XFiles Friday: Communal delusion

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

According to what Geisler and Turek would have us believe, there are only 4 possibilities if the Resurrection is not true:

  1. It’s a legend (like Zeus and Thor and so on).
  2. It’s a deliberate lie.
  3. It’s an embellishment (meaning an obviously and ludicrously extravagant embellishment).
  4. It’s a mistake.

In each case, the possibilities are tightly constrained so as to make it harder for the Gospel accounts to match them. When Geisler and Turek refer to legends, for instance, they’re only speaking of certain types of legend, with certain specific characteristics that aren’t going to fit. Other types of legends, such as urban legends, are not discussed at all. They’re a little too close to the Gospel history, and the apologetic goal here is to set up some easily-knocked-down straw men so that Geisler and Turek can claim to have eliminated all the alternatives, leaving the skeptic with no way out.

In this part of Chapter 12, Geisler and Turek begin considering the last of these possibilities, hoping that once they’ve dealt with this one, they’re done.

[W]e know beyond a reasonable doubt that the New Testament writers accurately recorded what they saw. Does this mean that all of the events of the New Testament are true? Not necessarily. The skeptic still has one last out.

The last possible out for the skeptic is that the New Testament writers were deceived. In other words, perhaps the New Testament writers simply were wrong about what they thought they saw.

I’m a skeptic, and I’m not looking for any particular “out.” I’m shaking my head over why Geisler and Turek would suppose that such contrived straw men would suffice to eliminate all the other possibilities besides the one they want. But then again, they’re not really writing for skeptics, they’re writing to assuage the doubts of believers (!) and to reassure them that they’re doing the right thing by trusting what men tell them about Jesus.

Geisler and Turek are partly right, however, in pointing out that the New Testament writers could have been deceived. After all, we’re not dealing with an actual resurrection here (i.e. there’s no living, physical, resurrected Jesus still living in Jerusalem to confound all those who doubt that he really rose from the dead). The phenomenon we’re actually confronting is the fact that we have a number of men claiming that Jesus “rose” in some sense that was true to them at the time. Does this match the actual, material, historical condition of Jesus’ body on Day 3 and following after the crucifixion? It is possible that it does not, and that the disciples were merely wrong in what they believed.

Geisler and Turek explore a number of ways in which it might be possible for the disciples to be mistaken about the resurrection. They claim to be “skeptical,” though what they really mean is that they’re unwilling to accept any of them. The coming sections of Chapter 12 are about the more commonly encountered possibilities, i.e. that

  • the resurrection was a hallucination
  • the witnesses went to the wrong tomb
  • Jesus passed out (“swooned”) but didn’t really die
  • the disciples stole the body
  • someone else died in Jesus’ place on the cross
  • the disciples belief sprang from their faith alone, and/or
  • the disciples copied pagan resurrection stories

We’ll review each of these in turn (in coming weeks), but before we do, I’d like to go over some of the things which I believe could have led to the disciples’ belief—things that are readily observable and verifiable even in believers today, and/or which are consistent with the facts as we have them, without requiring the extra complications of appealing to a God Who loves us enough to die for us but not enough to show up and spend time with us in person.

Let’s start by noticing the divide-and-conquer strategy Geisler and Turek use to try to knock down their straw men one at a time, each in isolation from the others. In G&T’s rendition of the alternatives, the possibilities are mutually exclusive: either it was a legend OR it was a lie OR it was an embellishment OR it was a mistake. (Or it was true, of course.) This framing of the question works well if your goal is to artificially eliminate factors that might prove relevant to the opposition. Those of us who are more interested in the real-world truth, however, would do well to remember than in real life we often find many disparate factors working together to produce a result that is not intuitively obvious if you only look at each factor in isolation.

In the case of the so-called resurrection, we have a lot of significant and powerful forces at work that individually would tend to push the believer in the direction of a resurrection belief (or some other non-factual rationalization). The religious context itself already lends the believer a powerful force for dissolving the barriers between faith and fact, via the expedient of “spiritual truth.” For example, Jesus does not literally show up “wherever two or more are gathered” in his name, yet believers hold that he is nonetheless present, in a spiritual sense. “Spiritual insight” is supposed to allow the believer to see “beyond” mere facts to a deeper and more significant “truth,” and thus paves the way for a concept of truth that is not strictly bound to literal, material facts. This is an important ingredient.

Next, we have the psychological forces of denial and rationalization. If you’ve convinced yourself that someone is God’s chosen Messiah, sent and empowered by the Almighty to bless you and deliver you from evil, and then your Messiah suddenly suffers a humiliating and fatal defeat, you’re going to have a short list of choices: you can admit that you fell for a false Messiah (and thus you are a fool), you can decide that the forces of evil managed to defeat God (and thus you have no hope), or you can find some way to reinterpret these catastrophic events in a way that invests them with new, positive (and spiritually-perceived) significance. You can deny, in other words, that the bad thing was really as bad as it seems, provided you can find some way to rationalize the actual events with the belief that this was all a good thing, somehow.

Needless to say, this task becomes easier if you are operating in a religious context: the flexibility of “spiritual truth” gives you a lot more leeway in coming up with your rationalizations, so there’s a synergy there that goes beyond what mere faith alone, or mere denial alone, could accomplish. But there are many more factors that can also contribute. As we saw earlier, recent studies have found a strong psychological tendency to continue to “see” recently deceased loved ones for weeks and even months after their deaths. In normal contexts, people realize that these are tricks of the mind, and ignore them, but in a religious context, with Messianic expectations and a familiarity with pagan resurrection stories, a gullible and superstitious believer might just think they were experiencing a genuine supernatural visitation.

Of course, if you have had a miraculous vision, you are suddenly a very important person. This means that there is a strong psychological and social reward waiting for you if you can convince yourself and others that a genuine miracle has really happened to you. It brings you an enhanced social standing in the community of your fellow believers, which you lose if someone debunks your claim. This, of course, is a powerful incentive, to the point that psychologists sometimes treat patients with self-inflicted stigmata. And if they deny that their wounds are self-inflicted, it might not be actual lying, because they sometimes convince themselves!

It needn’t go to that extreme, of course. You can earn improved social standing in the community of believers by contributing something less than a “miracle.” Perhaps you just polish up a rough spot in the community narrative, or think up an explanation for problems that are troubling other believers. Even if you merely lend your support to those who are leading the way in “right thinking, right believing and right living,” your contribution can pay off for you socially—and conversely, you can suffer a painful loss of status if you fail to go along with the crowd, if you bring up unpleasant facts, or tend to raise problematic questions.

These psychosocial forces exert pressure on the direction the community interpretation of events is going to take. The social environment, and the continuous negotiation of relative “spiritual” status, tends to reward those who “improve” their rendition of the story, and who deploy double standards that favor the things the community approves of. Hearsay can flourish, because the fact-checking is much more lenient when the story reinforces the preferred beliefs of the community, allowing for the development and enhancement of urban-legend style myths.

These are all factors that we see all the time, especially among believers. Rationalizations, denial, fuzzy and flexible standards of truth, are readily verifiable in a wide range of individuals. Given that such things are so common, and given that resurrected Saviors are so rare (as in ABSENT!), does it not make sense to suppose that the resurrection story is more likely to have come from the former than from the latter?

Suppose, for instance, that some group of lesser-known disciples (i.e. not the apostles) had objections to Jesus’ body resting in the tomb of a rich man, and moved it, during the sabbath, to a more suitable location. Suppose that Mary and the other women didn’t know this, and were surprised to find the tomb empty. Perhaps they might even have met one of the “body snatchers” and been told that Jesus had gone back to heaven (or simply “rose”), meaning that his spirit went to heaven and thus his material body was no longer important. Such a story could easily have been garbled, at the time or in later revisions, and reinterpreted as an “angel” informing them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even the apostles, on finding the empty tomb, might have experienced a powerful psychological moment that would get their reinterpretive subconscious working on resolving the problem of their crucified and buried Messiah.

I’m not claiming that this is necessarily what happened 2,000 years ago. I’m just demonstrating that, if you take ordinary, well-known human characteristics, working together in the known historical context of the crucifixion, it’s really not all that hard to propose a scenario that is much more consistent with the facts we have today than is any speculative and credulous story about a deity who literally died to ensure that he and we need never be parted again—and then immediately departed and hasn’t been seen since.

It’s everyday experience. We see people fudge the truth, stretch the truth, pass on hearsay uncritically, fool themselves, bend their minds into impossible shapes in order to cling to what they wish were true instead of what they actually find in the real world. What’s more, they enthusiastically encourage one another to not only practice such things, but to spread them to others also, especially when it concerns religion, superstition, and one’s “special” relationship with God. And they do it without consciously lying, in a lot of cases. All it takes for the resurrection to be a myth is for people 2,000 years ago to be just like the believers we see today. And it doesn’t even need to be all ancient people. Just a proportional fraction, like we have today.

Such an origin for the resurrection story would explain quite a lot, like why Jesus had to leave town in such a hurry, and why there are conflicting resurrection stories, and why Paul was the only one who “saw” Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s consistent with God’s peculiar lack of concern over the spread of heresy in the Church, and the increasing doubts and skepticism in the world. It’s even consistent with the history of the Church, which reflects the confused, political, and often downright evil efforts of men to force the truth to be whatever they thought it should be, at whatever cost to those whose opinions and lifestyles differed.

The traditional gospel account does not explain such things, and indeed does not so much work to explain anything as it leaves us with things that need explaining. It is consistent with a community delusion, a complex interaction of multiple psychosocial factors working together to shape people’s beliefs in ways that owe more to subjective perception and social status than to objective facts. Geisler and Turek do their best to try and sell us their version of the story, but their straw men only stand in the way of discovering the real, complex, and fascinating truth about Christianity’s origins.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Communal delusion”

  1. jim Says:

    “The traditional gospel account does not explain such things, and indeed does not so much work to explain anything as it leaves us with things that need explaining. It is consistent with a community delusion, a complex interaction of multiple psychosocial factors working together to shape people’s beliefs in ways that owe more to subjective perception and social status than to objective facts.”

    You’ve said a mouthful here….great summing up. I think one reason it’s so easy for the authors to get away with this ‘either this or this or this…or TRUTH!’, is because most people want easy answers, preferably explainable along one line of reasoning. But the human dynamic was as multifaceted then as it is now. There were many forces at play -pulling here, pushing there- shaping what eventually became ‘Christianity’. The truly interesting story here is the psychological one… both from the personal standpoint, as well as the vastly complex communal one.

    However, understanding all this takes time, and effort, and an investment of intellectual open-mindedness; all of which are, frankly, more trouble than it’s worth for most people. Generally speaking, emotions win out with folks, and how can you compete with “I’m not perfect…just forgiven” seeing how it fits so nicely on a bumper sticker?

  2. InTheImageOfDNA Says:

    Great post Deacon and great comment Jim.

    It sums up a debate I had awhile ago with my aforementioned Christian apologist. He was fond of the “fact” that some other apologist came up with (maybe Geisler and Turek, I’m not sure) that legends take centuries to develope. When I brought up Big Foot and that it had developed within years, he couldn’t offer a rebuttal. (Deacon – your mention of urban legends is the same point.)

  3. Mnosey Says:

    “[W]e know beyond a reasonable doubt that the New Testament writers accurately recorded what they saw”

    I would suggest for anyone considering buying into this notion to read “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman.