XFiles Friday: How do you know who to trust?

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)

Drs. Norm Geisler and Frank Turek have set out to prove that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian, but they’re operating under a heavy handicap. God does not show up in the real world, which means the only resource they have to turn to is to urge people to put their trust in what men say about God.

Chapter 10 was all about giving reasons (or excuses) to put your faith in men, on the grounds that they had proven themselves by dropping the names of real people, spelling city names correctly, and noticing that large stone jars were sometimes used to store water. Chapter 11 continues in the same vein, offering us a “Top Ten” list of reasons why we ought to trust what a handful of men had to say 2,000 years ago. We’ll be going through this list item by item, but I wanted to take a brief break here to talk about this approach as a whole.

As a preview, let’s look at their “Top Ten Reasons We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth.”

  1. The New Testament Writers Included Embarrassing Details About Themselves.
  2. The New Testament Writers Included Embarrassing Details and Difficult Sayings of Jesus.
  3. The New Testament Writers Left In Demanding Sayings of Jesus.
  4. The New Testament Writers Carefully Distinguished Jesus’ Words From Their Own.
  5. The New Testament Writers Include Events Related to the Resurrection That They Would Not Have Invented.
  6. The New Testament Writers Include More Than Thirty Historically Confirmed People In Their Writings.
  7. The New Testament Writers Include Divergent Details.
  8. The New Testament Writers Challenge Their Readers to Check Out Verifiable Facts, Even Facts About Miracles.
  9. New Testament Writers Describe Miracles Like Other Historical Events: With Simple, Unembellished Accounts.
  10. The New Testament Writers Abandoned Their Long-Held Sacred Beliefs and Practices, Adopted New Ones, and Did Not Deny Their Testimony Under Persecution or Threat of Death.

Some might suspect Geisler and Turek of padding their list just a bit: numbers 2 and 3 sound pretty similar, and we’ve seen numbers 5, 6, and 8 already, in Chapter 10. But before we get into the details, let’s look at the meta-argument, the claim that we ought to trust the New Testament writers enough to accept everything they say, no matter what, as the truth.

There are two broad categories of argument that Geisler and Turek refer to in Chapters 10 and 11: (a) we should trust the NT writers because we can confirm some of what they said, and (b) we should trust the NT writers because we have no reason to believe that they would lie (or so G&T assert). Are these valid criteria, though? Do Geisler and Turek really accept these principles as reliable and accurate tools for determining who to trust?

Well, that depends. Back in Chapter 3, they talked extensively about what scientists know about the real world. Scientists base their whole careers on verifiable observations and experiments. While Geisler and Turek bragged on how accurate Luke was for getting less than 100 facts correct, Luke’s score is miniscule compared to the number of facts a professional scientist needs to get right. You think you did well to spell Agrippa? Try 2(Fluoro-methylphosphoryl)oxypropane. (Or better yet, don’t—that’s Sarin!)

If reporting the existence of sudden storms on the Mediterranean means that Luke is now an unimpeachable witness, you’d think the much higher standards of quality control, peer review, and professionalism would make scientists even more trustworthy. What’s more, we have good reason to believe that they would not lie, since those few who do falsify their results are inevitably found out and their careers ruined. But Chapter 3 is all about trying to create doubts about scientific findings, on some very spurious and subjective grounds, as we saw. Though professional scientists have centuries more experience in living up to the standards that Geisler and Turek use to “prove” Luke’s reliability as a witness, Geisler and Turek reject scientific conclusions because they don’t lead to the “right” (i.e. Christian) answer.

Alternately, let’s consider how Geisler and Turek would evaluate the reliability of the historical witnesses to early Mormonism. Would they raise their eyebrows and nod their heads over how accurately Joseph Smith reported the denominations that were active in and around his hometown in the early 1800’s? Would they give him and his followers credit for recording the “difficult” sayings and “divergent reports” that are prominently featured in modern anti-Mormon witnessing resources? Would they agree that the Book of Mormon must be true, since it reports Biblical texts so accurately?

I’m guessing not. The reasons Geisler and Turek give for believing the NT writers are only “valid” when they make Christianity look superior to other alternatives. If those same reasons happen to lend equal or greater support to Christianity’s competitors, then we’re supposed to draw completely different, and even contradictory, conclusions.

That’s the difference between trying to discover the truth, and merely trying to argue that your beliefs are the truth. Geisler and Turek know where they want to end up, and simply adopt whatever arguments take them where they want to be. They’ll argue that we ought to judge the reliability of Luke’s testimony in terms of how well his claims coincide with what we can confirm in real life, but they don’t apply this to the whole of Luke’s testimony. Only trivial bits of inconsequential and mundane detail are examined.

We ought to adopt a consistent set of standards that we apply without bias or preconception. Let’s judge the reliability of men in terms of how well their testimony as a whole coincides with what we can confirm in the real world, and let’s apply that standard equally to both modern scientists and ancient writers. In fact, let’s apply it to apologists (and unapologists) as well.

Science is famous for supplying answers that are consistent with themselves and with real-world observation. You wouldn’t be reading this post on your networked computer if science and engineering didn’t have their factual act together. We ought to trust scientists to tell the truth, because they make their living at discovering and reporting the truth, and because they compete with other scientists who can advance their careers significantly by exposing hoaxes or overturning earlier scientific conclusions.

Luke, John, and other NT writers are not famous for telling us who the governor of Syria was in the early first century, they’re famous for telling stories about God. This was the account they devoted most of their attention to, and this is the account that is least like the divine behavior we see—or rather, do not see—in the real world. That ought to make us at least a bit wary.

But the bottom line is that the heart of Geisler and Turek’s apologetic is an appeal for us to put our trust in men. It doesn’t matter why, just like it doesn’t matter why we’re not supposed to trust other men (e.g. scientists) who have a much more well-documented record of verified truth-telling than the NT authors do. What matters is that we trust the men Geisler and Turek want us to trust. That’s the focus of their argument, and it’s what they have to focus on, because God does not show up in real life. Not even for apologists who want to prove that it takes more faith to doubt God than to believe in Him.

How could the evidence be any more consistent with the conclusion that the Gospel is a myth?

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 1 Comment »

One Response to “XFiles Friday: How do you know who to trust?”

  1. Zirrad Says:

    Do all apologists use the same arguments?

    Check out this discussion: