Pharyngula

If I see Francis Collins’ pious, simpering facade one more time, I’m going to get really pissed off. Can someone please give that man a Templeton Prize and let him retire to the Cascades, where he can stare at waterfalls to his heart’s content? CNN has an article on “Why this scientist believes in God”, and it’s just more vapid crap distilled from his vapid book.

But OK, let’s take him at his word. He claims to be presenting reasons to believe … what are they? Do they meet any kind of scientific standard?

I’ve thrown out most of his essay, and pulled out just those parts that actually address the issue. Not much was left.

…I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.

This is an empty tautology. He sees something as a product of a god, therefore he believes in a god…but he offers no reason to see it as a god-product in the first place. If the reason for that is “elegance and complexity”, then he is making the intelligent design argument. We know, however, that complexity is a consequence of accumulating randomness, and that elegance is honed out of the noise by selection. No gods are required for either, this is not a reason to believe.

I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “Why does mathematics work, anyway?” “If the universe had a beginning, who created it?” “Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms?” “Why do humans have a moral sense?” “What happens after we die?”

After the first bogus argument, it’s hard to believe it could get worse, but it does.

There are questions that science can’t answer because they are meaningless or make false assumptions. People once wondered whether the miniature human embryo was present in the sperm, or in the egg; the answer was neither, because preformation was false. It was not a failure of science that it couldn’t pick one of the two answers that were thought up, it was a failure of conception on the part of the questioners.

Same here. Some of those questions are nonsense (“What is the meaning of life?” There is no meaning beyond what you give to it), some are more tautologies (“Who created the universe?” Why assume it was a who?), and some have been answered or can be answered by science (“Why do humans have a moral sense?” Look up the word “altruism” in an evolution text, buddy.)

Most damning of all, though, why would an inability to answer a question cause one to turn from science to an alternative, religion, that is spectacularly unqualified to answer any of the questions posed? Religion cannot tell you what happens after you die in any meaningful way. The religious have no answers, nothing that someone trained to think scientifically can trace back to the evidence — they have assertions, and every one seems to make a different claim.

…was astounded to discover, initially in the writings of the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis and subsequently from many other sources, that one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds.

And these rational, plausible reasons are … ? That was the job of this essay, to summarize the reasons to believe, and simply saying that some other author somewhere made a strong case is inadequate … he’s passing the buck.

And, unfortunately, I’ve read C.S. Lewis. His arguments are as flimsy and evasive as Collins’.

after a search to learn more about God’s character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God’s son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus.

Now we get to the ahistorical lies. There is a poor historical record of Jesus—nothing he wrote survived, all the accounts are second hand, there is no contemporary documentation of his existence. Loving your neighbor is not a remarkable claim, nor is it one first made by Jesus; the golden rule has been around for ages. Atheists can say it, so it’s certainly no evidence of divinity. Claims about being a god’s son, though, are evidence of insanity. He has presented no reason that he would resolve his uncertainty by supporting the claim of kinship with a deity (which has innumerable logical problems already), rather than deciding he was yet another tinpot messiah making ridiculous claims.

And how does a search to learn about God’s character lead to a Hebrew priest, anyway? Why should we assume God even has a comprehensible character? Collins is another example of someone who believes there is “some great big person up there”, one of those naive hicks Elaine Pagels disparages.

I would suggest that this argument by Collins would be better answered by supporting the divinity of Julius Caesar. His existence is far better supported than that of Jesus; we even have examples of his writings preserved, with monuments and first hand personal accounts of his life. He allowed himself to be called a god — Deo Invicto, no less — and his successor built temples to the Divus Julius. It’s awfully silly that Collins thinks the argument that either Caesar or Jesus was a god generates uncertainty, that he resolves in one direction for one of the pair, and in the other direction for the other.

And that’s it. Collins is given space to make an argument for the existence of his god, and this is the best he can do: nostrums, nonsense, noise. He should have been more honest and simply said he believes because he wants to believe, and he has no evidence, scientific or otherwise, to give his belief greater credibility than that of any unlettered church-going yokel.

At least he spared us the waterfall excuse this time, but it’s still all the same insipid mewlings he’s been giving to a willing and anxious media since his awful book came out.

Comments

  1. #1 Håvard
    April 5, 2007

    PZ said: “He should have been more honest and simply said he believes because he wants to believe…”

    I suspect he is incapable of seeing it like that. I believe he really thinks those things are the reasons he has for believing in God, and that they are good reasons for doing so.

  2. #2 Håvard
    April 5, 2007

    PZ said: “He should have been more honest and simply said he believes because he wants to believe…”

    I suspect he is incapable of seeing it like that. I believe he really thinks those things are the reasons he has for believing in God, and that they are good reasons for doing so.

  3. #3 George
    April 5, 2007

    He was on CNN-TV last night and I thought I caught a glimpse of some sort of equal time given to an ID advocate. Did anyone catch what was on the TV? All I know is that Collins was singing at one point, I had better things to do with my son at the time…

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    April 5, 2007

    Either these people need to invent new arguments, or I need to spend more time doing actual work instead of blog-surfing. I’ve said before, “Collins provides an ‘argument’ for God which is little more than Paley’s Watchmaker in disguise” — and I’ve said it at bloody great length, too. I should stop this before it boosts my blood pressure beyond repair, or at least until somebody pays me to write these things.

  5. #5 Markk
    April 5, 2007

    The trouble with these types of arguments is that the Bible never argues it’s case; it just states it.

    Nor does any spokesman in the Bible try to argue their case, except by pointing to other Scripture; people were meant to believe because they had seen a miracle, rather than on evidence of the actual claims presented.

  6. #6 LogicallySpeaking
    April 5, 2007

    The problem of course is that arguments for the existence of god, and similarly for belief in god, do not need to meet any rational standard. Religious faith requires one to ignore some facet of reason and logic.

    Furthermore, all logical arguments require some set of assumptions or axioms. One assumption amongst most scientists and philosophers is that “answers” obtained from rational thought hold the most value. However, while religious followers may get baited into trying to construct rational arguments (and will inevitably fail), ultimately their beliefs stem from a system which places minimal value in logic.

    Believing to know god’s will is a prime example. Assuming god exists, there’s still no rational way to create the bible or any holy scripture. Love thy neighbour (i.e. do unto others..) makes sense on rational grounds – it’s in the interest of self-preservation. But that gays are evil? That we should go to church once a week? That eating certain types of meat on certain days is bad?

    For that matter, even if there is a god, how do you construct a rational argument that concludes that he (arbitrary choice of pronoun) wants to to believe in him? A person of faith doesn’t need to do this thought because they start with the axiom that “god wants us to believe”.

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    April 5, 2007

    “As an atheist, what evidence would convince you to believe in a God?”

    That’s easy, a verifiable miracle that cannot be explained by any known laws of physics would be very strong evidence in favor of god(s). A demonstration of god(s) would be, in my estimation, no more difficult than a demonstration of Karma, or fate or luck or something to that effect. The physical manifestations such a thing should have are not ambiguous. It’s the claims some make to experiencing them that are usually dubious, and/or perfectly explicable by mundane phenomena.

  8. #8 Clayton
    April 5, 2007

    One very frustrating experience I imagine is common to those who teach in the humanities is that often you’ll have a nice discussion going, ask as gently as possible for some explanation as to why someone might think some claim is true, and you’re told ‘For religious reasons’. To say ‘for religious reasons’ is like saying ‘for personal reasons’. It is simply to refuse to specify the reasons while inviting the hearer to accept on faith that they’re good. The trouble is that we’ve seen enough Seinfeld to know that these (putative) personal reasons are never any good, and the religious reasons I can only imagine are worse.

    In response to Jeff, you are of course quite right that entire forests have been felled to address the problem of evil from a religious perspective. Unfortunately, none of the responses seem particularly good. Even if there is some lesson to be learned from the book of Job, I don’t think that the lesson is that the God of the book of Job is a good guy (e.g., the good guys in movies don’t traditionally kill someone’s wife and kids in order to teach them an important lesson). If you do the charitable thing and focus on the God of the philosophers as Dawkins does, it does not seem that there is as of yet any good explanation as to why God would sit idly by while genocide occurs or while the lives of hundreds of thousands are threatened by a tsunami. I’ve read lots and lots and lots of them. All are terrible, and most are offensive insofar as they force us to think of the terrible suffering of others as wholly acceptable losses in the completion of some mysterious divine plan.

    As for miracles, haven’t you read your Hume?

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    April 5, 2007

    AJ Milne (#26):

    Preach it to ‘em, freethinker! :-)

  10. #10 Great White Wonder
    April 5, 2007

    To say ‘for religious reasons’ is like saying ‘for personal reasons’. It is simply to refuse to specify the reasons while inviting the hearer to accept on faith that they’re good.

    What about “deeply religious reasons”? Surely that is 100 times more persuasive.

  11. #11 Tyler DiPietro
    April 5, 2007

    House,

    Your retort is peculiar one. The very point of this post is that Collins’ “reasons” for believing are utterly vapid from a scientific perspective, yet he presents them as if they were a valid means of reconciliation of inanity (“faith”) and rationality (science). For you to imply that this is not a valid topic of discussion among scientists assumes the very deferential stance the Weinburgs, the Dawkins, the Stengers, etc. are vigorously fighting against.

    If it is your position that those damned uppity heathen scientists should shut up and lay off religion, you’re not going to get very far here. As scientists, prospective scientists and scientifically minded people, most of those frequenting this board are sick of that attitude. I see religion and science (as well as rationality in general) as deeply in conflict. If you do not, the devices of argument are always available to you. Shrill denunciations such as your are singularly meaningless to me and, I suspect, just about everyone here.

  12. #12 Tukla in Iowa
    April 5, 2007

    Pretty convenient for Collins that the religion he chose also happens to be the one he’s immersed in. He wanted some sense of ultimate purpose, but he didn’t want to put too much effort into finding that purpose. Collins appears to be an adherent of the “I’m not gonna pay a lot for this muffler” school of theological thought.

  13. #13 AJ MIlne
    April 5, 2007

    Preach it to ‘em, freethinker

    Thanks, man. Seems the internets were down a few rants. Was just doing my part.

  14. #14 G. Shelley
    April 5, 2007

    I’ve also read Lewis (specifically Mere Christianity) and a person would have to be desperate to believe to find it even remotely convincing

  15. #15 John Farrell
    April 5, 2007

    Wow…someone’s been brushing up on his creationist talking points…wanna accuse the darwinists here of eating babies too?

    Oh, brother. Yeah, whatever you say. That’s certainly me all right.

  16. #16 David
    April 5, 2007

    PZ wrote:
    “Some of those questions are nonsense (“What is the meaning of life?” There is no meaning beyond what you give to it)”

    Imagine my surprise at seeing such a comment on a science blog of such repute. This has nothing to do with science; its philosophy. Nevertheless, can anybody help with a sound philosophical (sans ridicule) argument to support the answer given?

