Monday, September 30, 2013

Intellectual Honesty, Atheism, and Faith

I was recently asked two questions by a long-time family friendwho also happens to be an ordained Assembly of God minister. One was how an “intellectually honest” atheist could deny the “historical fact” of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? The other was one atheists have heard (and answered) too many times before: “How is atheism not a faith too?”

Intellectual Honesty

There is nothing “intellectually honest,” at all, in asserting that any miraculous, supernatural phenomena is a “historical fact.” This is so obviously wrongand on so many levelsthat it was difficult to know where to begin. Here is a partial (and abbreviated) list of what is, and is not, intellectual honesty:
Intellectual honesty...

  • does not allow one to ignore evidence that goes against whatever it is that they want to be true (e.g. “So, Mr. President, what was it that made you think Saddam had all those WMDs in the first place?”)

  • is implacably opposed to compartmentalized thinking (the division of the Christian Bible into chapters and verses is a perfect way to encourage compartmentalized thinking and its handmaiden, hypocrisy)

  • requires that every link in a chain of reasoning must hold, without exception, no excuses, and no special pleading allowed

  • mandates that any attempt to sidestep, evade, or ignore these rules, by any party to a discussion, constitute sufficient grounds for forfeiture of any claim to be taken seriously 

 Doing My Homewor

As part of my homework, a word that appeared many times in my reply, I pointed out the contradictions in the narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (JoN). I also put together a table of the discrepancies found in the Synoptic Gospels' accounts of the Resurrection.i Having been raised an evangelical/ fundamentalist Christian, I know my stuff when it comes to the Bible. As a teenager, I was intelligent and knowledgeable beyond my years and was in adult Sunday school/Bible-study classes throughout high school (some folks even thought I should go to seminary myself‒ironic, is it not?) and can run circles around every Bible-thumper I have ever met (I may have a lousy working memory thanks to my adult ADD/ADHD, but I have a very large, fast, and well-indexed hard drive).

Crucifixion by Contradictions

As I was fact-checking myself on the discrepant accounts of JoN's arrest and “trial” before the Jewish authorities and Pilate, I came across something I had never noticed myself, nor did I recall hearing or reading about it elsewhere before, that blew my irony meter to smithereens.

To be honest, my irony mater was already a bit strained by the whole concept of an “intellectually honest” acceptance of miracles as a “historical fact.” As I was reading the account of events leading up to the Crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark (14:55-59), my irony meter exploded when I came across it, and after reading it yourself, you may see why.

“55The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. 57Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” 59Yet even then their testimony did not agree.” (emphasis mine)

Unless the author of Mark was from another planetii, even he thinks that contradictions and conflicts between the testimony of eyewitnesses–to the same events–ruins the credibility of those witnesses! The author is not named in the text itself, but has traditionally been identified with one Mark, a companion/interpreter of the apostle Peteriii, so for convenience, I will call him “Mark.” So anyway, Mark goes out of his way to make clear that, in essence, Jesus' accusers were idiots because they couldn't even keep their lies straight. This passage also indicates that Mark's audience had a positive expectation that testimony from honest eyewitnesses would agree.

The New Testament (NT) canon familiar to western Christians has not changed much since the Latin Vulgate was assembled by the beginning of the 5th century C.E, and the whole time, there sat this little bombshell. The consensus among biblical scholars is that Mark represents the earliest surviving Gospel–with the authors of Matthew and Luke, the other Synoptic Gospels, borrowing heavily from Mark. In an additional twist of irony, apparently, Matthew and Luke, though they borrowed much from Mark, they appear to have missed Mark 14:55-59–if they had, they might have taken steps to ensure their stories agreed. Not only that, but what about all those copyists down through the centuries, did none of them ever notice the discrepancies and attempt to fix them? By the author of the Gospel of Mark's own logic, these much overlooked four verses impugn the credibility of the four Gospels themselves. This is known as someone being hoisted by their own petard (gratuitous Shakespeare reference–check). This is also a great example of special pleading–the blatant intellectual dishonesty of pointing to the discrepant testimony of the witnesses against Jesus of Nazareth as evidence that agents of Satan were out to foil God the Father's divine plan, then turn around and pretend not to notice that the same charge can legitimately be leveled against the veracity of the Gospels themselves.

Atheism a “Faith”?

Believers in the monotheistic religions make the positive claim that God exists and that their religion (whatever it may be) is the one “true” faith. Specifically, my friend believes (this is an assumption, but his phrasing of his question makes my assumption a reasonable one) that the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is as much a “historical fact” as the Sack of Rome in the year 410 of the Common Era by the Visigoths, the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066 of the Common Era, which clinched the Norman Conquest of England, or the Moon landings. This claim rests upon a potentially limitless number of unstated‒and undemonstrated ‒major and minor premises, which include, but are not limited to, the existence of the God of Christian Scripture, which in turn, presupposes the existence of supernatural realms (and entities to inhabit them) not otherwise subject to natural laws. The evidentiary burden required to establish such fantastical claims is incredibly high.

All the evidence‒not just the cherry-picked bits Christians use to persuade the incurious and gullible masses, but also the evidence that reveals just how incredibly weak and thin the veneer of historical plausibility Christians have pasted onto their supernatural myths, little different from those of other cults of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first-century C.E. actually are‒have been thoroughly, skeptically, and intellectually honestly evaluated....and have been found wanting. The burden of proof is nowhere near being met, which justifies the rejection of whatever claims Christians might make as to the “historical fact” of the Resurrection, its unstated major and minor premises, and any claims it is, in turn, the basis of.

Faith” is what gives parents license to refuse evidence-based medical care to their sick childand feel that their refusal is “holy”and have that feeling endorsed and supported by their fellow believers. My atheism, my non-belief, is not a “faith,” it is a verdict, a verdict arrived at after refusing to ignore what Christians blithely ignore, and by allowing my reason to follow my natural curiosity, and the evidence, beyond the mind-numbing echo chamber of religious “faith,” and by demanding the same standards of intellectual honesty we demand of our system of justice and in any other sphere of human intellectual endeavor.

I have yet to receive a reply from my friend...

iThe inspiration for my table, though I did all the reading, formatting, and general grunt-work myself, was inspired (no pun intended) by:

Ehrman, B. D. ‘Chapter 1: A Historical Assault on Faith’. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). p.8; (HarperOne: New York, 2009).

iiAt least on this planet, despite our cultural and linguistic differences, the emotions we feel and how we express them are, for the most part, universal. For instance, even if you do not speak French, the French metaphor “faux pas” will make sense when translated into one's native language. This is because our species, for the most part, shares a common inventory of emotions.

iiiSchröter, J. ‘The Gospel of Mark’. The Blackwell companion to the New Testament. Ed by. David Edward Aune. p.272–95; (Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2010).