Saturday, April 30, 2016

How's that for evidence that God exists?

The Resurrection and the Death of Atheism: Jesus rose from the dead.  How's that for evidence that God exists? was written by a Catholic priest, Father Dwight Longenecker, who was ordained a decade ago under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.  Since he claims to refute atheism from the empirical evidence, and arguments of this sort appear to be accepted by many believers, it merits a response.  He claims there is forensic evidence, documentary evidence, archaeological evidence, botanical and biological evidence, photographic evidence, logical evidence, historical evidence, eyewitness evidence, and legal evidence that Jesus was God.

But first, he says, we should begin with some "philosophical head  games".  He described the philosophical underpinnings of what follows thusly:  "If there is just one miracle, however — and we only need one — then nature is not a closed system and there is a force greater than nature and outside of nature. If that miracle is intelligible, that is to say, it makes sense, then the force that is greater than nature is intelligent, and if it is intelligent than it is more than a force, it is a personality."  

While this philosophical starting point has some merit it is biased in favor of the author's preferred conclusion.  It elides the difficulties in establishing that any claimed one time anomalous event actually was "greater than nature and outside of nature" or that it is "intelligent" if it appears to be "intelligible".  It also allows evidence for one such anomalous event to suffice when, in fact, evidence favoring a freak, one time anomaly is a dubious basis for abandoning a naturalistic worldview when the evidence for naturalism is ongoing, pervasive, diverse, and persistent.  A lot will depend here on the quantity and quality of the alleged evidence.  We need a very large quantity of exceptional quality evidence to overcome the evidence for naturalism when all we have is a single event from 2000 years ago claimed to be supernatural.

He then says "The one miracle that Christians claim above all others is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."  He then claims that '... there are really only three options.  First, that he did not really die and the “resurrection” was therefore only a form of resuscitation; second that he did die, but something happened so that his body vanished and third, the witnesses to the resurrection were deluded, deceived or were themselves deceptive.'

There is another possibility, lets refer to this as option number four: The stories about witnesses to a resurrection are false, no one witnessed the alleged resurrection.  In other words, the delusion or deception begins with the stories themselves, and with the authors of the stories, not with the people appearing in the story.  It is interesting that Father Dwight Longenecker excludes this possibility from the start.  Instead, the rest of his article argues against his three godless options.  So let's focus on this fourth possibility.

I am no expert in the history of the time and place of the bible, so I must concede from the start that I am speculating.  The first thing to note is that in the seven epistles that most experts (about 80%) think were written by Paul there is very little historical information regarding Jesus.  Paul's Jesus is an archetype of an imaginary, mythical, fictional, fantasy character.  His other-worldly visions related to Jesus are strongly apocalyptic.  According to Paul, no one reading his writings would outlive the end of times, and therefore his message was extremely urgent.  Reading his epistles it should be easy for anyone who is not gullible to conclude that Paul was a deluded individual who literally dreamed his Jesus into existence.  When you see the guy on the street corner with a sign that says repent now, the end of times is near, that person has a mindset in common with Paul's.

Then came the book of Mark, written in Greek for a Greek (and therefore mostly non-Jewish) audience.  It was probably written sometime after 65 A.D.  The book of Mark contains historical details that had not yet occurred at the time that Jesus was said to be executed.  So we date the book of Mark to several decades after the alleged resurrection, when the events referenced in the book had already occurred.  

Paul had previously persuaded small groups of people that his strictly supernatural visions were factual, and some of those eager to believe people met regularly among themselves for many years to discuss the implications.  Some of them may have thought about their own past encounters with roaming preachers, associated what they heard from these religious preachers with Paul's stories, and linked them to Paul's imaginary Jesus.  Some of them may have been Jewish, and they may have looked to Jewish religious texts to fill in the story gaps. Some of them may have been familiar with other popular stories that circulated at the time, such as those written by Homer, and filled in the story gaps by borrowing from those sources.  Others may have traveled between the different discussion groups and added to the stories to make them fit together better.   The initially abstract, ghostly Jesus thus acquired, with the assistance of ordinary human credulity, an earthly, human biography.  The anonymous author, or authors, of the book of Mark put these stories down in writing, and that became the basis for what later became the bible as we know it today.

So what is the status of the resurrection?  It originated with Paul, in his head.  It is all fiction, and therefore so are the subsequent books that were inspired by Paul's visions of his imaginary Jesus.  All of Father Dwight Longenecker's arguments opposing his three no god options are arguing from the contents of the book of Mark, as if that book, or the subsequent books derived from Mark, are reliable sources of historical information regarding an actual personality named Jesus, which they certainly are not, and thus fail to demonstrate that the available empirical evidence supports Jesus.  But we are not finished yet.

Father Dwight Longenecker ends his argument by citing the Shroud of Turin as empirical evidence for Jesus.  The problem here is that the age of the cloth was carbon 14 dated to a little before the start of the 12th century by three different laboratories, which is not long after it was first discovered.  To get around this problem there is a new video attacking the veracity of that date.  However, the carbon 14 dating was valid and it stands, notwithstanding the efforts to try to discredit it.

That is about the best that anyone can argue, from a Christian perspective, for their being empirical evidence that God exists.  Arguments from a Jewish or Islamic perspective, or other religious perspective, are very unlikely to do any better.  There is plenty of hand waving and grand assertions but little substance.

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