universe (nothing and entire universe and 14 billion years).

We know that alpha particles come into being without cause all the time from a quantum vacuum for a tiny sub-second duration before going out of existence, so we can say that the entire physical universe came into being for 14 billion years from absolute nothing which is not a quantum vacuum.

Peter Van Inwagen is the best metaphysician working today, and he says that my deductive argument from evil is not decisive, it’s not a successful argument. (Why is he undermining his own problem of evil argument????!)

Dr. Craig invoked Plantinga’s free will defense to the deductive POE. Freedom allows us to do evil. God could have given us free will without evil and suffering. I won’t show how, but I’ll just assert it, because debates are such a bad forum for supplying evidence for my speculative assertions.

If you answer the question 3 + 5 as being 8, then you don’t have free will – you are biologically determined if you answer 8, because everyone answers 8, and that means everyone is biologically determined with no free will.

Why can’t God give us free will and then prevent us from making a free choice?

No scholars date the gospels earlier than 60-70 AD, especially not atheists like James Crossley who dates Mark to 40 AD. Therefore Jesus’ burial isn’t historical, like the majority of scholars across the broad spectrum of scholarship agree it is.

The original New Testament documents were written in Aramaic.

All New Testament scholars are orthodox Christians, like atheist Robert Funk for example.

Dr. Craig’s concluding speech

In order to sustain the deductive argument from evil, Dr. Rosenberg must show that God could create a world of free creatures with less evil.

Principle of Sufficient Reason: not using the general principle of sufficient reason, but a more modest version of this states that contingent things should have an explanation for their existence. And we know that the universe is a contingent.

The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, they were written in Greek. Dr. Rosenberg is wrong there too.

(Dr. Craig spends the rest of his concluding speech giving his testimony and urging people to investigate the New testament).

Dr. Rosenberg’s concluding speech

Some long-dead French guy named Laplace said that he has no need of that (God) hypothesis. He did not know about any of Dr. Craig’s arguments made in this debate tonight when he said that, though.

There is no need to explain how the universe began or how the universe is finely-tuned if you just assume metaphysical naturalism on faith.

The Easter Bunny, therefore atheism.

Most scientists are atheists, therefore atheism.

You can do a lot of science without God, just don’t look at the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, or the other parts of science that Craig mentioned, as well as the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability argument, and so on.

You can be a Christian, but good Christians should not use arguments and evidence.

Good Christians should be irrational and ignorant. Bad Christians look for arguments and evidence from science and history.

Good Christians should embrace the absurd. Bad Christians want to search for truth and use logic and evidence.

Did the city of Nazareth exist at the time of the birth of Jesus?

Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.
Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.

A while back, I was discussing a recent debate that a friend attended between an atheist musician named Dan Barker and a Christian with a doctorate in New Testament Studies named Justin Bass.

According to my friend’s report, the atheist questioned the existence of Nazareth, and then went on from there to assert that everything we know about Jesus is legendary.

This is what the atheist’s argument sounds like:

  1. If the New Testament contains reliable history about Jesus, then Nazareth must exist.
  2. Nazareth does not exist.
  3. Therefore, the New Testaments does not contain reliable history about Jesus. (M.T. 1,2)

I was able to find a web site where an atheist was making the claim that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. So this is not completely outside the realm of mainstream atheism. I doubled checked with two more people who attended the debate that Barker indeed made an argument like the one above.

Two things to say about this 3-step argument. First off, when speaking to atheists, Christians only care about making a case for the resurrection. This is for two reasons. One, our goal is to disprove atheism, and the historical argument for the resurrection is the most evidenced miracle claim in the New Testament. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts about the resurrection of Jesus. Second, it’s possible to be a Christian by accepting a core of Christian dogma (e.g. – the Apostle’s Creed), while remaining agnostic or even skeptical of other things in the Bible. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts that must be affirmed in order to become a Christian.

The problem I have with atheists is that they pick and choose from the Bible according to their own agenda. Every Christian has read basic books on the resurrection by people like Lee Strobel, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, J. Warner Wallace and so on. This is like table stakes for living a Christian life. We all know how to make a case based off of minimal facts for the resurrection. When Christians get into debates about Jesus, we want to make a case for the core of historical knowledge about him, minimal facts that almost no one disagrees with. But many atheists aren’t like that. They want to pick and choose a few verses out of the Old Testament and the New Testament that they personally find distasteful to them, and then deny the minimal facts about Jesus on that basis. I don’t think that it makes sense to deny evidence for widely-accepted facts by bringing up minor problems that are irrelevant to the well-attested core facts.

But it’s worse than that – we actually DO know that Nazareth existed, and we know it not from some fundamentalist preacher, but from atheist Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman writes in his book:

One supposedly legendary feature of the Gospels commonly discussed by mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth did not exist but is itself a myth. The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well.  I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.  Whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S. or not (for what it is worth, he was) is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.

Since, however, this argument is so widely favored among mythicists, I want to give it a further look and deeper exploration.  The most recent critic to dispute the existence of Nazareth is René Salm, who has devoted an entire book to the question, called The Myth of Nazareth.  Salm sees this issue as highly significant and relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus: “Upon that determination [i.e., the existence of Nazareth] depends a great deal, perhaps even the entire edifice of Christendom.”

So that seems like a fair representation of the argument I outlined above.

Bart’s response is long, but here’s part of it:

There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built.  For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus.  Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (it needs to be remembered, he himself is not an archaeologist but is simply basing his views on what the real archaeologists – all of whom disagree with him — have to say).  For one thing, when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.  This suits Salm’s purposes just fine.  But as it turns out, there were among the coins some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus.  Salm objected that this was not in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed (to me personally) that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.

Aalm also claims that the pottery found on the site that is dated to the time of Jesus is not really from this period, even though he is not an expert on pottery.  Two archaeologists who reply to Salm’s protestations say the following:  “Salm’s personal evaluation of the pottery … reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources.”  They go on to state: “By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic [that is, coins], and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence during the Late Hellenisitic and Early Roman period, it would appear that the analysis which René Salm includes in his review, and his recent book must, in itself, be relegated to the realm of ‘myth.’”

Read Bart’s whole excerpt from his book in his post.

I did a quick double check on the archaeologist Ehrman mentioned, and found an Associated Press story about another archaelogical discovery made by archaeologists in Nazareth. This time, it’s not the coins, but pottery fragments. The date range on the pottery is 100 before Jesus’ birth to 100 years after Jesus’ birth.

Even though Ehrman is an atheist, I think that he understands how to do history. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the early proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection because of doubts about Old Testament violence. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the conversions of Paul and James because you don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at the empty tomb. Denying the core facts about Jesus by bringing up concerns about peripheral issues is not a responsible way to investigate the historical Jesus.

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

Related posts