response to alleged evidence

A response to

First: evidence isn’t same as proof. Real proof is only found in mathematics, I’m told, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Evidence, on the other hand, is “anything presented in support of an assertion” (Wikipedia), and that’s exactly what I want to present to you: lots of actual, incontrovertible facts that support the assertion that Christianity is true.

“Proof” in mathematics is distinctly different than other types, since the foundational rules are so clearly defined — but in english “proof” really means “a convincing argument,” alcohol was “proven” to be a certain concentration by mixing more and more gunpowder with it until it formed a flammable mixture, thus “proving” that, say, 50% of the spirits were ethanol. (The higher the ethanol content, the less gunpowder needed to form a flammable mixture. Nowadays alcoholic proof just means “twice the % by volume”.) But yes, this is often a point of contention in these discussions.

Exhibit A: the universe. I know Stephen Hawking and others argue that the universe “created itself”; I fail to be impressed. Nothing creates itself, so the fact that something does exist suggests there is a divine Creator. There may of course be other plausible explanations, but so far I haven’t heard one.

This is referred to as “the argument from ignorance”; before the 19th century no one had a plausible explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on Earth; before the 17th century no one had a plausible explanation for the origin of lightning. The middle ages were full of superstitious nonsense about disease because no one yet knew about microorganisms. Herodotus wrote of the Persian Wars, recounting Artabanus advising Xerxes:

Seest thou how God with his lightning smites always the bigger animals, and will not suffer them to wax insolent, while those of a lesser bulk chafe him not? How likewise his bolts fall ever on the highest houses and the tallest trees? So plainly does He love to bring down everything that exalts itself. Thus ofttimes a mighty host is discomfited by a few men, when God in his jealousy sends fear or storm from heaven, and they perish in a way unworthy of them.

This is because no one understood lightning, but they observed that lightning tended to strike their tall buildings and statues, so it seemed pretty reasonable to conclude that some vastly more powerful agent was punishing them for “exalting” themselves. The lesson is, just because we don’t yet know how something happened, that’s a very poor reason to postulate a supernatural agent. We used to do that for everything—volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, bad storms, floods, famine, plague, etc.—in every case we’ve learned of natural explanations: plate tectonics, weather, microscopic organisms, etc.. We’ve even managed to mitigate many of these things: lightning rods protect our buildings, we build earthquake resilient buildings, we use satellites and buoys to monitor tsunamis and weather, we developed vaccinations to stop infectious diseases (did you know that smallpox is estimated to have killed twice as many people in the 20th century alone as all of the 20th century wars combined? And smallpox was eradicated by 1978.) We’ve figured out fertilizers and pesticides and how to streamline agriculture in such a way that the developed world never worries about famines. (Crop subsidies actually help with this too.)

I don’t know how the universe came to be, no one does yet, and maybe no one ever will. That’s a very bad reason to postulate a supernatural agent, especially a supernatural agent that cares about humans, or interacts with humans—and it definitely isn’t a reason to think that such a supernatural agent has intervened on behalf of humans.

Exhibit B: morality. Most people agree that there is right and wrong, good and bad; atheists often base their accusations against religion on such ethical assumptions.

I do agree—I was a “moral relativist” for a while (not in the sense that I thought all views of morality were defensible, but just in the sense that I thought there was no objective basis for morality), but Sam Harris triggered some thinking in me that caused me to revise that opinion, and now I think there probably is such a thing as objective morality, though obviously I still don’t think it needs any kind of creator.

Where does this idea come from? If life is just a matter of surviving long enough to reproduce, there’s no room for either justice or mercy; if there is no absolute law-giver, what you consider “right” and “wrong” is just your personal preference which can’t be imposed on anyone else. There’s no reason evolution would bring about a conscience; so where did it come from, if it wasn’t implanted by an intrinsically moral Creator?

