For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:
Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2
I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.
So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.
Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3
A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4
An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.
So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.
3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.
4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.
5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.
My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.
Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.
Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.
I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).
There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!
R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.
The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.
This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.
Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.
However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?
Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?
R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.
And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.
Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.
So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.
Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.
No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.
So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.
Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).
One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.
What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.
I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.
In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.
R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.
Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.
The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.
I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.
Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.
Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.
So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.
Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.
Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).
Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.
First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.
Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”
Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.
Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).
Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.
Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1
Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:
- X is a creature of a certain sort.
- Creatures of this sort have right R.
- Therefore, X has a right R.
Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.
Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.
Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.
R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2
It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.
Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5 In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.
Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.
In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.
Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.
Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.
One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.
Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.
So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.
In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.
Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.
For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.
Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.
What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.
Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.
Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.
The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.
What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.
The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/
The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).
-  Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich: “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement. Current Anthropology (vol. 54). 2013.
-  Rovelli, Carlo, et al. Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity. Riverhead Books, 2018, pp. 32-33.
-  “Nicolaus Copernicus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.20 Jun. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04352b.htm>.
-  NA. “Bruno and Galileo in Rome.” Honors Program in Rome, University of Washington. 2003. <https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/pev42/BrunoandGalileoinRome/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html>
-  Ibid. 
Let’s start with well-known, often disputed verses:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. Deuteronomy 10:17
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. Psalms 82:1
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.Psalms 86:8
And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. Daniel 11:36
Recently, I brought up the fact that modern Christians are polytheists. On the one hand, they believe in the God of the Bible and on the other, the so-called god of philosophers or as they would put it, the god of monotheism. A commenter on my post over on WordPress brought up the fact that the early Jews were polytheists. He provided a number of verses like the ones above. I responded to him and stated that Christians have a go-to copout. They’ll argue that this is merely a recognition that people at the time worshipped other gods, gods that were mere idols. That, however, demonstrates that they are either ignorant of historical context or they know of the context and yet ignore it. We can discuss the polytheistic origins of Judaism further, but that’s not my purpose here.
My purpose here is to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism, to disrupt that convenient narrative. A Christian on Facebook recently offered an ontological argument he confused with Godel’s Ontological Argument. That wasn’t the argument he offered. He offered another ontological argument in where ‘God’ could be replaced with ‘Allah’ or ‘Ahura Mazda’ and the result wouldn’t change. Two other people then responded and said that the refutation fails because the argument sets out to prove the god of monotheism.
The god of (mono)theism, as William Lane Craig posits, is timeless, personal, omniscient, and so on. I’ll set exegesis aside because there are ways to prove otherwise given passages in the Bible (e.g. why did god ask Adam questions in Genesis 3 if he’s omniscient?). What I want to offer instead is a new argument against the notion of a so-called god of (mono)theism. We know from mathematics that there are different infinities. Since infinity is already a large value, if we can even call it such, there’s no way for the human mind to apprehend one infinity or another, let alone distinguish them. So given that line of thinking, there’s an element of vagueness we can introduce to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism.
Take, for instance, timelessness. A Christian will posit that their god has no beginning; he’s eternal and exists outside of time. All well and good. Let’s say there’s another being who had a beginning outside of the universe billions of years ago, e.g., Satan. What disqualifies this being from being timeless as well, especially given that we can’t ascertain the beginning of this being’s existence? In other words, if god is present at point 0 and then Satan at point 0.00000005, what difference is there? There are some beginnings that result in a virtual eternity and so, just like there are different infinities, there are different eternities, different versions of timelessness.
The same goes for omniscience. What if there’s a being that knows all things except one thing; let’s suppose this being doesn’t know how to play billiards. What is the difference between an omniscient being who knows all things and another being who knows all things save the required know-how to play billiards? Again, as there are different infinities, there are different levels of omniscience and we simply wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a being who knows everything and one who knows everything except for how to play billiards.
Omnipotence, omnipresence, the capacity to be personal, and so on, all fall victim to vagueness, and as such, the same defeater that exists for Godel’s Ontological Argument, namely that parallel arguments work just as well (see Oppy 1996), also exists for the notion of the so-called god of monotheism. There is no such entity. It is logically possible that, given vagueness, there are millions of beings that fit the description. However, one should not draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Just because there could be a million such beings doesn’t mean they actually exist; likewise, just because one such being is logically possible doesn’t mean it actually exists. The god that apologetic arguments allude to is a product of Christian obfuscation.
Given that Christians are overly fond of deductive arguments, I will do my best to formulate an Argument From Vagueness, which isn’t necessarily an argument on its own. Let’s consider Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument:
- A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
- A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
Now, consider a parallel Argument from Vagueness. D1 is crucial to the argument.
D1: A being with maximal excellence* has omnipotence* (which is to be so close to all-powerful that its lone incapacity is negligible; it once failed to push a universe to the left), omniscience* (which is to be virtually all-knowing; it doesn’t know how to play billiards), and perfectly good* (which is to be virtually morally perfect, but it once told a white lie). Maximal greatness* is to have maximal excellence* across all possible worlds.
- A being has maximal excellence* in a given possible world W iff it is omnipotent*, omniscient*, and wholly good* in W.
- A being has maximal greatness* if it has maximal excellence* in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness*.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent*, and perfectly good* being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent* and perfectly good* being exists.
Once this counter-argument is offered, what a Christian has left is the bare assertion that a being with maximal excellence* isn’t truly god because it has negligible limitations. The question remains: how do we know that the purported attributes of god are true? It is, as it will always be, a matter of faith. There is no way to ascertain that god is eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient. We can ask whether he is perfectly moral, but that’s a separate issue entirely. The thrust that Arguments From Vagueness drive is that there’s no justification for speaking of any infinity with such certainty. There may be an infinity so near to the one a theist reveres that the differences are negligible. That’s precisely what these arguments are designed for.
By R.N. Carmona
Them who, for philosophical reasons, adopt perspectivism or them who, in the interest of preserving their beliefs, adopt perspectivism misunderstand what Nietzsche intended to achieve. Nietzsche was not arguing that all perspectives are created equal; he recognized that some were better than others. Neither was he arguing that objectivity was not possible. He wrote: “The more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our ‘concept’ of this matter, our ‘objectivity’ be.”1
The truth isn’t a democratic process. Taken together, he was arguing that if we to consider all perspectives worth considering, namely those perspectives that are among the best, we can arrive at a more objective conclusion. On political, legal, moral, philosophical, and even scientific matters, informed perspectives can help us arrive at the objective truth. Nothing at all is shielding people from the facts of the matter. Our perspective may be wrong or distorted, but if we account for other perspectives, especially better ones, one can adopt a better perspective.
This take is more accurate than a take which argued that the truth is equal to opinion. Nietzsche would not have argued that. Most contemporary perspectivists miss that crucial point: objectivity is not impossible; in fact, the more complete one’s accounting of better perspectives is, the closer one gets to achieving objectivity with regards to the case in question. Opinions are not created equal; some are better than others. Opinions and perspectives are virtually interchangeable. While opinions are informed by one’s given perspective, one’s opinion would differ given that one’s perspective differed; this is to say that opinions are contingent on one’s perspective. An opinion might even be considered an iteration of one’s perspective, a way of explaining one’s perspective or putting it into words.
This isn’t necessarily a post-truth era, since truth still exists. The truth can be avoided or flat-out denied, but this doesn’t imply that we now find ourselves in an era in where there’s no truth. There are still truths, both mundane and profound–from your particular date of birth to the fact that the universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old. We are, unfortunately, free to deny these truths, but that doesn’t change their status. Contemporary perspectivists have bastardized Nietzsche’s view and presented it as an enemy of truth. In fact, perspectivism may be the only account of truth that makes sense, both philosophically and practically. If one were to consider that, for instance, arguments were needed to tell people why slavery was wrong, one will begin to see that a fuller consideration of better perspectives helps us to see reason. Arguments were also needed to show people why misogyny was wrong; arguments were needed to overturn the nonsense law that allowed men to keep the belongings of their former wives. This new Act allowed women to have rights to their inheritances and property–even the property they acquired during marriage.
In a post-God era, Nietzsche’s view makes sense. If God is truly dead, the only unity of human reality we can achieve is one that accounts for as many human perspectives as possible. Nietzsche’s perspectivism, when considered fully, is a valid theory of truth. Contemporary proponents of a more simplistic perspectivism would fool one into thinking that there’s no objectivity to be had. Nietzsche clearly didn’t argue that. His perspectivism is much more careful in how it proceeds and gives us a way to achieve objectivity — a way that is in keeping with history. This should come as no surprise coming from a philosopher who was concerned with the use and abuse of history. It is only fitting that his theory of truth is one that is supported by historical trends.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond good and evil ; and the genealogy of morals. New York: Barnes & Noble , 1996. Print.
Book is now available for purchase here! Here are the Table of Contents to whet the appetite:
Chapter 1: Philosophical Approaches to Atheism
Chapter 2: Refuting the Kalam Cosmological Argument
Chapter 3: The Moral Argument Refuted
Chapter 4: Refuting Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument
Chapter 5: On Qualia and A Refutation of the Argument from Consciousness
Chapter 6: Refuting the Fine-Tuning Argument
Chapter 7: The Failures of Aquinas’ Five Ways
Chapter 8: Transcendental Arguments and Presuppositionalism Refuted
Chapter 9: The Argument from Assailability
Chapter 10: The Arguments from History and The Multiplicity of Religions
Chapter 11: The Argument from Cosmology
Chapter 12: On the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
I hope you guys enjoy!
By R.N. Carmona
The questions that are most relevant to understanding Acts is when and why it was written. To many Christians, the answer is quite simple. Despite the story-like continuation from the Gospel of Luke, they take it to be a straightforward history of Christianity’s inception. The book begins with Jesus’ ascension into heaven and continues by following the activities of the Apostles thereafter.
Without getting into the book’s more fantastical bits, e.g., Peter healing with his shadow (Acts 5:15); Paul’s healing handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:12), one can cast doubt on the historical reliability of Acts. The anonymous writer of Acts and Paul sometimes write about the same events in Paul’s life and though some discrepancies are minor and even negligible, others cast doubt on its historical reliability. Bart Ehrman explains:
Paul is quite emphatic in the epistle to the Galatians that after he had his vision of Jesus and came to believe in him he did *not* go to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles (1:15-18). This is an important issue for him, because he wants to prove to the Galatians that his gospel message did not come from Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem (the original disciples and the church around them) but from Jesus himself. His point is that he has not corrupted a message that he received from someone else; his gospel came straight from God, with no human intervention. The book of Acts, of course, provides its own narrative of Paul’s conversion. In this account, strikingly enough, Paul does exactly what he claims *not* to have done in Galatians: after leaving Damascus some days after his conversion, he goes directly to Jerusalem and meets with the apostles (Acts 9:10-30).1
Erhman explains that Paul could have lied about not consulting the Apostles. In Galatians 1:20, Paul asserts that he isn’t lying. Erhman, therefore, sees this as a discrepancy stemming from the writer of Acts.
It is important to note that Paul, in the Book of Acts, is depicted differently from how Paul represents himself in the Epistles. These differences will be made clear below. To understand why there are differences between Paul in Acts and Paul in his own Epistles, we need to understand why it was written. Prior to understanding why it was written, we need to answer the question of when it was written.
I. When Was Acts Written?
Though Acts is usually dated between 80 and 90 CE, the consensus isn’t based on evidence. As Richard Pervo explains: “Scholarly consensus has dated Luke and Acts at c. 85, with a dwindling number who place the work in the 60s and a larger minority who prefer the last decade of the first century. The consensus date is a convenient compromise that seems to demand little proof.”2
Pervo goes on to explain that it is likelier that Acts was written around 115 CE for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the author shows familiarity with Paul’s Epistles and with Josephus’ Antiquities, the latter of which was written around 94 CE. The main reason, as Pervo explains, is that the author seemed preoccupied with the concerns of early second century apologists who took on the task of defending their faith against polytheists and heretical Christian factions.
II. Why Was Acts Written?
Given this, one can then answer why Acts was written. One reason it was written was to respond to critics of the so called proto-orthodox view. It was written as a response to polytheists, but more importantly, it was written as a response to heretical factions. The most prominent of these factions were the Marcionites. Robert Price explains:
Knox argues persuasively, along many lines, that Luke-Acts was a second-century Catholic response to Marcion’s Sputnik, the Apostolicon. Canonical Luke was a catholicizing expansion of the same Ur-Lukas Marcion had slightly abbreviated, while Acts was a sanitized substitute for Marcion’s Pauline Corpus. Thus it presents a Paul who, though glorified, is co-opted, made the merest Narcissus-reflection of the Twelve–and who writes no epistles, but only delivers an epistle from the Jerusalem apostles! Knox sees the restoration of the Pauline letters (domesticated by the “dangerous supplement” of the Pastorals) and the addition of three other gospels and several non-Pauline epistles, In short the whole formation of the New Testament canon, as a response to the challenge of Marcion and the Marcionite church.3
As Ehrman explained earlier, there’s a major discrepancy between the Pauline Epistles and Acts concerning how Paul acquired his message. It must be stated that though Ehrman sides with Epistles on the matter, i.e., Paul did not get his message from the Apostles, this does not mean that he believes Paul’s account, namely that he received his message directly from Jesus.
1 Peter, 1 Clement, and the Gospel of John have much in common with the Pauline Epistles. As Pervo explains, 1 Peter agrees with some of Paul’s theology; 1 Clement quotes Paul, but diverges from his theology; the Gospel of John shares much of his theology though it developed independently. This is to say that Paul’s theology isn’t unique and that it did not have to come directly from an apparition of Jesus.
III. Two Pauls?
The author of Acts, a person claiming to have been Paul’s companion, clearly isn’t attempting to discredit Paul’s claim. Yet the question still remains: why is Paul in Acts different from Paul in the Epistles? Accounts of his life are different and his theology differs in key respects. This was done because the author of Acts–both Pervo and Ehrman agree–wanted to promote unity among believers by showing that Paul, Peter, and James were in agreement. As Ehrman explains:
For Acts the whole point is that Paul, Peter, James, and in fact all the apostles were completely simpatico, totally on the same page in terms of doctrine and practice, united in every way. And so he tells the story differently from Paul. And in fact in ways that flat out contradict Paul.4
There are two contradictions that stand out. One is that Paul wants to make clear that he was on a Gentile mission. Acts, on the other hand, has Paul giving most of his sermons to Jews. Another contradiction is Paul’s theology with regards to polytheism. According to his Romans 1:18-32, polytheists were not ignorant of the one true god and thus, their idolatry was an act of disobedience worthy of punishment. On Acts 17, it’s precisely the opposite: pagans are simply ignorant of the one true god and are not to be held accountable.
Conservative scholars have argued that the latter of these contradictions can be resolved by separating the audiences Paul was addressing. His softer approach in Acts was simply a means to convert polytheists. However, there’s another, more plausible, option. Ehrman explains:
Luke, rather than Paul, is the author of the speech on the Areopagus, just as he is the author of all the other speeches in his account, as we saw in Chapter 9. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the speeches in Acts sound so similar to one another, regardless of who the speaker is — why, that is, Paul sounds like Peter and Peter sounds like Paul (compare the speeches of Acts 2 and 13, for example). Rather than embodying *Paul’s* view of the pagan religions, then, the Areopagus speech may embody *Luke’s* view, representing the kind of evangelistic address that he imagines would have been appropriate to the occasion.5
If one is unfamiliar with Paul’s Epistles, specifically Galatians, one would think that Paul and Peter were always in agreement. One would think that they agreed on circumcision and more generally, that they were in agreement concerning either the abolition of the Jewish law or the fulfillment of the law through Jesus. In other words, one would assume that they thought the law was no longer applicable.
However, this contrasts sharply with Galatians 2. In short, Peter was in the habit of eating with Gentiles. When Jews came to Antioch, he stopped doing so because Jews were to behave in a certain way, and this meant not eating with Gentiles. Paul strongly disagreed with Peter’s obedience to the law and argued that Peter missed the point of salvation through Christ. Here we have Peter and Paul on opposite ends of the spectrum rather than in full agreement with one another.
There’s also the fact that in Acts, Paul is not recognized or depicted as an apostle. This is at variance with what he says about himself in the Epistles. As Pervo explains: “Although the Paul of Acts is not an apostle in name, Luke and Paul agree that the missionary to the gentiles follows and identifies with his master…Acts presents Paul as a Jerusalem missionary, subordinate to the community there, a Christian preacher who has not severed his connection with the Pharisaic party.”6
Paul was no doubt an important figure in the early Christian community. If going by his own words, we see a theology that identifies a sharp delineation between the old and the new, between Judaism and Christianity. Rather than maintain a connection with Pharisees, Paul severed all ties as he didn’t promote observance of the law. His own words, which were written earlier than Acts, should take precedence. As Pervo observes:
Given their different situations and disparate outlooks, it should come as no surprise that the Paul of Acts is at considerable variance with the Paul who appears in the epistles. Luke evidently felt obliged to update Paul for the current situation. There is nothing novel about that. The same charge may be laid against Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, to name but three from a lengthy catalogue of those motivated by Paul to erect fresh theological systems and launch new eras and movements. The real mystery, for those in quest of one, is why anyone has ever sought to prove that the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters thought and acted in similar ways. The obvious clue, a smoking gun if ever one was, is that the driving concern of this effort is not theology, but history. To the degree that Acts portrays not only Paul, but also Peter and James, in colors derived from the palette of Lucan theology, its historical value is considerably compromised.7
IV. Other Historical Problems
Aside from its depiction of Paul, there are other problems present in Acts that should make clear that it isn’t history. Historians have methods. Regardless of this, people who read the Gospels and Acts as history commit two fallacies that run counter to these methods. The first, coined by Richard Carrier, but noticed by others, is possibiliter ergo probabiliter (possible therefore probable).8 As Pervo observes, “[n]ot all that is possible is probable, and some probabilities are greater than others.”9 Related to this fallacy is the assumption that once one sets aside all the fantastical bits, whatever remains is true. This, however, ignores why a given passage was written.
When it comes to the Book of Acts, why a passage was written and by extension, why the book was written is crucial to understanding the book. Seeing it as straightforward history misses the point, which is theological and not historical. The point is no better made than by Acts 9. Acts 9 introduces us to a Christian community without telling us how or when it got there. From there, it tells us that the high priest tasks Paul with seizing these believers and bringing them to Jerusalem. As Pervo explains:
It is most unlikely that the chief priest possessed the power to interfere in the affairs of another province and have its residents extradited to stand trail for capital charges (cf. 26:10) in his court. This is a fantasy with serious historical implications. It has become the basis of the portrait of Paul the Persecutor.10
He goes on to explain that though Paul admits to persecuting Christians, e.g., Galatians 1:13, it is much more likely that his persecution was verbal and not physical. Luke prefers physical persecution because it supports a theological point. In Matthew 24:9, Jesus prophesies of Christians being brought to death. He doesn’t prophesy of Christians being opposed in debate. He doesn’t speak of polemics written against their beliefs or satire designed to debase their claims. This might go a long way in explaining why Luke preferred stories of martyrs rather than stories of Christians who couldn’t hold their own in a debate or who couldn’t address slanderous polemics and satire written against their beliefs.
Another passage with theological intents is Acts 13. The mission to Cyprus simply doesn’t read like history. It revolves around a Jewish sorcerer who goes blind and then converts to Christianity. The passage is only meant to showcase Paul’s power in Christ, so to speak. Acts is about legitimizing Paul’s ministry and also about reframing his history as partly told in the Epistles. The motivation for doing so is, once again, theological and not historical.
There are many other historical difficulties that can be discussed, e.g. Timothy’s circumcision, the improbable route from Cyprus to Derbe, Paul and Silas’ Roman citizenship, the chronology used by Luke. The point here has been to briefly discuss the historical reliability of Acts, so none of these points will be belabored here. It will prove useful to return to Acts 18 for one final example of the theological motivation in Acts.
In Acts 18 we are introduced to Apollos, who was a Christian with an outdated baptismal theology. He, in other words, preached the baptism of John and had to be corrected by Aquila and Priscilla concerning the baptism of the spirit. As stated earlier, Acts was written as a response to critics of the proto-Orthodox views. Some of the earliest so called heretical factions were gnostics. When speaking of gnostics, one should think of a diverse set of groups rather than one group. There was one thing these groups may have had in common and that becomes important in Acts 18. The gnostics were popular among women and this is because they weren’t on board with the patriarchal thinking of proto-Orthodox Christians. If Acts preserves any history, it preserves the fact that men held positions of authority in the early church. Acts 18 momentarily subverts that by having not only Aquila, but also Priscilla, correct Apollos. Priscilla was a female figure who was more than likely a literary device and a character stemming from theological motivation. She was, in other words, the proto-Orthodox answer to the gnostics or better said, one of the answers.
In the previous chapter (Acts 17), the writer of Acts makes no distinction between the male and female converts. He does, however, name two of the female converts: Damaris and Dionysius. In Acts 16, he names another female convert, Lydia. In Acts 21, the daughters of Philip are mentioned and emphasis is put on their gift of prophecy. These women are further responses to gnostics.
Given this, part of the reason Acts was written was to show that women had authority in the church and that they could also have the gifts of the spirit. It is likely that these stories were meant to dispense with the notion that the proto-Orthodox community was unpopular with women and that it had a penchant for putting men in positions of authority. Along those lines, Acts could have been meant to show a reversal of patriarchal thought, especially when one considers 1 Corinthians 14:34. Again, Paul’s Epistles were written earlier and thus, they take precedence. The notion of keeping women silent in church contradicts the stories briefly surveyed above. Aside from being yet another way the Paul in Acts differs from the Paul of the Epistles, the women in Acts are perhaps the strongest point to be made for the conclusion that Acts was written for theological reasons. If so, the Book of Acts is far from straightforward history and its historical reliability is further compromised.
Ultimately, what has been surveyed here is by no means exhaustive. This hasn’t been written to convey the idea of authority, but authorities have been cited and should be consulted on the matter. What’s clear is that Christians are wrong to claim that Acts is a history of the early church. They’re also wrong to claim that its historically reliable, for that entails much more than the previous claim. What they’re saying there is that we can extract historical facts from reading Acts. More specifically, we can extract such facts about Paul, the other Apostles, and the geography of Asia Minor in the early centuries. Yet historians wouldn’t go that far and that’s because their methods are at variance with the fallacies underlying the approach Christians and more specifically, apologists take. Acts, like the Gospels, isn’t history nor is it historically reliable. It’s a theological narrative that serves a theological purpose and it’s in the best interest of its readers to read it as such.
1 Erhman, Bart. “The Historical Accuracy of Acts (For members)”. Ehrman Blog. 4 Sep 2013. Web.
2 Pervo, Richard I. The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2008. 9. Print.
3 Robert M. Price, “The Evolution of the Pauline Canon,” HvTSt 53 (1997): 36-67
4 Erhman, Bart. “Paul in Acts: Part 2”. Ehrman Blog. 22 Jul 2012. Web.
5 Erhman, Bart. “The Accuracy of Acts: Part 2 (For members)”. Ehrman Blog. 5 Sep 2013. Web.
6 Ibid. , pp.31-32
7. Ibid. , p.37
8 Carrier, Richard. Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2012. 26-27. Print.
9 Ibid. , p.116
10 Ibid. , p.123
It is often argued by conservative Christians that Hitler was an atheist. In the same breath, they also argue that he was never a Christian. Both of these claims are false. So my purpose here is twofold: to disabuse such people of the notion that Hitler was an atheist and to trace the development of the anti-Christian views he eventually espoused, views that, I will argue, are the direct result of his anti-Semitic views. I will not argue, as Richard Carrier does, that we can’t trust the English translations of Table Talks.1 While it is the case that context and words may have been left out, Carrier’s thesis is unnecessary for our purposes. My purpose, as stated above, is to trace Hitler’s anti-Semitism to its definite end and more importantly, to discuss the Christian roots of his anti-Semitism. Let us begin by observing some of his earlier confessions. One of the more commonly cited confessions is the following:
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.2
Emphasis mine. Four times in this section of a speech he gave in 1933, he repeats the phrase “as a Christian.” “Summoned men to fight against [the Jews]” and “The Jewish poison” are phrases I singled out for reasons that’ll be obvious shortly. Hitler also stated:
His [the Jew’s] life is of this world only and his mentality is as foreign to the true spirit of Christianity as is character was foreign to the great Founder of this new creed two thousand years ago. And the Founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of His estimation of the Jewish people. When He found it necessary He drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God; because then, as always, they used religion as a means of advancing their commercial interests. But at that time Christ was nailed to the Cross for his attitude towards the Jews.3
Emphasis mine. Whether or not anti-Semitism can be found in earlier versions of the Gospels and Acts is not up for debate. The Bible Hitler read and the Bible Christians currently read definitely have anti-Semitism within their pages. That the Jews wanted Jesus crucified because he was calling himself their king can be found in these verses: see Luke 23:1-3, which is to be read in conjunction with Luke 22:66-71 and 23:5-19. Also, Acts 2:36 and 3:13-17 explicitly blame the Jews and recall, it’s widely held that the same anonymous author wrote both Luke and Acts.
One must ask: if these sentiments weren’t original to the earliest Christians, how did these sentiments get into the Gospels and Acts and why? The reason, if one is familiar with the Church Fathers and later influential Christians, is obvious: anti-Semitism was a sentiment felt by some proto-Orthodox Christians, so it’s no wonder Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Lutherans, and Protestants came to harbor such sentiments. Let us consider key examples and then show the salient connection such views have to Adolf Hitler’s views.
Perhaps the most important point to be made here is that anti-Semitic views are strongest in the later Gospels, John most specifically. Samuel Sandmel, who was Professor Emeritus of Bible and Hellenistic Literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, stated: “John is widely regarded as either the most anti-Semitic or at least the most overtly anti-Semitic of the gospels.”4 Robert Kysar adds:
Little has been done to ameliorate that harsh judgment since it was first written. While efforts have been made to soften the impact of the tone of John when it comes to Jews and Judaism, the fact remains that a reading of the gospel tends to confirm Sandmel’s judgment. Still, recent theories for understanding the historical setting of the writing of the Fourth Gospel do offer some ways of interpreting the harshness with which the gospel treats Jews and Judaism. Such theories do not change the tone of the gospel but offer a way of explaining that tone.5
The Gospel of John would serve as the basis for anti-Semitic sentiments expressed by later Christians. Ignatius stated: “[Jesus Christ] made known the one and only true God, His Father, and underwent the passion, and endured the cross at the hands of the Christ-killing Jews.”6 This is in clear agreement with the verses cited earlier. His sentiments were no doubt bolstered by Luke, John, and Acts. Justin Martyr is more elaborate when rebuking Jews. He openly condemns them in stating:
For other nations have not inflicted on us and on Christ this wrong to such an extent as you have, who in very deed are the authors of the wicked prejudice against the Just One, and us who hold by Him. For after that you had crucified Him, the only blameless and righteous Man,– through whose stripes those who approach the Father by Him are healed, –when you knew that He had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, as the prophets foretold He would, you not only did not repent of the wickedness which you had committed.7
The proto-Orthodox view found in Luke, John, Acts came to be the Orthodox view. Unfortunately, these anti-Semitic sentiments didn’t stop there. Catholics took in Orthodox dirty laundry and this was best illustrated by Pope Leo who stated:
And when morning was come all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.” This morning, O ye Jews, was for you not the rising, but the setting of the sun, nor did the wonted daylight visit your eyes, but a night of blackest darkness brooded on your naughty hearts.This morning overthrew for you the temple and its altars, did away with the Law and the Prophets, destroyed the Kingdom and the priesthood, turned all your feasts into eternal mourning. For ye resolved on a mad and bloody counsel, ye “fat bulls,” ye “many oxen,” ye “roaring” wild beasts, ye rabid “dogs,” to give up to death the Author of life and the LORD of glory; and, as if the enormity of your fury could be palliated by employing the verdict of him, who ruled your province, you lead Jesus bound to Pilate’s judgment, that the terror-stricken judge being overcome by your persistent shouts, you might choose a man that was a murderer for pardon, and demand the crucifixion of the Saviour of the world.8
Pope Leo dehumanizes Jews similarly to how Hitler eventually dehumanized them. They’re now “fat bulls,” “many oxen,” “wild beasts,” and “rabid dogs.” Luther apparently tried to usher in change. Lutheran and Protestant disagreement with Catholics is well documented, but apparently, anti-Semitism wasn’t something Luther and his sympathizers saw fit to change. He also dehumanizes and maligns Jews. He states:
The Jews are a base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” They are full of the “devil’s faeces …which they wallow in like swine.” The synagogue was a “defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …” He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fi re, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.9
He sort of sounds like Adolf himself! The “Jewish poison” is now “these poisonous envenomed worms.” Hitler would eventually do all this and much more against the Jews. Hitler, in fact, cited Luther as an influence:
The great protagonists are those who fight for their ideas and ideals despite the fact that they receive no recognition at the hands of their contemporaries. They are the men whose memories will be enshrined in the hearts of the future generations….To this group belong not only the genuinely great statesmen but all the great reformers as well. Beside Frederick the Great we have such men as Martin Luther and Richard Wagner.10
Emphasis mine. Given this context, it’s clear that Hitler considered Luther a great reformer. Given his anti-Semitism, it’s clear that he was familiar with Luther’s anti-Semitic polemics. Tangentially, one has to wonder whether Lutherans even care about the polemics of their Founder. Luther was to Christianity what ISIL is to modern Muslims–extremist and proud of it.
We’ve seen how Hitler felt about Jews given my extensive analysis above. But how did he feel about atheism?
We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations; we have stamped it out.11
His feelings toward Christianity apparently changed, assuming the English translations of his Table Talks are reliable. He believed Bolshevism was the bastard child of Christianity and that Christianity should die a natural death due to a better understanding of the universe. He stated that Christianity has reached the height of absurdity and that it was invented by sick brains.12 We will see some of this in more detail shortly.
Perhaps his views toward atheism changed as well. Though conservative Christians would love for that to be the case, if they were to read the Table Talks, they’d find that his views on atheism remained the same. He states: “The Russians have no God, and that doesn’t prevent them from being able to face death. We don’t want to educate anyone in atheism.”13 This is in keeping with what he said about secular schooling: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.”14
It doesn’t stop there. He also states: “An uneducated man, on the other hand, runs the risk of going over to atheism (which is a return to the state of the animal)” (Ibid. ) Well then! Now he’s dehumanizing atheists as well. No honest person will bypass these facts, so Christians who seek to poison the well by saying that Hitler was an atheist should consider his confessions.
This isn’t to say that I don’t find Hitler’s comments about Christianity and Christians to be disturbing. If we can rely on these English translations, then this is a real departure from his earlier views. What exactly happened over the course of his reign that led to this departure? I read his Table Talks more closely and discovered the obvious truth staring me in the face. Hitler’s anti-Semitic views are well documented above, but where did these anti-Christian views come from? I will argue that his anti-Christian views are the necessary and logical end to his anti-Semitic views. In other words, if Christianity is the bastard child of Judaism, which it demonstrably is, then one who hates Jews may come to hate Christians. Of course, given his reign, there are more layers here. Like Stalin, he had to neutralize the Church’s influence. However, his Table Talks are quite revealing. Hitler states in detail:
The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them. In the ancient world, the relations between men and gods were founded on an instinctive respect. It was a world enlightened by the idea of tolerance. Christianity was the first creed in the world to exterminate its adversaries in the name of love. Its key-note is intolerance. (Ibid.)
Hitler was well aware of the connections between the Abrahamic religions for he also states that without Christianity, we wouldn’t have Islam. In keeping with what I said in terms of neutralizing the Church, he had this to say about the potential for organization that Christianity offers: “We must likewise prevent them from returning to Christianity. That would be a grave fault, for it would be giving them a form of organization” (Ibid.)
Though Hitler desired the slow death of Christianity, he didn’t want that to result in non-belief:
One may ask whether the disappearance of Christianity would entail the disappearance of belief in God. That’s not to be desired. The notion of divinity gives most men the opportunity to concretise the feeling they have of supernatural realities. Why should we destroy this wonderful power they have of incarnating the feeling for the divine that is within them? (Ibid.)
Apparently, Luther’s influence was still felt. “The divine that is within them” sounds a whole lot like Luther’s sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). As is also well documented, Hitler and the Nazis wrote their own Bible. They more or less appropriated Christian beliefs and mixed and matched them with pagan woo woo. To further establish my argument–that Hitler’s anti-Christian views are the logical end of his anti-Semitic views–I’ll leave my readers with the following: “Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilization by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society” (Ibid.)
My argument is parsimonious. Hitler’s anti-Christian views are the logical end to, the direct result of, the path of least resistance taken by, his anti-Semitic views. This, to my mind, is the clearest conclusion to be made. Does it follow that Nazism is the result of Christianity? No. That isn’t what I’m intending to argue. From this, however, we can gather, quite conclusively, that he was never an atheist and that he was, in fact, opposed to atheism and secular schooling.
Given my analysis, the Christian arguing that Hitler was never a Christian and that he was an atheist should abandon both claims. Both claims are patently false and are clearly denied by Hitler’s confessions. He was never an atheist and early during his reign he identified as a Christian. These are clear facts. What’s also clear is that his anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the Bible and the confessions of Christians, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant. What was perhaps less clear and what I intended to highlight is that his later anti-Christian views developed from his anti-Semitic views. Whether or not I succeeded at that is for the reader to decide, but what clearly does not succeed are the claims conservative Christians make.
1 Carrier, Richard. (2003). “‘Hitler’s Table Talk’: Troubling Finds”. German Studies Review 26 (3): 561-576.
2 Norman H. Baynes. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler. Vol.1. Oxford University Press. 1942. 19-20.
3 Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Hurst and Blackett Ltd. 1939. 240.
4 Kysar, Robert. Voyages in John – Charting the Fourth Gospel. Baylor University Press. 2005. 147. Print.
5 Ibid. 
6 The Apostlic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Justin Martyr (trans. Philip Schaff ) Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians. Chapter 11. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 107.
7 Ibid; Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho; Chapter 17. p. 320.
8 Philip Schaff . Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: 212: Leo the Great & Gregory the Great. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. (1885). p. 317.
9 Sherlock, Michael. “Refuting the Atheist-Hitler Myth”. Michael Sherlock Author. 26 Nov 2014. Web.
10 Ibid. , p.171
11 Adolf Hitler. Speech in Berlin. October 24, 1933.
12 Trevor-Roper, H.R. (1953). Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944. Trans. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 2nd ed. 1972; 3rd ed. 2000. PDF
14 Ernst Helmreich, The German Churches Under Hitler. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1979, p. 241.
In order to prove Christianity true, two central claims are necessary: the Gospel Jesus is a historical person and the Gospels are historically reliable. These are two related claims and both are verifiable or falsifiable. What follows demonstrates exactly why both claims are false.
Are the Gospels historically reliable? The answer is a resounding no and this much is admitted by the consensus:
Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.1
I’m sure Christians think the consensus says otherwise, since many of them seem to have done nothing but indulge their confirmation bias and read what conservative Christian scholars have had to say about this matter. Like the evangelists and first readers, these scholars want to confirm the Christian faith. They never intended to conduct honest research. For starters, had they actually intended to conduct honest research, in starting from the assumption that the Gospels are historically reliable, they would have quickly come to find out that the Gospels are not historically reliable at all.
To find out why this is the case, we need to discuss authorship, genre, external attestation, and internal consistency. If we want to find out whether we have a historically reliable piece of ancient writing, authorship is important. The Gospels are a curious case already because unlike the writings of ancient historians, the Gospels are, strictly speaking, anonymous.2 In the same vein, the genre of the Gospels has to be called into question because they’re not written as history. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem they were written as biographies. Even if we allow the assumptions that they were ancient biographies and are historically reliable, we’d still require external attestation–especially for the more fantastical bits found in the Gospels, e.g., Jesus walking on water. Also, if we allow for these assumptions, we’d want to see if the Gospels are internally consistent, i.e., do the Gospels cohere with one another. Once we discuss these points, we’ll arrive at the honest conclusion that the Gospels are historically unreliable.
Matthew Ferguson, a Ph.D. graduate student in Classics at the University of California, Irvine, states:
The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.3
Even conservative scholars like Craig Blomberg accept this conclusion, so if you’re the type of Christian to bypass that and say the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might as well continue in your delusions. The related delusion is that these accounts were written by eyewitnesses. It is also a matter of consensus that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. Bart Ehrman puts it succinctly:
To begin with, they are not written by eyewitness. We call these books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because they are named after two of Jesus’ earthly disciples, Matthew the tax collector and John the beloved disciple, and two of the close companions of other apostles, Mark the secretary of Peter and Luke the traveling companion of Paul. But in fact the books were written anonymously—the authors never identify themselves—and they circulated for decades before anyone claimed they were written by these people. The first certain attribution of these books to these authors is a century after they were produced.4
That the authors don’t tell us who they are is a glaring issue because the authors of historical accounts identify themselves, e.g., Jospephus, Suetonius. It’s an issue, but it can be overcome. Tacitus, for instance, did not identify himself. Thus, this need not be the deciding factor in concluding that the Gospels are historically unreliable. The question remains, however, how exactly does one identify the author of a historical text. Though we’re not discussing external attestation and internal consistency just yet, these points relate to how we find out who the author of such a text is. It is widely recognized that there’s not one generally accepted method for doing this, but there are reliable ways. Matthew Ferguson outlines one way in which we identify the author of an ancient historical text:
Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text. The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, or mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc.5
This is more or less the smoking gun. If we have either of these, but preferably both, we have no reason to doubt the authorship of the text. To go with an example you’re no doubt familiar with, no one can reasonably doubt the authorship of the authentic Pauline Epistles: 1 and 2 Corinthians , Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans, and 1 Thessalonians. This can’t be reasonably doubted because Paul identifies himself within the text. Yet the ones that are doubted– Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus–are doubted for one of the reasons cited above. The non-authentic Pauline Epistles are written in a palpably different style that doesn’t match the style of the authentic ones. That there are only seven authentic Pauline Epistles is a matter of scholarly consensus as well. Ephesians was and still is disputed, but it is likelier that Ephesians is not authentic.
As with Tacitus, even if the author doesn’t identify himself within the text, there are other ways we can know who wrote the text. One way is to place one’s name in the genitive, as Tacitus did. This isn’t to say that the name in the genitive correctly attributes a work to said author in every case. This can still be doubted. The Gospels, on the other hand, fail in this regards. Ferguson states:
[T]he Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.6
Aside from this, since the original manuscripts aren’t available, we don’t know whether these titles were original to the text. Bart Ehrman explains that the titles can’t be traced back to the original manuscripts and that it is highly likely that the titles were added afterward by scribes.7
The fact remains that there’s no external attestation. Pliny, for instance, confirms that Tacitus wrote Historae. No one confirms that Mark, for instance, wrote the Gospel of Mark. A lot more can be said on this topic and since I do not consider myself an authority on this topic, I’d advise Christians to read Ferguson’s “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels” and also Keith Reich’s series on Gospel Authorship. He has a Ph.D. in Religion/Focus New Testament from Baylor University.
The problem is the Christian’s starting point. Their claim is fixed and is therefore the “truth claim.” They then try to find only that evidence which seems to agree with they’re presumed conclusion. This is confirmation bias. This is what I mean when I call someone intellectually dishonest. They do not research first and then conclude. They draw a comforting conclusion and then seek evidence; some don’t even care about evidence or change the meaning of evidence so that it is easier for them to disqualify unfavorable facts. At any rate, the authorship of the Gospels is a settled matter: the Gospels are anonymous works and aside from the pretended expertise of layman and the books of dishonest apologists like Lee Strobel, there’s no way around that.
When concerning the genre of the Gospels, it is not straightforwardly obvious to Christians that they are not historical accounts. Christians with more literalist bents can’t see it any other way. This goes back to starting with a comforting conclusion. The conclusion is that Jesus was god and that therefore, the acts attributed to him in the Gospels actually happened. Otherwise, it would be difficult to conclude that he was god incarnate. Take away all of these fantastical acts and all you have is an itinerant first century preacher. This is precisely who the historical Jesus was according to the majority of scholars. They have, in other words, favored a minimal historicist conclusion. They have, for all intents and purposes, stripped Jesus of the divinity he demonstrated in the stories told by the Gospels. In any case, the Gospels aren’t historical accounts. Matthew Ferguson outlines the criteria historical texts meet:
The genre of ancient historical prose has key features that are crucial to understanding which works belong to the category and why they are more trustworthy than sources that do not. It is not enough for a text to simply talk about things that took place in the past, even when the content deals with real people and locations. A historical text must investigate and probe these matters, discussing the research process involved, so that it does not merely provide a story, but a plausible interpretation of what took place.8
Right away, if we call to mind the content of the Gospels, we will quickly notice that the Gospels meet none of these criteria. They don’t accurately represent the past events in question. In fact, the Gospels embellish and mythologize and thus, make it quite difficult to find the historical tidbits contained within them. They also do not investigate these events or offer plausible interpretations of what happened. More specifically, they don’t explain how or why a given event happened. Ferguson continues:
As someone who studies ancient historical writing in the original Greek and Latin languages, it is clear to me that the Gospels are not historical writing. These texts instead read like ancient prose novels. In all but Luke, we do not hear anything about the written sources that the authors consulted (and even the author of Luke does not name them, explain their contents, or discuss how they are relevant as sources), the authors of the Gospels do not discuss how they learned their stories or what their personal relations are to these events, and even when John claims to have an eyewitness disciple “whom Jesus loved,” the gospel does not even bother to name or identify this mysterious figure (most likely an invention of the author). Instead, the Gospels provide story-like narratives, where the authors omnisciently narrate everything that occurs rather than engage in any form of critical analysis. Accordingly, the Gospels all fall short from the criteria that can be used to categorize a piece of historical prose.9
This is the arguably the primary reason they’re historically unreliable: they don’t even qualify as historical accounts in the first place. If we cannot establish that these are historical accounts, then we can’t even begin to talk about whether they’re historically reliable. It stands to reason that they have to be proven historical texts before we begin to have a conversation about whether the text honors what actually took place and whether it adequately explains and interprets these events. A Christian can claim, for example, that Jesus walking on water is the “truth claim.” Yet this doesn’t read as a historical account, much less a reliable one. We have an isolated event that is told in a story-like manner in where the writer narrates his account from an omniscient point of view. There is no investigation, no explanation of why this happened, and no plausible interpretation for this rare feat.
Aside from that, there is absolutely zero outside attestation of this event. There can’t be any because this anonymous writer is telling a story that conveniently took place in a storm. Therefore, no one could have seen it happen and thus, there cannot be any extra-biblical attestation. There’s a much more plausible explanation for this story and I’ll be sure to return to this later, but as far as the historical reliability of this story, it is safe to conclude it was dead on arrival. The notion that Jesus actually walked on water is beyond laughable in any circle outside of one comprised of deluded believers. Furthermore, there’s no research they will find to adequately defend their view. They are, in other words, left with no warrant or justification for holding said view. They are therefore left with no claim to the truth or factuality of their claim, not just for the miracle in question, but also for the other miracles mentioned in the Gospels.
Though there is a clear issue in identifying biographies in the Greco-Roman period, as with the criteria of historical texts, the Gospels also fail to match the criteria of historical biography in that period. The reasoning here is quite involved and once again, I’d advise Christians to read Ferguson’s “Are the Gospels Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι,” which is cited below. For our purposes though, it is useful to note Ferguson’s observations concerning the type of biographies the Gospels attempt to be–namely ones that focus on Jesus’ moral character and personality:
- The Gospels are anonymous in the composition, just like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander.
- The Gospels operated, at least originally, more as “open texts,” since much of their content was adapted and reworked into later versions. For example, the Gospel of Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke likewise borrows from 65% of the material in Mark. This is not typical of historical and scholarly biographies, which had greater authorial control, such as those of Plutarch, who does not merely copy his material from earlier works.
- The Gospels do not discuss their sources or methodology, which is a feature of more historical and scholarly biographies. Instead, like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander the Great, they are less critical, more hagiographical, and include more legends and myth-making.10
That last point speaks to the exact genre of the Gospels. As they stand, they are mythological hagiographies. As a point of comparison, Ferguson goes on to speak of Alexander the Great, since myths about him became ubiquitous shortly after his death.
As Kris Komarnitsky discusses in “Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels,” fictional biographies emerged about Alexander the Great within half a century of his death, just as the Gospels were written about Jesus roughly 40-60 years after his death. As the comparison with the Alexander Romance shows, a biography is not historically reliable simply because it is written only a few decades after the subject’s death, since many popular ancient biographies were written within that span, even for historical figures like Alexander the Great, and yet they included large amounts of legendary development. This form of biography likewise does not engage in the source analysis and methodology that is necessary to make an ancient text historically reliable.11
Ferguson eventually concludes that the Gospels resemble the Septuagint more than Greco-Roman biographies.
It should also be noted that, unlike historical Graeco-Roman biographies, the Septuagint is not as methodologically rigorous, and almost never discusses the sources or the methods of investigation used to construct narratives. This may very likely account for why the Gospels are not similar to ancient Graeco-Roman historiography. Since historical biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, overlapped with this category, the Gospels are not very similar to them as well, though they may share features with popular Graeco-Roman biographies, such as those of the Alexander Romance.12
As stated earlier, unless you’re a conservative New Testament scholar, this is straightforwardly accepted. Of course, this isn’t widely accepted by Christians, but that’s because this information isn’t as accessible as misinformation. Apologetic works like Strobel’s “The Case For Christ” are much more available. Furthermore, this sort of information isn’t openly discussed in church or even in seminaries. Some seminaries will brainwash Christians into thinking all of this is irrelevant. Unfortunately, it isn’t–most especially when they’re trying to argue that the Gospels relay historical events. The Gospels do not speak of a historical account.
III. External Attestation
As stated earlier, we cannot have external attestation of Jesus walking on water. According to the myth, it happened during a storm, so there’s no conceivable way an ancient historian would have been out in the storm seeing this all unfold. One might argue, however, that there is historical attestation for the existence of Jesus. In this section, I simply want to throw the external attestations into disarray. I, in other words, want Christians to question Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and so on. I want them to realize that these external attestations aren’t as reliable as they’ve been led to believe.
For starters, Christians who think that the miraculous acts found in the Gospels are historical are confronted by an unfavorable fact: none of the extra-biblical sources confirm any of Jesus’ miracles. My purposes here aren’t so much to show that they fail to mention any of his miraculous acts, but that they might also fail to mention him altogether.
We’ll begin by discussing the Testimonium Flavianum. There isn’t much debate about it’s authenticity. Christian apologists will have us believe that, but there have been a few nails in this coffin for quite some time. Richard Carrier put the last nail in the coffin with his paper, Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus. Before we go there, allow me to quote Carrier who speaks of another important paper that Christians will likely never read:
Further evidence that the longer reference is a Christian fabrication lies in an article I didn’t cite, however, but that is nevertheless required reading on the matter: G.J. Goldberg, “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (vol. 13, 1995), pp. 59-77. Goldberg demonstrates nineteen unique correspondences between Luke’s Emmaus account and the Testimonium Flavianum, all nineteen in exactly the same order (with some order and word variations only within each item). There are some narrative differences (which are expected due to the contexts being different and as a result of common kinds of authorial embellishment), and there is a twentieth correspondence out of order (identifying Jesus as “the Christ”). But otherwise, the coincidences here are very improbable on any other hypothesis than dependence.13
Part of the reason Carrier doesn’t cite it in his own paper is because Carrier’s conclusion is markedly different from Goldberg’s. Carrier’s conclusion addresses James the brother of Jesus. The James passage isn’t “almost universally” acknowledged as authentic as some have claimed, and that has never been the case; more importantly, because of Carrier’s paper that will never be the case. So what is Carrier’s conclusion?
It is more probable that the phrase, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, the name for whom was James,” originated in an accidental interpolation in the Caesarean library than that it came from Josephus’s hand. Without “who was called Christ,” we have no reference to this passage in Origen at all, and we have no evidence that the phrase was ever in Josephus, as the silence of Luke-Acts, Origen, and every other author, including Hegesippus (whose account shows no knowledge of the events related in AJ 20.200) suggests. Origen does not quote Josephus when he, in three places, uses the phrase “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” because in none of these places does he quote or refer to other Josephan material (be it a distinctive construction like “the name for whom was James,” or content particular to AJ 20.200). Rather, he uses a story clearly found only in the Christian author Hegesippus, who also relates a story unknown to Luke and, therefore, probably a second-century invention, as its internal absurdities further suggest. Origen never claims that his material originated from the AJ, and Eusebius could not find it anywhere in Josephus’s writings either, so he simply quoted Origen, but passed it off as a Josephan quotation. Eusebius is the first to notice any mention of Christ in AJ 20.200; unlike Origen, he is the first to quote it; he is the first to declare it a reference to the same James. It seems highly likely, then, that τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ (“who was called Christ”) is an accidental scribal interpolation or innocent emendation, and never appeared in the original text of Josephus.14
He also concludes that the passage was likely speaking of Jesus ben Damneus and his brother James. Ananus ordered that James be stoned to death; Ananus was soon replaced by Jesus ben Damneus–perhaps a punishment for killing an innocent man. Josephus discusses this in the same narrative a few lines after purportedly mentioning “James the Just” who was “the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ.“ Therefore, it is highly probable that he originally spoke of Jesus ben Damneus and his brother James. This is a well-supported conclusion–especially when considering that the death by stoning of “James the Just” is not corroborated anywhere else. Hegesippus wrote a myth concerning the stoning of James; however, this myth is markedly different. In this myth, James the Just is thrown from the roof of a temple and then stoned; however, that doesn’t result in his death. He dies when he is struck in the head with a staff.15 Also, there is no mention of Ananus, and that is perhaps the key difference.
Josephus does mention the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist, but he disagrees with the Gospels on some details, e.g., why he was killed; where he was imprisoned. Ultimately, the historicity of John’s baptisms doesn’t imply that he baptized Jesus. Historical people and places are commonly incorporated into myths, e.g., Darius I in the book of Daniel; Pharaoh (which one?) in Exodus. Therefore, it is our right to ignore Josephus’ mention of John the Baptist given these reasons.
In order to understand the conclusion made, it is useful to quote the passage in question. Then you’ll see why some scholars have concluded that Tacitus is relaying hearsay.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind (Annals 15:44, c.a. 116 AD).16
Scholars generally consider this passage to be both authentic and historically reliable. However, there are some issues with this source, namely that the passage may have been hearsay. R.T. France states that Tacitus repeated what he heard from Christians. More specifically, he stated:
The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judea by order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century. Suetonius and Pliny, together with Tacitus, testify to the significant presence of Christians in Rome and other parts of the empire from the mid-sixties onwards, but add nothing to our knowledge of their founder. No other clear pagan references to Jesus can be dated before AD 150/1/, by which time the source of any information is more likely to be Christian propaganda than an independent record.17
Also, Tacitus would have known that Pilate was a prefect and not a procurator. At best, the passage describes an event that involved early Christians and it also establishes that a man known as Christus was crucified by Pilate. It doesn’t establish that he resurrected. It doesn’t establish that he performed miracles. It doesn’t establish that he walked on water. It doesn’t establish that he ascended to the right hand of the father. It is not corroboration for the Gospel Jesus.
C. Pliny the Younger
Pliny’s letter to Trajan provided details concerning the trials Pliny conducted. Though the letter mentions Christ, the letter gives more insight on the practices of early Christians and the attitudes Roman officials had toward them. Like the previous sources, it doesn’t give us any information on a historical Jesus nor the divinity of Jesus as described in the Gospels.
The following is Roman historian Suetonius’ reference: “Claudius Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit (Life of Claudius, 110 CE).” The translation is: “Claudius drove the Jews out of Rome, who at the suggestion of Chrestus were constantly rioting.” The reference doesn’t say Christus. It clearly says Chrestus. However, Jesus could not have been alive at this time because Claudius reigned from the years 41-54. Christians believe that Christ was crucified in the year 33 C.E. Thus, if he existed, he was not alive at this time and therefore, the passage isn’t referring to the Gospel Jesus or the individual he was based on. Like the previous three, it does nothing to establish his divinity.
E. Thallus/Julius Africanus
This event followed each of his deeds, and healings of body and soul, and knowledge of hidden things, and his resurrection from the dead, all sufficiently proven to the disciples before us and to his apostles: after the most dreadful darkness fell over the whole world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake and much of Judaea and the rest of the land was torn down. Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, without reason it seems to me. For….how are we to believe that an eclipse happened when the moon was diametrically opposite the sun?18
This would no doubt be of interest had it been written about closer to the event. Unfortunately, the consensus is that Thallus wrote in the second century. Richard Carrier states:
This is all we get. It isn’t clear what Thallus actually said, or whether he even mentioned Jesus at all. Africanus is merely criticising the possibility that the darkness at the death of Christ was a solar eclipse, and thus a natural rather than a supernatural event–an attack addressed in the Apology of Tertullian, and voiced by the Jews in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which may have been written in the time of Africanus. Although this implies that Thallus mentioned the death of Christ in some way, it does not entail it. For Thallus may have simply recorded an eclipse that occurred around the time that Christ was believed to have died, with Africanus connecting the events on his own. We do not have the context of this quote, and we do not know what else Africanus said about this event or about Thallus. Of course, even if Thallus did mention the death of Jesus, we have already shown that he then probably wrote in the 2nd century, when we know this gospel story was already circulating nearly a century after the event. In such a case, Thallus is not an independent witness to the story, but is merely responding to Christian literature. This makes him of practically no use to apologists.19
Carrier goes on to speak of Phelgon of Tralles. His analysis is interesting and to my mind, thorough and conclusive. Anyone who’s interested can read his full analysis which is cited below.
F. The Talmud
The mentions occurring in the Talmud are extremely problematic:
1. Jesus as a sorcerer with disciples (b Sanh 43a-b)
2. Healing in the name of Jesus (Hul 2:22f; AZ 2:22/12; y Shab 124:4/13; QohR 1:8; b AZ 27b)
3. As a torah teacher (b AZ 17a; Hul 2:24; QohR 1:8)
4. As a son or disciple that turned out badly (Sanh 193a/b; Ber 17b)
5. As a frivolous disciple who practiced magic and turned to idolatry (Sanh 107b; Sot 47a)
6. Jesus’ punishment in hell (b Git 56b, 57a)
7. Jesus’ execution (b Sanh 43a-b)
8. Jesus as the son of Mary (Shab 104b, Sanh 67a)
Of these references, two, three, seven (?) and eight relate to the figure in the Bible. However, the other references do not relate to him in the slightest; (1) doesn’t because it specifically says he had five disciples and not the 12 mentioned in the Gospels, and (8) doesn’t relate to him because it says that Mary slept with a soldier named Pantera–thus making Jesus his bastard son rather than someone born of a virgin. Number seven speaks of a Jesus who was stoned and then hanged. The Gospels do not corroborate the stoning account in Sanhedrin 43. It is obvious that Christians are biased when appealing to this source. Scholars are divided concerning the relationship these references have to a historical Jesus. Moreover, they consider the passages to be a response to Christian proselytism.
Of course, there are many other sources according to apologetic sites, but like the above, which are the most commonly cited, they are all problematic. More importantly, none of them establish Jesus’ divinity; none of them attest to his miracles and fantastical acts.
IV. Internal Consistency
To demonstrate why the Gospels aren’t internally consistent, I need only present a series of examples. No Christian to date has solved this conundrum and that’s because they simply can’t. Bock’s harmonizing tactics don’t work because in many of these cases, it makes for one heck of a confused narrative.
Did Jesus carry the cross the entire way or did Simon of Cyrene carry it for him; Mark 15:21 or Luke 23:26 and John 19:17? Did one robber mock him or did both; Matthew 27:44 or Luke 23:39-40? Did the curtain rip before or after; Mark 15:37-38 or Luke 23:45-46? Who went to the tomb–did Mary Magdalene go alone or did she have company and if so, how much company; Mark 16:1-3 (Mary Magdalene goes with Mary and Salome) or Matthew 28:1(Mary Magdalene goes with just Mary) or John 20:1 (she goes alone)? Was there one man or one angel in the tomb (Mark 16:5 or Matthew 28:2-3) or were there two men or two angels (Luke 24:4 or John 20:11-12)? Was the stone rolled away or not; Mark 16:3-4 or Matthew 28:2? Where’s this earthquake in the other Gospels by the way? Were the disciples to stay in Jerusalem or were they to go to Galilee (Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:7 or the silence of Luke and John on whether or not to go to Galilee)? Did the women tell the disciples or did they stay silent? As Ehrman says, it depends which Gospel you read.
Given what’s outlined above, the authorship and genre of the Gospels are dubious. In other words, we don’t know who the authors actually were. Furthermore, despite Christian pretenses, they aren’t historical texts or biographies. They are embellished hagiographies that are littered with myths. There’s also no external attestation or corroboration of any of the more fantastical elements in the Gospels; also, corroboration of the more grounded elements are questionable. To top it all off, the Gospels do not cohere with one another in a few key places. So aside from the fact that Jesus did not walk on water, Jesus didn’t do anything the Gospels say he did. The Christian must either a) provide warrant for their opinion; b) provide justification for their opinion; or c) demonstrate that their opinion aligns most closely to the facts or is a reiteration of some truth. In this case, their opinion is untenable.
As stated earlier, I said I would return to the story of Jesus walking on water. Despite what some modern Christians think, it can be argued that this was never meant to be taken literally. Likewise, this story may have been written as allegory.
It is, as German theologian David Friedrich Strauss wrote in his two-volume book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet), myth. Not “myth” as in complete fiction, but, similar to the story of Jesus’ resurrection, parable with the intent of conveying a deeper meaning, or lesson. It is a history-like story trying to convey some truth. It is, in other words, allegorical.
In ancient cultures and religions, and very much so in Christianity, it was common to liken tough times to stormy seas that were life-threatening This can be seen in instances of the Dioscuri, who delivered shipmen from stormy seas, as seen in the Homeric Hymns. Or even with Archilochus or Alcaeus comparing the troubles of tyranny to stormy seas. The purpose was to show that one, and only one, could rise above the trials and tribulations of life. That person was Jesus of Nazareth, and if others would follow him, they, too, would rise above all the issues that faced the people of that time.20
In fact, this sort of figurative talk for so called trials and tribulations is alive and well in the modern day. Christians still talk about deserts and storms when speaking of their problems or tests of faith. In fact, the story of Jesus walking on water is often used in one sermon after another in relation to the struggles one is currently facing. The disciples represent the Christian. They are, in other words, alone and helpless. Though they have each other’s company, none of them can stop what comes next. The congregation can’t exactly help the Christian out of their current jam. But along comes Christ as a phantom on the stormy sea; he has come to rescue them and get them out of the jam. I can’t for the life of me see how anyone would come to read this story literally and consider it a piece of historical retelling.
In any case, anyone willing to be honest would see that the story of Jesus walking on water isn’t historical. It’s not based in fact nor is there any evidence to support that claim. To the contrary, there is incontrovertible evidence to support what I’ve offered here–even a charitable interpretation available to Christians. That the story of Jesus walking on water was meant to be considered an allegory in no way implies that they should renounce their beliefs altogether; it in no way implies that Christianity is false. In fact, there are plenty of Christians who favor this interpretation and have no issue with its ahistorical content. Or perhaps, to their mind, it isn’t even an attempt at historical retelling; it’s, in other words, non-historical since the story wasn’t meant to be read that way.
Ultimately, my purpose was to demonstrate the historical unreliability of the Gospels and by extension, the non-historicity of the Gospel Jesus. That’s the Jesus modern Christians need to exist in order for them to assert that their beliefs are true. These two claims are absolutely essential to Christianity and no amount of pseudo-philosophical language can change that. Some Christians may be, for instance, of the Van Tillian flavor and argue that I need to either firmly establish my entire epistemology or debase their epistemology in order to make my claims. They’re essentially moving the goalposts and making Christianity as abstract as possible, so that it is easier to sidestep the questions I’ve just answered.
1 Ferguson, Matthew. “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament”. Κέλσος. 18 Aug 2013. Web.
3 Ferguson, Matthew. “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”. Κέλσος. 17 Dec 2013. Web.
4 Ehrman, Bart D.. How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014. 90. Print.
5 Ibid. 
6 Ibid. 
7 Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 249-250. Print.
8 Ibid. 
9 Ibid. 
10 Ferguson, Matthew. “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies? The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι”. Κέλσος. 8 Jul 2014. Web.
11 Ibid. 
12 Ibid. 
13 Carrier, Richard. “Jesus in Josephus”. Freethought Blogs. 21 Dec 2012. Web.
14 Richard Carrier. “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (2012): 489-514. Project MUSE. Web. 29 Dec. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
15 Now some persons belonging to the seven [Jewish] sects existing among the people, which have been before described by me in the Commentaries, asked James: “What is the door of Jesus? And he replied that he was the Savior. In consequence of this answer, some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects before mentioned did not believe, either in a resurrection or in the coming of one to requite every man according to his works; but those who did believe, believed because of James. So, when many even of the ruling class believed, there was a commotion among the Jews, and scribes, and Pharisees, who said, “A little more, and we shall have all the people looking for Jesus as the Christ.”
They came, therefore, in a body to James, and said, “We entreat you, restrain the people: for they are gone astray in their opinions about Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat you to persuade all who have come here for the day of the Passover, concerning Jesus. For we all listen to you; since we, as well as all the people, bear you testimony that you are just, and show partiality to none. Therefore, persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus: for all the people, and we also, listen to you. Take your stand, then, upon the summit of the Temple, that from that elevated spot you may be clearly seen, and your words may be plainly audible to all the people. For, in order to attend the Passover, all the tribes have congregated here, and some of the Gentiles also.”
The aforesaid scribes and Pharisees accordingly set James on the summit of the Temple, and cried aloud to him, and said, “O just one, whom we are all bound to obey, forasmuch as the people are in error, and follow Jesus the crucified, do tell us what is the door of Jesus, the crucified.” And he answered with a loud voice, “Why ask me concerning Jesus the Son of Man? He Himself sits in heaven, at the right hand of the great power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.”
And, when many were fully convinced by these words, and offered praise for the testimony of James, and said, “Hosanna to the son of David,” then 30. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.3–18 (SC 31:86–90; trans. NPNF2 1:207–8, modified; my emphasis). again the Pharisees and scribes said to one another, “We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.” And they cried aloud, and said, “Oh! Oh! The just man himself is in error.” Thus they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah: “Let us away with the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore shall they eat the fruit of their doings.” So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to one another, “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said, “I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, to whom testimony is born by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying, “Stop! What are you doing!? The just man is praying for us.” But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man.
And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.3–18 (SC 31:86–90; trans. NPNF2 1:207–8, modified; my emphasis).
16 Kirby, Peter. “Cornelius Tacitus”. Early Christian Writings. ND. Web.
17 France, R.T. “The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus,The Founder Of Christianity”. Leader University. ND. Web.
18 Carrier, Richard. “Thallus: An Analysis”. Secular Web. 1999. Web.
19 Ibid. 
20 Mehta, Hermant. “Jesus Didn’t Walk on Water”. Patheos. 18 Sep 2014. Web.
By R.N. Carmona
In an attempt to avoid the intricate history of hell, Satan, and demons, Christians will often accuse atheists of blindly subscribing to Zeitgeist. I’ve gone on record multiples times stating that Zeitgeist is bad scholarship. In fact, it doesn’t even qualify as sound scholarship. Though Zeitgeist alludes to some truth, that is mired and obscured by its faults. Furthermore, though mythicist theory features in the film series, I myself have watched nothing of relevance related to our present topic. So to respond to these accusations, I turn to reputable authorities on these matters. Given this, any honest Christian shouldn’t be dismissive of such sources; as we’ll see later, one of my sources, namely Rikk Watts, is a Christian. The tendency to be dismissive of a source simply because it disagrees with or challenges one’s views is not a feature of intellectual honesty. Let us turn now to a brief discussion on the historical development of hell, Satan, and demons.
Michael Strausberg, Professor at the University of Bergen, surveys the development of Hell starting in the Rig Veda. He, however, says that passages in the Rig Veda do not lend much support to the notion of Hell though he agrees that “in the later Vedas the notion of hell seems to be well attested.”1 He continues by adding that developments in Buddhism and Hinduism soon developed the concept more fully. This is precisely why I specifically mention the Narakas whenever I encounter people who are unfamiliar with the nuanced history of hell. He states:
Voltaire claims that fundamental ideas such as god, devil, resurrection, paradise, and hell, which constitute something like the doctrinal kernel of Christianity, did in fact originate with Zoroastrianism. The presumed impact of Zoroastrian theological ideas such as monotheism, dualism, angels, demons, eschatology, paradise, apocalypticism, and pollution on the Judaic-Christian traditions have been an important stimulus triggering the academic interest in Zoroastrianism. Nowadays, such claims abound in cyberspace, often based on older scholarly literature. The Oxford Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, Robert Charles Zaehner (1913–1974), for example, writing in 1961, finds that “the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying scepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion” (1961:57), namely that Christian concepts of rewards and punishment, heaven and hell, are dependent on Zoroastrian ideas.2
That the concept of hell comes directly from Zoroastrianism, as demonstrated above, is an oversimplification of the concept’s development. As it is related to Christianity, there’s also the fact that it’s a later development in the Christian tradition. Rikk Watts, Associate Professor at Regent College, states that Allen Bernstein’s fundamental thesis in The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds “is that the Christian notion of hell as “a divinely sanctioned place of eternal torment for the wicked” is a late development among views of after-death existence (p.3). In a partially thematic, partially chronological treatment, Bernstein briefly examines ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas before concentrating on Greco-Roman, Jewish, and finally Christian perspectives.”3
He goes on to highlight the neutrality of the afterlife, which more closely resembles the Jewish Sheol rather than the Christian Hell and the Islamic Jahannam. This neutrality led to a problem for some. They reasoned that they, being righteous, shouldn’t share the same fate as the wicked. A bifurcation, occurring in ancient Egyptian mythology, then stated that one’s life determines one’s fate. He concludes that Bernstein’s book has its weaknesses, but none are particularly damning. His main criticism is that Bernstein’s presentation is too linear to capture the intricacy of Hell’s development.
Likewise, the beings said to inhabit Hell, namely Satan and his demons, do not escape such a cross-cultural analysis. They too are derived from Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology. Satan, like Hell, is a concept that developed over time. In fact, he’s not original to Judaism. He’s a later Christian invention that resulted from Christian appropriation of Jewish texts. Elaine Pagel states:
In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire,” an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike. As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (ma’lak) into Greek (angelos). In Hebrew, the angels were often called “sons of God” (bene ‘elohim), and were envisioned as the hierarchical ranks of a great army, or the staff of a royal court.
In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later translated “devil,” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)4
Interestingly enough, this is what may have been at play in 1 Samuel 16:14. The notion of “a harmful spirit from the Lord” is foreign to modern day Christians. That’s why there are apologetic attempts to explain this verse—i.e., to explain it within the context of modern Christian theology. In line with my earlier point, the concept of Satan didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. J.B. Russell writes:
The Christian concept of the Devil was influenced by folklore elements, some from the older, Mediterranean cultures and others from the Celtic, Teutonic and Slavic religions of the north. Pagan ideas penetrated Christianity while Christian ideas penetrated paganism.5
The concept of demons also didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. Like Satan, this concept is also the byproduct of contact with other cultures. Dale Martin, professor of Religious Studies at Yale, demonstrates that the notion of fallen angels isn’t in the Bible. In fact, it’s an idea that hadn’t even occurred to the earliest Christian authors.6 Shaul Saked shows how the resurrection of the dead, the two judgments, and angels and demons are integrated into the theology of Zoroastrianism in a manner that’s more coherent than the way such concepts are incorporated into Judaism.7 The evidence for the fact that Christian eschatology and demonology was influenced by other religions is incontrovertible. Given this, a Christian arguing that Judaism and Zoroastrianism are false might want to consider whether Christianity is also false on the basis of similar reasons.
When attempting to recall the name of the adversary in Zoroastrianism (Angra Mainyu), I came across the following:
It is generally accepted that in the Abrahamic religions, the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as well as the Devil, were heavily influenced by Zoroastrian belief.8
As stated earlier, that Christianity was directly influenced by Zoroastrianism is an oversimplification, but Zoroastrianism had an influence nonetheless. There’s more from where this came from, but that’s certainly enough to put the accusation to sleep. It’s easy enough to accuse so called internet atheists of using Zeitgeist as a source, especially given their affinity for the December 25th graphic that shows that other demigods, e.g. Krishna, Hercules, Hermes, etc., were born on that day. However, one would be hard pressed to make that accusation stick with regards to the scholarship cited here. Voltaire, for instance, was an 18th century historian and philosopher who was born more than two centuries before the first working television set–let alone some pseudo-scholarly documentary that came more than three centuries after his birth.
1 Stausberg, Michael. Hell in Zoroastrian History. Numen 56, 217–253. 2009. Web. 27 Dec 2014.
3 Watts, Rick. The History of Heaven and Hell. Baylor Univeristy. 2002. Web. 27 Dec 2014.
4 Pagels, Elaine H. The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. 39. Print.
5 Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer, the Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1984. 62. Print.
6 Martin, D. (2010). When did angels become demons? Journal of Biblical Literature, 129(4), 657-677. Web.
7 Shaked, Shaul. “Iranian influence on Judaism: first century B.C.E. to second century C.E.”, The Cambridge History of Judaism. Ed. W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. pp. 308-325.
8 “God, Zoroaster, and immortals”. BBC. 2 Oct 2009. Web. 30 Dec 2014.
By R.N. Carmona
Since it is a frequent go-to argument favored by some Christians, I’ve endeavored to repurpose a response to an interlocutor. I have, in other words, turned a response into a standalone post that addresses what Michael Sherlock has dubbed The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy. To be clear, this attempted argument isn’t a fallacy, but rather a slew of fallacies, most prominent of which is tu quoque. As Sherlock states:
The atheist atrocities fallacy is a multifaceted and multidimensional monster, comprised of a cocktail of illogically contrived arguments. It is, at its core, a tu quoque fallacy, employed to deflect justified charges of religious violence, by erroneously charging atheism with similar, if not worse, conduct. But it is much more than this, for within its tangled and mangled edifice can be found the false analogy fallacy, the poisoning of the well fallacy, the false cause fallacy, and even an implied slippery slope fallacy.1
It is a common retort used when someone reminds Christians of the brutality committed in the name of their god. Christians employing this fallacious argument offer a number of examples. I will be discussing the usual suspects: Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and Joseph Stalin.
The first despot we’ll consider is Pol Pot. One may see this as splitting hairs, but Pol Pot was a Buddhist. Buddhism is often conflated with atheism because it’s a godless religion. Buddhism, however, differs from what I call normative atheism in a few respects.2 Kai Nielsen writes:
Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.3
Given this, it is simply dishonest to conflate Buddhism with atheism. We don’t believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe in. Let us turn back to Pol Pot.
Michael Sherlock had the following to say about Pol Pot:
This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further , contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes…
I have only presented a small snippet of the available evidence that points to religion’s role in Pol Pot’s crimes, and there is not one single piece of solid evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, so let us once and for all dispense with that speculative piece of religious propaganda. Pol Pot spent close to a decade at Catholic school and nearly as long studying at a Buddhist institution, so religious education was something he had in common with both Hitler and Stalin, but I would never use such data-mined facts to assert that religious education invariably inspires tyrants to commit atrocities, although a case for such a proposition could probably be made without committing too many logical and historical inaccuracies. I won’t even bother sharing the un-sourced quote from Prince Norodom Sihanouk that Christians present as “proof” that Pol Pot was an atheist, as its origin is not only dubious, but its contents reflect a belief in heaven, which, if genuine, negates any claim that Pol Pot was an atheist.4
Given this, I reiterate, it is irresponsible to conflate Buddhism and atheism. Pol Pot certainly didn’t believe in a god, but he was by no means a normative atheist. Atheists, like myself, do not believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe. What Pol Pot did is, in fact, quite similar to what Stalin did. At any rate, Pol Pot wasn’t some atheist who killed in the name of no god. Therefore, citing him as an instance of a radical atheist is moot.
I turn now to Stalin. This is definitely entering murkier waters. We’ll see, however, that Stalin also wasn’t an atheist who killed in the name of no god. He certainly was an atheist, but his motives were demonstrably ideological and political. Sherlock also quotes Hitchens, but I can quote him directly and more extensively given that I read his book, God is Not Great. Hitchens states:
For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. “How many divisions,” he famously and stupidly inquired, “has the pope?” (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, “More than you think.”) Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma, by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of specially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church that could attach its traditional appeal to his.5
Indeed it was a question of power. Stalin was a man so paranoid of losing his influence and power that he sent an agent to murder Leon Trotsky because Stalin thought Trotsky was exerting his influence on Soviets from all the way in Mexico!
This was, in fact, the same reason he was banished from the USSR in the first place:
In 1924, Lenin died, and Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the USSR. Against Stalin’s stated policies, Trotsky called for a continuing world revolution that would inevitably result in the dismantling of the Soviet state. He also criticized the new regime for suppressing democracy in the Communist Party and for failing to develop adequate economic planning. In response, Stalin and his supporters launched a propaganda counterattack against Trotsky. In 1925, he was removed from his post in the war commissariat. One year later, he was expelled from the Politburo and in 1927 from the Communist Party. In January 1928, Trotsky began his internal exile in Alma-Ata and the next January was expelled from the Soviet Union outright.8
Going back to the Hitchens quote, there are a couple of things that are quite curious. First, that a shaman had disclosed the key to genetics is quite curious. Shamanism is mystical and supernaturalist or at the very least, paranormalist. Normative atheists wouldn’t agree with forms of shamanism. Furthermore, this “making science conform with dogma” business is undoubtedly appalling to most atheists–even if they aren’t in any way scientistic. Like I said, murkier waters. For anyone employing this fallacious argument, there’s a fact about Stalin’s regime that they would like to be nothing more than a historical footnote. Unfortunately for them, the fact that Christians were among Stalin’s faithful supporters is a glaring issue. Hitchens continues by quoting Czeslaw Milosz:
I have known many Christians—Poles, Frenchmen, Spaniards— who were strict Stalinists in the field of politics but who retained certain inner reservations, believing God would make corrections once the bloody sentences of the all-mighties of History were carried out. They pushed their reasoning rather far. They argue that history develops according to immutable laws that exist by the will of God; one of these laws is the class struggle; the twentieth century marks the victory of the proletariat, which is led in its struggle by the Communist Party; Stalin, the leader of the Communist Party, fulfils the law of history, or in other words acts by: the will of God, therefore one must obey him. Mankind can be renewed only on the Russian pattern; that is why no Christian can oppose the one—cruel, it is true—idea which will create a new kind of man over the entire planet. Such reasoning is often used by clerics who are Party tools. “Christ is a new man. The new man is the Soviet man. Therefore Christ is a Soviet man!” said Justinian Marina, the Rumanian patriarch.9
In brief then, Christians were enablers. Rather than stopping this bloodthirsty “atheist”, they sided with him and asserted that he was performing god’s will. I’ll give my readers the same advice Sherlock gave: read Chapter 17 of Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great. Here’s a PDF copy.
With Pol Pot and Stalin now moot points, we turn now to Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong is a favorite among Christians and Christian sympathizers because he was brutally cruel to Christians:
Christians in China have long suffered persecution. Under Mao Zedong, freedom of belief was enshrined in the new Communist constitution (largely to accommodate Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in the west of the country). Yet perhaps as many as half a million Christians were harried to death, and tens of thousands more were sent to labour camps.10
He was such an atheist that he accommodated some religions and oppressed, in particular, Christians. It’s useful to note here that Mao was a Buddhist during his younger years. In fact, he followed after his mother:
Mao would talk about his mother with emotion all his life. It was in her footsteps that he became a Buddhist as a child. Years later he told his staff: “I worshipped my mother … Wherever my mother went, I would follow … going to temple fairs, burning incense and paper money, doing obeisance to Buddha … Because my mother believed in Buddha, so did I.” But he gave up Buddhism in his mid-teens.11
His entire regime was an imitation of the Buddhism he once knew. His Little Red Book is a great place to start. Alexander Cook states:
Associating Mao’s book with the religiously venerated canons of classics, Charles Fitzgerald noted that Mao Zedong Thought has “become to his own people in his own age what the sayings of Confucius were to the Chinese people for the past two thousand years: a source of inspiration and guidance in matters social, political, and moral.” The format of quotation, yulu, not only echoes the terse and fragmented maxims of Buddhist sayings and Daoist epigrams, but most significantly the lunyu, the Analects of Confucius. In this lineage Mao became a modern sage-king by virtue of a reactivation of China’s long-entrenched text-based heritage. The widespread and constantly enacted rituals of reading, studying, and discussion of Mao’s quotations and writings, the telling of success stories in applying Mao’s teachings to all occasions and looking for answers to all problems, the passionate intensity with which the readers adhere and defend Mao’s words–all this warrants religious terms in the characterization of Mao’s Little Red Book.12
Now, would a normative atheist like myself write such a book? No. The book has clearly religious influence. Of the book, Cook also stated:
[T]he little red book is not just a text. It is an object that moves around and has a life of its own. Often, people are not really reading it. Often reading the thing is not important. Often it’s waving it at somebody or having it in your pocket, the symbolism of the thing that allows it to be used in many different ways.
I don’t know what it is about the text, if it is the little size or the red color or the words that are inside it. But the text seems to have had a sort of talismanic property such that someone who is holding the text feels empowered to violence.13
I’ll have more to say about his followers shortly, but you can already see how this is veering far and wide from the atheism proponents of this argument are looking to attack. This isn’t atheism at all. This is ideological and political fervor similar to what we saw with Stalin. Cook then adds that the Little Red Book can be viewed as an authoritative quasi-religious text. He compares it specifically to the Bible and the Qur’an.14 Lastly, it has to be noted that, like in Stalin’s case, religious people ran to Mao’s defense. Not surprisingly, they weren’t the Christians whom he oppressed, but rather, the Buddhists he showed favor to.
“The Tibetan people regard Chairman Mao as their sun, their star and as a living Buddha,” exclaimed the Panchen Lama a few months after the bloody suppression of the Lhasa uprising. Mao’s application of the laws of Marxism-Leninism “is in harmony with the laws of the heavens,” wrote a Chinese magazine.15
With that, I rest my case with regards to Mao. Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao have now been rendered moot. I would hope that some Christians are not like some idiot apologist who asks us to forget the people who have died because of Christian dogmatism and focus instead on the blood on these atheists’ hands. Perhaps they’re, instead, arguing that there’s no connection between religion and atrocities. If that’s the message they’re trying to convey, this is certainly the wrong route to take.
It’s the wrong route to take because in employing this argument, they commit a slew of fallacies jumbled into one. To reiterate, there’s poisoning the well. It also contains, at its core, tu quoque: “we committed atrocities, but so have atheists.” Even if that were the case, two wrongs don’t make a right. It also relies on a false analogy and leads to a slippery slope.
In any event, if like an idiot apologist, they’re looking to disprove atheism by pointing to atrocities, they miss the mark. Christianity and Islam aren’t false because of the atrocities their adherents committed. The atrocities committed by Christians and Muslims are certainly a problem, but it doesn’t follow that these religions are false because adherents of these religions murdered countless people–including their own. This is essentially a non sequitur. Therefore, even if an atheist walks into a church and guns down some congregants, this isn’t a necessary consequence of atheism. It certainly wouldn’t follow that atheism is then rendered false. This is precisely why I stay away from pointing to Christian and Muslim atrocities. Christians like to make use of the words radical or militant, but they don’t realize their misapprehension of such terms. Charlie Hebdo-esque mockery and Dawkins-like tweets and Facebook updates aren’t anything like suicide bombing, acid bathing, and pipe bombing abortion clinics. If our radicals are strident authors and bloggers, then I’m happy with where we stand.
Lastly, even if I were to shred everything I just wrote above and grant that these men were atheists, it matters that modern atheists are not committing atrocities on that scale. Furthermore, atheists aren’t even committing atrocities on a smaller scale. For all that’s said of the moral depravity that would follow from rejection of usually the Judeo-Christian god, secular societies fare better than religious ones.
As University of London professor Stephen Law has observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.”
Consider some specific examples.
The Save the Children Foundation publishes an annual “Mother’s Index,” wherein they rank the best and worst places on earth in which to be a mother. And the best are almost always among the most secular nations on earth, while the worst are among the most devout. The non-profit organization called Vision of Humanity publishes an annual “Global Peace Index.” And according to their rankings, the most peaceful nations on earth are almost all among the most secular, while the least peaceful are almost all among the most religious. According to the United Nations 2011 Global Study on Homicide, of the top-10 nations with the highest intentional homicide rates, all are very religious/theistic nations, but of those at bottom of the list – the nations on earth with the lowest homicide rates – nearly all are very secular nations.16
It’s simple to pretend that there’s no connection between the fundamentals of this or that religion and the behavior of extremists, and refrain from blaming a religion when said religious person kills for their beliefs. If, however, a religion’s fundamentalists are problematic, perhaps the actual problem is its fundamentals. Christians, for the most part, aren’t killing people for their beliefs anymore. They are, however, hurting people and infringing on their rights. Never mind that they hurt their own children: death by exorcism and faith healing. There’s also forced indoctrination and shoving their non-believing children into a closet (see here). The law in the US has some of these people straight. Just look over at more theocratic countries and what you’ll find are radicals who are murdering for their religion. Move over to hyper-religious countries like the Philippines and you’ll find self-depracating radicalism, e.g. flagellation. There should be no reason why kids in the Philippines whip themselves over the back and nail themselves to a cross!
The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy is a failed argument that commits a number of fallacies. Rather than employing this argument, Christians should be concerned with the behavior of some of their peers. As a humanist, I would be very concerned if there were a group of extremist atheists torturing and murdering religious people. I would stand against them. Though it is difficult to endure the rhetoric of so called “new atheists” who seem to want nothing more than to remind you of the horrors committed by people who believed as you do, tu quoque isn’t the best route to take. There’s also the fact that said atheists (usually) have a good reason for brining that up. As mentioned, atrocities are still being committed by religious people. Though it isn’t on the scale of past atrocities, the fact that children are dying due to outmoded beliefs should concern modern Christians. Also, atheists who mention the Inquisition, for instance, are simply frustrated with your continued advertisement of the good your religion does. Setting aside the fact that there’s usually an ulterior motive underlying these purported acts of kindness, Dennett expresses this frustration best: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.”
1 Sherlock, Michael. “The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy–Hitler, Stalin, & Pol Pot”. WordPress. 21 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
3 Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
4 Ibid. 
5 Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 84. Print.
6 “Aug 20, 1940: Trotsky assassinated in Mexico”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
7 Lanchin, Mike. “Trotsky’s grandson recalls ice pick killing”. BBC. 27 Aug 2012. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
8 “Jan 11, 1928: Stalin banishes Trotsky”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
9 Ibid. 
10 “Cracks in the atheist edifice”. The Economist. 1 Nov 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
11 Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. “First Chapter: ‘Mao’”. New York Times. 23 Oct 2005. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
12 Cook, Alexander C. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. 267. Print.
13 Stevenson, Jim. “Q&A with Alexander Cook: The Powers of Mao’s Little Red Book”. Voice of America. 6 May 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
14 Ibid. 
15 Ullman, Bernard. “The Long Shadow of Mao Zedong”. New York Times. 16 April 1961. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
16 Zuckerman, Phil. “Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies”. Psychology Today. 13 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2014.