Of Miracles: In Defense of David Hume against Graham Oppy

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David Hume (1711-1776) offered good philosophical arguments against miracles that still resonate today. His arguments focused on the unreliability of human testimony on behalf of miracles. He did not live in a technological age like ours with cell phone cameras, which are also GPS location devices, security cameras, dash cams, x-ray technology, DNA evidence, CAT scans, and so on. So he didn’t have the capability we do to establish miracles, or debunk them.

In our day the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) offered a one-million-dollar prize “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” From 1964, when it first offered such a challenge, until 2015 when they stopped doing it, no challenger had even gotten past the preliminary test.[1] That should settle the question of miracles, shouldn’t it?

One might ask why we even need philosophical arguments. Why not just teach how science works and why the methods of science are the best we have to get at the truth? In a real sense we don’t need philosophical arguments, per se, including those of Hume.[2] However, since we should do everything possible to help more people live in a reality based life, given so many possible existential threats to life on our planet,[3] we should do what we can to reach them. In other words, practically speaking, some believers might be philosophically attentive to listen to Hume, rather than to Darwin, Sagan, Shermer, Nickel, or Dawkins.[4]

One of the best philosophical arguments that help believers acknowledge the value of sufficient evidence, objective evidence, scientific evidence, is found in my book, the Outsider Test for Faith. It challenges believers to do unto their own religious faith what they already do to the religious faith’s they reject. It helps believers to accept the requirement for sufficient evidence. But it goes on to teach believers what it means to accept that requirement by forcing them to consider how they reasonably examine the other religious faiths they reject. It teaches them to apply the same single standard across the board to their own religious faith.[5]

My Paper on "God and Horrendous Suffering" Has Been Published

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My paper on "God and Horrendous Suffering", with the same title as my book, has just been published by Internet Infidels. My thanks to Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief Keith Augustine, for making it happen!

This is a short, sharable, powerful paper on an issue that has largely been ignored by analytical philosophers, who have focused instead on the logical problem of evil, then on the probabilistic problem of evil. It reveals the ugly underbelly of theistic worship and praise of a monstrous a god.

Horrendous Suffering Caused by—Wait for It—the Church

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When you're sure God is your boss, others can take a big hit 


Two of the riskiest things Christians can do—from the standpoint of preserving and protecting their faith: (1) Read/study the gospels carefully, critically, with curiosity fully engaged, (2) Read/study Christian history, i.e., what has been done in the name of Jesus over the centuries. There’s a pretty good chance that faith will be abandoned when this kind of homework is done. The clergy know that there are 1,001 embarrassing Bible verses, so many of which are in the gospels—so these are not preached from the pulpit. But it’s not hard to figure out that Jesus fails to qualify as a great moral teacher, based on so much of the Jesus-script we find in the gospel accounts.

Some comments on Hume and miracles

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Comment threads are easier to resurrect than corpses

In his re-post of February 26, 2024 (What is Hume Doing In His Essay “Of Miracles”?), John W. Loftus asks:

So let me put it to my readers. What would it take for you to believe a miracle had taken place given natural law and the fact you have never previously experienced a miracle nor anyone else you know (that is true, right?) What kind of miracle would it have to be? Let’s say one day a man’s arm was blown off and the next day it had regrown. It’s never going to happen, that’s for sure. If someone claimed it did, would you believe it was a magic trick of some kind? How about a virgin having a baby without any male sperm? How about someone telling you s/he heard god’s voice? What about YOUR hearing a god’s voice? What of someone coming back to life after being embalmed at the morgue?

The original article appeared several years ago; apparently as a result of that, the comments below the re-post article are closed. So that we may Lift Every Voice and … comment, I’m posting a reply article, which will have the welcome side effect of starting a new discussion thread.

Note that this business of miracles has been beaten to death in many books, articles, and blog posts, so it would be a miracle if anything I write is either original, comprehensive, final, or perhaps even correct. But maybe something here will be useful to someone. Just because everything’s in libraries doesn’t mean we all know all of it. And as always if you spot a goof, correct me.

The arrow of time - one of the ways to distinguish the mundane from the miraculous

Reality is kind of a One Direction concert

So, what would it take for me to believe a miracle had taken place? Two of John’s hypotheticals involve something like reversals of the arrow of time. There are many natural processes which we only ever observe moving in one direction. If you were to record such a one-way process as a motion picture, you could replay the event forwards or backwards. The backwards replay would then appear jarringly unnatural. For example, imagine someone’s arm exploding, and then un-exploding. Things sometimes explode, but they do not then un-explode. Similarly, we could record a person dying and then being embalmed by an undertaker, but we never observe that process reversing itself: a person being un-embalmed and then resurrected. Cremating the corpse would make for an even more dramatically impossible backwards replay, as that would require the widely scattered combustion products to coalesce back and un-combust themselves to reconstitute the corpse, which would then re-animate. (As an aside, the cryonics movement rests on the premise that super-duper technology of the future will be able to re-animate frozen corpses and repair whatever diseases or accidents killed them. If you’re skeptical about that you’ve got lots of company.)

