Resurrection, Interrupted

Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted is filled with fascinating insights into the Biblical scriptures. Today it seems appropriate to touch on some of his notes about the resurrection of Jesus.

Ehrman points out, “[W]e don’t have the originals of any of these Gospels, only copies made later, in most instances many centuries later. These copies all differ from one another, very often in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection” (pages 47-48).

The scholarly consensus, Ehrman notes, is that “the final twelve versus of Mark’s Gospel are not original to Mark’s Gospel but were added by a scribe in a later generation” (page 48). This is particularly interesting given that Mark was the primary source for Matthew and Luke.

Because the Gospels draw on the same narratives, they “agree that on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. But on virtually every detail they disagree” (page 48).

For instance, who went to the tomb? After he rises from the dead, to whom does Jesus appear, and what does he say?

For instance, in Mark Jesus tells “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” to “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (16:7). In Luke, Jesus says, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise” (24:6-7). Ehrman points out that Luke also authored Acts, which states that Jesus charged his disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem” (1:4). (See Ehrman page 49 for commentary on this point.)

Of course many will see this as missing the forest for the trees: is not the central narrative the resurrection, and the rest detail? Perhaps, but the details do matter when evaluating the nature of the overall narrative. (Obviously, looking at this resurrection story from the perspective of its canonized representatives hardly exhausts the types of criticism to which it may be subjected.)

Though it strays from the resurrection narrative, another interesting point that Ehrman makes is that Matthew had an odd way of fulfilling Old Testament prophesies (see page 50).

Zechariah 9:9 says: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! [Note the repetitive verse.] Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt and the foal of an ass.” (I’m using a different translation than Ehrman uses.)

The last part of the line modifies the first instance of “ass” or donkey. “But Matthew evidently did not understand this poetic convention in this place,” Ehrman notes; thus Matthew writes, “The disciples… brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon” (21:6-7).

I have no doubt that, in the Gospels, Jesus fulfills (select and vague) Old Testament prophesies, for the Gospels were written precisely to make him do so.

But the narrative of Jesus’s resurrection is itself only a tree in the broader forest of spring-time life-generation myths. It is a lovely, sunny day, the earth (in my part of the world) is returning to summer life, and it’s time to celebrate plants, fertility, bunnies, eggs, and long life!

Conservative Deceit About Christian Liberty

Some of my fellow Coloradans wish to outlaw the birth control pill and subject my wife to the death penalty if she takes it, yet today David Limbaugh dismisses as “paranoia” concerns about “the intersection of Christianity and the public square.” Limbaugh is amazed by “how much [critics] fear something that represents such a little threat to them.”

Let us review, shall we? Many Christians in the United States advocate the following political goals:

* Outlaw all abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and risk to the woman’s health, from the moment of fertilization, with criminal penalties extending to execution.

* Outlaw all fertility treatments, birth control (including the pill), medical research, and medical treatment that may involve the destruction of a fertilized egg.

* Impose mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds before a woman may obtain an abortion. (This is a marginal step toward the goal of complete prohibition.)

* Outlaw all expression involving consenting adults that is arbitrarily deemed “obscene.” (Various Christians want to outlaw all material deemed pornographic.)

* Force Americans to subsidize religious institutions for “faith based” welfare.

* Expand welfare (the forced redistribution of wealth) because of Biblical principles of helping the less-well off.

* Imprison American adults for consuming various drugs, including marijuana taken for medical purposes, regardless of the level of police powers necessary to achieve this goal. (Some Christians even want to return to alcohol prohibition.)

* Require religious prayer and religious instruction at tax-funded schools.

* Deny equal protection under the laws to homosexuals, including the right to form romantic contracts and adopt children.

A few Christians want to execute homosexuals and adulterers and explicitly call for theocracy (see Christian Reconstruction or the comments of a Christian radio host.)

No, nothing to worry about!

Limbaugh makes a couple of basic mistakes in his article. First, he pretends that the only relevant issue is freedom of expression. Second, he pretends that the only debate is between “the left” and Christian conservatives. Obviously the left with its campaign censorship laws and media controls at least matches conservative Christianity in its hostility toward free expression. Unfortunately, as seen with President Obama’s expansion of President Bush’s “faith based” welfare, the left increasingly mingles politics with religion as well.

True, many Christians fight for liberty in at least some areas. Whether that effort flows from Christian doctrine, or is ultimately incompatible with it, is a debate for another day. But for Limbaugh to dismiss as “paranoia” concerns about the efforts of many Christians to base politics on religion is ludicrous.

Come On, You Homosexual Demon

No need to go to uncivilized, pestilence-ridden hovels at the far corners of the earth for crazy. We’ve got plenty of that right here in the U.S. of A.

Witness for yourself a “gay exorcism;” the attempt to cast a “homosexual demon” out of a teenage boy. The religious scene features a disgusting display of bigoted ignorance.

(It’s unclear to me whether the alleged demon in question is itself homosexual, or if it merely causes homosexuality in its purported victim. I suppose a gay demon that also causes gayness would be particularly hard to exorcise.)

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Who was Soraya M.? She was a young woman murdered by Islamist thugs in 1986. She is every woman who continues to suffer under Islamist tyranny around the world.

Most of the horror stories we never hear about. One story has been made into a film, The Stoning of Soraya M. I am not looking forward to watching it. But watch it I must.

[September 14, 2014 Update: The video in question is no longer available at YouTube.]

Emotionalist Worship

Thanks to Flibbert, I ran across two bizarrely interesting videos of religious worship.

In the first, a toddler walks around the stage spouting impassioned nonsense in the style of an old-time country sermon.

In the second, Marjoe Gortner continues to pretend to be a faith healer for a time even after he has become convinced that it’s all nonsense.

One message to take from this is that some people are just goofy. They do things that make no sense. This is true whether they package their nonsense in religion or something else.

However, there is an especial tendency with religion, grounded as it is in faith, to promote emotionalist, cathartic practices quite separated from any understanding of reality. While religion at its best is quite sophisticated and intellectual, religion’s popular manifestations seem to lean toward the other variety.

[September 14, 2014 Update: The videos in question are no longer available.]

Censorship for Allah

“A right-wing lawmaker should be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred with anti-Islamic statements that include calling the Koran a ‘fascist book,’ a Dutch court ruled Wednesday.”

Because the best way to demonstrate that the Koran is not a “fascist book” is to promote fascism in the name of the Koran.

Unfortunately, and hypocritically, the lawmaker in question “called for a ban on the Koran ‘the same way we ban “Mein Kampf”‘.” Someone who wants to censor the Koran (or Hitler’s screed) can hardly complain when somebody wants to censor him.

If the West loses free speech, it loses itself. There is no more important political issue than maintaining free speech, no matter who finds it offensive.

Does Free Will Prove God?

A large portion of articles from the conservative Town Hall attempt to prove the existence of God or slam atheism. (This is yet another example of how the conservative movement is captured by the religious right.) A recent example is Ben Shapiro’s “Why Atheism Is Morally Bankrupt.”

Here is Shapiro’s argument:

[W]ithout God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.

Thats because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions — the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power — a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, Although I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it. [A direct quote?]

Gilbert Pyle, the atheistic philosopher, derogatorily labeled the idea of soul/body dualism, the ghost in the machine. Nonetheless, our entire legal and moral system is based on the ghost in the machine — the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. …

According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment.

Shapiro’s claim about atheists is obviously false. Many atheists reject determinism.

But notice the basic form of Shapiro’s argument: “I cannot explain X as part of the natural world, therefore God exists.” This argument has been repeated in many forms over the centuries. “I cannot explain [lightning, weather, causal laws, gravity, the origin of species, morality, free will] as part of the natural word, therefore God exists.”

But an inability to explain something does not justify the move to Making Stuff Up. Lack of knowledge about the natural world does not demonstrate the existence of a supernatural world.

I do not pretend to have the final answer to free will. (I don’t pretend to have the final answer to gravity or many other things, either.) Yet it is obviously the case that an account of free will need not invoke God, because two major theories of free will avoid doing so. Objectivists such as Leonard Peikoff argue that mechanistic causation does not exhaust the nature of causation, and that certain things in the universe — people with rational consciousness — are capable of self-causation in important ways. Others, including Daniel Dennett, make a case for compatibilism, the view that free will operates within a deterministic world. I hope to return to this issue squarely within the next couple years.

The unassailable fundamental is that we do have free will. We obviously can “choose to do otherwise.” We can observe the phenomenon of choice within ourselves. The fact that science cannot explain free will with finality does not disprove free will any more than a lack of understanding about gravity allows us to float freely above the earth with no upward force. The point of science is to explain aspects of the natural world, not rationalize away their existence.

Shapiro claims that atheists cannot explain free will in the context of natural law. His solution? Conjure a God not bound by natural law. He counts his ignorance as his proof: we don’t understand something, therefore, God. Yet even within that rationalistic framework Christians have struggled to explain free will. Many influential Christians were determinists. Indeed, Christianity is driven to its own form of compatibilism: God must simultaneously have perfect knowledge — including a perfect awareness of the future — and grant humans free will. Neat trick. The upshot is that Christians reject compatibilism based on a competing theory of compatibilism. But the absurdities of the supernaturalist framework are secondary: the main point is that there’s no reason to accept a supernaturalist framework, and the attempt inherently defies reason.

Perkins vs. D’Souza: Morality

In his fourth essay criticizing Dinesh D’Souza, Greg Perkins notes that D’Souza accuses atheists of rebelling against moral rules. After summarizing why that’s not the case for atheists who know what they’re talking about, Perkins adds:

[T]he religionists are themselves guilty of the sin of moral subjectivism. The essence of subjectivism is acting on whim — wishing, assuming, feeling, or declaring that facts will align themselves with thoughts and lives. Of course, this gets it exactly backwards: thoughts and lives must align themselves with the facts because facts are absolutes to be discovered, not declared. Merely hoping or asserting something is good doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the whim of a lone subjectivist deciding what is good or bad, the whim of an entire civilization voting on it, or the whim of a “supernatural” mind decreeing it. So the religious who claim to have an absolute morality are really only subjectivists of a supernatural stripe. The trouble for them is that their sort of subjectivism is just as false as any other: God telling Abraham that it is good to slay his innocent son Isaac doesn’t make it good. His ordering the enslavement of entire peoples in the Old Testament doesn’t make that good.

While Perkins only hints at the full case behind his arguments, he starts down the right track and offers a useful reading list.

There is a point that Perkins doesn’t make: D’Souza is psychologizing. He is postulating some psychological rebellion that, in most cases, simply does not exist. (Perkins correctly claims that many atheists resort to the theory of subjectivism, but that’s a very different charge.) Thus, D’Souza’s argument on this point is not only wrong but ad hominem.

Perkins vs. D’Souza: Miracles

Greg Perkins continues to show why Dinesh D’Souza’s Christian apologetics fails. I’ve reviewed his first post, regarding the alleged harms of atheism. In his second short essay, Perkins explains why miracles are impossible.

Perkins offers a nice summary of the nature of causality and its validation. He explains especially well the fact that miracles do not merely refer to something unusual and unexplained; they refer to something supernatural:

We are not talking about just any improbable happening, and not even something which violates our current understanding of the world as expressed in scientific laws, like D’Souza tries to argue. The entire point of miracles is to provide evidence of divine intervention, and surprises which may only reveal a current lack of understanding can’t accomplish that: by that measure, even the tricks of magicians would count as miracles. Indeed, much of what we enjoy in our modern world would have been considered miraculous in previous times, from vaccines and medications, to cars, and the Internet and on and on. Yet none of these prove or even suggest a possibility that there is a God. No, a meaningful miracle is not merely something which would violate the laws of nature as we currently understand them, but something which would be a violation of any such law we could ever discover. That is, it would have to be a violation of lawfulness itself.

The epistemological criticism is that miracles require a leap into faith beyond reason rooted in sensory evidence. Before people knew what caused lightning, many religionists said God caused it. The appropriate answer was, “I don’t know what causes it — yet.” The metaphysical criticism is that supernaturalism, upon which miracles are based, contradicts the law of causality.