  17. #17 Matt
    April 5, 2007

    1: calling “what is a the meaning of life?” a nonsense question misses the mark. People are interested in that question. If you think that the question has a particular answer, i.e. that people create meaning (through their societal roles, families, accomplishments, etc.) well that’s fine. I agree that the meaning of our lives is created, but it doesn’t follow that the question is “nonsense,” i.e. that there is no sense in asking it.

    2: regarding the historicity of Jesus, you demonstrate your lack of training in historical inquiry.

    “…nothing he wrote survived, all the accounts are second hand, there is no contemporary documentation of his existence”

    We have no idea whether he created documents or not, so saying nothing he wrote survives is nonsense. Do we have documents written by (insert name of ancient historical figure here, e.g. Hannibal)? No. Well, I suppose he/she didn’t exist either. CDNF-conclusion does not follow. Moreover, the claim that there is only second hand documentation of him, i.e. no contemporary documents, is also largely irrelevant. First of all, you seem to be unaware that ancient writers had access to written records that we do not have anymore (e.g. they often reference so and so’s work on such and such, and we don’t have it, it’s not extant anymore; stupid scribes and library fires), so even if *we* only have second hand sources about Hannibal, that doesn’t mean everything we have is BS. Second of all, the earliest gospel that we know of, Mark, was probably (based upon text critical analysis) written about a generation or so after Jesus’ crucifixion. That is not that far removed, with the result that it’s not really tenable to say “we don’t know shit.”

    You know, I’m an agnostic. I don’t think Jesus is/was divine, or Odin, or whatever. I think the idea of a virgin birth back then is rediculous, and there were lots of claimants to that back then. But it makes atheists look dumb when they start down the road of “he didn’t even exist.”

  18. #18 Chris Gruber
    April 5, 2007

    But it makes atheists look dumb when they start down the road of “he didn’t even exist.”

    Bullshit. There is no proof for his existence. Just because you’re not sure, doesn’t mean that reality isn’t sure, either. Jesus, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. Believing he did doesn’t make it so. Believing he might doesn’t make it so. Knowing that there is an utter lack of contemporaneous evidence for “his” existence… priceless.

  19. #19 Sastra
    April 5, 2007

    Tukla in Iowa (comment #42) wrote:

    Collins appears to be an adherent of the “I’m not gonna pay a lot for this muffler” school of theological thought.

    Nice one; now there is Diet Coke on my keyboard :)

    As for whether science can answer whether or not there is a “meaning” to Life, or a purpose for our existence, I think that depends on what sort of meaning or purpose people are talking about.

    Imagine two teenager boys, A and B. A’s parents conceived him by accident. They don’t care what he chooses to do with his life. Whatever he wants, is up to him.

    B’s parents had their son for a purpose. They needed an accountant. They deliberately conceived him with the specific goal of his someday becoming a CPA, that he might be able to help them with their taxes. His sex was specifically selected, because they wanted their accountant to be male. They have a plan for his life.

    By examining empirical evidence, you could indeed discover that teenager B has a meaning for his life, and a purpose. Teenager A’s life, on the other hand, has no meaning. He was not created for any purpose.

    I think asking if there is a “meaning for life” or whether we have a “purpose for living” is only an empirical question which science can address if this is the sort of meaning and purpose you’re talking about.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    April 5, 2007

    Take it back a notch, GWW.

  21. #21 Mithrandir
    April 5, 2007

    Y’know what would get me to believe? Pat Robertson being killed by lightning.

    Seriously. Pat Robertson regularly invokes God’s wrath on some hotbed of teh gay or another, and God’s wrath never actually smites said hotbed. That’s false prophecy.

    Deutoronomy 18:22:

    When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or prove true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

    If God exists, He seems awfully apathetic about those who falsely claim to speak in His name. If He lets Pat Robertson blaspheme unscathed, surely He’ll cut me some slack. He damn well didn’t let people get away with that shit in Moses’ time, I tell you what.

  22. #22 Great White Wonder
    April 5, 2007

    Sort of weird that for as long as we have records the majority of people in the world have been psychotic.

    For as long as we have records, people communed with their “gods” by ingesting drugs and/or alcohol. And “priests” have appointed themselves to control who gets to possess and consume the “holy” substances and when.

    Yes, it is “sort of weird.”

    But indoctrinating little kids by scaring them with stories about monsters sending them to hell forever and forever, without mommy and daddy, if they don’t believe in bloody Jesus the white zombie who rose from the grave? That’s about as fucked and wrong as the shit gets on this planet.

  23. #23 Kagehi
    April 5, 2007

    We have no idea whether he created documents or not, so saying nothing he wrote survives is nonsense. …

    See, *other* historical figures all have evidence in the form of documents from “multiple” sources, evidence that things *actually* happened in the places they are supposed to have been, etc. With Jesus you get the equivalent of a Wag the Dog story. He did X here, Y there, Z at the next place, but no one *in* any of those places mentions him, claims to have seen him, has physical evidence that any such person where ever there, etc. Its a con job. Real history has multiple sources of verification, ranging from artifacts (we have none), to secondary accounts (we have none of those either), to prior documents (also none). Could all of that lack of evidence be overturned by *one* scrap of real evidence, well.. maybe, but only as long as its real evidence, and not the BS kind that churches come up with all the time, like fake blood, fake shrouds, crying statues, or the most recent idiocy where they found that the remains of Joan of Arc are part of Egyptian mummies:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,,2050361,00.html

    For some of us, constantly reading about how damn near everything and everyone one that historical data implies “might have” existed eventually produces conclusive evidence they did (or that they are entirely made up legends), Jesus, for which we have no conclusive proof just looks way more likely to be one of the later. We know more factual information able the people that cleaned the clothes of Roman’s than we have evidence of Jesus, and we can even show you where some of their families shops where. We can’t prove that Jesus ever existed, nor anyone else around him. The closest we have come are some burial locations that we can’t even be sure at this point where not faked by people trying to manufacture evidence centuries after the fact, and in which there is *still* no evidence beyond some boxes with organic residue in them, none of which can be traced to anything, since there are no seeds, pollen fragments, pottery fragments, actual bones, or anything from presumed decendents that would could compare anything too, even if we could find DNA to make comparisons with.

    We might as well try to “prove” the existence of the people in Hemmingway’s, “Ten Little Indians”, for all the evidence there is. So, just wondering.. What possible reason is there to believe that its even likely that he existed, any more than say, “Hercules”, for which there is probably actually more mention, outside of the main tales he appears in?

  24. #24 John Bach
    April 5, 2007

    Note to atheists, agnostics and theists alike: There ARE several valid disproofs by professional philosophers of a God with the traditional attributes of omnipotentence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. For a sampling of some of the better ones, consult the recently published “Impossibility of God”, Prometheus Books, Monnier and Martin, eds. Most of these disproofs show that a God with these attributes leads to a logical contradiction (argument ad absurdum), leaving God with the existential status of a square-circle. I’m often surprised that even notable atheists seem totally unfamiliar with this literature (e.g., Dawkins, Harris) and repeat the knee-jerk “truism” that it is impossible to prove (via logic) the existence of God one way or another. Yes, it’s true that you cannot not prove or disprove that ANY God exists, but the traditional omni-God of the monothesitic tradition has been shown to be logically impossible several times over.

  25. #25 Chuck
    April 5, 2007

    Belief in miracles? The ability of some being to bend the laws of physics? THAT is what most people mean by God? Wow, I guess I am an atheist after all. And I have been since I was, oh, nine years old.

    It is precisely the orderliness of nature, the fact that I am made up of spent star fuel ejected into space by supernovae billions of years ago, the fact that a complex chemical system arose three hundred million years after the heavy bombardment phase of this planet’s history would go on to be the common universal ancestor of all the amazing, sublime life forms on this planet, the fact that my mind, mere matter, is able to behold the great symphony of the cosmos and life on this planet: these are why I can call the infinite reality we are in God, and what a God that is. It is the God of Spinoza and Einstein. It is far more worthy of awe and reverence than some the angry sky king of some iron age death cult.

    Mere matter. What an arrogant phrase. Matter is magical. Miracles? Existence is enough of a miracle. A violation of the laws of physics would not be a violation – it would simply mean that our equations are wrong. I’m glad we live in a comprehendable universe, and not some medieval Ptolemaic nightmare.

    Really, Collins is smart. Why cling to such bullshit as a centuries-old dogma? The sense of awe it can provide is nothing next to modern physics, cosmology, geology, and molecular and evolutionary biology.

  26. #26 Great White Wonder
    April 5, 2007

    So what status hell? A very good question with no immediately obvious answer.

    The answer is immediate and obvious. I’m not surprised that you want to pretend otherwise but go right ahead. Let me know when the references to hell and Satan are removed from the New Testament. You might have a valid point then. Should I hold my breath?

  27. #27 David Marjanovi?
    April 5, 2007

    Yes, it’s true that you cannot not prove or disprove that ANY God exists, but the traditional omni-God of the monothesitic tradition has been shown to be logically impossible several times over.

    Are you sure a little ineffability can’t weasel around all of this?

    ——————-

    GWW, what kind of Christianity are you familiar with? It seems to be some American fire-and-brimstone evangelical phenomenon and not, say, Catholicism as taught today in western Europe. In the latter some people go around saying they hope hell is empty and they don’t consider that possibility unlikely, and nobody seems to disagree with them in any kind of public.

  28. #28 David Marjanovi?
    April 5, 2007

    Yes, it’s true that you cannot not prove or disprove that ANY God exists, but the traditional omni-God of the monothesitic tradition has been shown to be logically impossible several times over.

    Are you sure a little ineffability can’t weasel around all of this?

    ——————-

    GWW, what kind of Christianity are you familiar with? It seems to be some American fire-and-brimstone evangelical phenomenon and not, say, Catholicism as taught today in western Europe. In the latter some people go around saying they hope hell is empty and they don’t consider that possibility unlikely, and nobody seems to disagree with them in any kind of public.

  29. #29 John Farrell
    April 5, 2007

    BTW, why is it, “Calendonian”, that you do not have balls to sign your own name to you posts?

    Of course, I’m sure there’s a practical reason.

  30. #30 Great White Wonder
    April 5, 2007

    Catholicism as taught today in western Europe.

    Yeah, that’s a *tad* different from what we’re dealing with here in the US, not only in doctrine but in scale. That’s religion in survival mode, doing whatever it can to remain palatable to its dwindling adherents. On the other hand, if you blink it’ll be co-opted by the nutjobs and turned into a political sledgehammer wielded by the retarded and semi-retarded, just as it has become here, because the foundation is more or less the same.

    they hope hell is empty and they don’t consider that possibility unlikely

    I suppose Hitler is in “purgatory”? Whatever. The entire mythos is so silly and contrived, whether hell is empty or full does not make it any less annoying. The point is to convince the adherent that after the adherent’s brain stops working, the adherent will be sent to a place where all or some of the previous adherents are bored, tortured or basking in eternal bliss. It’s obvious why people WANT to believe this crap but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s crap.

    What is interesting is that religious freaks themselves rarely engage in this kind of basic middle-school level self-reflection, even while they are begging others to “get off drugs” and “get off porn” — activities which provide essentially identical distractions from the drudgery of solving the inherent problems that humans are confronted with every day (e.g., figuring out where the next meal is coming from, avoiding being killed by disease or accident, etc.) And that’s the thing about religion that is most disturbing and least acknowledged in a serious fashion by Americans: it’s tendency to turn into a tool for power abuse by corrupt sickos.

  31. #31 Caledonian
    April 5, 2007

    Lack of reading comprehension and short-term memory problems For The Win!

  32. #32 Caledonian
    April 5, 2007

    For reference, everyone, that is what an actual troll looks like.

    Accept no substitutions, imitations, or people-that-you-are-offended-by-and-so-you-call-them-trolls. Demand the genuine product!

  33. #33 John Farrell
    April 5, 2007

    Like I said, that solves everything. Caledonian, when you have the balls to identify yourself, feel free to email me.

  34. #34 Matt
    April 5, 2007

    RE: #55

    there are more/other meanings of the word “meaning” than you are allowing for, such as an interpreted goal or end. So that a person might, for instance, search for a “meaning” in their life and this “meaning” turns out to be working with disabled people, or whatever. Have a little imagination.

    RE: #56

    I didn’t say there was “proof” of his existence. Knock down some other straw man.

    I’m not all that concerned about Jesus in particular as a figure in history, to be honest. The reason I responded to PZ’s post at all was because it displayed obvious ignorance regarding how historians go about their business, i.e. how sources are used, what may or may not be available and why, etc.

    “Just because you’re not sure, doesn’t mean that reality isn’t sure, either.”

    What?

    RE: #69

    You mean like brief mentions in Tacitus, Josephus, in addition to the gospels? I’d call that “multiple.” True, we have no artifacts. False, we do have secondary documents. And what the hell are “prior” documents? Do you mean “primary?” Otherwise I don’t know how people would write about someone before that person is around.

    Like I said in my earlier post, I don’t believe in any of this Christian stuff, but to go from that to suggesting Jesus probably didn’t exist, as PZ suggests by his comments about Julius Caesar, and others on this board have flatly stated, is not supported by the available evidence. We DO have multiple lines of evidence that aren’t that far removed. The evidence suggests he existed. I mean, does that really bother you all? I still don’t think he was god. He just evidently had a big impact on some people and they formed a cult to him. It’s not as if we don’t have evidence of that happening before Jesus, let alone since.

  35. #35 Chuck
    April 5, 2007

    “monothesitic tradition has been shown to be logically impossible several times over . . . Are you sure a little ineffability can’t weasel around all of this?”

    It’s hard to weasel around the fact that the attributes usually attributed to God cannot logically coexist – like God is both one and three, or God is both infinitely good and sends people to burn in hell, or God is both the infinite ground of all existence, and a person. That last one, by the way, is decisive. As Jason Kuznicki has written, the personal qualities of most descriptions of God contradict the infinite, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent qualities God is supposed to have. It is not merely that God as a being can or cannot exist as an empirical matter, it is that the concept of God itself is meaningless and impossible: it must not exist, since the attributes of God cannot logically coexist.

    The God hypothesis: so bad, its not even wrong!

  36. #36 Dan S.
    April 5, 2007

    After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty . . .

    Collins was involved in the human genome project for at least 10 years before the higher quality ‘rough draft’ was completed (I may be garbling this, being sadly over my head here, but y’know what I mean) in ’03, to say nothing of the more polished ’06 version – and that, of course, is just the very first baby step. How could he bear the uncertainty?!

    Seriously. A two-year state of uncertainty? I’m not a scientist, but isn’t that fairly small potatoes in terms of normal research involving fairly complex problems? And wouldn’t deciding, apparently in a completely arbitrary manner, in favor of one specific answer because one couldn’t deal with the ambiguity be a bit . . . unusual?

    I mean, yes, of course, neither science nor anything even resembling that kind of thinking has anything to do with his beliefs – which isn’t really surprising or unusual – that bit just sorta jumped out at me.

  37. #37 Uber
    April 5, 2007

    I to once thought like Matt but now understand I may have been in error. He said:

    Second of all, the earliest gospel that we know of, Mark, was probably (based upon text critical analysis) written about a generation or so after Jesus’ crucifixion. That is not that far removed,

    I was kinda flabbergasted by this comment. 20-25 YEARS later isn’t that far removed. Try remembering the correct details of things that happened 2 years ago, hell 1 year ago. With the conflicting accounts it lends to the appearance of a story told and repeated with all it’s variances.

    Likewise the ‘outer’ sources are very problematic. Did he exist? I lean on yes. Is it a strong case, I have a hard time seeing how. But I hope he did.

  38. #38 Great White Wonder
    April 5, 2007

    Again, my previous question is still why does Jesus have to not exist for some people?

    I don’t know about “some people” but when I question his “existence” I am not doubting that some popular rebel existed 2000 years ago. Rather, I am doubting that he said and did 95% of the baloney that is attributed to him, and 100% of the miracle baloney.

    As for gaping Jesus-peddling assholes like “Paul,” well of course they existed. In droves.

  39. #39 Matt
    April 5, 2007

    RE: #100

    “Gladly. What the hell difference could it possibly make to anyone except a historian whether they were forged or not?”

    Um, I wasn’t referring to the question of authorship. I was referring to what was actually written. If you will gladly throw those historical sources in the dump as madeup, then you are throwing away what we know about the past. You are throwing away history. Considering that we still teach history, I’d say that’s one important difference throwing out history could make. Do you really think history doesn’t matter? Or just classical history?

  40. #40 tinisoli
    April 5, 2007

    The big draw to all religions is the promise that you and everyone you have ever known and loved will not cease to exist. It is difficult for any other ideas–such as “your mom and dad are worm food”–to get much traction when the afterlife/reincarnation fictions have been on the bestseller list for millennia. I suspect that if there’s anything that will compel people to abandon the insanity of religion in this century, it will not be an appeal to reason but rather a marketing campaign that paints theists as pussies who are scared of death and/or too self-important to conceive of a universe in which their existence does indeed end when they die. I’m just skeptical that reason or evidence (or talk of lacking evidence) will mean much in an age when perhaps the majority of humans (as many have astutely pointed out here) think that “evidence” and “knowledge” are interchangeable with “feelings” and “beliefs.” While the works of Harris and Dawkins serve to invigorate the choir to which they preach, I think we’ll need to sell the non-theistic life a little better. Right now we just look like a bunch of angry scientists, when obviously one doesn’t need to take a single science course to NOT believe in magic men and hooved subterranean ghouls. For example, we could talk about how much lighter life can feel if you are not encumbered with the pressure of pleasing a deity who may or may not reveal himself to you when you kick the bucket.

  41. #41 Azkyroth
    April 6, 2007

    a marketing campaign that paints theists as pussies

    I believe the Feline Anti-Defamation League would have something to say about that…

  42. #42 minimalist
    April 6, 2007

    Why’s that, Kevin? Found any evidence that managed to escape everyone’s notice for the last 2000 years?

    Or, and I’m taking a wild stab here, “IT’S IN THE BIBLE!” plus Josephus. Close?

  43. #43 Kevin Harris
    April 6, 2007

    Wow, minimalist! Doesn’t look like you’d fare too well either!

  44. #44 Caledonian
    April 6, 2007

    Yes, there’s so very much evidence that some person came back from the dead. So very much that we can simply keep saying how poorly people would do in debates instead of actually specifying what the evidence is.

  45. #45 Michael Kremer
    April 7, 2007

    Concerning evidence that Jesus existed and did at least some of what is attributed to him.

    First, we do have the Bible. Yes, it consists of “movement” hagiographies. It doesn’t follow that it is not evidence. Second, to say that these were “written a generation or more after the supposed events, and probably second-hand (or more removed) at that” is misleading at best. On the one hand, “a generation or more” might mean a number of different things. Insofar as it suggests that there would have been no surviving witnesses from the time of Jesus’s ministry, when the scriptures were written, it is a mistaken claim. First of all, some of the Pauline letters date from about 20 years after Jesus’s ministry, and according to those letters themselves some of Jesus’s immediate disciples were alive at the time of their writing. Now, it’s true that the Pauline letters do not contain a lot of details of Jesus’s life, but they do attest to his crucifixion, resurrection, and the institution of the Eucharist. Furthermore, the earliest Gospel (Mark) is commonly dated to around 70 A.D. This would place it about 40 years after Jesus’s ministry. It is plausible that some of Mark’s sources were alive at the time of Jesus’s ministry (if they were younger than Jesus himself they could have been adults during his ministry and still in their early 60′s in 70 A.D.). So there is no need to posit on this basis that even the gospels were written based on “probably second-hand (or even more removed)” testimony. A recent book which argues that this is not the case even for John’s gospel (usually considered the most recent gospel) is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

    As to other ancient sources: Josephus mentions Jesus by name, not merely his followers. He mentions him in two places that I know of. The first is the so-called Testimonimum Flavianum which explicitly describes Jesus as the Christ. This has been argued to be a later interpolation, but the current scholarly consensus seems to be that Josephus did write something about Jesus, although it has been corrupted by later additions. The second passage is a reference to the trial of James, the brother of Jesus (named by Josephus as the brother of Jesus). Again, the scholarly consensus seems to be that this is authentic, although possibly corrupted. The point is that the scholarly consensus is that Josephus mentions Jesus by name in one and possibly two places, writing around 93 AD, although these passages as we now have them contain claims about Jesus that were probably interpolated at a later date. There are skeptics who dispute this but they seem to be in the minority, especially with respect to the second reference to James the brother of Jesus. (The Wikipedia article “Josephus on Jesus” summarizes the controversy and give references to non-Wikipedia sources including a 2003 book on the Testimonium Flaviarum, a 2000 paper by the same author, a book on James the brother of Jesus, as well as more skeptical sources. I’ve read about this in a number of places — some skeptical, some not, some online, some published books. I’m not a scholar of this material but just reporting what any educated person can find pretty easily by googling. For example, see this: http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jdtabor/josephus-jesus.html
    This is from James Tabor at North Carolina, a promoter of the “Jesus tomb” who is certainly not a defender of orthodox Christianity — he argues plainly that people don’t rise from the dead, so there was no resurrection — but obviously a scholar who accepts the historicity of the person of Jesus — otherwise why look for his tomb? The maximally skeptical position seems to be represented by such sites as http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/scott_oser/hojfaq.html. However, as far as I can tell, this site gets things wrong about the “scholarly consensus” when it states “Many Biblical scholars reject the entire Testimonium Flavianum as a later Christian insertion. However, some maintain that Josephus’s work originally did refer to Jesus, but that Christian copyists later expanded and made the text more favorable to Jesus.” It seems to me the “many” and the “some” should be changed to “some” and “most”. Also, it seems to me misleading when this article refers to “the consensus, if there is such a thing” later on. At least that’s my opinion based on what I’ve read. Ask your local expert.)

  46. #46 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    Paul’s letters conflict with the accounts given in the Gospels. Nor do they even provide enough information to determine whether Jesus was considered to have been an actual person or a fictional creation at the time of their writing.

    By your reasoning, we have evidence that Mithras was born out of a stone.

  47. #47 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    We can do all those things just fine right here.

  48. #48 Michael Kremer
    April 7, 2007

    Greg,

    I don’t think you read my remarks carefully.

    I don’t think that the Gospel writers wrote down things that were reported to them at many removes. And I think “long after the fact” distorts things again. I think it’s entirely possible they wrote down things told to them by people purporting to be eyewitnesses, that they wrote down things *in living memory*. This is entirely compatible with things being written down 50 years after they happened. Anyone who has ever listened to their grandparents reminisce about the end of the second World War knows this is possible and that the reports they give aren’t entirely to be dismissed, even if they don’t agree in all details.

    For example, perhaps Mark wrote down what Peter told him (as tradition has it). Now, if that’s right, well, Peter couldn’t write, so Mark wrote for him; but how different is that from Peter writing out his own memoirs? Eventually, of course, we only have what someone has told (or purports to tell) *us*, but then the same goes for Julius Caesar, or Socrates.

    As to Paul, he clearly was alive during Jesus’s lifetime as he was a grown man persecuting Christians within a few years of Jesus’s lifetime. He was a part of that culture and he would know of Jesus in the same way that I know of things going on in my culture that I haven’t witnessed personally.

    Again, the issue right now isn’t whether everything recorded in the Gospels is accurate. I don’t claim that all that Mark wrote down was true — I am granting for the moment, for the sake of this argument, that Peter may have imagined a lot or fabricated a lot.

    I would be happy for the moment if this much was conceded: There was a man named Jesus who was an itinerant preacher and wonder worker in early 1st century Palestine. He gathered around him a group of followers. Eventually, he was put to death by the Romans, by the standard technique of crucifixion. His followers believed that he rose from the dead and came to identify him as divine.

    Some people are skeptical that even this much is historical truth. They think some people in the second half of the 1st century CE made up the story of Jesus in order to promote their own new mystery religion.

    This, I think, is silliness.

  49. #49 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    Wonder worker? Strangely enough, we have little evidence that anyone has ever worked actual wonders and miracles. We have lots of evidence of magicians and con artists, though.

    The evidence indicates at most that some people believed and repeated the claim that there was a person named Jesus etc. etc.

    There isn’t even enough evidence to demonstrate that such a person actually existed. For all we know, he could have been made up.

  50. #50 alienward
    April 7, 2007

    Kevin Harris wrote:

    Can you guys come over to the CARM chat room for a bit? Let’s discuss some evidence.

    We’ll do it right here. But we’ll go ahead use some apologetics from CARM. Here’s the beginning of the conclusion in an article at CARM titled “Was Jesus just a myth?”:

    There is no reason to doubt the reality of Jesus as a historic figure. The gospel accounts are four different accounts from four different people. They were penned by either eyewitnesses or under the direction of the eyewitnesses.

    That’s it, four accounts written decades later and no clue who wrote them. That’s remarkably weak historical evidence for anything. Considering that Jesus is claimed to be a god that came to the planet via a virgin, there should be tons of physical as well as documented evidence. We should at least be able to go to Bethlehem, or wherever it was he was supposedly born, and view his placenta.

  51. #51 Michael Kremer
    April 7, 2007

    Caledonian: I put in “wonder worker” to allow for the possibility of his being a scam or con artist or ordinary magician (the sort who works with tricks and diversions). I simply meant “one who works wonders,” that is, one who does things that others (at the time) can’t understand.

    But really, to all you Jesus-existence-skeptics: do you have doubts about the existence of Socrates? All we have is other people telling us about him, and the oldest manuscripts are considerably more removed from Socrates’s time than the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels are from Jesus’s. And the reports tend to be written by fans of Socrates. So why believe in Socrates?

  52. #52 PZ Myers
    April 7, 2007

    Although I should state that I agree that the existence of a Jewish mystic who was executed in first century Palestine sounds like a perfectly plausible thing to me, as long as the tales of magic powers, godhood, and personal encounters with Satan are discounted. That tends to piss off Christians, too, though.

  53. #53 Uber
    April 7, 2007

    I think it’s entirely possible they wrote down things told to them by people purporting to be eyewitnesses, that they wrote down things *in living memory*.

    Ok so someone comes and tells you they have seen a ghost 20 years ago you accept this as evidence that they did? Not to mention virtually every single memory study ever done shows how quickly and easily details change and intermingle with other memories.

    It’s not whether he actually existed but rather could a largely superstitous and illiterate people really understand the world as we would now. They knew what they knew and compared with today that simply wasn’t enough. GIven the rampant superstition of totday and the claims made by such whats the difference between then and now?

    Now, if that’s right, well, Peter couldn’t write, so Mark wrote for him

    No, it is a virtual certainty that the name Mark was assigned to the book not the name of the actual author.

    Some people are skeptical that even this much is historical truth. They think some people in the second half of the 1st century CE made up the story of Jesus in order to promote their own new mystery religion.

    This, I think, is silliness.

    And they should be skeptical. The fact that more aren’t perhaps is more of a problem. I think he existed but one cannot say everything you list is to be taken as a given simply because all we have is the gospel story and that may have come from one source. It’s simply not enough to be remotely certain.

    Merely a case that Jesus is a historical figure in a way that Mithras, say, is not.

    Perhaps, perhaps not. Mohammed is more like the Jesus story. But I disagree that it is pure silliness. That would be say catholism. I don’t buy the Jesus as pure myth myself but it is not silliness and some of the arguments they present are not easily dismissed.

