Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ancient Reasoning

In this post I'll be dissecting one of the arguments made in Richard Carrier's "Not The Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn't Need A Miracle To Succeed".  Carrier has a Ph.D. in Ancient History, from Columbia University, and for several years he served as editor-in-chief on the secular web.  His official website is here and his blog is right here.

I should begin by saying that I nearly didn't but this book; it was the product of an Internet debate, between Carrier and Christian apologist J.P. Holding, that I had pretty much zero interest in.  I decided to pick it up anyway, mainly because I had read a good deal of Carrier's online material (as well as his book "Sense And Goodness Without God"), and I especially liked his attention to detail.  Boy, am I glad I did. Carrier's arguments in this book are superb and, as I expected, thorough to a fault.  It's a heavy, perhaps even verbose, but deeply rewarding read.  To do "Not The Impossible Faith" justice I feel I would need to write 18 separate posts (one for each chapter) so, instead, I've decided to simply offer you an "example" of the sort of argumentation it contains.  I'll focus on chapter 13, "Would the Facts Be Checked?".

Carrier's talking here about the first converts to Christianity.  The "birth of the church", if you will, and his goal in this chapter is...

" examine what prospective converts actually did when faced with the amazing claims of Christians, and to see what kind of evidence actually persuaded them."  (bolding mine)

Fair enough?

He continues...

"Strangers established trust by shows of sincerity, moral propriety, knowledge of cultural lore and custom (e.g. scripture), and good deeds.  Anyone who met those criteria would be trusted--because people actually believed no one capable of all that would lie."

Hmmm.  Those don't seem like great criteria, do they?

Let's press on...

"The standards of evidence people followed back then were quite unlike those we follow today."  (Carrier demonstrates this, even more fully, in a later chapter.)

"...they mostly relied on groupthink to sell the faith.  By first appealing to a group they were already a part of, they were not seen as strangers, but was their most common and important strategy, and it greatly reduced the burden on them to prove their merit and thus win trust."  (This reminds me of Paul's comments about "becoming all things to all men")

What makes this chapter unique is the way in which Carrier analyzes the conversions in Acts (14 of them, to be exact).  The pressing question is, would prospective converts have fact checked before believing?  I won't take the time to go through all 14 cases, but let's use the Apostle Paul's conversion as an illustration.  This is what I'm calling "ancient reasoning" in action...

"Paul is converted by a vision (Acts 9:1-19)...And yet he didn't really 'see' anything objectively empirical--he did not see the body of Jesus risen from the grave, just a bright light in the sky, and a voice no one else attests to hearing.  Acts gives three different accounts of this event that are hopelessly contradictory, of course.  In Acts 9:7, Luke says Paul's unnamed traveling companions heard the voice but saw nothing, but in Acts 22:9 Paul himself says they heard nothing but saw the light.  In Acts 26:13-14 Paul doesn't say what they saw or heard, though he says they all fell down with him, but in Acts 9:7 Luke says they remained standing."

Besides the contradictions, do you notice anything missing in Paul's conversion?  Is there any indication that he checked, say, to see if Jesus' grave was empty?  Nope.  And the same holds true for every other conversion in the book of Acts (as Carrier amply demonstrates throughout the chapter).  Every last one.

I suppose it's still possible that there were some in those days who did check the facts, and as a result didn't convert, but if this is the case than Christianity fares no better.

So, if objective evidence (aka "fact checking") wasn't what convinced the early Christians, what did convince them?  Well, according to Acts, the main factors (in no particular order) were speeches, visions, subjective spiritual feelings, healings, arguments from scripture, and the exemplary moral life of the Christians themselves.

Are any of these "good" reasons to convert to Christianity (or anything else)?  No, not at all.  Let's analyze each of them very briefly...

Speeches...In modern society we know the difference, or at least we ought to, between someone being "right" and that person being (or not being) an effective public speaker.  A person may be correct about something, and yet have terrible rhetorical skills.  On the flip side, they may have excellent presentation, but be entirely wrong in what they are saying.  The difference lies in the evidence.  Another interesting thing, that Carrier makes note of, is that conversions were often won on the very same day the message was preached..."As far as Acts reports, Christian conversions never took place after days of careful research and investigation--much less weeks or months of correspondence and travel, as would have been required for most--but immediately, upon the direct witness of a missionary's words and deeds."

