Quote of the Day On Apologetics, by ORAXX

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ORAXX: "Did you ever notice that science doesn't require apologists and apologetics?" Apologetics, of course, is the art of defending and convincing others for one's sect-specific faith. Scientists, on the other hand, just do science based on experimental observations and math. The evidence does the convincing. There are no college classes or degrees offered in the art of defending and convincing others of the results of science.

Doubt and the "Evil" of Nonbelief

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Many believers admit to having doubts. In fact, probably most do. It is so common a phenomenon that whole books have been written about it, and in The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel interviews the author of one of them, Lynn Anderson.

Strobel asks him, “Can a person be a Christian and nevertheless have reservations or doubts?” Anderson’s answer is a definite yes: “where there’s absolutely no doubt, there’s probably no healthy faith,” he tells Strobel, adding that he rejects “the ‘true believer’ mentality — people with bright smiles and glassy eyes” who never have any questions about their religious views. Strobel also mentions other thinkers who claim that “having doubts isn’t evidence of the absence of faith; on the contrary, they consider them to be the very essence of faith itself.” Neither Anderson nor Strobel, then, see religious doubt as a problem.

In another chapter of The Case for Faith, however, Strobel asks Ravi Zacharias how it could possibly be fair for a serial killer like David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz — who like so many former criminals has now “found” Christ — to go to heaven, while someone like Mahatma Gandhi is presumably suffering in hell.

All Apologetics is Diversionary

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I've argued all apologetics is special pleading, and I stand by that. All apologetics is also diversionary, intended to distract attention from something more important. I recently said "Subjective private religious experiences prove nothing." Don Camp says of it,
I don't know why this is such a startling observation. It is virtually a truism. If we broadened it some to subjective private experiences prove nothing, it would still be a truism. And since subjective and private are redundant, subjective experiences prove nothing is really enough. The fact is every experience is subjective.
Boom! Just like that we are no longer talking about religious experiences. Now we're talking about subjective experiences in general. Next we're told every experience is subjective and apparently of equal evidential value to the person having the experience. Don goes on to say he needs to personally experience God as the proof of his reasonings, just as he would doubt that a UFO landed in someone's backyard until he personally saw the UFO land and touched the alien who came out of it. LINK.

What does this have to do with believing the religious tale that a virgin gave birth to a "demi-god" in the ancient superstitious pre-scientific past (as one Christian belief of many)? What kind of religious experience could prove this took place? What does Don say about those who claim to experience God who fail to believe a virgin gave birth to a "demi-god" in the ancient world? How can two people have the same religious experience yet come away with totally different theological conclusions (not mere details, mind you)? How reliable are religious experiences if they can do that? Why aren't the tools of the historian good enough to know what happened in the past, such that believers need these religious experiences? What exactly is this religious experience? We know what it means to see, taste, touch, hear and smell. What specifically does it mean to experience God? Why is it people who claim to experience God always conclude he agrees with them about everything? Those are the issues he's trying to divert our attention away from. Get us thinking about something else whenever possible because there isn't a good answer to the questions posed of him.


For LGBT People, the Bible Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction

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The feel-good verses can’t cancel this reality
Anyone who has summoned the courage and energy to fight racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism knows how much damage has been done by Bible texts; hatreds and unspeakable cruelties have been fueled and justified by literal interpretations of scripture.

Anger, aggression, and territoriality have been imbedded by evolution in the human brain. We have to work hard to subdue these traits, and far too much of the time we fail—as the history of warfare makes so clear. What a shame that ‘sacred’ scriptures have so often endorsed fear of the other, the alien, the unknown. If you really do believe that God had a hand in writing the Bible, what a disappointment; as I’ve noted before, his job performance was well below par on his inspire-the-Bible days.

Another Case Study In How To Defend Obfuscate The Christian Faith, Part 1

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As readers know I wrote a book on this topic, titled, you guessed it, How to Defend the Christian Faith (subtitled, Advice from an Atheist). The book has received some good recommendations including those from Christian scholars Karl Gilberson, Chad Meister, and Gary Habermas who has recommended it for his PhD apologetics students.

Our case study today is from apologist Randal Rauser, who objected to a recent post of mine, titled Subjective Private Religious Experiences Prove Nothing. The first question is why Rauser the apologist would even care? Surely he has the goods, the objective evidence, a sufficient amount of it, such that he doesn't need to bother with subjective private religious experiences. Right? So by dealing with what I wrote he tacitly admits that a sufficient amount of third party independent corroborative objective evidence does not exist. For if it did, he could ignore what I said. My stated requirement for "a sufficient amount of third party independent corroborative objective evidence", while clumsy and a bit redundant, says it all. The two parties involved are the person claiming to have subjective private religious experiences and a god who provides them. We need sufficient independent evidence, corroborative objective evidence, that has the potential for reasonably convincing third parties.

I'll call these alleged subjective religious experiences private miracles since they cannot be adequately explained by the natural processes of the brain alone, just as biblical miracles cannot be adequately explained by the natural processes of nature alone. Sufficient objective evidence of miracles, the kind we're looking for, the kind we need, is independent corroborative evidence that has the potential for convincing reasonable informed third party adults, whether they're privately experienced in the mind or publicly experienced in the world outside the mind. So all by themselves subjective religious experiences of a private miracle prove nothing to reasonable informed third party adults.

To be clear, I don't deny that these private subjective religious experiences have the potential for convincing people who have experienced them. Sadly, they can and they do convince childish uniformed ignorant gullible superstitious people. What I deny is that they have the potential for convincing reasonable people. That's because to convince a person they should also have the potential for convincing reasonable informed third party adults. To be additionally clear, I'm not talking about some hypothetical fictionalized story of a private miracle experience created to obfuscate actual testimonies. No, I'm talking about the kinds of testimonies people actually claim of private miracles. They are no more able to convince reasonable informed third party adults than ancient biblical testimonies to miracles can.

Christianity Is Not Too Big to Fail, 3

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Helping it along…off the cliff
Those who don’t reside in a bubble of piety are reminded daily of the dangers posed by Christianity, e.g., there are high-placed child rapists and high-placed idiots who see Satan at work. The Debunking Christianity blog has been amassing the arguments against this malignant religion for a long time. There are so many great articles in its archives that deserve to be kept front-of-mind. I asked John Loftus to nominate some of his own favorite articles from the last few years, and we will be re-presenting them, a few at a time. This installment includes:

Richard Carrier On the Non-Existence of Q

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I think Carrier is on to something I hadn't considered before. If we want to be evidenced based people, then we need to be evidenced based people across the boards. We need to acknowledge there's no evidence that "Q" exists. Q (from Quelle, the German word for "source") is a hypothetical gospel considered by most biblical scholars to be a separate "source" (hence Q) for the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). It's supposed to explain the divergences and agreements between them. But the fact is we have no extant manuscripts of Q. None at all. Full stop. Carrier:
In fact all the evidence for Q is 100% consistent with Q being a redaction of Mark, one that added a bunch of material to Mark, expanding things in Mark that were too brief or unsuited for a later author’s tastes or needs. And that means Q sounds pretty much exactly like Matthew. In fact, it’s almost certainly Matthew. Q is literally the least likely hypothesis of any that’s plausible.

....

If we applied Ockham’s Razor—a valid logical principle—instead of this fallacy of circular argument adopted by all Q defenders, we’d get a different result. Because what is simpler? That Matthew and Luke used two sources one of whom we can only hypothesize the existence of? Or that Matthew used only one source (and made the rest up) and Luke only used Mark and Matthew (and made the rest up)? The latter theory requires no ad hoc hypothetical sources. It relies solely on evidence and texts we actually have. It is therefore the much simpler hypothesis (because the probability of all the facts it rests on is as near to 100% as makes all odds; which is not the case when we start depending on merely hypothesized facts, which for that very reason have a significantly higher probability of being false: see Proving History, index, “gerrymandering” and “Ockham’s Razor”). And on top of that, it turns out, unlike evidence for Q, there actually is concrete evidence Luke copied Matthew (as we’ll see). So we know he did. And that leaves nothing else to explain.

SO MUCH Bad Theology in ONE Bible Chapter

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Who’s the culprit? His initials are J.C.

We can be sure that, most of the time, believers descend into a fog of piety when they pick up their Bibles to read the Jesus stories. It’s as if critical thinking is suspended or even cancelled as they reverently plod or skim through the gospels. That has allowed the church to get away with a lot.

Why not try another perspective? For example, that of comparative religion or literature. Consider that the gospels fit in the wide range of fantasy and mythology writings of the ancient world. Maybe they’re not so sacred, after all. I recommend, as an experiment, that every time devout readers come across the name Jesus in the gospels, they should put in another name instead; that might deflate some of the aura of holiness. How about substituting Brian for Jesus? That alternative hero has been proposed by John Cleese, Eric Idle, et al. Their superb use of satire, I am sure, has helped erode the appeal of Christianity (and exposed its silliness).

In Defense of David Hume Part 6, William L. Vanderburgh On "Hume’s 'Abject Failure' Vindicated"

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William L. Vanderburgh defended Hume against John Earman in a very thorough article published in 2005 in Hume Studies, titled, Of Miracles and Evidential Probability: Hume’s “Abject Failure” Vindicated [You can read the PDF right here.]. In it Vanderburgh shows David Hume probably knew of Bayes Theorem and never mentioned it for good reasons. I'm including a few of the important highlights below. I consider it an important contribution on Hume and Earman and even Bayes.

Subjective Private Religious Experiences Prove Nothing!

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Watch this!! Come on, come on! Come to your senses! Subjective private religious experiences provide no evidence at all that your religious faith is true. I've read the special pleading type of arguments attempting, but failing to show, these experiences are veridical, that if a god exists he can give you one. Sure, I'll say it. If a god exists he can give someone a direct experience that he exists and his religion is true. But this gets you no where. It still doesn't show that one particular god gave you the experience you claim to have had. The argument ignores the actual way people get these experiences and how they are used to defend all kinds of crazy religious faiths. The only way to know if your supposed religious experience is true is according to objective evidence evaluated dispassionately without any double standards, as an outsider.

Three Top Apologists Reject the Force Of Arguments To God's Existence

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First, Alvin Plantinga: “I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.” [Warranted Christian Belief, p. 201.] Sure, Plantinga offered "Two Dozen Or So Theistic Arguments" but he doesn't back down from saying they're not very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept their conclusions. [BTW: a 504 page anthology has been released attempting to defend these arguments.] Second, John S. Feinberg: “I wouldn’t try to prove God’s existence first, if at all, in that I am not convinced that any of the traditional arguments succeeds.” [Can You Believe it’s True: Christian Apologetics in a Modern, Postmodern Era, p. 321].

Third, Richard Swinburne rejects the force of two theistic arguments in particular: "In the course of this book...I shall not discuss a priori arguments...I think ontological arguments for the existence of God are very much mere philosophers' arguments and do no codify any of the reasons which ordinary men have for believing that there is a God. The greatest theistic philosophers have on the whole rejected ontological arguments and relied on a posteriori ones." [The Existence of God, 2nd, ed., pp. 9-10].

Swinburne again: "I cannot however, see that, given that there are conscious men acquiring knowledge of the world, that man's awareness of moral truth is something especially difficult to explain by normal scientific processes. Men living in close proximity and needing fellowship might well be expected to grasp concepts of fairness and justice, especially when it would be of advantage to one group to bring home to other groups their moral obligations. A long tradition of writing on human evolution beginning with Darwin's The Descent of Man showed how man's moral awareness might be expected to develop by evolutionary processes, as man evolved from lower animals."

Swinburne considers a Kantian argument. "(1) Promise-keeping is always obligatory. (2) But an action is obligatory if and only if it conduces to the perfection of the universe--what Kant calls the summum bonum. (3) It is more probable that promise-keeping will conduce to the summum bonum if there is a God than if there is not. This argument is valid, but its first and third premises are highly questionable...As it stands, the argument is not a good argument." He argues, "I cannot see how anyone who holds one of the first and third premises but not the other is going to be persuaded by a process of rational argument to hold the other, unless he is first persuaded by some other argument that there is a God. For this reason I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” [The Existence of God, 2nd, ed., p. 213-15.]

If they don't accept them why should we? Why should anyone?

In Defense of Hume Part 5, John Earman Didn't Refute Hume, He Completed Him

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It's widely touted that in his book "Hume's Abject Failure" John Earman "refuted" Hume. Did he? Consider what Richard Carrier tells us:
Earman didn't "refute" Hume, so much as he fixed Hume. Hume wrote just a few years before Thomas Bayes solved the problem Hume was beating around the edges at in his Argument against Miracles. Earman shows that reframing Hume's argument in a Bayesian framework fixes everything wrong with the original argument as worded. Hume's mistake is subtle, and arises from the imprecision of his wording and formulation. He hadn't quite known yet of the correct logical form of what he was trying to say, but it is remarkable he came very close to the same insight his contemporary Thomas Bayes did. Earman's fix rehabilitates Hume's argument...
There are definitely some of Hume's arguments that are spot on, that on their own show miracles cannot be believed based on testimonial evidence alone, especially if one is using testimonial evidence to prove a god exists and his religion is true, when compared to the laws of nature represented by Newton's laws of motion, as I argued here. At best one should suspend judgment. But more than this, Hume is not to be considered wrong, just incomplete, and that's a huge difference.

We just need to consider scientific revolutions. Paradigm changes build on each other as science progresses. The previous paradigms aren't to be considered wrong, but rather incomplete. As science progresses we recognize that the science of yesterday was not yet complete. That's it. If you've never read much of Isaac Asimov's, read his essay called The Relativity of Wrong. It will forever change how you view science. He explains why the discredited science of the past is not to be considered wrong, but rather incomplete, by discussing the changing views of the shape of the earth, from flat to spherical to pear-shaped. The same things can be said about Newton's laws of motion as completed (not falsified) by Einstein's relativity equations. Newton's equations were not wrong, even though he didn't factor time into them, as Einstein did. They just don't work at or near the speed of light. So there's no overturned or falsified theory here! In a like manner, Hume gave us the initial paradigm to evaluate testimonies to miracles which still holds true, but now Earman and others are offering other ways to examine miracles from a more complete paradigm. So no, Hume has not been refuted. He is being completed.

In Defense of David Hume, Part 4: Hume's Arguments are Not "Mathematically Fallacious" Nor An "Abject Failure"

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Critics are saying Hume's arguments against miracles are "mathematically fallacious" per William Lane Craig, Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, John Earman and some others. The point of their criticism is that Hume didn't factor God's existence into the evidence for or against miracles. But when apologists do so the low probabilities of miracles (by definition) can be brought up to being probable after all, because with God all things are possible. Okay. But this isn't a fair criticism. At all!

Let's back up. What is mathematically fallacious about saying we must proportion our beliefs according to the strength of the evidence? Hume said that. Where the evidence isn't decisive we must suspend judgment. Hume said that too. In other words, we should think exclusively according to the probabilities. How can that be fallacious, mathematically or otherwise? It's just good sound sense. The reason apologists attack Hume is because he was right and they are wrong, and that's it. For if there was good strong objective evidence that supported their miracle beliefs they would tout Hume's praises. You know it. I know it. They should know it.

Now let's go deeper. Whatever inconsistencies you might think are in Hume's essay on miracles, his main contention is this concluding maxim: "Therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion." (#98)

What Hume is aiming at throughout chapter 10 of his Enquiries is his twofold contention, not only that testimonial evidence for miracles is never sufficient enough to accept a miracle claim, but also that miracles cannot be the foundation of a religion. [Hume's targeted religion is Christianity, which requires a creator, revealer and sustainer god.] In other words, the testimonial evidence for miracles cannot show that this god exists and his religion is the true one, and by extension, other religions as well.

So Christian, just tell us where you start, other than from birth and childhood inside a largely Christian culture. If you want us to believe in your specific god and his religion then you have to present us with sufficient objective evidence for it. Where is that evidence? If you start by arguing the case for your god's existence first, then that's one thing, and Hume debunked this in his Dialogues. But if you start by arguing the case for miracles first, then that's another thing, and Hume debunked that in chapter 10 of his Enquiries. In this later case:

If you use Bayesian math to assess biblical miracles apart from god's existence, then you must do what you say you'll do by excluding god's existence from your calculations. But if you did what you say you do, god cannot factor in them to bring the low probability of a miracle up to a probability.
If your claim is that miracles provide sufficient objective evidence that your god exists and his religion is true, you cannot use your god in calculating the probability of any miracle. Furthermore, and this is very important, you cannot subsequently call Hume's arguments "mathematically fallacious" or an "Abject Failure." For if your claim is that the evidence for miracles provides sufficient objective evidence that your god exists and his religion is true, then your Bayesian calculations cannot allow god or his religion into any calculations of whether one should believe in his miracles. For the evidence on behalf of miracles is supposed to show your god exists and his religion is the true in the first place.

Please, at this season, if what I do here is important or helpful consider donating, as it really does help, every little bit.

Six Bible Texts to Help You Leave Christianity

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Why would anyone want to stay?

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, please remember that this can be celebrated as a secular mid-winter festival; after all, the Winter Solstice—nothing whatever to do with Jesus—was how it all began. There is no need whatever to feel guilty about this, despite Christian yelling and protest. Aren’t you tired of being harangued that December 25th has to be about Jesus?

Now would be a good time to spread the word about what I’m about to say. I’ve put the word “YOU” in the title to make it easy to address to Christian friends and relatives (yes, I’m a provocateur). They are the ones who should feel guilty about clinging to a religion with such abhorrent features.

Richard Carrier at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference

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In 2009 I spoke at the SBL conference by standing in for Bill Maher in defending his mockumentary Religulous. I enjoyed it. Recently Richard Carrier was there and he's telling us in some detail what it was like right here. I especially liked what he forgot, which we need reminded of again and again:

Instead of Being Useful Here's What “Jesus” Is Doing Lately

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This is hilarious and educational and provocative!! Why doesn't "Jesus" do anything useful in our world? Bravo Captain Cassity! She begins here essay with these words:
Anybody else ever feel like Christians’ expectations for their god seem bizarrely low? I know I sure have. Today, I’ll show you some of the goofier miracles Christians are claiming nowadays. These are the things Christians think their god’s been up to while avoiding serious work–and we’ll try to suss out why they’ve landed on these weird ideas.
This should be extremely helpful for believers to look into the minds of other believers. Hopefully reason will force them to see a reflection of themselves.

Apologetics Based On Coincidental "Miracles" Is Dead

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How many times have you heard a believer say God did a miracle, or answered a prayer, based on a very unlikely set of circumstances? All the time, right!! Christian apologists will even argue there are coincidental miracles in the Bible, called "timing" miracles, events that took place naturally at the right time. Not so fast! Become informed. Read the following books. See why they don't count as miracles, or answered prayers.

I've previously highly recommended the book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David J. Hand, who is an emeritus professor of mathematics, a senior research investigator at Imperial College London, and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. Book description is as follows:
In The Improbability Principle, the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month. But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of “miracle” is thoroughly rational. No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need, Hand argues, is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.
Other important books by people who know say the same thing, such as: Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance, and the Meaning of Everything, by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal, who also wrote the book, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities. Rosenthal is a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, having received his PhD in mathematics from Harvard. Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, by Joseph Mazur, who is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Marlboro College in Vermont. The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow, who co-wrote with Stephen Hawking "The Grand Design", and had previously earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley. What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives, by Gary Smith, who is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and It's Consequences, by John Allen Paulos who is a professor of mathematics at Temple University.

You see evidence of miracles and answered prayers in coincidences not because there's a god doing them, but because you look for them. They are not evidence of anything but your own subjective awareness placing a grid upon these events where you see your god acting on your behalf. They are also evidence that you are ignorant of math and statistics and the probabilities built on them. Q.E.D.