Similarly, we can videorecord a baker making bread. The backwards replay would show the loaf of bread un-baking back into dough and the dough un-mixing back into the original ingredients. If we ran it farther back, we’d see the flour traveling back to the store, and then to the mill, and un-milling itself back into wheat, which would then un-grow back into carbon dioxide, water, soil nutrients, and the wheat seeds.

The arrow of time happens to be a paradox. According to the Wikipedia article:

The arrow of time paradox was originally recognized in the 1800s for gases (and other substances) as a discrepancy between microscopic and macroscopic description of thermodynamics / statistical Physics: at the microscopic level physical processes are believed to be either entirely or mostly time-symmetric: if the direction of time were to reverse, the theoretical statements that describe them would remain true. Yet at the macroscopic level it often appears that this is not the case: there is an obvious direction (or flow) of time.

Entropy as an arrow of time

Shot through the heart, and Clausius is to blame; he gave the heat death of the universe a bad name

We can think of entropy as an arrow of time. One way to think about this is in terms of probability: everything that happens is an “attempt” by the universe to push itself into a more probable (or more disordered) state. Local excursions into lower probability (higher order, lower entropy) are possible, but they must be somehow coupled to larger offsetting increases in entropy elsewhere. A classic example is the evolution of life on Earth, which represents a substantial increase in order. It was driven mostly by the much larger decrease in order in the Sun as it consumed its nuclear fuel, unleashing solar energy which was then harnessed by the mechanisms of mutation and natural section. This decrease in order manifested largely as nuclei in the Sun transmuting along the curve of binding energy. The evolution of life also depended on plate tectonics which is driven largely by the decay of heavy radionuclides inside the Earth, as they approach the same spot on that curve of binding energy from the upper end. Those heavy radionuclides in turn originated in earlier supernovae and neutron star mergers.

(And sorry if I upset fans of Rudolf Clausius and/or Bon Jovi and/or the English language with my terrible puns. Sticklers might protest that Lord Kelvin is more to blame for the heat death of the universe.)

The second law: why anything happens at all

In the Preface to his book The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins introduces the four laws of thermodynamics (emphasis mine):

The mighty handful consists of four laws, with the numbering starting inconveniently at zero and ending at three. The first two laws (the ‘zeroth’ and the ‘first’) introduce two familiar but nevertheless enigmatic properties, the temperature and the energy. The third of the four (the ‘second law’) introduces what many take to be an even more elusive property, the entropy, but which I hope to show is easier to comprehend than the seemingly more familiar properties of temperature and energy. The second law is one of the all-time great laws of science, for it illuminates why anything — anything from the cooling of hot matter to the formulation of a thought — happens at all. The fourth of the laws (the ‘third law’) has a more technical role, but rounds out the structure of the subject and both enables and foils its applications. Although the third law establishes a barrier that prevents us from reaching the absolute zero of temperature, of becoming absolutely cold, we shall see that there is a bizarre and attainable mirror world that lies below zero.

Given that the second law is why anything happens at all (as Atkins puts it), demonstrable violations of the second law might be strong candidates for miracles. No such violation has ever been reliably observed in the roughly 400 years of modern science. (The period of modern science is my focus because that’s when scientists have had an exponentially increasing capacity to detect, recognize, and record such violations of natural law, if any were to occur.) That’s how natural “laws” get to be called laws: they appear to be exceptionless. Thousands of scientists make millions of observations and nobody can demonstrate the “law” to admit exceptions. Then the engineers and industrialists join the party by stamping out millions or billions of artifacts made possible by the laws, and all of them appear to obey the laws as well. Then there is evolution, which mindlessly solved some molecular problems over a billion years ago, and the resulting genes and proteins have been “conserved” from yeast to humans. That means that at no point were the laws ever violated by enough to erase the adaptive advantages of those genes and proteins, which would have interrupted the Tree of Life. The laws of physics and chemistry that dictate the behavior of biomolecules have held sufficiently well since at least back to the last universal common ancestor.

Would you believe a miracle if you saw it?

Nobody has ever reliably demonstrated a violation of the second law, but suppose someone did. That leads to John’s thought question:

If someone claimed [that an exploded arm unexploded or grew back], would you believe it was a magic trick of some kind?

Skepticism would be my starting hypothesis. I’m aware of the history of failed attempts to violate the second law, such as with perpetual motion machines, water-fueled cars, and so on. As Hume famously pointed out in his essay Of Miracles, violations of natural law appear to be so improbable that almost any alternative explanation for our observation of a supposed miracle which does not violate natural law is more likely to be true.

I would certainly need more than someone’s claim! I would need evidence comparable in strength to the evidence that World War II happened.

We are smarter than me

I certainly wouldn’t set myself up as the final authority on what I’m seeing. For example, I’ve seen videos of close-up magic by David Blaine and others. Some of what they do looks to me like miracles, but I know they are just doing tricks that obey natural laws and fool my perceptions. Rather, I would rely on the entire community of scientists, magicians, skeptics, journalists, and so on to vet a miracle claim for me. For example, the Randi prize went unclaimed for over 50 years. If anyone had claimed it, I wouldn’t have needed to examine the claim for myself, given that the winner would probably have become a household name and probably would have started a whole new field of inquiry, with practical spin-offs galore. A real-life Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry would likely spring up in no time around the trick - if it were reproducible. But as Richard Carrier and others have pointed out, if a “supernatural” phenomenon turned out to be reproducible, then it would satisfy one of the necessary conditions to be a natural phenomenon, and the result might be that it would get incorporated into the rest of science. (Reproducibility is among the foundations of the scientific method.) In the past, seemingly magical phenomena like electricity, magnetism, and radioactivity were eventually shown to be reproducible, whereupon they became part of science.

Do miracles have to be one-offs?

For a miracle to remain a miracle then, it might have to be irreproducible, and that creates all sorts of problems. One of the strongest forms of evidence for the plausibility of a phenomenon is being able to observe it or elicit it again under known conditions. If a miracle is a one-off, then we would lose the strongest argument for its plausibility. We might be left wondering if it were just some sort of a glitch, with no clear way to resolve that. We would only have the reliability of the records of that one event - and that reliability tends to decay over time, as memories fade, the original witnesses die off and can no longer be cross-examined, libraries full of documents get sacked and burned, physical books wear out, and so on.

Alleged reproducibility in the bible

Reproducibility of a sort sneaks into the bible. The books of the bible were written over a span of several centuries, and the times they purport to describe cover even more centuries. But throughout all that time, according to the bible, miracles were almost a dime a dozen. In all the bible stories involving people from Genesis to the Acts of the Apostles, it’s just one miracle after another. Reading the bible is not unlike reading the Harry Potter series with its spell-casting and wizardry and trampling of natural law underfoot. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both of these domains of fiction enjoy such enduring popularity. Reality kind of sucks, since that pesky second law constantly works against us. Few people get everything they want just handed to them. Instead we have to work hard to temporarily and locally hold back the forces of decay. Everybody wants a shortcut, a magical way to “manifest” the goodies we want. The so-called “New Thought” law of attraction is the same kind of something-for-nothing snake oil that nearly every religion has always sold to the gullible.

Presupposing naturalism; the Moses and Red Sea example

John summarizes Levine (from The Cambridge Companion to Miracles):

Part I presupposes naturalism, Levine says. Philosophers like him, who rule out the possibility of miracles “are in effect presupposing or else arguing for a thoroughgoing naturalism. Hence, Hume’s empiricism commits him to naturalism, and if that goes unrecognized, his a priori argument in Part I of his essay against the possibility of justified belief in miracles is impossible to follow.” (p. 292). All one has to admit is that “naturalism is possibly false.” Once this is admitted “miracles are possible.” (p. 292).

John then quotes Levine directly (emphasis mine):

Hume is thus constrained by his empiricism in such a way that had he been on the shore of the Red Sea with Moses, and had the Red Sea crashed to a close the moment the last Israelite was safe, Hume would still be constrained by his principles to deny that what was witnessing was a miracle (p. 298).

There’s a tricky point about “principles” here - are we talking about principles, as in a prior commitment (an axiom, a presupposition, etc.), or are we talking about prior experience (an inductive conclusion)? See for example Richard Carrier’s Naturalism Is Not an Axiom of the Sciences but a Conclusion of Them and In defense of naturalism by Gregory W. Dawes. I confess to not having read enough of Hume or Levine to know whether Hume actually made the mistake that Levine appears to charge Hume with having made, but I don’t think that matters very much unless we’re trying to get past peer review, in which case we need all those attributional ducks in a row. Carrier and Dawes warn against this very mistake. Just read Carrier and Dawes and don’t make the same mistake yourself!

As to the Red Sea example given, I think Hume was in something like the same position with regard to most of what we now understand to constitute modern science. For example, during Hume’s life, nobody had a clue about plate tectonics (and thus why there are mountains, volcanoes, and even land above sea level at all); nor did anyone have a satisfying natural explanation for biodiversity; nor did anyone know how the stars shine (that had to wait for Hans Bethe in 1938); nor what a virus was; and on and on. Everywhere that Hume looked he saw candidate miracles, as far as anyone knew at the time. Given Hume’s lack of understanding of the physical mechanisms to explain the wonders he saw, his primary fall-back seems to have been regularity. For example, he didn’t know how the stars shine, but he saw that they always shine. Therefore, the shining stars didn’t constitute a miracle for Hume, even though a satisfying natural explanation lay centuries in the future.

Further, it’s worth recalling that the Moses and Red Sea example is a pure hypothetical, given that archaeologists and historians who aren’t Christian fundamentalists have accepted that the whole Exodus account is almost certainly fictional. See for example Did Moses Exist?: The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver and The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origins of Its Sacred Texts. The Moses and Red Sea example is as likely to have actually happened as the successful spell-casting in Harry Potter.

Further reading

For more on the impossibility claims of science, see A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-Than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFOs, and Other Pseudoscientific Claims by Milton A. Rothman. If I were King of the World, I would require the people who reject the impossibility claims of science to live without the technological goodies made possible by science. That is, I would require the science deniers to live according to their professed beliefs. Among Christians, it seems that only the Amish minority comes close to such consistency of behavior with belief.

To understand the difference between “impossible” and the merely improbable, see The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand.

For more on miracles, see (of course) the anthology John W. Loftus edited after his original blog post: The Case Against Miracles.

For more on Hume, see Hume’s oeuvre. If that’s too ambitious, start with Hume: A Very Short Introduction by A. J. Ayer, himself a prominent philosopher of the 20th century.

For the prior (and rather massive) blog activity and discussion history about these topics on Debunking Christianity, follow the labels.

What is Hume Doing In His Essay “Of Miracles”?

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I'm writing a paper on David Hume so I'm republishing this. Enjoy!

Much of the scholarship having to do with Hume’s argument against miracles has to do with trying to understand it. Philosopher Michael Levine claims Part I of Hume’s essay is an "a priori" case against miracles
(The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, p. 302) based on considerations of natural law before there's a miracle claim--that the evidence of natural law outweighs any testimony to a miracle--whereas Part II is an a posteriori case against miracles, “even if miracles have occurred.” (p. 293).
About Hume’s principal argument in Part I, Levine says “it fails” (p. 296) as an “unsuccessful” (p. 292) “superfluous” (p. 302) “misadventure” (p. 292). “It is a gloss for understanding the underlying supposition that one cannot have an ‘impression’ of a supernatural event” (p. 302). This underlying empiricist supposition is a theme of Hume’s, in which he argues we don’t have empirical sense impressions of ‘cause and effect’ or any divine activity, or the self for that matter, which is nothing but a bundle of sensations. So “Given his view that divine activity is impossible to know, Hume’s argument in Part I is in a sense superfluous” (p. 302).
Part I presupposes naturalism, Levine says. Philosophers like him, who rule out the possibility of miracles “are in effect presupposing or else arguing for a thoroughgoing naturalism. Hence, Hume’s empiricism commits him to naturalism, and if that goes unrecognized, his a priori argument in Part I of his essay against the possibility of justified belief in miracles is impossible to follow.” (p. 292). All one has to admit is that “naturalism is possibly false.” Once this is admitted “miracles are possible.” (p. 292).
Hume is thus constrained by his empiricism in such a way that had he been on the shore of the Red Sea with Moses, and had the Red Sea crashed to a close the moment the last Israelite was safe, Hume would still be constrained by his principles to deny that what was witnessing was a miracle (p. 298).

Our Culture Is Littered with Unverifiable Claims About God

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Are we any better off because of it? 


When I was growing up in a small town (pop. 1,600) in rural Indiana in the 1940-1950s, there were four churches: three Protestant and one Roman Catholic. It would have been unthinkable for Protestants ever to attend Sunday worship at the Catholic church. We knew that the Catholic version of the faith was just plain wrong—and the Catholics felt exactly the same way about us. In fact, one of their favorite taunts was that we’d all go to hell because we weren’t Catholic. Yet the profound disagreements didn’t touch the one basic truth we held dear: God was real.

My Reply to a Trump Supporter

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You know much, much more than the evidence shows. In other words, you believe that which lacks evidence. Final answer.

Demand evidence!

Coincidences do not count, since the brain is an expert at finding them.

Faith and Reason are Mutually Exclusive Opposites

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This is the conclusion I have come to. In my years of Blogging there is nothing I have written that elicits more of an adverse response from Christian believers than when I have denounced faith in favor of scientifically based reasoning. I can write against the resurrection, miracles, or the inspiration of the Bible, but when I write against faith the blog world lights up (well, those who read my blog anyway). Why? George H. Smith tells us in Atheism: The Case Against God: “In order to understand the nature of a philosophical conflict one must grasp the fundamental differences that give rise to the conflict.” True enough. Applied to debates between atheism and Christianity he identifies what it is: “The conflict between Christian theism and atheism is fundamentally a conflict between faith and reason. This, in epistemological terms, is the essence of the controversy. Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.” (pp. 96-98) As such, “For the atheist, to embrace faith is to abandon reason.” (p. 100)

