XFiles: History, Science and Slander

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)

Last week, Geisler and Turek were explaining how they avoid finding errors in the Bible: “[W]hen we run across something inexplicable, we assume that we, not the infinite God, are making an error.” Cool, eh? They realize that things aren’t adding up the way they should. But instead of acknowledging that the Bible is broken, they simply assume that the fault is the reader’s and therefore not the Scripture’s, QED.

Not surprisingly, this inspires them to try and lead us to the following conclusion:

Unlike most other religious worldviews, Christianity is built on historical events and can therefore be either proven or falsified by historical investigation… If after 2,000 years of looking, no one can find the remains of Jesus or real errors in the Bible, isn’t it quite possible that neither exist?

Most people who died 2,000 years ago have indeed ceased to exist, without necessarily being resurrected gods incarnate. Neither are real errors absent from the Bible—all that’s missing is an honest acknowledgment of their existence (on the part of certain believers, anyway). Yes, 2,000 years of denial is arguably impressive, in a morbid sort of way, but it’s hardly a historical proof of Christianity.

So the historical argument falls a little flat, but Geisler and Turek have two more arguments that they’re going to use to try and prove their point: an appeal to science, and an appeal to slander.

[A]fter many years of continual and careful study of the Bible, we can only conclude that those who have “discovered a mistake” in the Bible do not know too much about the Bible—they know too little. This doesn’t mean that we understand how to resolve all the difficulties in the Scriptures, but it means we keep doing research. We really are no different than scientists who can’t resolve all the difficulties or mysteries of the natural world. They don’t deny the integrity of the natural world just because they can’t explain something. Like a scientist of the natural world, a scientist of theology keeps looking for answers.

Ooo, give those men a white lab coat. Theologians are scientists.

Notice what they’re saying, though. After proudly declaring that 2,000 years of searching have failed to discover any “real errors” in the Bible, they’re back-handedly admitting that there are indeed difficulties that even the most earnest and pious Christian rationalizations cannot resolve. Who is to say that some of these known problems are not, after all, “real errors”?

Geisler and Turek can’t hand-wave them away, so they try and distract us with a different rationalization, by saying that “mysteries” in the Bible are like scientific mysteries in the real world. We don’t know all there is to know about the real world, so we shouldn’t expect to know all there is to know about the Bible either. When theologians keep on believing despite known problems in the Bible, they’re just acting the same way a scientist would. Right?

There are many obvious flaws with this argument, starting with the fact that competent scientists know better than to simply assume that all contrary observations are in error. If you find that the actual data does not match the conditions that would result from your hypothesis being true, you don’t merely discard the observation, you modify your hypothesis, or abandon it entirely. To arbitrarily dismiss contrary evidence is to betray a serious lack of scientific objectivity and integrity.

Likewise, competent scientists would not declare that there was a complete absence of contrary data when they knew there were observations that could not currently be explained in terms of the original hypothesis, and which could falsify it. Geisler and Turek deny the existence of “real errors” despite knowing about the currently irresolvable “difficulties.” The most an honest scientist could claim is “we do not know that the Bible is inerrant, since there are still unresolved obstacles preventing us from reaching that conclusion.”

Unlike other scientists, theologians don’t deal with real-world observations that can be repeated, re-measured and re-validated by objective third-party observers. The difficulties faced by real-world scientists stem from the fact that reality is a complicated place.  Theology, by contrast, is difficult because the data consists of the things written by men who died millennia ago, and whose culture, language, and thoughts are anywhere from relatively inaccessible to completely impenetrable.

In other words, theology is a “science” that studies what goes on (or went on) in the minds of men who are no longer available. God does not show up in real life, so theological “scientists” can’t do their work the way other scientists do. The process of theology is more akin to that of the fiction writer than the biologist: you take the story as it has been told thus far, and try to think up a plausible scenario that takes it where you want it to go, and thus the “discovery” is made.