Peter Kreeft On the Nature of Morality

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In the Prager University video “Where Do Good and Evil Come From?”, religious philosopher Peter Kreeft makes so many mistakes that if you blink, you’ll probably miss some. This post points out the most glaring ones.

The video’s overall purpose is, of course, to demonstrate the existence of God by means of the moral argument — that is, that objective morality exists, God is the source of that morality, therefore God exists. But there are explanations of morality that do not depend on God. Kreeft therefore begins by criticizing these “atheistic” accounts (two of which we will look at here), before proceeding to the religious one.

The Meta-Apologetic Problem of Sophistication

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Meta-apologetics is concerned with apologetical issues, especially with regard to which apologetics method is the best one for defending the Christian faith, if one exists at all. I'm introducing a previously ignored meta-apologetical problem for Christian apologists to answer, if they can answer it at all. It constitutes a serious problem aimed at the whole apologetical enterprise. Why does it take so much effort and sophisticated knowledge to defend the Christian faith?
The probability that the Bible is God's word is inversely proportional to the amount of work it takes Christian apologists to defend it from objections to the contrary (that is, the more work its defense requires, the less likely the Bible is God’s word), and it requires way too much work to suppose that it is.

Consider the sheer numbers of Christian apologists/scholars and books that have been published by the following author/editors: C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Paul Copan, Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Chad Meister, J.P. Moreland, Gregory Boyd, Gary Habermas, Steven Cowan, Douglas Groothuis, Peter van Inwagen, Randal Rauser, Michael Murray, William Dembski, Richard J. Bauckham, Michael Brown, Dan Wallace, D.A. Carson, G.K. Beale, Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, Stephen Davis, Donald Guthrie, Ralph Martin, Richard Hess, Dinesh D’Souza, and Timothy Keller to name some of the more noteworthy ones. While some of these authors deal with the same issues most of their material is unique to them, for further defending their faith. If we add in their magazine and journal articles we already have a small library of works. If we were to get and read the references they quote from we have a whole library of works in defense of the Christian faith, a comprehensive case. That’s what a comprehensive apologetic requires. The important question left unaddressed by them, as always, is why a defense requires so many books? Why does Christianity need such a defense at all?

The fact that it takes so much work to defend Christianity is a strong indicator, all by itself, that the Christian God does not exist, or he doesn’t care if we believe.

Christianity Is Not Too Big to Fail, Part 2

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Helping it along…off the cliff

In my article last Friday I offered a few more examples of contemporary damage done by rampaging Christians.

The Debunking Christianity blog has been amassing the arguments against this malignant religion for a long time. There are so many great articles in its archives that deserve to be kept front-of-mind. I asked John Loftus to nominate some of his own favorite articles from the last few years, and we will be re-presenting them, a few at a time. This installment includes:

Thirty things that have to be true for Christianity to be true

A fast track to debunking Christianity

Why Christians so often say dumb things to defend the faith

William Lane Craig: the Holy Spirit has his back

Doubt is what Grown-Ups do

Installment One of this series can be found here.

Please feel free to share these articles on social media. Keep them going! David Fitzgerald has said that Christianity not too big to fail. Let’s help that process along.


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. Two years ago he was invited by John Loftus to write for the DC Blog.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.

The Christian Dark Ages—Then and Now

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The ongoing rampage of damage
The folks in the pews commonly assume that they have bragging rights about their religion. God is Their Mighty Fortress—we owe that image Martin Luther—which itself a great good for humankind, but they assume that Christianity itself now stands as a fortress again the moral decay threatening our society. By the careful exercise of selective memory, they can list so many ways—thousands of ways, I’m sure—in which the church does good work. But this is a distortion of the truth. It would take a lot of good to compensate for the horrendous damage that Christianity has done, indeed that belief in God has done.

Review of Bart Ehrman's Jesus Before the Gospels

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Jesus Before the Gospels (New York: HarperONe, 2016, ISBN 978-06-228520-1). 326 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.

            For evangelical apologists, the search for the historical Jesus centers often on the existence of supposed witnesses very close to, or from within, his actual lifetime. Accordingly, we supposedly can trust those sources because memories would be fresh and uncorrupted.

  Bart Ehrman, who is one of the best-selling biblical scholars of all time, provides a cogent challenge to those who equate contemporaneity with a reliable memory. Just because someone witnesses an event or hears someone speak does not mean that any corresponding memory remains unmodified when that “witness” relates or writes his or her account. That is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago.

            In fact, memory is very friable. The brain is constantly adding and subtracting material. As he remarks when summarizing the work of British psychologist F. C. Bartlett: “...when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are storied [sic] in different parts of the brain...To complete the memory we unconsciously fill in the gaps” (134).

            Ehrman adduces a wide variety of evidence to prove his point in eight chapters. These include psychological experiments and anthropological fieldwork.

            In Chapter One, Ehrman introduces the reader to the history of research on memory. It usefully includes a discussion of the different types of memory that have been identified in scholarship. For example, some scholars posit a distinction between semantic/factual memory (e.g., the capital of the United States is in Washington, DC), and procedural memory, which centers on how to do something.

            Chapter Two focuses on “The History of Invention,” or how people will invent stories that they then believe are accurate memories. This chapter challenges the fieldwork performed by Kenneth Bailey, who claimed to have collected examples of the accurate preservations of memories in some Middle Eastern villages. Bailey used these as analogies to propose a reliable mechanism that might have preserved Jesus traditions accurately in the first century.

            Explorations of the supposed “eyewitness” accounts in the Gospels constitute Chapter Three. Here, Ehrman effectively debunks Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2008), which is one of the most prominent defenses today of the reliability of eyewitness testimony about Jesus.

            The distorted memories of the death and life of Jesus are the subject of Chapters Four and Five, respectively. Ehrman lists a number of episodes that are “distorted” memories, including the famed Barabbas episode and the episode suggesting that Jesus shut down temple operations (166).

            “Collective memory,” the main concern of Chapter Six, refers to memories affected by a social context. Ehrman follows the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), who coined that term, in affirming that “there is no such thing as memory outside of a social context” (230). The Gospel of Mark, which is regarded as the earliest gospel, is the special concern of this chapter.

            “The Kaleidoscopic Memories of Jesus: John, Thomas, and a Range of Others,” the title of Chapter Seven, explores non-canonical gospels and other sources (e.g., Paul, the hypothetical source called Q) that may preserve authentic memories. Chapter Eight is the conclusion to the book.

            The book is at its best when it specifically refutes claims about how reliable specific memories of Jesus would be. Debunking the reliability of supposed eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life is where Ehrman shines. His command of the fields of textual criticism and early Christian history are in clear evidence.

            Nonetheless, I believe there are some fundamental problems that need to be addressed with Ehrman’s entire argument. In most or all of the modern scientific experiments of memory to which Ehrman refers, the “original” source of the memory is extant or well-documented. That source can be compared easily to claimed recollections.

            Let’s suppose we write a certain sequence of numbers and later test the memory of different individuals. We can evaluate the accuracy of the recollection because the original string of numbers is still extant and verifiable. If we have video of an event that we ask experimental subjects to remember, we can directly verify the accuracy of the memory with the video.

            However, the “original” source is precisely what we do not have in the case of Jesus. Thus, we have no way to compare or evaluate any remaining “memory” if we do not have that original source of any supposed memory.

            What Ehrman ends up doing is akin to looking at about a dozen of the earliest paintings of Jesus, and then declaring that a particular painting best matches a “memory” of Jesus’ appearance. Obviously, without the “original” Jesus we cannot say if any painting matches Jesus’ true appearance. 

            We may be able to eliminate paintings that probably do not match Jesus (e.g., if the painting looks like Donald J. Trump in a three-piece suit), but we could never really verify that any depiction of Jesus matches the original Jesus. The same applies to narratives, which can be considered paintings in words.

            That is why we also cannot speak of the “gist” of any memory of Jesus. Ehrman says that “there are gist memories of Jesus recorded in the New Testament that are almost certainly accurate” (144). But how can we possibly know the “gist” of any memory about Jesus if we don’t have access to the “original” Jesus to which we can compare the supposed memory?

            Ehrman also says “[n]early all critical scholars would agree that some gist memories of Jesus’ last week, as recorded in the Gospels, are almost certainly accurate” (148). One of these gist memories is that “Jesus was immediately taken off and crucified, along with two other criminals” (149; see Matthew 27:38; Luke 23:32–43).

            But how was it determined that this is one of the gist memories that is “almost certainly accurate”? Ironically, Ehrman does not apply any memory study directly to test the accuracy of this memory. In fact, to evaluate the entire list of gist memories, he mainly reverts to the standard critical tools we have used for centuries to evaluate historical claims. One can even reduce the basis for Ehrman’s approach further to this rationale: “Source X says Y about Jesus, and I believe Source X.”

            There may be some plausible reasons to believe Source X, but memory studies really will not help establish the accuracy of the claims he lists. In fact, the list is pretty much the same one he has given in previous books that did not emphasize memory studies. 

            I can also adduce reasons why being crucified alongside two criminals may not be an accurate gist memory. For example, what if the Gospel writers inserted that part of the story to make Jesus fulfill the “prophecy” in Isaiah 53:12 that the Suffering Servant figure in that chapter “was numbered with the transgressors” (Revised Standard Version).

            One also must remember that this claim is in manuscripts of the Gospels that date no earlier than the third century CE. Therefore, I don’t know how Ehrman or any New Testament scholar determined what narrative features had been added or removed from any tradition about Jesus’ crucifixion, which is supposed to have taken place around the year 30 CE. How do we evaluate the accuracy of a source extant some 200-300 years later when it comes to how many criminals were crucified alongside Jesus, if the latter was crucified at all?

            I am not convinced by the insistence that we can date the narratives, especially those identified by Ehrman as preserving accurate memories, to the actual time of Jesus. We may be able to date some claims in the Gospels before or after the year 70 CE, depending on attitudes toward the Jewish temple that was destroyed in that year by the Romans.

