An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 13

Hey look! Just four chapters left! This one's gonna be... uh... well, another one. Alright, at this point, I'm pretty cynical. I wasn't looking to be re-converted. I was just hoping to keep an open mind, to hear something I hadn't heard a hundred times before, or to hear a new angle on an argument I hadn't considered. No dice.

Now, we're to a long-overdue chapter: the historical evidence for the gospels. Kind of a big issue, being that the gospels are absolutely foundational to Christianity. If the gospels aren't demonstrably reliable, then there's no reason to believe Christianity is true at all.

I just want to state, at the outset, that I've spelled out my general gripes with the gospels in both The Gospel Challenge (also in the tab at the top of the blog) and my 3-part critique of Lee Strobel's movie The Case For Christ. I'm not big on rehashing things I've already covered in detail (especially since the whole reason I'm reading the book is in the hope I'll hear something new), so I'm not going to go point-by-point through this chapter. Instead, I'm just going to try try to hit on some of the broader concepts. Suffice to say that this chapter, by Randall Hardman, did not convince me that the gospels are reliable historical documents.


                                       Chapter 13: Historical Evidences for the Gospels

In his rather lengthy opener, Hardman lays out the thesis that it's a mistake to dismiss the possibility of miracles and the existence of God out of hand when making a historical inquiry into the gospels, which I agree with. I think he's confused on a few of the details, but in principle, sure, we can concede that it's at least possible that miracles happen and/or that a god of some kind exists ("God", in pretty much every reference in this chapter – and really the whole book – is implied to be a theistic god). Hardman says,

[No] historian speaking [...] can say that God does not exist; if he does, he is moving beyond his field of history and into theology. He can make no statements a priori about the possibility or plausibility of miracles. He cannot reject them out of hand or determine them in advance to be irrational.
I don't agree that someone making a statement about the existence of God is moving into theology per se, but that's a minor quibble. I'll go ahead and say I concur with this statement, particularly the last two sentences.

However, there are a few details in the paragraphs prior that Hardman gets wrong, in my estimation:
In brief, philosophical naturalism is the commitment to a completely natural or material reality. It is the looming presence behind Carl Sagan’s famous quote: “The Universe is all there was, is, and ever will be.” 2 It presents for us a closed system in which everything that can be said to be decidedly true or known must function within the assumption that God does not exist or at least that he does not involve himself in the world. This presupposition is common in much scientific discourse, and it has also moved into the arena of historical scholarship.
This is not exactly true. He's conflating epistemic naturalism with metaphysical naturalism – a.k.a. materialism.
Contrary to the views of many popular atheists, however, science has never made a case for the necessity of philosophical naturalism, nor is it within science’s competency to do so: it’s a question of metaphysics, not science.
I don't know any "popular atheists" who espouse a presupposition of metaphysical naturalism. But this is one of those things that I hear all the frickin' time. I can't throw a rock at an apologist's arguments without hitting something about how atheism presupposes materialism. It's complete nonsense. Atheism is not a world view; it is part of a world view, an evidentialist worldview. It flows from our best assessment of the evidence. Atheism is the lack of belief in gods; it presupposes nothing.

Then Hardman throws in this, for some reason:
(It is unfortunate that so many individuals who have read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have never open-mindedly forayed into reading the challenges and responses by Alister McGrath, Alvin Plantinga, John Haught, Francis Collins, John Lennox, W.L. Craig, etc. 8 To suppose that such responses are not worth a hearing is to take up the intellectual equivalent of ethnocentrism.)
I have no idea where Hardman is getting his information. Lots of us atheists have read works by many of those authors. Speaking personally, off the top of my head I've read The Language of God (Collins), The Faith of a Physicist (Haught), The Reason for God (Keller), The Big Argument (assorted), Who Needs God? and When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Kushner, The Case for Christianity (Lewis), watched the movie The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel –  and I've read or watched a litany of online articles, book excerpts, lectures and debates from McGrath, Craig, Plantinga, etc. etc. A better question here is why Hardman assumes that atheists are unfamiliar with such arguments. In many cases, we're atheists because of those arguments.