Jesus Quotes—Among Many—Christian Could Do Without, Part 2

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Many believers just ignore what Jesus would do




If we are sliding toward American Theocracy—there are many super religious folks pushing hard to make it happen—we’re in for a lot of stress and pain. But why should nonbelievers be the only ones to suffer? We should hold Christians themselves to high standards. If they’re going to be calling the shots, let’s require they be experts in their own religion. Let’s push for a federal law that all professed Christians must show proof that they’ve read the four gospels carefully—and that they do this on an ongoing basis. We want them to be experts on the teaching of Jesus. Proof of this expertise would include a written test—by federal law. There could be a Department of Verified Bible Study.
 

Dr. Richard Carrier Interview On the 𝟝 Endings of Mark, and More!

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How Yahweh Became a Donkey-Headed Egyptian Demon Called Set

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This is an interesting post written by Dr. Darren Slade.
The conflation of Yahweh with the Egyptian demon-god Set, influenced early Christian interpretations of the Old Testament god as an evil deity. LINK.
As I read this, it just reinforces how people argued against other myths with their own. Plus, it shows just how superstitious and mythically-minded the prescientific people were. Other thoughts?

The Audible Version of My Book, Guessing About God, Narrated by Seth Andrews

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is now available on Amazon



Seth Andrews did such a great job narrating Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught, so we’re super pleased that he has done this book as well. 

 

Why the title Guessing About God? Because that’s what theologians and clergy have been doing for centuries, because reliable, verifiable, objective evidence for god(s) has never been found. Which is exactly why religions cannot agree—even Christians have fought each other, often to the point of bloodshed, because they can’t agree about god. There are now more than 30,000 Christian denominations, divisions, factions, sects, and cults. 

 

All their guessing about god has been disastrous. 

 

The link to the Audible is here.

The link to the paperback is here.

The link to the Kindle is here

Defending Miracles as Proof of Faith: Mission Impossible

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Miracles are far more trouble than they’re worth



When my first book was published in 2016 (Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief) I used its Facebook page for promotion. Many Christians who found the page made blistering comments, pumped with rage and hate— they assured me I’d never been a real believer, and that I was destined for hell. Almost none were interested in engaging with the ideas advanced in the book, but one fellow did; he had intense emotional investment in the Jesus’ resurrection—it was his guarantee for escaping death. I responded that there were other ancient religions that worshipped dying-rising gods, and that promised the same thing. He responded confidently, proudly that his Jesus was the only one who had really done it. It was clear that this belief had been instilled in his brain from a very early age. And how could the Bible be wrong?

Christians Are Taking Atheists’ Jobs!

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By Robert Conner

I’ve been writing about early Christian belief since 2006, not professionally or as a side hustle, but more as a hobby. While the serious hobbyist must remain cognizant of academic opinion and have sufficient knowledge to navigate the relevant professional literature, as a dedicated dilettante I was free to explore the byways, guided principally by my language aptitude and interest. 
 
After following the twists and turns of the “secret Mark” controversy for a number of years, I wrote The “Secret” Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria, and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, released in 2015 by a niche publisher in the UK. Although Morton Smith had written both scholarly and popular books describing his discovery and interpretation of extra-canonical passages attributed to Mark, it could be safely assumed that exeedingly few people outside the area of New Testament textual studies were even aware of Smith’s claims or had followed the tortuous progression of the ensuing debate over the authenticity of his find. I assumed the teapot tempest triggered by Smith’s work would blow over soon enough and be forgotten, but discovered quite by accident that my translation of Clement’s letter to Theodore had been used by historian Donald Ostrowski in his 2020 book, Who Wrote That? Authorship Controversies from Moses to Sholokhov. Who knew?

On the Alleged Christian Origins of Modern Science

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There is an often repeated claim by Christians that belief in their god produced modern science. There are a number of ways to show them wrong.

1) Richard Carrier destroys such a claim in my anthology, The Christian Delusion. As you might guess, I love how he opens his chapter. He excoriates it!

The Horrifying Sins of Christianity, Century after Century

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Victimizing indigenous peoples, slaves, women and children



A few months ago, an elderly Catholic friend explained to me how the church had guided her religious development. Regarding the certainties about god they’d been taught in catechism, she said the priests “…told us not to think about them.” Hence reading the Bible was never encouraged, because that might provoke skeptical thoughts. In fact the gospels are dangerous territory: there is so much in them that can alarm modern readers who are even somewhat aware of how the world works. Nor do the clergy want their parishioners to explore—to think about— the history of Christianity: how the church and the faithful have responded to those who disagree and resist; examples include the Crusades, the Inquisition, burning women thought to be witches. However, Christianity is guilty of so much more—so much worse—but the devout don’t want to explore these realities of history.

The Barbaric God of The Bible

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[Written by John W. Loftus using a different email address he no longer has access to. First published in Feb 2006]

One thing is sure to me. The Triune God in the Bible simply cannot be describing the God who exists. That God is a barbaric God. He is a hateful, racist, sexist God.

Consider these stories: In the Flood story we’re told God wanted to destroy all mankind. In Moses’ day God wanted to destroy all of the Israelites. In Joshua’s day God wanted the Israelites to kill all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Saul was told by God to destroy all of the Amalekites. According to Jonah, God was going to destroy the people of Nineveh. God also destroyed and scattered the northern tribes of Israel because he was displeased with them. God allowed the accuser to destroy Job’s health and family life just to win a “bet.” In the New Testament, God will destroy all unbelievers in the lake of fire. He’s a pretty barbaric God, if you ask me. This God is simply the reflection of ancient barbaric peoples.
Christians think the Militant Muslims are wrong for wanting to kill free loving people in the world, and they are. But the only difference between these Muslims and the Christian Biblical God is that they simply disagree on who should be killed. They both agree people should be killed; they just disagree on who should die.

Six Degrees of Separation: Between Modern Christians and Jesus

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The gospels stand in the way



It is so common for churchgoers to assume they know what Jesus was like. This knowledge comes from what their clergy tell them, the content of favorite hymns—and sometimes by selectively reading the gospels, that is, returning to comforting teachings of Jesus remembered from childhood. 
 
The content of sermons and hymns is based on what can be found—and what is carefully ignored—in the gospels. But the gospels are not, in fact, a portal to Jesus information. They are a barrier. So many devout Christian seem not to have a clue that this is the case, and, moreover, why it is the case. Let’s look at six ways in which the gospels fail to deliver.

Review of: "Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will" by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will by Robert M. Sapolsky
Penguin Publishing Group | 2023 | ISBN: 9780525560982, 052556098X | Page count: 528 | Wikipedia article | Goodreads entry and quotations from the book | Google Books entry with preview | Amazon link

Determined is Robert M. Sapolsky's skeptical take on the topic of free will. The topic is relevant to this blog since conceptions of free will have a long (and contentious) history in Christianity and other religions. In the religion debate, the issue of free will is likely to come up at some point, given that religious conceptions of free will tend to be pretty far from the scientific picture. See for example: As Sapolsky's book demonstrates at great length, free will is nowhere to be found in a scientific study of the human organism. Now, maybe some future scientific discovery will rescue free will, and therefore breathe some life into religious talking points that assume free will, but the trend so far is not encouraging for those who chain their theistic wagons to it.

Determined is a fairly high-profile book in its niche, and has attracted its share of comment. Rather than rewrite everything in the existing commentary, I'll link to some of it. If anything in the rest of my review seems hard to follow, consider coming back here to read some or all of these:

Paul Moser decisively answers the evidential problem of horrendous suffering via assertions!

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Philosopher Paul Moser answers the evidential problem of horrendous suffering via assertions! This is so unenlightening! He asserts his faith despite this problem, But is this doing his readers any good? Is he helping them through this serious problem for faith? FACEBOOK LINK.

Ten Jesus Quotes—Among Many—Christians Could Do Without

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What would Jesus do?—Well, that’s anybody’s guess


Let’s start on a positive note—before I move on to discuss very problematic Jesus quotes from the gospels. Of course, there are good Jesus quotes, and I like to combine Matthew 7:1-2 with John 8:7, which are, in fact, hard for conservative Christians especially to deal with:
 
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
 
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
 
But evangelicals savor despising gay people, feminists, and those who campaign for women’s rights (such as access to abortion). So they have ways to work around these compassionate teachings of Jesus, not to judge, not to throw stones. Their severe Christianity demands strident opposition. So Jesus can take a hike—at least they turn their backs on these quotes of their lord and savior: they can’t mean what they seem to mean.

On the Resurrection: Evidences, Vol. 1, by Gary Habermas

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This book by my friend Gary Habermas just came out. It's volume 1 of an expected 4 volumes. They represent the culmination of decades of research that he spent on a lifelong quest to defend the resurrection of Jesus. Other notables who have done a great deal of research on the resurrection include William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, and NT Wright. 

The reason why so much research has been devoted to the resurrection claim is because it is the linchpin upon which everything else hangs when it comes to a  Bible believing faith. If Jesus was raised from the dead their faith is not in vain, Paul tells them. But it also provides the justification for believing in a miracle working god of the Bible, including the story of the garden of Eden, Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the Exodus, and all other miracles, including the virgin birthed son of a god. It also guarantees the return of Jesus, and his promise of everlasting reward in a heavenly existence.   

Gary and I have met and have emailed each other for more than a dozen years. He invited me to Skype into a class of PhD students [in June 2020] who were majoring in Apologetics to discuss my book, The Case Against Miracles

Having known about his upcoming set of books I suggested a blurb he could use based on his previous writings:

My friend Gary Habermas has produced the most exhaustive defense of the indefensible claim of faith in the resurrection of Jesus that has ever been attempted. No non-Christian who cares to argue otherwise can avoid it. [Sent on February 18, 2020]

Science and Biblical Literalism

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Christians take the Bible literally until such time as the literal interpretation becomes indefensible. Then they find some other meaning, no matter how strange. In other words, it says what it says until refuted by reason, morality, and/or science; then it says something other than what it says.

A Big Chunk of Cult Posturing in John’s Gospel

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A mighty stream of pompous theobabble



Insight into Christian origins is provided by three texts, written by a man who never met Jesus. (1) The apostle Paul states in Galatians 1:11-12: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” A revelation as he imagined it, unless you’re willing to credit visions claimed by hundreds of other religions. (2) He also imagined that Jesus was a dying-rising savior god; that is, those who believe in this hero are entitled to eternal life, as he states in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (3) In I Thessalonians 4:17, Paul assured his followers that their dead Christian relatives and friends would be the first to rise to meet Jesus when he arrives on the clouds: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Zeke Piestrup On His New Film, "Satan's Guide to the Bible!"

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[This is a guest post by Zeke Piestrup about his new film. Don't let the cartoonish background fool you as it quotes from Bible scholars, especially Hector Avalos and Bart Ehrman.]

Praise John Loftus for allowing me to grab the wheel of DC, in hopes of steering y’all straight to my new flick: Satan's Guide to the Bible! Satan is the substitute Sunday school teacher. Today’s lesson? All the Bible secrets the children’s pastor learned at Christian seminary, but won’t share. He’d get fired. Below is a trailer and the full movie!

My Virgin Birth Debate Slides

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I've had some difficulty posting these slides from an online debate with Jimmy Akin, which was hosted by Capturing Christianity. Initially we had agreed to 20 minute openers but decided 10 minutes was enough. Below is my 20 minute slide presentation, which I extended a bit. It puzzles me a great deal why this information doesn't cause more believers to abandon the virgin myth. This is what led me to doubt the gospels as a whole. Enjoy. Please share!

Rampant Gospel Confusion, Number 2: Why Four Different Endings?

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Theology is written this way, not history



Devout scholars have been pondering—and arguing about—the four gospel endings for a long time now. Is there any way that these different endings qualify as history? So much has been written about this, so I’m going to mention here just a few of the issues that come to mind. For those who want to insist that the story of Jesus is supremely important, the end of his story—well, the end of his supposed earthly existence—should be of the best possible quality. But that’s not what we find. Let’s look at each of the four endings.

Two Good Reviews of My Debate with Jimmy Akin On the Virgin Birth

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I was approached by "Capturing Christianity" to debate Marian miracles in general. But I didn't want to do that for a number of reasons. So I got them to focus on the virgin birth, a specialty of mine. 
In the debate I didn't want to reward Jiimmy Akins by commenting on his opener, which I considered an apologist's trick. It's used to take charge of a debate. Akins did not defend any of his premises so there was nothing to do. I wanted to spend all my available time on the unevidenced uncorroborated ancient hearsay testimonial claim of the virgin birth itself.

Dr. Vincent Torley reviewed it and said:

It seemed to me that Loftus was questioning premise P5 of Akin’s argument (that the New Testament is inspired by God), but unfortunately, he did not explicitly say so, preferring to focus on his own argument against the Virgin Birth, which I have to say was very well-presented. Loftus made a powerfully convincing case that miracle claims should rest on solid evidence, and that belief in the Virgin Birth does not. Loftus highlighted the numerous historical problems Matthew’s and Luke’s historical narratives succinctly and cogently. The Skeptical Zone.

Here's an excellent debunking of what Jimmy Akins said. Thanks go out to Dr. Aaron Adair and the Godless Engineer for this! Adair and GE claim that I did very well!

 



New Year Resolutions for Christians, 2024

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Embrace curiosity, question everything!

It’s probably a safe bet that Christian bookstores don’t have shelves marked, “Books by Our Atheist Critics.” There would be few sales—perhaps zero sales, because there is zero curiosity about critiques of Christianity written by serious thinkers. Thus I won’t encourage curiosity in this direction. I suspect most of the devout remain unaware of the boom in atheist publishing during the last couple of decades. This boom was stimulated by the best-selling atheist books written by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris; these seemed to open the floodgates. By my count, there are now well over 500 books—most published since 1999—that explain the falsification of theism, Christianity especially. The owner of this blog, John W. Loftus, has made a major contribution to this growing body of literature (see the books pictured at the right). Even if some churchgoers are vaguely aware of this, they look the other way.

My Virgin Birth Debate Slides Again

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Here are my updated and extended Powerpoint slides from a recent debate on the virgin birth. Don't miss the last slide, which is telling! Enjoy!