There’s a lot wrong here. Yes, in a very basic sense, life is “just a matter of surviving long enough to reproduce,” but that very basic basis leads to extremely complex phenomena. For example, if two (or more) organisms can cooperate to some degree they increase their odds of surviving and reproducing. Colony animals, like bees, ants, & termites, all benefit greatly from cooperating for a single goal, to the degree that most of them don’t reproduce, they dedicate their entire lives to aiding that a very small number (sometimes just a single queen) reproduces. Obviously this can be a very successful strategy. (Did you know that leaf cutter ants discovered agriculture millions of years before humans? They don’t eat the leaves, they cut them off and bring them underground where they use them to grow a fungus which they eat.) The same cooperation/sacrifice can be seen on the cellular level: for the first few billions of years of life on Earth, all life was single celled. The rise of multicellular organisms required a sacrifice: many of the cells won’t pass on their genes to the organisms’ offspring, only the germ cells (in sexually reproducing organisms) “gets” to pass along it’s genes, the rest are like the worker bees, they do their job to help the overall community of cells survive, but their lineage ends with the death of the organism whether it reproduced or not. This is also why “surviving long enough…” isn’t quite right: there’s also a benefit to living longer & helping take care of the offspring. You can see that some simpler animals don’t do this, fish, amphibians, mollusks, reptiles, most members of these groups don’t put any care at all into their young: turtles bury their eggs in the sand and leave. But as some organisms have developed increasingly complex brains (like the mammals, or the birds), the time for development has gotten longer, and so the parents put more and more energy into caring for the offspring. Birds feed their young after their born, mammals nurse them (their namesake). Humans obviously take this much much further, and we often don’t consider our offspring to be “adults” for almost 20 years (if that!). The survival advantage of having more complex brains is also obvious, it has enabled us to work in larger and larger groups (last November 120 million humans participated in making a single decision which affects the entire planet). It’s allowed us to accumulate information across generations, which allows us to figure out some very complex things (like quantum electrodynamics).

Combining the benefits of cooperation with very big brains is what leads to morality: it requires that certain rules be followed to establish sufficient trust & cooperation. When cooperation is a significant part of an organisms survival strategy, we call it social, because it relies on the group to survive. Humans are easily among the most social of organisms, mammals tend to be more social than reptiles or amphibians or fish, or birds (though I’m sure there are good exceptions in most of these cases, there certainly less social mammals, like bears I think tend to be loners). Insects (ants, termites, bees, & wasps) often develop highly social species but also non-social ones. There is a bumble bee (in Africa I think?) that the males very aggressively fight one another, most of the males are dead by the time the females emerge.

So there is a reason evolution brought about conscience, it was because humans (and or hominid ancestors) relied so heavily on our social groups.

There’s also a huge flaw in thinking that morality can be defined by a supernatural agent (or any agent for that matter), because, if tomorrow god showed up and declared that beating your children was morally right that wouldn’t make it true—but that is what must be true if we are to say that right & wrong are whatever god say they are. (You’re probably thinking “He wouldn’t do that,” but that’s you having a sense of morality—you and I, as mere mortals can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to be an omniscient, omnipotent supernatural agent, it would be the height of arrogance for us to claim to speak for Him.)

And the god of Abraham is a despicable character. He never denounces rape, or slavery, or genocide—he calls for genocide, repeatedly. Why’s it called Passover? Because god asked the Jews to put what, goats’ blood on their doors so god would know which homes to pass over while he slaughtered the children of their enemies. Oh, but that’s Old Testament! you’ll exclaim, but Jesus said he wasn’t here to overturn the old law, but to fulfill it. And hell didn’t exist before Jesus.

Exhibit C: the Bible. No, I’m not saying you should “just believe what the Bible says”! The Bible may or may not be reliable; but its existence is a fact, and it has to be taken seriously as part of the evidence – not just dismissed out of hand as “fairy-tales”.

For starters, nobody has ever staked their life on a fairy-tale being true. There are no followers of Cinderella in the world; Jesus, on the other hand, has millions of followers who claim that the story is worth dying for.

Secondly, fairy-tales are generally set in a land far away, once upon a time, with unidentifiable characters and places. Christianity is based on a particular person, clearly located in a particular country at a certain time in history, and whose existence can be objectively verified.

Okay, again, lots to unpack here. When we say “fairytale” we’re mockingly saying it’s fiction, not that it takes place “in a land far away” or begins with “once upon a time”. (Note too that fairy tales needn’t have these traits to be fairy tales.) And the fact that something like 1.2 billion people claim to be Christian is unpersuasive too—there are 1.2 billion people living in Communist China, that doesn’t mean communism is a good idea; McDonalds boasts having sold hundreds of billions of hamburgers, that doesn’t mean McDonalds hamburgers are good for you. (My favorite version is from a math professor in a comment thread years ago, “50,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong, or as my wife says, ‘yes they can’.”) It’s an argument from popularity, which is a bad argument. You’ll note there are also more than a billion Muslims, who, although they technically follow the same god as you (the god of Abraham), think you’re wrong about Jesus (though interestingly I heard the other day they do think Jesus will play a role in the end of the world). There are also about a billion Muslims who believe in a whole bunch of gods (okay, a lot I’m sure are moderate, just as you can find Muslims Christians & Jews that don’t take their faiths so seriously).

You also say Jesus’s existence can be “objectively verified,” but I have seen no such verification. As far as I am aware, the only mentions of Jesus are by Gospels, and as far as I can tell, every one of them recounts stories that violate the laws of physics—walking on water, turning water to wine, raising the dead, ascending to heaven. In my opinion, anyone who makes such claims has sacrificed all credibility. Assuming these people really did believe they had witnessed these things, it would be far more likely that Jesus was the David Blaine or David Copperfield of his day, than that the laws of physics were being suspended. Still, I think it’s simply more likely that things were made up, or perhaps exaggerated over time. The virgin birth, for example, it’s been claimed that in the original Hebrew, “virgin” also just meant “a young girl”, in which case the whole thing could be a mere mis-translation. But assuming it isn’t, the next most plausible explanation would be parthenogenesis: the phenomena by which an organism reproduces asexually. It’s not known to occur in humans, but until very recently it wasn’t known to occur in sharks or Komodo dragons either. Typically animals that reproduce that way just produce female clones, but in Komodo dragons it’s only able to produce male offspring. It’d be much more of a stretch for a human woman to give birth to a boy asexually, you’d have to postulate some kind of genetic anomaly, like chimerism, but it’s still far more plausible than “god did it” because it remains consistent with the known laws of physics. (Even if it would require unknown biology.) (Note, I don’t identify very strongly as a skeptic, I never have, but for my whole life I have identified as a scientist.)

And again, orthodox Jews think Moses was a real character, he almost certainly wasn’t. It’s likely that many ancient Greeks thought Zeus was a real character, and the rest of the Greek gods, they even thought they lived up Mt. Olympus, which is an actual place!

Here’s another big difference: in fairy-tales and legends talking animals, walking trees, magical objects and people with special “powers” are all seen as quite normal, par for the course, no explanation given or expected. By contrast, in the Bible you only find the supernatural breaking into regular human history at irregular intervals, and it’s always presented as God’s direct intervention, never as a natural phenomenon. Miracles are so called precisely because people knew such events were not normal; Joseph planned to divorce Mary, which shows that he (or at least the narrator of the Nativity) knew as well as we do that virgins don’t get pregnant!

Plus, the supernatural events in the Bible “make sense”: they aren’t just irrational violations of natural law, but happen for a reason. Unlike many legends and fairy-tales, the biblical universe is coherent, and clearly recognisable as the same universe that we live in.

Speak for yourself, plenty of us don’t think it makes any sense whatsoever. In my opinion, Calculus “makes sense” and Evolution “makes sense”. The idea that the creator of the universe messed around with a bunch of people in the desert a few millennia ago does not make sense.

The idea that a “perfect” supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent agent would make humans, leave them in a garden, let them be tempted by a snake (he made?), punish them for it (they don’t know right from wrong yet?), punish their progeny for it, for all time, and then have to send himself to be tortured and murdered in order to forgive them for his own rule? “Makes sense” is the very last thing I would say. Or Noah’s ark: the world was so evil he had to wipe out the entire planet? He needed a rib so he could make another person? Why didn’t he just make another person? No, if you think this stuff “makes sense,” ask yourself, if you hadn’t been taught that questioning it could send you to be tortured for eternity, would you have ever believed it? If someone came up to you on the street and said all this, would it make any sense whatsoever? Are you that confident that you haven’t been indoctrinated? (You can ask me this if you want, but I didn’t actually know anyone who shared by lack of belief until I was a young adult, so there wasn’t really a way for my thoughts to have come from indoctrination, since I had never met anyone else who had them.)

There are many books (e.g. by Lee Strobel and J Warner Wallace) that explore the general reliability of the New Testament, so I won’t argue that here. I’ll just point to one particular piece of biblical evidence: the episode where Peter denies Jesus before the crucifixion. This is actually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favour of the reliability of the gospels. Nobody in their right mind would make up a story about the first Christian leader denying Jesus! The only explanation for its inclusion is that it must have happened; but the only reason Peter would have told anyone is if he was forgiven afterwards so it didn’t matter – which implies he really did meet the risen Jesus …

Really? People make up all sorts of stories all the time. It is impossible to know why people make up the things they do. Have you ever learned about Scientology? Or Mormonism? Have you ever read bad science fiction? Or seen a badly made movie? “Why would anyone do that” is a very poor approach to establishing the validity of something (or the invalidity of it), because people do weird illogical stuff all the damn time.

Exhibit D: the church and its message. By the middle of the first century, there were Christian communities all over the Roman Empire. By the mid-60s there were enough of them in Rome for Nero to be aware of them and pick them as scapegoats. These early Christians were prepared to die for their faith, rather than deny Jesus. And remember that these Christians proclaimed a Messiah who had been crucified – a ridiculous concept, not one that was likely to attract new followers on its own merits.

Well at least we agree it’s a ridiculous concept, but the fact that people dedicated their lives to a ridiculous concept is very unpersuasive. I’m sure you’ve noticed there are plenty of Muslims who are willing to die for their faith. Hindus and even Buddhists—even atheists (the Tamil Tigers?) have, at least at times, been willing to die for their faith (or lack thereof). I don’t find it the least bit persuasive, regardless of who does it. I do think there are things worth dying for: combating great atrocities, for instance, but unsubstantiated religious beliefs are not one of them.

So what made thousands of people leave their inherited religion (whether Judaism or paganism) and claim allegiance to a Messiah who had been executed as a criminal? I don’t think there is any way to explain the explosive spread of Christianity without taking the power of God into consideration.

Well, Judaism didn’t spread like Christianity or Islam because it doesn’t call for proselytizing. Islam spread very quickly too, but that’s not convincing you, is it? Sometimes bad ideas spread quickly. Communism caught on pretty fast, that’s a poor argument for communism though, in my opinion. Fads come and go constantly in health, and fashion, but I’ve never been very fashionable, and my autistic-like focus on science has often caused me to forget to eat, so my health concerns have always been that I am underweight, so I’ve never related to the diet trends. I was also fortunate to have healthy, active parents, who I’m sure instilled reasonably healthy habits in me. But I digress, “…what made thousands of people leave their inherited religion…”, well, lots of stuff. Sometimes violent coercion. In fact, simply telling people that they will be tortured for eternity if they don’t believe is coercion under the threat of violence. If I believed I would be tortured for eternity for asking the wrong questions, or doubting, or loving the wrong person, I’d probably act the same way. But I lucked out again in that, although my parents raised me in a Christian sect, it was a rather obscure one that doesn’t teach the doctrine of hell. (So personally I never had to struggle with that; many atheists report overcoming the doctrine of hell was more difficult than physical and sexual abuse they experienced as children). So yes, there is a way to explain such “explosive spread,” and it’s better than “the power of god” since it explains other similar trends as well, unless you think god was behind Islam, bell bottoms and beehive hairdos too. (And communism!) And recall the Inquisitions, and all the people who were burned alive at the stake for heresy. Recall the Native Americans who were converted to Christianity as European guns decimated their populations, as smallpox tore across the continent. Many African Americans were captured in Africa and transported across the Atlantic against their will, sold into slavery to American Christians, and now their descendants are overwhelmingly Christian. Beyond the psychological threats of violence (i.e. hell), they were physically beaten, raped, chained, whipped—their children were taken and sold to other people, as property. It was the pinnacle of immortality. (Actually, there’s a long history of genocide, including many god-commanded genocides in the Old Testament, but the word genocide wasn’t coined until 1943/44! This all looks an awfully lot like morality was very poorly understood by all humans, including Christians, until quite recently.)

It’s also important to note that the early church didn’t proclaim a new set of ethics, but the resurrection of the crucified Messiah – because they were convinced he was alive again.

The second half of this sentence seems like a non-sequitur from the first half…

Everything points to the tomb actually being empty. If the Romans or the Jewish leaders had known where the body was, they would have brought it out and put an end to the whole thing as soon as it started. The disciples stood to gain nothing: the church was persecuted for the first two centuries of its existence, and there was neither money nor honour involved in preaching Jesus. Nobody willingly dies for something they know is a lie!

Maybe not, but that isn’t required. People can die for a lie that they believe, not knowing it’s a lie. In the Soviet Union the higher-ups who were using the system to enrich themselves referred to the poor people who believed in the system as “useful idiots”. People believe a lot of ridiculous stuff. If someone thinks they’ll be rewarded for all eternity and they truly believe it, they will be motivated to do anything. The ridiculous belief that some number (oft quoted as 72) “virgins” await Muslim martyrs has certainly motivated some Muslims to blow themselves up. The believe that abortion doctors are murdering “unborn babies” (i.e. fetuses) has motivated some Christians to murder abortion doctors, I think the last one was shot in the doorway of his church!

Note also that the four gospels give slightly different accounts of the resurrection morning, as always happens when different people give an account of the same event. This suggests the authors got their info from different sources who had not colluded with each other, but who independently of each other claimed to have seen the empty tomb and the risen Jesus.

Yes, I’m sure if we asked the people who think David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear we could find some variations in their accounts, that would not be evidence that their claims were true. There’s this great movie Millions, in which a young boy is visited repeatedly by various Saints, and one of them, Peter I think, explains the miracle of the loaves & fishes. He says that everyone had their own little stash of food, but knowing they each had so little they didn’t want to share, knowing they couldn’t feed everyone. So when the plate is passed around, they each sneak a little bit of their own food into their mouths, rather than take off the plate, so when the plate is returned, it’s still got food on it, and yet, everyone is fed! It’s a “miracle” of sorts, but not the physics-defying sort that most people imagine it to be. It’s a much more plausible explanation, though it’s still pretty easy to write the whole thing off as allegorical. Really it doesn’t matter to me either way, neither does the historicity of Jesus.

By the way, if there was no resurrection, why didn’t the disciples just disperse after the crucifixion? On all counts, an executed Messiah was a failure, and if the disciples didn’t actually meet the risen Jesus, there is no reason they would have hung around in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ enemies held sway. The obvious thing to do would be to go back home and forget all about Jesus; surely the foolishness (and danger!) of continuing to follow an executed Messiah would be worse than the embarrassment of going home and admitting they were wrong!

“Martyrdom” is very real. And he wasn’t the first, nor the last. And (assuming this is all real), if they believed, whether what they believed was true or not, of course they wouldn’t “admit they were wrong,” cause they wouldn’t think they were wrong. Just as someone who legitimately believes David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear isn’t going to admit he didn’t just because it’s still there, or because I tell them they’re an idiot. In fact research suggests that such an approach only strengthens their belief. There is something attractive about being a contrarian (to some people at least, and to varying degrees). People like being “in the know”, they like feeling like they’ve seen or understood something that others haven’t, they like being ahead of the curve, etc.. Any number of these things could also contribute to the aforementioned rapid spread as well.

Exhibit F: changed lives. Millions of people can testify to radically changed lives as well as more low-key encounters with Jesus. Such claims can rarely be tested scientifically, but they are still valid as evidence: the fact that all these people claim to have experienced something beyond the physical has to be explained, and to me, the most simple explanation is that there is something beyond what can be seen and heard.

No, they are not “rarely” tested scientifically, they are never scientifically tested. The fact that perception can influence outlook/behavior/etc. is not the least bit controversial (or it shouldn’t be). We know that placebos can have a powerful effect on people. And the reverse is also true. A phone call informing you that your family has been killed in a car accident would be devastating, and yet it’s merely information transmitted through a phone and the air. Some people struggle a lot with the fact that we will each die some day, and cease to exist (cause it really sucks), and it causes depression. Simply believing that isn’t the case (despite all evidence) could make a lot of people feel a lot better. This is but one of countless variations in which the mere believe (whether true or not) can have profound effects on a person’s life. Notice, believing you’ll be rewarded in heaven for all eternity if you burn down an abortion clinic, or fly a plane into a building, those are severely harmful consequences of these beliefs. There are people who spend their whole lives fighting their feelings of attraction because they fear they’ll be tortured for all eternity if they love the wrong person. That is a tragedy of tremendous proportions. Especially when you take into account the fact that there is no afterlife, and they are wasting the few decades we each get, living in misery.

Claims to have experienced something beyond the physical are better explained in terms of known malfunctioning of the brain, than unknown spiritual reality. We know of a whole variety of ways in which brains malfunction—chemical imbalances, stress, disease, injury, sleep deprivation, drugs, surgeries. We’re all aware that old people are more likely to suffer dementia or Alzheimer’s, we know schizophrenia can cause auditory hallucinations, if you’ve ever taken LSD or psilocybin or DMT you’ll known the brain can be pretty weirdly creative with a tiny chemical addition.

There we are: that’s probably the main evidence I would present to any sceptic. So just one final word:

Some atheists refer to God as a “sky fairy”, implying he’s just as real and just as believable as fairies at the bottom of the garden. But from the Christian perspective there is a big difference: fairies are optional: the garden can happily exist without them; God is the gardener, without whom there wouldn’t be a garden to begin with. Scientists can study the garden (and discover that there doesn’t seem to be any fairies in it); they can’t access the Gardener unless he chooses to reveal himself to them.

This I believe he has done throughout the history of humankind but supremely when he came to earth in Jesus. If you don’t at least investigate properly who he was and what he did, how can you claim to be objective and unbiased?

Do you just assume I haven’t “properly investigated” the matter simply because I disagree with you? I went to Sunday school till I was about 18, and many Wednesday night services, raised by devout Christian parents, are you judging me for my conclusion?