Visions/Subjective Spiritual Feelings...I've spoken before about "subjective spiritual feelings", both here, and here, so I won't repeat myself.  And, in terms of "visions", I think the arguments against them are actually pretty similar.  Visions are also highly "subjective", in nature, and they happened in the Bible with alarming regularity.  Would you believe someone, today, if they told you they had a "vision" of their dead grandmother?  Why not?  Sure, you may accept the fact that they had a real experience, wrongly interpreted, but you would be unlikely to buy into their dead grandmother's actual involvement in that experience.  Well, you should be even more suspicious of "visions" that occurred in the ancient superstitious past.

Healings...Some Christians may be tempted to argue that the "healings" in the Bible must have been real because, otherwise, who would believe them?  Allow me to counter that assumption with two words; Benny Hinn.  His believers pack stadiums, all over the world, yet does any truly objective person actually believe that Benny Hinn performs genuine miracles?  If you personally don't think that Benny Hinn performs miracles, than why do you believe in those mentioned in the Bible?  Carrier makes the additional point that "the miracles Christian missionaries performed were the same kinds of things pagan holy men could pull off, too.  Today, we know there are natural causes of such phenomena...Clearly these were not critical thinkers by any standard, much less a modern one."

Arguments from scripture...Many scholars now recognize the fact that the New Testament's authors twisted, and re-interpreted, the Hebrew scriptures, with the specific intent of reading Jesus into the text.  The problem is they tipped their hand, in numerous places, by making a generous assortment of errors while doing so.  I've already written about just one of those mistakes, right here.  Besides, as Carrier says, "Scripture is hopelessly ambiguous, and can be used to prove anything--especially if you cherry-pick the information...".

Exemplary moral life...In a previous chapter Carrier makes the point that, in the ancient world, moral devotion was actually synonymous with divine sanction of that community and its message.  Today, we would call that a giant non sequitur.  In other words, the logic went something like this, "that guy seems really sincere, he tells a really great story, and rumor has it those Christians are very moral people...what he's saying must be true!".  No investigation, no interrogation of witnesses, no letters, no travel; y'know, none of that pesky "objective" stuff we like so much these days.

The important thing to note is that literally none of the above qualifies as "evidence" at all, according to any modern understanding of the word.

Carrier closes the chapter by discussing some of the other (non-conversion) passages, in Acts (Christianity's first hundred years), followed by an examination of the early Christian apologists (the 2nd century A.D.).  Of course, "fact checking" becomes increasingly difficult, with the passage of time, but even still we see no indication of even so much as the desire to approach things in this manner. Speaking of Justin, Athenagoras, Aristides, and Tatian, Carrier says..."all wrote lengthy treatises that survey their reasons for converting, which we still more or less have. Yet we look in vain in them for even one single example of 'fact checking' the resurrection claim in any respectable sense."

Here's my point...when we read the stories in the Bible we do so with modern eyes.  We simply can't help it.  As a result, we make unspoken, and mostly subconscious, assumptions about what would have likely happened two thousand years ago.  We simply can't imagine things being any other way.  But those assumptions aren't necessarily correct.

Much of what would verify Christianity is inaccessible to us today.  Modern day Christians need to rely on the fact that the early Christians "did their homework".  But, as Carrier demonstrates in this, as well as other chapters (e.g. ch. 7, "Was Christianity Vulnerable to Disproof?" and ch. 17, "Did Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?"), this assumption is, at very best, a tenuous one.  As a result, Christianity rests on a shaky foundation indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I agreed that scripture is ambiguous at best. But would people really be willing to be tortured and put to death over something they did not fact check themselves? Would you? Of course not. Why would they? These people were put to death in heinous ways that give credibility to their belief. Albeit, it's not proven, on credulous with a worthy second look.