The evidence for the gospels


Hardman continues,
New Testament scholar David DeSilva suggests that if we can get past an anti-miracle bias and leave open the possibility of such occurrences, the potential for engaging the Gospels and Acts on their own terms increases exponentially. 14 That is, if one leaves open the question of the resurrection as historical possibility— and therefore the question of God’s existence— one will be able to read the Bible with a fuller, more complete sense of options and voices. 15 The historian is not committed to denying the miracles of scripture, while forcing data to fit explanatory paradigms too small to hold it.
I'll agree with that, with one caveat: if you are going to take one miracle claim at face value, you have to take all miracle claims at face value. You don't get to pick just the ones from the religion you already believe in – that's a fallacy called special pleading. Clearly, if we're assessing actual evidence, the burden of demonstrating that miracle occurred is difficult indeed. It's not repeatable, and it by definition defies the very laws of nature. We also know that humans are prone to a litany of cognitive errors and, particularly in a pre-scientific era, superstitious and magical thinking. So you have to have some way of showing that the claims of miracles are reliable despite that. Okie dokie, Hardman. Watcha got?

Remember how I said I wouldn't go through this chapter point by point? Well, I won't. Hardman goes into a critique of "Form Criticism", which basically says that the gospels aren't reliable because they arose from an "entirely oral period" and a "lack of biographical interest in Christ himself". Considering that there are over 30 years missing from Jesus' life, the latter would seem to pretty obvious. He then goes on to describe why this "oral tradition" was supposedly accurate.

It doesn't matter if there was an "entirely oral" period or not. All that matters is that the information is transmitted accurately. As I've explained in my critiques of the gospels, there are good scriptural reasons to believe that they are not eyewitness accounts at all (the temptation in the desert, for example, when Jesus is "alone"). But even if they are partially based on eyewitness accounts, eyewitness testimony is awful. You can't get much less reliable.

If the information is transmitted reliably, then the manuscripts we have ought to buttress each other. But they don't. They're filled with a litany of factual contradictions. And that's what didn't sit right with me when I watched The Case for Christ. They went through great lengths to reassure me (the viewer) that the gospels were built on reliable eyewitness testimony, that it was passed on through a rigorously detailed oral tradition (which is bullshit anyway – they're confusing it with a Rabbinic tradition, and there's no evidence any such tradition was actually involved in the transmission of the gospels), and that the many manuscripts since – the originals being long, long lost – were all meticulously copied. And yet, the modern gospels are full of contradictions and errors, which formed the basis for Bart Ehrman's excellent books Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. If everything was so damn meticulous, why are there so many contradictions and errors?


Luke

Hardman then goes on to use Luke as evidence that the gospel writers were concerned with historical accuracy:
Luke’s own preface announces this intention: “. . . having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” In other words, Luke is intending to write an historically reliable account within the framework of Greek historiography.
Well, so the fuck what? Luke was, for all intents and purposes, writing it to the best of his ability given the information he had. He wanted to be as thorough as possible. But that doesn't answer the question of whether his information was actually reliable in the first place. 

Hardman also briefly claims that Luke was probably alive during Jesus' life, and witnessed the events himself. If that were true, and if those events were of such pivotal importance to all humankind, why on Earth would Luke wait 40 years (supposedly into his 60s) to write it all down – especially since, back in those days, you'd be pretty lucky to live that long?


And that's pretty much the chapter. Hardman never actually got around to presenting evidence that the claims of miracles were anything but hearsay among superstitious people in a pre-scientific society. He seems to think that it's enough just to say miracles are possible. He never addresses the problems with the contradictions between the gospels or the litany of errors in the manuscripts. He then closes:
Perhaps you might ask yourself the same question I did: What if, in fact, these things are true?
Hey Randall! Did you ever ask yourself this? What if it's all bullshit?





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