This leads to a pattern of development that I discussed in my post about Mt. Sinai and the burning bush. Studying something that exists in reality results in a converging understanding of the topic, as all scientists converge on the same real-world target they’re searching for. Studying something imaginary results in a divergent understanding of the topic, as each pioneer contributes some new and different perspective not necessarily compatible with other branches on the same bush. If we look at the history of scientific thought, and the history of theological thought, it’s quite clear which pattern shows up in which science (or “science”).

We could go on, but I want to save time for the last argument in Chapter 14: the slander.

Finally, it’s the critics who actually maintain an unfalsifiable position. What would convince them that their view is wrong?… Maybe they ought to consider the evidence we’ve presented in this book. Unfortunately, many critics will not do this. They will not allow facts to interfere with their desire to maintain control over their own lives. After all, if a critic were to admit that the Bible is true, he’d have to admit that he no longer calls all the shots. There would be an Authority in the universe greater than himself, and that Authority might not approve of the life the critic wants to lead.

In other words, if you notice that Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Tyre utterly so that it would never be rebuilt, and that centuries later, Tyre was still a thriving seaport visited by Paul, it only seems like a contradiction because you enjoy raping small furry animals. That’s the critics’ dirty little secret, you see. They’re all just a bunch of cartoon bad guys who want to do bad things just because, well, they’re cartoon bad guys and that’s the way bad guys behave. No, seriously, they do. It’s in all the cartoons.

It’s kind of fitting, in a way, that Geisler and Turek chose to end Chapter 14 with the theologian’s equivalent of a sniveling “I know you are but what am I?” Or as Jesus put it, “I thank Thee, God, that I am not like other men…”

It’s especially ironic that they would end Chapter 14 on such a low note, because this is really the last argument in the main body of their book. Chapter 15 is basically the “altar call” portion of the sermon, an emotional appeal rather than an intellectual one. And this last half-hearted attempt at intellectual argument is not only morally bankrupt, it’s intellectually moribund as well.

Take the accusation that the critics are maintaining an unfalsifiable position. “Unfalsifiable” means you’ve phrased your position in such a way as to preclude the possibility, under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances, that your conclusion could be admitted to be wrong. For example, if you say “any ‘difficulty’ in the Bible is, by definition, an error on the part of the reader rather than an error on the part of the Bible,” then you’ve created an unfalsifiable defense of the proposition that the Bible contains no errors. No matter what errors we find in the Bible, the apologist automatically classifies it as an error that is not in the Bible, so his claim of inerrancy can never be falsified, by definition.

That’s something very different from the problem we face when we can’t prove that something is false because the fact is that it is actually true, or vice versa. It’s not that there is no reasonably conceivable set of circumstances that would convince the critic that the Resurrection was true, and in fact it’s pretty easy to determine what evidence would constitute reasonable grounds for believing.

Just to cite one obvious example, let’s suppose that Jesus died, and rose from the dead, and appeared in Jerusalem, in a living, physical, glorified resurrection body, teaching both believer and unbeliever alike and was still there. Is there anyone out there who enjoys puppy-raping so much that they would still deny the Resurrection with a 2,000-year-old Jesus still living and teaching and revealing God’s will to us in the same city where he originally rose? Would denial of the facts even be a rational strategy for preserving one’s individual liberty?

The problem isn’t that we can’t describe the sort of evidence we ought to be seeing if the Bible were true. The problem is that the question “What would it take to convince you that the Bible is true?” turns out to be a lot like the question “What would it take to convince you that there’s a fully-grown, hungry, carnivorous T-rex standing 50 centimeters behind you?” In each case, if the claim were true, the most fundamental and obvious consequences would be rather unmistakable. That you even need to ask the question is sufficient to show that the claim itself is false.

And by the way, Geisler and Turek’s baseless slander notwithstanding, Bible critics don’t really have a problem submitting to genuine, legitimate authority. We submit to higher authorities all the time. We obey our governments, our police, our teachers, our coaches, and others. We pay our taxes just like everyone else, and have a moral history that’s typically as good as that of our Bible-believing fellows, or better. And of course, the laws of Nature are a kind of higher authority, and we submit to those as gladly as any believer. And again, sometimes more so.

Our only problem is with men who claim an authority based on uncritically taking their word for it that some invisible and all-powerful Person wants us to do what they say. It’s not that we don’t have faith, it’s just that we make a distinction between faith and gullibility. Pardon us if we examine your evidence, and then decline to start writing you checks. If you want real belief, provide real evidence.

So, then, from a real-world perspective, Geisler and Turek have absolutely no grounds for their self-righteous innuendo. It comes, sad to say, from a long history of Christians smearing their critics and spreading unsavory rumors about unbelievers. Nor is this merely an unfortunate manifestation of perverse human nature—Christians are required to believe in the fundamental evil of all non-believers. If unbelievers could be moral and upright without a supernatural Savior and a Holy Spirit, what would be the advantage of being a Christian?

And there you have it. After 14 chapters and 374 pages, Geisler and Turek’s intellectual argument comes to an end not with a bang, but a whimper. We’ll still go through the “altar call” in chapter 15, and maybe even an appendix or two (Appendix I is “The Problem of Evil”!). But from here, we can safely conclude that Geisler and Turek have failed, and failed miserably, to establish their claim that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. They gave it a good shot and tried their best, but in the absence of a God Who actually shows up in the real world, it was just too hard. If you have to try and argue God into existence, it’s already a lost cause.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles: History, Science and Slander”

  1. John Morales Says:

    I note there’s no such thing as the Bible.

  2. Swimmy Says:

    It’s an infuriating slander at that–not infuriating because I get worked up by petty Christians who can’t do any better, but because so many people find it convincing when there is not the slightest bit of deep moral thinking behind it. Even if, as in your scenario, the resurrected Jesus were still walking the earth today, preaching and teaching, I would readily admit his existence. But that would have nothing to do with whether or not I chose to follow his advice.

    The existence of an authority alone cannot provide objective morality. You may have any number of reasons for following an authority (it’s powerful! it’s wise! it created us!), but unless that reason is itself a moral rule (it’s moral to follow that which is powerful! it’s moral to follow that which is wise! it’s moral to follow your creator!), you can’t call the action “moral.” Even if you claim one of these rules, it must come from some source other than the authority, or you subject yourself to an unforgivably bad circular argument: “I obey god because it said I should obey it.” But why obey that!?

    Take responsibility, Geisler and Turek! Instead of weakly insulting non-believers, take a stand and justify your morality, the hard way, the way the non-religious have always had to do: through hard thinking about the implications of a variety of subjective but intuitive options. Stop pretending that god does the heavy lifting. Do you think we should obey god because otherwise we’ll get sent to hell? Then you must believe we have a moral rule to avoid that which is painful–or at least that which provides infinite negative utility. Do you think we should obey god because he’s really smart? Defend that we have a moral obligation to obey smart people/creatures/authorities. Do you think we should obey god because he made us? Explain in detail why we must obey those who are our creators. Be sure to include hard moral circumstances, where your creator has no will (like evolution), or where your parents are Nazis.

    If you can’t do any of that, please–Please!–drop this silly argument. It’s spread so far and wide now I don’t think many Christians believe there could even be a criticism of it. I even heard a student ask a professor where he gets his moral intuition from, if he’s not a Christian. . . at a health care debate!

    (To defuse stereotypes, it appeared that the student was a socialist, the professor a free-marketer.)

  3. Arthur Says:

    I’ve been chatting about morality with folks over at Stand to Reason: if Christianity is a solid, unchanging moral bedrock, then why does it so convincingly resemble a family tree?

    The answer so far appears to be: because human beings are fallible, and by the way if you don’t believe in God, then you’re a moral relativist.

    I haven’t gotten around to asking why a Calvinist should care about morality at all, if what you do in this life doesn’t affect where you’ll go in the next.