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Go to: Can theists be convinced by reason?

BJohn's Avatar Jump to comment 277 by BJohn

Hi Ignorant Amos,

My absence the past few days has had the unfortunate consequence of there being way too many posts for me to “catch up” on the conversation. A few general remarks on your posts that I did find and read:

The fact that you are not willing to grant a difference between the reasonability of believing in a migration from Egypt to Canaan and a migration from Egypt to the Americas is bizarre. You cite the example of a man who purportedly floated across the ocean on a raft in order to say that my belief in an Exodus is just as reasonable (or rather unreasonable) as Joseph Smith’s belief in the trans-oceanic flight of thousands of Jews. I don’t know how to respond to someone who is willing to make such an argument. Perhaps I misunderstand you?

You cite scholars who claim that from apostolic times Christians did not believe in the humanity of Jesus. And then, when I cite St. Paul and the New Testament to prove the contrary, you claim that these documents are part of a conspiracy of later generations of Christians to dupe the masses. So, the only evidence for the apostolic faith we have is dismissed as later propaganda, and yet somehow your scholars claim to know that the apostolic faith was Docetism? Well, which is it: Do we know the apostolic faith or not?

You claim that St. Paul’s supposed marginalization of the life of Jesus in his writings is further proof that Jesus did not actually exist. It should be admitted that there are some genuine scholars who puzzle over St. Paul’s silence on these stories. But your apparent lack of imagination here proves, in my opinion, how much you have prejudged the question. Does every Christian writing have to be a Gospel? Couldn’t it be possible that St. Paul’s letters were written for a purpose other than telling the story of Jesus’ life? The one time St. Paul clearly recounts an event from Jesus’ life, he introduces it in the following way: “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that on the night when he too bread…” (1 Corinthians 11:23). From this we can conclude that, whatever St. Paul did or did not say in his letters, he did recount stories of Jesus in his missinoary preaching. Moreover, we can also tell from the letters that they were written for a different purpose than informing Christians about Jesus’ life. Not every Christian writing has to tell stories from Jesus’ life! You can probably look in any scholarly introduction to St. Paul’s letters (and not some superficial and uninformed dismissal in the “Why Christianity is dumb” literature) in order to learn more about their nature and purpose.

You claim that the slight differences in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life prove that they are all unreliable forgeries. Again, your lack of imagination shows that you have prejudged the question. The most reliable reconstruction of the first century evangelization shows that the Gospel message, before it was written down, was initially spread by the oral preaching of the apostles and their coworkers. When the apostles started dying off, it became necessary to preserve their memories in written form. Dating them on the basis of internal and external evidence, the four Gospels all appear to have been written between 60 and 110. If you’re worried about Luke, just realize that it’s quite possible there was more than one Theophilus in the Ancient Near East. Their origin in oral preaching is, in the opinion of many, a sufficient explanation for many of the differences. Contrary to the desires of some scholars (typically Protestant), the first Gospels do not appear to have been formed simply by the “copying” of some earlier written document (Q or whatever). Rather, it seems that a pre-set oral form of the message was decided upon and then spread by the missionaries. Their “versions” were then independently written down in different places. For a long time now it has been understood that each of these Gospels was written down in a particular “community” whose particular needs would explain the various theological emphases of each Gospel. In any event, the question of Gospel origins is long, complicated, and full of uncertainties; and I am not prepared (or qualified) to give you a disseration on the topic. But that does not give every Christian bashing author the right to say whatever he wants about the question—we may not have every (or many) of the answers, but we can exclude the theories of extremists with an ax to grind against Christianity.

Your quote from Leo X, upon which you seem to place the bulk of your conspiracy theory argument, appears to be a forgery. I had never come across that quote before, so I had to do a little research. One of the first Google searches I made found this:

Until you come up with some evidence to challenge that article, I think you should stop spreading that bizarre quotation as evidence.

Take care,


Sat, 17 Dec 2011 14:23:35 UTC | #900306

Go to: In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

BJohn's Avatar Jump to comment 235 by BJohn

Hi Guys, I'm sorry for your loss. While I agree with very little of what I heard or read from him, I can agree with those who esteemed his wit and the concision of his writing. Cancer is a very tough thing. I’m sorry he had to go through that and die at such a relatively young age.

May he rest in peace. As he didn't mind it when people prayed for him, I will say a prayer that his “resting in peace” be a reality, rather than a euphemism.

Take care,


Fri, 16 Dec 2011 13:38:44 UTC | #899770

Go to: Can theists be convinced by reason?

BJohn's Avatar Jump to comment 164 by BJohn

Ignorant Amos, since I see that it became an issue in the posts, I'll say a word on your quotation of Eusebius. You prove nothing but that human beings, as usual, fought bitterly over their religious differences. We know that already. But that squabbling does not prove that Christianity is an invention or conspiracy of the hierarchy (as you seemed to insinuate in your quotation of Leo). The Councils of the Catholic Church exist to transmit and articulate in the contemporary language the faith of the Apostles. Sometimes it is not immediately clear to everyone how to do that. And so people disagree over it. That, of course, still happens today.

The canon of the Bible was not defined dogmatically until the Countil of Trent, and that's because it wasn't until Luther that somebody challenged the Church on that point.

Thu, 15 Dec 2011 02:30:10 UTC | #899076

Go to: Can theists be convinced by reason?

BJohn's Avatar Jump to comment 163 by BJohn

Thanks for the many good responses to my post.

I enjoyed Ignorant Amos’s post quite a bit, as I feel it demonstrates my point: our knowledge is conditioned by the subjective aspects of our lives. The many quotes he marshaled to prove the conspiracy behind Christianity show how much what we think we know is based on the historical contingencies of our own lives, such as, in this case, the particular books we happen to read.

Ignorant Amos, if you’re convinced by the quotes you offered in your post, I can only recommend that you seek out other books, and especially those that are not, in one way or another, titled something like “Why Christianity is dumb.” There is so much confusion, distortion, and factual error in what you quoted. If you look up and read the sources referred to in your books (like that reference to the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, which I promise you does NOT say that Luke the evangelist lived in 170), I think you'll begin to see how irresponsible some scholars can be. It would be well worth it to give a “point by point” treatment of each quotation you offer, but I only have the time to deal with a couple of them with the knowledge at the top of my head.

For starters, a lot of your quotes came without any reference to the authority behind them. As such it is difficult to know what to make of them. Next time, I suggest including the references.

The first claim that you did reference, which was from Rev. Taylor, is really quite ludicrous. From apostolic times Christians did not believe Christ was a man? Wow, what a statement! But the whole New Testament screams the opposite: in fact the Gospel might be summed up in the statement, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1). I could pull out dozens of quotations from the Gospels and Apostolic letters that reveal their belief in the reality of the Incarnation. St. Paul even said that, if Christ did not die and rise again (and to do that he had to be an actual man), the faith of the Christian is a total farce. And after the NT writings, there are all the apostolic and Church fathers—Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Justin, Irenaeus (the list could go on for very long)—who staked their lives, literally, on the reality of Christ’s real existence as a man. Read just one work of theirs and you’ll realize that, at the very least, this author believed in the Son of Man. To claim that there is an “uninterrupted succession” from apostolic times showing that the Church did not believe in the Incarnation is just the most awful scholarship, even bordering, perhaps, on deceit.

It sounds like Rev. Taylor—if we are to give him a generous reading—is confusing the syncretism of the Gnostics with the authentic apostolic witness preserved by their successors. There were (as there are in every age) non-Christians who claimed aspects of the Christian message for their own. These camps were rejected from the outset, as, again, practically every page of the New Testament and Church Fathers shows. I mean, have you ever known a religion so concerned about the purity and permanence of its doctrine as the Catholic Church!? There were heretics, false prophets, anti-Christs—whatever you want to call them—from the beginning, and they were rejected by that one institution who can credibly trace its origins all the way into the New Testament.

Your quote from Barbara Walker reveals a serious lack of reflection upon the manuscript tradition. It is true that our earliest codices of the entire Bible as a whole come from the fourth century. But we have tons of fragments of individual books from earlier times, with the earliest dating all the way to the first decades of the second century. It’s amazing what they find in the trash heaps of Egypt. And yes, it is true that the manuscript tradition contains variant readings of several verses—as every single Biblical scholar and theologian is aware of. All this proves, in my opinion, is that fundamentalist understandings of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy are problematic. But if you learn some Greek and go take a look at a critical addition of the New Testament for yourself, I think you’ll be very impressed at how minimal the significance of these variants is in the end. They really don’t disagree on anything of great significance. If you don’t believe me, go dig up something you think is a counter-example and we can talk about it.

Your interpretation of St. Augustine is totally out of context and reveals a lack of familiarity with Patristic thought. It is true that many of the Church Fathers (not just St. Augustine) thought that various pagan authors (like Plato, for example) anticipated certain aspects of Christianity. That is because they believed that Christianity was in some measure accessible by reason, as it was the same divine Logos (Word, Reason, Discourse) behind all Truth, both what was known to the “true” philosophers of ancient times and what was revealed in Jesus Christ. This claim is still made by the Catholic Church today: anything that is true, beautiful, and good—all these have their origin in the Word who was in the beginning. St. Augustine, if you want you should check out his writings for yourself, made a HUGE distinction between pagan and Christian thought. He most certainly did not, as you claim, think that Christianity was a rehashing of old ideas. Consider his rejection of neo-Platonism in The City of God, or his rejection of Manichaeism in The Confesssions.

Your quotation of Leo X needs context and a reference before anything can be said in response.

I don’t have more time to respond to any of the others right now. But if you want me to respond to a particular one that I did not, let me know. Believe me: I’m stopping here because I’m tired, not because I don’t have anything to say.


I don’t think we ever finished our talk about Gödel. I’ve got Goldstein’s book, by the way, and so at some point we’ll have another go around. But for now, I think I can agree with ObZen’s interpretation of Gödel’s conclusions:

Kurt Gödel famously and totally demolished the idea of reason as a foundational principle. I don't mean "he presented a very convincing argument against reason," but rather he provided a mathematical proof that reason alone cannot provide an entire system.

But I don’t agree when ObZen says that our only two options are to throw everything into a wash (“postmodernism”) or to accept first principles from some arbitrary authority (“religion”). ObZen, can you tell me where Dawkins says he hates both of these options? I’d very much like to see what he says on this point.

At this point, to avoid the despair of postmodernism and the arbitrariness of uncritical authority, we need to recover a greater understanding of reason. Gödel wrote about a mathematical or analytical reasoning. But that’s not all there is to reason! What Gödel proved is that we can’t be logical positivists, not that we can’t be reasonable. We’ve got to recognize that all of us operate with a greater reason than what the logical positivists (and many of those here) are willing to acknowledge. For example, why did you think it would be right to marry your spouse? Or did you say, "Hey honey, look at this syllogism. It says we should get married" (sorry if I'm a little silly :-). Why do you trust your brother? Why do you love yourself? We have reasons for these things which are not translatable into “objective” analytical syllogisms. Our thinking is not simply analysis. Yes, we accept first principles without syllogistic demonstration—but this does not mean that first principles have no justification behind them, and it certainly does not mean they are necessarily irrational (though some certainly can be).

To Everyone Else,

My point was not to deny our ability to “think objectively” about the reasonability of different religious claims. I am not a Mormon. That’s for many reasons, some of them historical (I was not born in a Mormon family), and some of them based on reason. For example, I do not think it is at all reasonable to suppose that Jews migrated to America from Egypt, or that God revealed something both to the Apostles and to Joseph Smith when their messages contradict each other. Those are two reasons I think Mormonism doesn’t make sense (there are others).

My point was to call everyone’s attention to the fact that there is more to human thought than the process of deductive reasoning. If there weren’t, then I would be more sympathetic to those who say the human mind is a computer (But even still, I would claim those glorified mouse traps—i.e. computers—don’t really perform deductive reasoning). But the fact is there is more to human thought than deductive reasoning. Gödel was just one guy who helped us see that using the tools of mathematics. But it should have been obvious to everyone without Gödel’s help (as it was to many before the Enlightenment put such a premium on deduction). Each of us makes so many decisions without sitting down to write a syllogism about it!!! We believe so many things on the strength of faith!!! None of us lives and thinks with the “radical skepticism” of Descartes. And none of us should.

To quote Pascal:

“We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all our knowledge” (Pensees, transl. R. Ariew, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005).

Again, this does not mean that “anything goes” for human thinking. Just because something is not known by a syllogism does not mean it is irrational. Knowledge of the “heart” for Pascal is not the arbitrary commitment of some irrational emotion. It is a knowledge we commit ourselves too on the strength of some apprehension or insight grounded in our own encounter with reality.

Take care,


Thu, 15 Dec 2011 02:22:03 UTC | #899074

Go to: Can theists be convinced by reason?

BJohn's Avatar Jump to comment 99 by BJohn

Can theists be convinced by reason? Of what, atheism?

Of course not!


P.S. It's because atheism is not reasonable.

P.P. S. All kidding aside (and I was only partly kidding), I think what is important to realize is that human beings are not a species of "walking cogitals" whose actions and convictions are determined by some sort of pure analytical reasoning. We're humans, not calculators. Not even "you atheists" can claim to form your convictions using only some kind of "pure" reason. A to B to C, done: I'm an atheist. No, that's not how human thought works on such non-analytical questions. On questions like God (and many others), we are all significantly affected by our subjective histories, our loves, our hates, our desires, and so on. How many people here have mentioned the "mean nuns" or belligerant pastors from their youth when telling of their conversion to atheism! Don't get me wrong, I too believe in the power of rational inquiry; what I'm saying is that the question of God, which is perhaps one of the most senstive and laden questions there are, is not one that any human being is going to settle on the basis of "pure" analytical reason alone.

Tue, 13 Dec 2011 03:12:55 UTC | #898456

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