            But whether Jesus was crucified with two other criminals (not 4 or 5 or not zero), is not something whose accuracy can be determined by any memory study or by any other written record that Ehrman cites from around the year 30 CE.

            In the end, we retain virtually the same list of historical claims deemed accurate by Ehrman before any emphasis on memory studies. Memory studies did not change anything on Ehrman’s list, and it is the standard tools of historical criticism that are behind all the judgments of accuracy in the list.

            My criticism is not to deny that scientific studies of memory do have great value. The main value is to challenge and undermine the previous confidence that Christian apologists had in trying to convince us of the reliability of eyewitness testimony behind the Gospels. That is the main reason why I do recommend Ehrman’s book as important for both skeptics and believers.

NOTE: This review is published with permission from Free Inquiry 39, no. 1 (December 2018/January 2019), pages 60-61.




People Really Worship A Sun God in Today's World!

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Oh come on! In this day and age people really worship a sun god! That's utterly unbelievable to me. Believing that a virgin gave birth to a baby deity in the ancient past? Now that's something much different. It's more believable! Right? LINK.

In Defense of Hume, Part 3: Hume's Maxim On Human Testimony to Miracles as a Foundation for Religion

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David Hume's Maxim and its defense comes from chapter 10 of his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It's stated in these words:
"That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior." When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. #91
Later Hume tells us the only reasonable conclusion one can draw from his maxim: "Therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion." (#98). The fact that a miracle requires extraordinary evidence over and above the fallibilites of ordinary human testimony is not an unreasonable demand on Hume's part. It's the nature of the beast. The consistent workings of the natural world preclude miracles from happening. This natural world order is known with as much assurance as anything that can be known. It's so well established that natural laws have been derived from it's regularity and used daily in our laboratories and factories. That human testimony is fallible is also known with a great deal of assurance, especially with the discovery of a great many cognitive biases. So we need more than just human testimony to accept that a miracle happened. Human testimony alone isn't enough to overcome what is known about how the world works. Given the nature of the world and the fallible nature of ordinary human testimony, we need sufficient objective evidence over and above human testimony (hence, called extraordinary evidence) to corroborate that a miracle occurred.

All you need to consider is what you'd think if someone testified that his amputated limb regenerated itself, or if a woman testified she gave birth to a baby deity as a virgin! Would you believe their testimony? What if a few others said the same thing? Here's the kicker: Human testimony, second- third- and fourth handed human testimony in the ancient pre-scientific world, where miracle claims were abundant without the means to discredit them, is all we have when it comes to the miracles we find in the Bible and the religions founded on it.

You can read Hume's Maxim in context below (#99-100). Upon doing so let's be done with the claim that Hume's argument is an a priori one that admits of no possibility of a miracle. It's one of probabilities all the way down. It's about human testimony to miracles in a world that precludes them as the foundation of a religion. And the kind of human testimony considered to be extraordinary in nature just does not exist! It could exist. That it doesn't is not Hume's fault.

The problem with Hume's argument therefore, is that miracles just don't happen. For if they did believers wouldn't object to it. It's precisely because believers want to believe that they try to find a way around it, even if it requires an intellectual sacrifice. Say it isn't so! Otherwise they would agree with Hume's reasonable demand then go on to present sufficient corroborating objective evidence showing the miracles of their religion really did take place. The fact that corroborating evidence does not exist is why believers must object to Hume's rock solid maxim. So Christians have a choice to make. Either 1) biblical miracles did not take place, so there's no reason to believe them, or 2) miracles did take place, but there's still no reason to believe them. Given that Christians only have the evidence of human testimony in the Bible, this is the choice forced upon them. So choose. In doing so, don't go nutty on us as some others do.

Jesus the Cult Fanatic, At It Again

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Christians pretend not to notice…

In a recent article Richard Carrier didn’t mince words about Jesus: “…he is actually quite loathsome and rarely gives anything but really bad advice…” This probably has greater shock value than Christopher Hitchens’ famous subtitle, “religion poisons everything.” Believers can shake their heads in alarm and accuse Carrier of having gone over the edge with atheist snark; they’re accustomed to hearing white noise about Jesus from the pulpit—only good stuff. He’s the guy they worship, after all. How could Jesus possibly give bad advice?

Well, it’s not hard at all to figure out. For starters, how about actually reading the gospels? I recently fell into impromptu conversation with a devout Catholic, and I dropped Luke 14:26 on her: How can you be a follower of Jesus? He expects you to hate your family to be his disciple. She had never read that verse, had not even heard of it. That was not part of the white noise. She’s one of those in-the-dark-Christians so highly valued by priests and preachers.

The Conclusion Driven Arguments of Cameron Bertuzzi of "Capturing Christianity" Regarding The Outsider Test for Faith, Part 2

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Having previously commented on the kinds of important issues Cameron Bertuzzi of "Capturing Christianity" failed to mention, let me deal with the substance of his criticisms of the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). To his credit he quotes me fairly as saying:
The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. It calls upon believers to “Test or examine your religious beliefs as if you were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism you use to test or examine other religious beliefs.” Its presumption is that when examining any set of religious beliefs skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that the particular set of religious beliefs you have adopted is wrong.