  54. #54 minimalist
    April 7, 2007

    In other words, Kevin’s evidence is “IT’S IN THE BIBLE!” plus Josephus.

    Can I call it or can I call it?

    Not like it’s difficult, mind; not like we haven’t hard it already 100,000,000 times over…

    And none of that addresses the evidence for the resurrection in the slightest, which is what Kevin originally promised. At best, he has weak evidence for a historical personage around whom cult legends have sprung. Nothing more.

  55. #55 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    And, since the only record of Socrates’ existence is found in the writings of one of his supposed students, it is entirely possible that he never existed at all and was simply made up by Plato.

    Similarly, there was no Uncle Remus, and there may have been no Aesop.

    Do you believe in S. Morgenstern and the unabridged version of “The Princess Bride”, too?

  56. #56 Colugo
    April 7, 2007

    Correction: right link for Rabbi Akiva
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Martyrs

  57. #57 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    Think about it: a very wise and humble man tried to show people the error of their ways, gathered various followers to him, was put on trial for embarassing the wrong people, and sentenced to death unjustly.

    It’s Socrates’ supposed tragic death that makes him so memorable, and probably did a great deal to cement his story and teachings into the Greek mind. Then we have a fusion of Jewish beliefs and Greek philosophy, and who’s the center figure?

    A very wise and humble man who tried to show people the error of their ways, gathered various followers to him, was put on trial for embarassing the wrong people, and was sentenced to death unjustly.

    The Christ story is Socrates with less philosophy and more miracles.

  58. #58 Uber
    April 7, 2007

    The real question is whether, as tradition has it, “Mark” was basing his Gospel at least in part on direct reports from Simon Peter.

    This is nonsensical. If I grant your ascertion it still isn’t an eyewitness. Your making to many leaps to make a serious argument. You would have to establish Peter relayed the story, that he was actually a witness, and that there was a story to tell. Thats a tall order. Then he’d have to be credible and supported by other sources. It simply isn’t there.

    Not to mention that many parts of the story Peter couldn’t have witnessed. This is all rather beside the point though. I doubt you’d be making the same claims about Mohammed and his ascention to heaven despite the more recent date and more reliable historical writings of the Koran. If you find your argument compelling(and I frankly can’t see how) then you must be blown away by the Islamic argument and the Mormons and Joseph Smith must make you all tingly.

    Bottom line all ‘eyewitness’ accounts of supernatural events seem to follow the same suspect pattern.

    And I think virtual certainty is the correct word usage above.

  59. #59 minimalist
    April 8, 2007

    Not to mention that many parts of the story Peter couldn’t have witnessed.

    That’s one of the things that always got me about the “eyewitness” claim fundies often try to pull. Even if you grant that the gospels were written by the actual historical apostles, there are aspects of the story to which they were clearly not eyewitnesses anyway: offhand I can think of the Nativity (indeed all of his history prior to meeting the 12 disciples), praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane (how do they know what he said?), the temptation in the desert, his post-resurrection discovery by the Maries, etc.

    There’s no way around it: they have to admit that a significant portion of those books is not eyewitness testimony. How reliable would they find it then? It’d be interesting to see how they respond.

  60. #60 John Bach
    April 8, 2007

    Perhaps the following new scholarly initiative will get us closer to a definitive answer on the historical Jesus:

    Center for Inquiry Committee Launches New Jesus Project

    Amherst, New York (February, 06 2007)–The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), a project of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational, announced at the conclusion of its January 25-28 “Scripture and Skepticism” conference at the University of California at Davis that it will begin an international research project called “The Jesus Project.” The new effort will be devoted to examining the case for the historical existence of Jesus, based on a rigorous application of the historical critical method to the gospels and related literature.

    Unlike the “Jesus Seminar,” founded in 1985 by the late University of Montana Professor Robert Funk, the new Project regards the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure as a “testable hypothesis.” R. Joseph Hoffmann, chair of the Committee since 2003 and former lecturer at Oxford University, said that the project has been called for by a number of scholars who felt that the first Jesus Seminar may have been–for political reasons–too reluctant to follow where the evidence led. “When you have pared the sayings of Jesus down to fewer than twenty, one begins to wonder about the survivors,” Hoffmann said.

    According to Hoffmann, the goal is not to “disprove” Jesus or to sensationalize the question of his existence, but to acknowledge the question and examine it impartially–without theological or apologetic constraints. “The Jesus Project is an attempt to evaluate every scrap of evidence for the historical Jesus, but it is also an attempt to evaluate the quality of the evidence itself–something that earlier projects did not do explicitly. This new project will be more inclusive and rigorous in its approach. It will include scholars from a variety of areas outside biblical and religious studies, including archaeologists, social historians, classicists and people in historical linguistics,” said Hoffmann.

    The Jesus Project will be limited to 50 members; scholars plan to meet twice a year, with geographical venues changing each year. The meetings and discussions will also be open to the public. The work of the seminar will consist of the writing of unanimous opinions, and where that is not possible, majority and minority opinions, written as articles, which will be gathered and published once a year under the CSER imprint with Prometheus Books. The work of the Project is limited to five years; at which point a final report will be issued by the committee members.

    The work of the Project is being financed through sponsors and donors. Patrons of the committee receive certain benefits; members in the associate category receive free admission to the open sessions of the Jesus Project. Information on becoming a patron, sponsor, or associate of the Jesus Project is available by writing to the project administrator, Gwyneth MacRae, at gmacrae@centerforinquiry.net.

    CSER was founded in 1983 and is a research committee in the Religion and Science division of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. CSER encourages the use of the historical and applied sciences in the study of religion and provides educational programs for the public as part of its religious-literacy initiatives

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