My Virgin Birth Debate Slides

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I consider the myth of the virgin birth to be the gateway to doubting the whole New Testament. It was the first tale in the gospels that led me to doubting it all. It was also the last tale William Lane Craig could bring himself to believe. You can watch my extended Powerpoint slide presentation by following this link to Dropbox.

Rampant Gospel Confusion

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The gospels could have been so much better



Here’s a story I’ve told before, but deeper research has revealed more details. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had submitted their gospels to the New Testament Approval Committee. They had been instructed to go to a nearby bar to await the decision on whose gospel would be chosen. So they sat there at the same table, sipping cheap booze, and there was a lot of tension: these guys didn’t like each other at all. Mark was furious that both Matthew and Luke had copied most of his gospel, without mentioning they’d done so, without giving him any credit. Mark was wondering how long it would take for plagiarism to be considered a sin. He was also annoyed they’d changed his wording whenever they saw fit.

The Gateway to Doubting the Gospel Narratives Is The Virgin Birth Myth

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[First published on 6/13/20] OPEN THREAD! There is an often repeated argument that marijuana is the gateway drug leading to dangerous drugs. [I think it's largely false but don't get sidetracked on it.] There is however, a gateway to doubting the whole Bible that I want to highlight here. Lately I've been focusing on the virgin birth claim because this is the gateway to doubting the gospel narratives, just as Genesis 1-11 is the gateway to doubting the Old Testament narratives. It was for me anyway. It was the first tale in the gospels that led me to doubting it all. It was also the last tale William Lane Craig could bring himself to believe. You can see this double doubting of both Testaments in the list of the five most important books that changed my mind, and the five most powerful reasons not to believe.

Capturing Christianity Debate On the Virgin Birth! Jimmy Akin and Caleb Jackson vs John Loftus and Dr. Darren Slade

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Two Christians Jimmy Akin and Caleb Jackson debate two atheists, John W. Loftus and Dr. Darren Slade. I'm thankful for this opportunity. This should be challenging, interesting, educational, and some fun too!

Virgin Birth Debate Tonight!

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A debate hosted by "Capturing Christianity" on YouTube will take place tonight, Thursday at 7 PM Central time.

In this 2v2 debate, two Christians (Jimmy Akin and Caleb Jackson) debate two atheists (John Loftus and Dr. Darren Slade) on whether Jesus was born of a virgin. The first half of the debate will focus on the Virgin Birth. The second half of the debate will focus on Christmas miracles/Marian apparitions. LINK

Here We Go Again with the Fake News Christmas Story

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It’s not hard to find the goofs and gaffs


[First Published in December 2022] Churches all over the world will once again get away with the traditional Christmas story, for one simple reason: the folks in the pews can’t be bothered to carefully read the Jesus birth stories in Matthew and Luke. It’s just a fact these stories don’t make sense and cannot be reconciled: Fake News! A few of the more charming verses from these stories have been set to music and are recited during Christmas pageants; these deflect attention from the utter failure of these stories to quality as history.

 

"How the New Testament Writers Used Prophecy," An Excerpt from "Why I Became an Atheist" pp. 353-59.

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"How the New Testament Writers Used Prophecy" by John W. Loftus. 

One of the major things claimed by the New Testament in support of Jesus’ life and mission is that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Luke 24:26–27; Acts 3:17–24). If God cannot predict the future as time moves farther and farther into the distance, as I questioned earlier, then neither can any prophet who claims to speak for God. As we will see with regard to the virgin birth of Jesus, none of the Old Testament passages in the original Hebrew prophetically applied singularly and specifically to Jesus. [In chapter 18, "Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in Bethlehem?"]. Early Christian preachers simply went into the Old Testament looking for verses that would support their view of Jesus. They took these Old Testament verses out of context and applied them to Jesus in order to support their views of his life and mission.9

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.

Frank Tipler refuted on his Star of Bethlehem thesis by Aaron Adair

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[First published on 8/7/12 by Jonathan Pearce] To coincide with the recent release of my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination, I wrote a couple of posts concerning issues with the nativity accounts in Luke and Matthew. One Christian commentator, Vincent, made replies to many of my points, all of which I rebutted. There was one point on which he pushed and that was a thesis by Christian physicist Frank Tipler that sets out to defend the Star of Bethlehem from a naturalistic standpoint. Tipler hypothesises that the Star of Bethlehem could have been a supernova or hypernova. Frank Tipler is a physicist who once seemed to produce decent work but who has since adopted his work to a Christian outlook, attempting to find physical and scientific evidence for the miracles of Jesus and the workings of the Bible. Many know him from the strong anthropic principle he developed with John Barrow (himself a deistic member of the United Reformed Church). Vincent's points on Tipler can be summed up with this quote: