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.
By R.N. Carmona
The Argument From the Multiplicity of Religions, though not as strong as the Argument From History, is saliently connected to it and thus, these arguments will be presented jointly. Talk of how many religions there are is lacking without first consulting the historical development of religions. Given that these arguments are designed to show a more general response to religion, Christianity’s connection to Judaic and Hellenic traditions will not be mentioned. Instead, there will be a summary of the connection of other religions with an arguably richer history.
The history of any given religion has to take two things into account: historical development–which will show how a religion has changed over time and which will hopefully preserve what it originally was; cultural background–which will show how a religion ties into the culture of its adherents and which will preserve any connection it has with preceding religions. Of these considerations, preservation of a religion’s original form is often the most difficult achievement. This leads to the Argument From History:
P1 If the inception of a religion can be traced historically and if salient connections can be made between a religion and other religions that came before it, it doesn’t have a divine origin. (P -> Q)
P2 If it doesn’t have a divine origin, it can make no claim to being true. (Q -> R)
C If the inception of a religion can be traced historically and if salient connections can be made between a religion and other religions that came before it, it can make no claim to being true. (∴ P ->R)
Recall the two historical conditions: the manner in which religions change over time and the preservation of its original form. It’s arguable whether something of divine origin would lose its original form. It follows that it’s also arguable whether it will change over time–taking cultural, sociological, and political shifts into account. In fact, the claim to divine origin is often included in a religion’s historical development. The claim usually isn’t original to the earliest version of the religion. As is the claim to absolute truth, which will be covered later.
As examples of historical development, the ties between Hinduism, and Buddhism and Jainism will be discussed. The historical development of Hinduism will be summarized. There are ties between Christianity and Islam and between Islam and Sikhism. There are also connections between minor religions like Thelema and Wicca. In the interest of brevity, these will not be discussed.
Hinduism emerged in around 2000 BCE. It’s precise origin is, like most other religions, hard to pinpoint.1 In the fifth century BCE, Buddhism and Jainism emerged. The emergence of these religions aligns with the emergence of the Upanishads, which are the source of Vedanta philosophy. The Upanishads concern themselves with ultimate reality and salvation. Only one of these concepts is central to Buddhism and this is where we can observe a key difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. “Hinduism sees the ultimate reality as being all things united as one glorious divinity. Buddhism sees the ultimate reality as nothingness. While Hindus gain Moksha and become one with everything in the universe; Buddhists gain Nirvana by detaching from everything until nothingness remains.”4 Jainism, on the other hand, views ultimate reality similarly to Hinduism. One way to accomplish this is via harmony with the self and the environment.5
Another salient connection can be made when considering asceticism. However, Jainism’s view on asceticism differs greatly from the idea as seen in Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea originates in the Kalpa Sutra:
Henceforth the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira was houseless, circumspect in his walking, circumspect in his speaking, circumspect in his begging, circumspect in his accepting (anything), in the carrying of his outfit and drinking vessel; circumspect in evacuating excrements, urine, saliva, mucus, and uncleanliness of the body; circumspect in his thoughts, circumspect in his words, circumspect in his acts; guarding his thoughts, guarding his words, guarding his acts, guarding his senses, guarding his chastity; without wrath, without pride, without deceit, without greed; calm, tranquil, composed, liberated, free from temptations, without egoism, without property; he had cut off all earthly ties, and was not stained by any worldliness: as water does not adhere to a copper vessel, or collyrium to mother of pearl (so sins found no place in him); his course was unobstructed like that of Life; like the firmament he wanted no support; like the wind he knew no obstacles; his heart was pure like the water (of rivers or tanks) in autumn; nothing could soil him like the leaf of a lotus; his senses were well protected like those of a tortoise; he was single and alone like the horn of a rhinoceros; he was free like a bird; he was always waking like the fabulous bird Bharundal, valorous like an elephant, strong like a bull, difficult to attack like a lion, steady and firm like Mount Mandara, deep like the ocean, mild like the moon, refulgent like the sun, pure like excellent gold’; like the earth he patiently bore everything; like a well-kindled fire he shone in his splendour.6
In early Jainism, it was usual for an ascetic to die during meditation. This particular sort of meditation is called samaadhi marana.7 Hindu asceticism is rooted in the Vedas. In fact, the greater asceticism veered from the Vedas, the more it was criticized.8 Buddhism, for example, features up to 13 ascetic practices.9 Hindu and Buddhist ascetics, however, don’t get as extreme as Jainist ascetics.
Hinduism has a long historical development. The beginning of Hinduism is usually marked by the emergence of the Vedas. They are a collection of hymns in a version of Sanskirt that’s no longer used. There are four Vedas: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Vedas were later followed by the Upanishads, which are the central text for Vedanta philosophy–Vedanta meaning the end of the Vedas.10 There have been many other changes since then. The nature of the Brahman, for instance, though associated with Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva, in the modern day, Advaita Vedantists don’t associate the Brahman with any of those deities. There have also been many changes in the bhakti traditions. In other words, many devotional cults have emerged–each worshipping their own deity. The history of Hinduism simply cannot be surveyed in a short span. An exhaustive presentation would be required. Endeavoring to do that, however, will be to venture too far from the topic at hand.
Given this brief survey, the inceptions of Buddhism and Jainism can be traced back to Hinduism. The historical development of Hinduism can also be tracked and upon doing so, Hinduism is shown to have taken many turns. Some of these turns were dictated by cultural changes. Others by a shift in religious thinking–as was the case when some Hindus regarded the Upanishads as greater than the Vedas. Others still by socio-political changes. Therefore, any school of Hinduism that claims divine origin is false. The knowledge in the Vedas doesn’t descend from a higher realm, but rather, originates in purely human thoughts. The same can be said of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which borrowed heavily from Hindu philosophy. The fact that they borrowed and then changed that philosophy shows that they’re both human constructs–born out of shifts in religious thinking. This can be seen in the difference between Hindu and Buddhist concepts of ultimate reality.
Aside from a shift in religious thinking, there are other reasons why religions change over time. One of the primary reasons is due to cultural shifts. This was, for instance, what led to changes in Hinduism once the Upanishads emerged. Socio-political pressures also contribute to change in a religion. Though there are exceptions, monotheistic religions thrive in larger cultures; some, like Christianity, began to thrive during the reign of an empire.13 Polytheistic religions thrive in local regions.14 This is true of bhakti traditions in India. Given that religions are dependent on culture, a multiplicity of religions should be expected. Naturally, this leads to The Argument From the Multiplicity of Religions:
P1 Since each religion offers various and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation and other religious concepts, the probability that one religion is true is negligible. (E -> F)
P2 Since the probability that one religion is true is negligible, the probability that a god exists is negligible. (F -> G)
P3 Since the probability that a god exists is negligible, it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist. (G -> H)
C Since each religion offers various and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation and other religious concepts, it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist. (∴ E -> H)
Given the epistemic nature of the conclusion, elucidation is required. In epistemology, a distinction is drawn between belief and knowledge. A further distinction is drawn between knowledge and truth. In the last proposition of the conclusion–which follows from P3–knowledge is tacitly implied. If it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist, it’s likely that one knows some of them don’t exist. This tacit implication can be found in most people. Near universally, people don’t put stock in the possibility of the existence of Thor or Wotan or Hercules. To many, these gods are relics of mythology and aren’t worth serious consideration.
Given this implied knowledge, a transfer to truth isn’t impossible. Religions offer multifarious and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation, and other religious concepts. Some religions make no use of certain concepts. Buddhism, for example, makes no use of the concept of salvation.15 The dependence on culture and the ensuing diversity greatly lowers the probability of any religion being true. The probability is thus negligible. Another tacit assumption is found in P2. Since gods are intimately connected to the religions they pertain to, the probability of one of these gods existing is also negligible. If the religion is dependent on culture and is thus volatile, the gods of a given religion certainly aren’t exempt from this volatility. As already mentioned, the Brahman, though once associated with Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva, it is now dissociated from those gods. Advaita Vedantists have divorced the Brahman from any and all Hindu gods. Given that the gods aren’t exempt from this volatility, it’s reasonable to believe they don’t exist and therefore, it’s reasonable to regard the statement “gods do not exist” as true.
Religions also change due to socio-political pressure. For instance, the prevailing Hindu attitude toward the so called untouchables changed after protests from the likes of Gandhi and Ambedkar.16 As already discussed, shifts in religious thinking can contribute to changes in a given religion. In some cases, it can give rise to a new religion. This might have been the case with Islam.17 The claim of absolute truth, in and of itself, may be due to socio-political, cultural, and religious pressures.
Given that there are now many religions, some may claim absolute truth to garner support. Others may claim absolute truth to stamp out the competition. The claim to absolute truth isn’t original to the oldest religions. It also isn’t original to the earliest versions of monotheistic religions. Islam, again, is a good example. Disagreements over the teachings of Muhammad led to myriad Hadiths–most of which contradict one another on key details.18 The Qur’an itself is controversial. Though some Muslims claim its the version contributed by Uthman, there is no evidence in favor of that conclusion.19 The Qur’an also borrows heavily from the Bible. Given the many Hadiths and the controversial nature of the Qur’an, that claims to absolute truth were an afterthought rather than original to Islam is the more reasonable conclusion.
Ultimately, a religion cannot be traced historically without a consideration of the culture it emerged from. Political, sociological, and religious pressures must also be accounted for. This analysis makes it impossible to separate the two arguments here presented. Since a religion’s history is intimately connected to cultural, political, sociological, and religious shifts, an analysis of the former requires analysis of the latter. Therefore, the strength of the arguments are best seen in conjunction. Given the strength of their conclusions, arguments to the contrary are not only weaker but wrong. For instance, an argument stating that since there are many religions, the probability of one being true is high is a weak argument for two reasons: it is offered by someone clearly favoring one religion over the others; given this, it is likely that this person didn’t account for the variables that must be considered when drawing a conclusion.
Any conclusion that doesn’t account for a religion’s history and all factors leading to its changes over time isn’t a conclusion worth serious attention. Religion is best seen in the backdrop of its cultural conditions. Given cultural evolution, it’s to be expected that a religion will change over time. Claims to absolute truth will sometimes arise given certain pressures. These must also be understood in their proper context. Its simply wrong to consider the truth value of a religion or its god without an understanding of that context.
1 “Religion Library: Hinduism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
2 “Religion Library: Buddhism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
3 “Religion Library: Jainism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
4 Ambaa. “How Does Hinduism Differ From Buddhism”. Patheos. 22 Nov 2013. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
5 Shah, Pravin K. “Jain Path to Liberation”. Harvard University. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
6 “The Kalpa Sutra of Bhadrabahu”. Hindu Website. 1884. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
7 “Jainism”. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
8 V, Jayram. “The Role of Asceticism in the Development of India”. Hindu Website. 2000-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
9 “The 13 ascetic practices”. Dhammadana. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
10 Das, Subhamoy & Sadasivan, Manoj. “The Vedas: A Brief Introduction”. About. 2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
11 “Roots of Hinduism and Buddhism”. History of Hinduism. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
12 Knapp, Stephen. “God Is Both Personal (Bhagavan) and Impersonal (Brahman)”. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
13 Ibid. 
14 Wilkins, John S. “Does religion evolve?”. Science Blogs. 2 Feb 2008. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
15 “Buddhism vs Hinduism”. Diffen. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
16 Kashtan, Miki. “Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual”. Waging Nonviolence. 27 Feb 2012. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
17 Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, p. 179. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. Print.
18 Ibid., p.77-78
19 Ibid., p.192-193