Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Saturday, September 09, 2006

atheist apologetics

In the comments to my last post, Albert left a link to a 1932 essay by William Floyd, titled Mistakes of Jesus. Even though I've previously stated that I'm not even convinced by Christian apologetics, Albert apparently thinks I can be swayed by atheist apologetics. But if Floyd's essay is representative -- and from what I've seen previously, it appears to be -- the atheists aren't producing convincing apologists.

Rather than attempt a point-by-point assessment of the essay, I want to look only at its underlying assumptions. Some of these are stated explicitly, and some can be inferred from the statements made in the essay. The strength -- or in this case, weakness -- of an essay lies in the assumptions it makes.

First, in the section "Scriptures Unauthentic" Floyd discusses the differences between Genesis and scientific understanding of creation, then concludes:

It follows that if one important portion of the Bible is untrustworthy, other parts of that same book may not be the infallible Word of God.

This one sentence is so riddled with errors, it's hard to know where to begin.

First, Floyd uses the same reasoning used by some inerrantists to argue for the literal truth of Genesis 1. It's no surprise than an atheist apologist would want to take the Bible literally: That makes it easier to dismiss.

Second, Floyd follows the fundamentalist error of calling the Bible the "Word of God", when the Bible itself applies that term to Christ.

Third, the trustworthiness of one part of the Bible is not relevant to that of any other part, any more than an error in any anthology should cast doubt on the rest of the anthology. The Bible was written by more than 40 authors, in three languages, over the course of hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years. It's not a single book in which one piece is representative of the whole.

Fourth, Floyd doesn't seem to recognize that the Bible was not written as a science textbook. One element of understanding the Bible is understanding the genre of the passage in question. If Genesis does not easily mesh with modern scientific theory, perhaps it is because Genesis was written for some other purpose.

In the "Documentary Evidence" section, Floyd begins:

The documents most generally accepted by Christians are those collected in the King James Version of the Bible.

The phrase "accepted by Christians" leads me to believe Floyd is talking about just the New Testament, not the Jewish Bible which is accepted by both Christians and Jews. And since the essay focuses on Jesus, the New Testament documents are the relevant ones anyway.

In the general sense Floyd's claim is true. The 27 books of the New Testament, which are accepted by all Christians as scripture, can be found in the King James Bible. In a more technical sense, it's not true: Even in 1932, it was recognized that the King James Bible was not translated from the most ancient and most reliable manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts had been rediscovered since 1800 -- and continue to be discovered -- and have helped us get a better idea of the original text of the New Testament. Still, our earliest known manuscript fragments date from the 2nd century, and the oldest (nearly) complete New Testament is a 4th century copy. But these are still more accurate texts than the source for the King James Bible.

The American Standard Bible was one of the first English translations to use the newly discovered manuscripts, and was published in 1901.

Yet even today, many atheist apologists like to use the King James translation to compile their "lists of errors".

Floyd continues:

Scholars have rejected the entire gospel of John as less reliable than the synoptic gospels; and the sixteenth chapter of Mark as an addition after the original papyrus had broken off.

Floyd makes two different types of claims in this sentence. He makes a value judgment on the reliability of the gospel of John, and a factual claim about the gospel of Mark. It's important to note the difference between these two types of claims, because they are not equivalent.

It's a fact: What had commonly been accepted for centuries as the ending of the gospel of Mark, verses 9-20 of chapter 16, are now understood to be a later addition. The reason is because those early manuscripts rediscovered within the past 200 years don't include these 12 verses. Regardless of one's beliefs or perspective, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if early manuscripts end at 16:8, and later manuscripts end at 16:20, verses 9-20 are a later addition. Furthermore, it's easy to see a motive for the addition. Mark 16:8, speaking of Mary Magdalene and the other women at Jesus's tomb, states, "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." A gospel that ends with no one being told, sounds incomplete. A later scribe may have added them, trying to tie up loose ends; we can't know for sure. But it seems, based on the available evidence, a safe bet that the gospel originally ended at 16:8.

Floyd's other claim, on the reliability of John, is not a factual statement. It is a value judgment. It may be a valid judgment to say that the fourth gospel is more "spiritual" and less "historical" than the other gospels. (On the other hand, John's gospel also contains some verified historical elements that are not found in the other gospels.) Still, to deem history "reliable" and spirituality "unreliable" is to make a much stronger value judgment. On what basis is it warranted? Floyd just assumes.

Floyd ends this section with the remarkable conclusion:

[The critic] is justified, moreover, in considering every word in the supposedly inspired gospels as equally reliable.

Again, this echoes the inerrantist assertion that "every single word" is divinely inspired. But since we've already seen that some words don't appear in the earliest manuscripts, we face the possibility that others have been added here and there, as well. Furthermore, if we look closely at the gospels, we can see that sometimes two writers describe the same event using different language. That's an indication that they have different purposes in mind. Finally, it's important to understand the gospels' purposes even to make sense of passages that appear in only one gospel. If we want to use the gospels as a reliable guide, we must understand what sort of response they are asking of us. Floyd gives no indication that he has considered this.

Next, in the obviously unbiased section, "Christianity Must Go," Floyd tries a rhetorical trick:

The significance of this investigation lies in the changes that would have to be made in religious thought if it should be found that Jesus was not perfect. If Jesus was in error concerning conditions of his own time and exhibited no knowledge of our modern problems, his authority will be lessened. Searchers after the true way of life will not continue to worship a person whose conception of the physical and spiritual world was erroneous. If Jesus made mistakes, he is neither the Son of God nor an infallible man.

Notice how Floyd squeezes in the words "and spiritual" toward the end of a paragraph that otherwise is focused on Jesus's knowledge about the physical world. But in fact, classical Christian theology states that Jesus was human in every way we are -- which would include having a limited knowledge of the physical world -- but without sin. If Jesus didn't know that there exist seeds smaller than the mustard seed, for example, that doesn't lessen his authority about spiritual matters. He might not be the final authority on agriculture, but then he never claimed to be.

Floyd then turns to the gospels themselves, and looks at Jesus's own claims about himself. In the section tited "Virgin Birth," Floyd concludes:

The dilemma is that Jesus must be condemned either for claiming identity with Jehovah (to whom he was really superior), or for accepting with only slight improvements the tyranny of God as described in the Bible, the Word of God. Of course if the Bible is not the Word of God, the whole system of Christian theology falls to the ground.

My head hurts trying to untangle the twisted logic of that paragraph. I do see, again, that Floyd takes up the fundamentalist claim that the Bible, and not Christ, is the Word of God. That simply does not accord with Christian theology.

In the next section, "The Jewish Messiah," Floyd claims:

In this as in other instances to be cited, Fundamentalists will not admit any mistake, for they believe in the supernatural events connected with the Son of God. But Modernists, who reject the anointed Christ while clinging to the human Jesus, may be at a loss to reconcile Jesus' claim to Messiahship with their rejection of his divinity.

This may indeed be a dilemma for modernists, but what does it really tell us about Jesus himself? And what does it mean for all the Christians who don't fit into either the "modernist" or the "fundamentalist" box? Floyd gives no indication that he has attempted to understand what Christians mean when we call Jesus the Son of God.

Floyd is fond of "either-or" statements that exclude all but the most extreme possibilities. In these he reveals one of his assumptions about the way the world works. He shares with fundamentalists the notion that if he can discredit the opposing theory, his will be proven correct. Here's another example:

According to the creeds based upon the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead, descended into hell, and ascended bodily into heaven. According to the gospels he stilled the storm, walked on the water and told Peter to do so and to find money in a fish's mouth and catch a large draught of fishes. These and other miracles connected Jesus with God and were part of his theology.

Every fair-minded person should re-read the gospels and refresh his memory regarding the theology of Jesus. Then a decision must be reached as to the correctness of the views expressed. Either conditions on earth were different in the first century from those of the twentieth, or Jesus was mistaken in his conception of God, heaven, hell, angels, devils and himself.

Conditions on earth were different in the first century than they are today, in many ways. Likewise, the mental framework under which first century minds operated was different from that of modern (and postmodern) people. To fully understand what the gospels meant in a particular passage, we need to understand the age in which they were written. But even if we cannot fully get into the heads of ancient writers, we may at least grasp their general meaning.

To take one example from Floyd's list, Jesus stilling the storm. Is this a poetic way of saying Jesus has a power that is greater than raw nature? Or is it a literal description of an event when Jesus changed the weather patterns? In either case, the message is the same. And if we apply it personally, the message is that Jesus can change our nature, too. If we read it as a Weather Channel report, we've missed the point.

Floyd misses the point, too, in the section titled "Labor."

The parable of the laborers [Matt. xx, 1-16.] relates that an employer hired men to work in his vineyard for twelve hours for a penny, and that he paid the same wage to other workers who toiled only nine, six, three and one hour. When those who had worked longest resented this treatment, as modern strikers would, the employer answered, apparently with Jesus' approval: "Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last."

This parable may be a comfort to autocratic employers, sustaining them in their determination to dominate labor, but the principles enunciated are lacking in social vision. Equal pay for unequal work is approved, and the employer is vindicated in regulating wages and hours as he sees fit without regard for Justice or the needs of the workers.

In the parable, the first group of workers agreed to a fair wage. The later workers actually got more than what was fair. Those who worked longer would naturally perceive this as unfair. But the point is that in the Kingdom of God, the rules are different. Everyone gets their needs met, even if they might not have done anything to deserve it. I cannot fathom how Floyd managed to so completely miss the point.

In the section titled "Religion Only For Children," Floyd almost gets it.

Nor are these sayings clear: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." [Matt. xi, 25.] "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." [Mark x, 15.]

This train of thought implies that education is of no importance where belief is concerned.

Floyd makes no further comment on this subject, so it is hard to tell just what his objection is. He's correct, of course, that education is of no importance where belief is concerned. That's not to say that a believer can't or shouldn't get an education. Education might benefit us in many ways, but a high school dropout -- or a child -- can be just as faithful as a Ph.D.

William Floyd set out to judge Jesus by post-Enlightenment standards, and found that he didn't fit the proper mold. Jesus didn't fit the mold in his own time, either, and he was killed for it. What Floyd and others have found objectionable is the same thing that Pilate and Caiaphus objected to in the first century: Jesus demands that we take him on his terms, not ours. Regardless of the preconceptions we bring, Jesus expects us to leave them behind. For many people, that's not an easy thing to do.



At 9/09/2006 10:31 PM, Anonymous Larry B said...

While it's not clear to me whether albert is advocating atheism or not, These posts have been fascinating and I would like to chime in a bit.

There are two statements that albert makes that for me that indicate that he hasn't understood his own worldview.

Sticking to the atheist theme here - the general arguments against christians from atheists seem to follow this line of reasoning:

1. God does not exist
2. But some people believe in God
3. Since there is no God, this is delusional behavior or wish fulfillment. (This is the first statement albert used with bruce in a previous post)
4. Thus people believe in God because they want to.
5. So faith in God is just a human invention corresponding to a human need.

Oftentimes when Christians get questioned or challenged by atheists, they get caught trying to defend against some or all of these charges. Notice that although the above is essentially logically sufficient (doesn't contradict itself) it's also circular - 5 supports 1 and vice versa.

(It does contain logical flaws in some of the individual arguments such as in a pure logical sense wanting something to exist doesn't logically preclude it from existing).

What's often forgotten, is that these same arguments can be constructed against atheism or any worldview. One could just as easily say

1. God does exist
2. Some people don't believe in God.
3. Since there is a God, they must be delusional and wish fulfilling
4. Thus people have a disbelief in God because they want to
5. Not believing God exists is just a human invention that corresponds to a human need.

And we come to the same point you expounded upon earlier when you mentioned Goedel's incompleteness theorem, which is that no system of logic can prove or disprove the existence of God.

The atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen makes this point clearly when he writes: “To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false" "All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists.”

Argument can't settle this question, one way or the other. And that means that the outcome is uncertain for the atheist as well. At least Nielsen is honest about this point.

The simple fact is that when anyone starts making statements about the meaning of life, the existence of God, or whether there is life after death, they are making statements of faith. You can’t prove by rational argument what life is all about. Whether you are Christian or atheist, you share the same problem.

So while Albert ridiculed you for making a statement such as it must start with faith, he is inherently impugning his own worldview at the same time.

I have rarely ever engaged in conversation with an atheist who is honest enough to admit that he too is holding a faith view, and simply wants to discuss how his view more adequately answers the questions above than any other view. These are the questions that have meaning for people and the answers have a direct impact on our lives and our behaviours. That's why religion continues to exist.

(a lot of things in these comments comes from an article written by alistair mcgrath that I read recently. It can be found at

Great series of posts.

At 9/16/2006 11:25 AM, Blogger AllergicToReligion said...

Atheism requires faith ?

At 9/19/2006 9:24 PM, Anonymous Larry B said...

Taken from your citation:

"Claiming that atheists “cannot prove that God does not exist” often relies upon the misunderstanding that atheists claim “God does not exist” and should prove this. In reality, atheists merely fail to accept the theists' claim “God exists” and, hence, the initial burden of proof lies with the believer. If the believer is unable to provide good reason to accept the existence of their god, it is unreasonable to expect the atheist to construct a disproof of it — or even care much about the claim in the first place"

Could just as easily and as logically soundly be written:

"Claiming that theists “cannot prove that God does exist” often relies upon the misunderstanding that theists claim “God does exist” and should prove this. In reality, theists merely fail to accept the atheists' claim “God does not exist” and, hence, the initial burden of proof lies with the atheist. If the atheist is unable to provide good reason to accept the non-existence of god, it is unreasonable to expect the theist to construct a disproof of it — or even care much about the claim in the first place"

Bottom line - simply rejecting an argument doesn't entitle one to shift the burden of proof onto the claimant and make the rejection true until proven otherwise.

Your reference suffers from the same logical errors it supposedly critiques in the original argument even going so far as to state that the original argument is myth without even giving prior evidence for supposing it's a myth. The article started with the conclusion and then argued backwards to it.

Secondly, his proposal for disproving propositions are only proof that the proposition is false. It doesn't disprove a conclusion.

The disproof of a proposition can only rely on currently known knowledge and cannot adress knowledge yet to be determined. For example - the closest distance between two points is a straight line and the closest distance between two points is a curved line are both true statements, yet in the time of Euclid, they could conclusively prove that a curved line could not be the shortest distance only because they had not conceived the manifold geometries described by Riemann and used by Einstein in his relativity theory that led to the discovery that in these times we now understand how both propositions can be true and both reflect ultimate truth about the reality around us.

So again by rational argument neither side is able to prove or disprove either's ultimate statment. If one wishes to base one's life philosophy on the rejection of someone else's philosophy one is free to do so and they can be free of the "faith" label by doing so because they have made no positive assertion regarding the existence or non existence of something. But assuming that asserting nothing somehow holds up as a more valid viewpoint is an arrogant position to take and leaves one with little or no basis for making the very human decisions we are faced with every day - where logic and reason simply fail to provide answers.

At 9/20/2006 8:28 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

But assuming that asserting nothing somehow holds up as a more valid viewpoint is an arrogant position to take and leaves one with little or no basis for making the very human decisions we are faced with every day - where logic and reason simply fail to provide answers.

I think that's an important point. The ability to prove or disprove something logically is not the only way to understand our world. That, I submit, is the biggest error in the line of reasoning that begins with rejecting everything that can't be proven.

It may, in fact, be true that atheism does not require faith. But life requires faith. We don't have time to investigate everything personally, or to treat everything as a logical proposition that we must follow to a rational conclusion.

At 9/20/2006 10:29 PM, Anonymous Larry B said...

Thanks for the summary post Bruce. It's a good reminder for me too to not get too caught up in logic and reason and to think about life instead.


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