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on [1] the number of rational people who disagree, [2] whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, [3] the nature of those beliefs, [4] how they originated, [5] how they were personally adopted in the first place, and [6] the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between them. My claim is that when it comes to religious beliefs a high degree of skepticism is warranted because of these factors. SOURCE.
In his first post he loosely discusses numbers 1, 2, and 4 above, with a focus on #1, that "the amount of skepticism warranted depends on the number of rational people who disagree."

My Response To An Encouraging Email With Questions and Suggestions

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Here is the email from Jeffrey Kuhn of Cincinnati, Ohio (used by permission):
Dear Mr. Loftus,

My name is Jeff Kuhn, and for the past several months I have been reading a number of your books, or books which you have edited, with great enthusiasm, and wanted to reach out to you directly with some thoughts concerning these works. So, hopefully you will indulge me for just this brief inquiry.

First, I want to say that I found all the works I read (The Christian Delusion, The Outsider Test of Faith, Christianity in the Light of Science, and Why I Became an Atheist) not only compelling but ultimately convincing, and that I am in agreement with the conclusions you and the other esteemed contributors present.

Secondly, and just for the record, I have no credentials in either Christian Apologetics or science. I am just a lay person (67 years old) who has been a Christian most of my life but has struggled mightily over the past 20+ years with the obvious conflicts between Christianity and science, the problems of suffering and evil in the world, the problems and conflicts in the world created by religious demagoguery and ideologies, and the lack of critical thinking of people who I know to be of more than average intelligence when it comes to accepting events which cannot obviously be true as stated in the Bible. (This one is especially troubling).

Ultimately it was single event which occurred several months ago in which a man in Florida, holding four young children hostage in a police standoff, killed all four (and himself) that was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. The children were 6 months, 6, 10, and 11. I cried for days after this event thinking what they must have been going through before they were killed and wondered how a merciful and loving God could find "Glory" in this event , and be either unwilling or incapable of preventing it. Certainly there have been larger and more tragic events in history that could have been averted by the God of Christianity, but this one event sealed the deal. So now I have rejected the entire concept.

But to my point. The books I read were very convincing and lay out the facts in such a way that it would be very difficult for any reasonable person who took the time to consider the information to not arrive at these conclusions. But, though it is stated the material is written for college level, the reading is difficult at times and the logic of the philosophical arguments sometimes is very circular and difficult to follow. I am a reasonably intelligent person, and well educated, but I have to admit there were sections I had to read several times, and do additional outside research, to understand the discussion.

Christianity Is Not Too Big to Fail

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Helping it along…off the cliff
I sometimes hear the complaint: “Why do you care if I’m a Christian? I don’t care if you’re an atheist, so why can’t you just leave us alone?”

But we don’t, in fact, exist in a live-and-let-live-world. The evidence is substantial that Christianity is harmful to our culture and our health. Richard Carrier has made the case for this in his recent essay, What’s the Harm?, but we’re hammered by headlines almost daily about scary Christian aggressions against the world, e.g. provoking the end times and the rape of children in the church’s care.

Aquinas’s Abject Failure

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There are quite a few things wrong with the first cause argument, but the worst thing about it — Aquinas’s attempt to show that the chain of efficient causation cannot extend back to infinity — is ignored by most critics. The claim that there cannot be an infinite causal regress is often disputed, of course, but Aquinas’s bizarre reasoning to the contrary is usually passed over — maybe for fear it would just be confusing to readers. Whatever the case may be, I think it’s worthwhile to be aware of it, especially given that Aquinas’s old argument is still touted by many.

The part I’m referring to is the following:

The Conclusion Driven Arguments of Cameron Bertuzzi of "Capturing Christianity" Regarding The Outsider Test for Faith, Part 1

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It doesn't take much for people in the pew to mindlessly quote mine from the Bible and/or the apologetics based on it. But upon thinking just below the surface we find it's all a ruse, a sham. Christian apologists have a hidden agenda. Instead of getting better at arguing for their faith they are getting better at obfuscating (or obscuring) it from view. They have become experts in conclusion driven arguments. That's all they have. It's called special pleading, and it's all special pleading. It's special pleading all the way down. That means they base their arguments on double standards, one for their faith and a different one for other faiths. It's double standards all the way down since they would never allow other people of faith to do the same. It's faith-based apologetics, never reasoned-based apologetics; no matter what they say. It's always their faith seeking reasons, never reasons leading to their faith. It's all based on assumptions, all the way down. They never argue to their faith. They always assume it and argue based on it. All apologetics is therefore presuppositional. It's presuppositional all the way down.

Cameron Bertuzzi of "Capturing Christianity" seems to be a good enough guy. He's a wannabe Christian apologist though, who has goaded me a bit to deal with his three part disputation of The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). He honestly admits he hasn't read my book on it, LINK, but that's where the intellectual honesty ends. In the Introduction to it I said it's "my final understanding" of the test up until it was published. He still hasn't read it, preferring instead what I wrote before I wrote my book.