One of my recent posts attracted some attention in the comments section. A Christian questioner, when I challenged him with the contradictions inherent in the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, replied:
If you hear a story from 4 views and you were not there to witness the event then the next logical step is to select the points that are the same and assume that these are the facts.
This is a commonly-raised tactic used to diminish the value of consistency among accounts in helping establish the credibility of a “singular event” (I will discuss this term much more below) and it is based on a parodic shadow of how historians actually work. There are many issues that must be dealt with before the intersection of stories can be used to grant credibility to their core claims. Following is a list of such criteria (I’m not claiming it is exhaustive), along with my opinion of whether or not the gospels fulfill them. While answering “no” to one or two may only slightly decrease the credibility of the core claims, answering “no” to many of them is a major red flag. Please note that when I say “no” below, I am not asserting a mathematical 100% certainty, but rather a lack of scholarly consensus.
- Were these eyewitness accounts? (No. They were, at best, second-hand accounts.)
- Was there no chance of collusion among the authors of the accounts? (No. The text of some gospels is clearly based on others that must have existed prior.)
- Are the accounts written by parties with no vested interest? (No. All the canonical gospels were written by Christian apologists.)
- Are there any other eyewitness accounts written by parties with no vested interest? (No, even though you’d think that, for example, all the dead who were supposedly raised and walked around when Jesus died would have made an impression on someone as they lived out their “second lives” and eventually died again.)
- Do the accounts agree on other details? (No. It is, for example, impossible to construct a coherent timeline of the time from the Crucifixion to the Ascension without ignoring, glossing over, or proposing additional undocumented miracles to account for numerous conflicting biblical details.)
- Is there any physical evidence of these specific events having occurred? (No.)
- Are the claimed events explainable within the observed laws of nature? (No.)
The last criterion is the primary focus of the rest of this article. It boils down to Hume’s maxim:
…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…
Carl Sagan put it in even simpler terms when he wrote,
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
But what makes a claim “extraordinary?” I like to think about factual claims as classified into four levels. To help me explain this I’m going to enlist the hypothetical help of my seven year-old son, Bevan.
Level 1: Ordinary Claims
Let’s say that one day I claim to Bevan as a matter of fact that, “I eat almost every day.” He would hardly find that astonishing. In fact, he would probably want to know why Dad even felt the need to say so. It is an ordinary claim, and well-established in the natural course of things. It happens all the time and evidence for it mounts so quickly that even a child understands that, as Hume points out, it would be extraordinary to claim otherwise. We incorporate ordinary claims, usually implicitly, into almost every writing and utterance we make.
Level 2: Singular Claims
But what about historical events that aren’t so readily tested? Let’s say that I claim to my son that nuclear weapons were once exploded in two cities in Japan called Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were “singular” events: they happened once and are not likely to ever happen again. Furthermore, these events happened before either of us was born. In response to a story like that he would undoubtedly pepper me with questions: What is a nuclear bomb? How does it work? Where is Hiroshima? Who dropped the bomb? Why did they do it? Did lots of people die?
If my answers are consistent, and I am willing to answer “I don’t know” where I really don’t, then his little built-in bullshit detector will not go off, and he will assign a high probability of that story being true.
But that’s not the end of the story: just because he provisionally accepts it doesn’t mean it is true: history does not work on certainties as does mathemetical proof— it works on probabilities based on a preponderance of the evidence.
As Bevan grows older he will ask more sophisticated questions answered by science and history that will either corroborate my story, or conflict with it: Why were the US and Japan at War? What is an atom? What was the Manhattan project and who worked on it? What is the effect of radiation on people? What is the difference between fission and fusion? Are there peaceful uses of nuclear technology? What is Hiroshima like today?
As long as these answers fulfill the criteria I mention above (eyewitness accounts, consistency among accounts, accounts from numerous disinterested sources, supporting physical evidence, etc.), they fill in and expand a puzzle which shows the true picture of history. And while there may still be outstanding questions, (for example, Japan’s view of the end and meaning of World War II vs. the U.S. view) the child realizes that their picture is asymptotically approaching completion, to the degree and depth to which they are willing to study, and that, while singular, the claim his Dad made to him about Hiroshima is well-substantiated and to a high degree of certainty.
Level 3: Extraordinary Claims
Now let’s imagine me presenting another “fact” to young Bevan: “The god Zeus changed into a swan and had babies with the human Leda.” Again I can imagine him peppering me with questions: What is a god? What other powers does Zeus have? Could Dad beat him in a fight? Did he have to be a swan to have a baby with Leda? What were the babies’ names? (Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux.) Were the babies half-swan?
I might offer answers that are consistent and credible for a seven year-old, and go on to add that there are many stories about Zeus, Hera, Aprodite, Apollo, Hercules, and all the rest of the Greek gods and demigods, and every one of these stories agree that these characters existed, and that there were even temples built to honor them, some of which are still standing. If I did a good job of it, he would again assign a high probability of that story being true.
However, as he grows older in an environment of free inquiry, he will continue to ask increasingly sophisticated questions: What is the biology of reproduction? What is a species? What modern evidence is there for the existence of the Greek gods? What was the influence of Greek mythology on us today? What are other mythologies like? Is Greek mythology more likely to be true than the others?
As his questions become deeper, and though my answers may continue to have a certain internal consistency, my son is likely to realize that that they lack correspondence with observed reality, and that is exactly what makes them “extraordinary.” The picture these claims form begins to bump up against the picture forming about the rest of the world and doesn’t seem to fit.
There are several strategies my son could use to reconcile this conflict: First, he could take a “leap of faith” by delicately stitching together the pictures in an awkward and fragile way and insisting that “Dad said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
Alternatively, using a different kind of “leap of faith,” he could put each world view into separate “compartments” of belief that can be held simultaneously without ever bringing them close enough together to require acknowledgement that the edges simply don’t match.
Finally, he could avoid the “leap of faith” entirely by ultimately discarding part of his beliefs— particularly the literal belief in Greek mythology that Dad taught him.
Level 4: Impossible Claims
One more thought experiment with my son: let’s say I told him that I had once seen a squanticle. Never having heard of a squanticle, his first question would probably be to ask what it is. I would tell him that it is a two-dimensional shape drawn with one continuous, closed, non-overlapping line that is both perfectly a square and at the same time perfectly a circle. It has four corners and none at all. He would then undoubtedly ask me to draw one, to which I would reply that I really shouldn’t draw one because anyone who sees a squanticle immediately goes crazy and I wouldn’t want that to happen to him. And besides, the only color that can be used to draw a squanticle is squant, and I have deliberately not allowed any squant crayons into the house because I wouldn’t want him to accidentally draw a squanticle and go crazy.
At first my son might accept such an explanation. After all, this is Dad, right? But as he continues to learn, things just won’t add up: Squares can never be circles. If people go insane when they see a squanticle, and Dad isn’t insane, then how can Dad claim to have seen one? The nature of a shape is independent of its color. And finally, the color squant doesn’t even exist. Dad must have been pulling his leg.
Combining the Levels
Now for a true story involving claims on all four levels. One evening when my son was around four, I informed him over dinner, with a straight face and to my wife’s mild consternation, that under our dinner table at our very feet there lived a small dragon. He looked, and not immediately finding a dragon there asked me where it was. I told him that it was indeed there: it was an invisible green dragon named Fred. He peppered me with questions: How could it be green and invisible? Why couldn’t he touch it? (He learned the term “non-corporeal” in that conversation.) Why didn’t it make any noise? Was it friendly? Was it heavy? Could it breathe fire? Would it? Why did it live under the table? Was it just visiting? Did other people live with dragons? I gave him matter-of-fact answers to his questions, but I could tell he was not really satisfied by them: he wanted to see the dragon! Notably, one question that his young mind did not think to ask was, “Dad, how do you know there is a dragon under the table?”
In the coming days I reinforced the story by mentioning Fred in an off-hand way. Around that time our apartment flooded during a rainstorm and I told him that Fred went to live in the ballfield next to our building while the dinner table had been moved out during the restoration work that followed. Another time, I gave him a folded green paper dragon that I quite deliberately told him was not Fred. He asked me if it looked much like Fred and I told him no, because since Fred is invisible anything that looks like him can’t be a good representation of him.
To this day, we occasionally still talk about Fred. Sometimes we talk to Fred. We wave to Fred. I have never told him that Fred isn’t real. But it is clear that he knows the truth, and he has said as much: Dad was pulling his leg, and now he’s in on it. Why is this?
Because even though four year-olds are trusting, they are also rapidly building their picture of reality. Pieces that don’t fit are quickly discarded. Even though I presented my claims about Fred in matter-of-fact terms, his inability to find evidence for them immediately made him skeptical. And because I used no psychological coercion tactics such as shame, guilt, fear, or authority to compel him to believe me, he was free to hold the truth of my claims in abeyance, and to eventually reject my story as a fabrication.
Comfort, Coercion, and Culture
So what about Christianity? It too is a story involving claims on all four levels. As usual, the Level 1 (“ordinary”) claims are almost too mundane to discuss, and are therefore implicit: “The sun rose and set much the same way 2000 years ago as it does today,” etc. The existence of a historical Jesus is a Level 2 (“singular”) claim, as are attempts to harmonize the gospels and address other biblical contradictions not involving miracles. All claims of miracles or other divine intercession are at Level 3 (“extraordinary”). And the theodicies that attempt to address the Problem of evil and tortured expositions on the ineffable nature of the Trinity are Level 4 (“impossible”) claims.
So given this mix of dubious claims, why don’t we reject Christianity as easily as my son rejects Fred?
In the first place, unlike Fred, Christianity is comforting. It claims to have answers about ultimate questions: the meaning of existence, the purpose of human life, how to live rightly, the quality of existence after death, etc. These are weighty questions that we all eventually confront, and it is certainly much easier to rely on a seemingly knowledgable authority to hand us ready-made answers that have a certain internal consistency, than it is to set out alone to construct our own answers to these daunting questions.
Secondly, a sizeable part of the world is now steeped in a culture where Christianity— or rather, numerous competing strains of Christianity— are major survivors of the theologic wars that have been going on since the dawn of history. The younger and more intensely you are exposed to Christian indoctrination, the higher the probability you will become a Christian. This is true for other religions as well: people in the Muslim milleu are likely to become Muslims. So too with Judaism, Hindism, etc. Other myths, such as Zeus-worship, have fallen into disfavor: they are among the many fallen warriors of the theologic wars. But all of these religions— both the survivors and the fallen— point to their holy texts, their holy places of historical significance, their holy shrines, their holy relics, their holy men… as if they somehow constitute evidence for their metaphysical claims.
Finally and most importantly is that all of the psychological coercion tactics that I know would be unethical to use on my son with regard to Fred, are the stock in trade of the Christian milleu. Whether put delicately by a gentle Christian counselor, or thundered in a fire-and-brimstone sermon: shame, guilt, fear, and submission to authority built into the monotheistic world views are the essential mind control techniques that lead people to abdicate the personal sovereignty we observe in all healthy children: that wondering, joyful, self-centered, and rebellious spirit that religion (and too often society in general) tries so monumentally to quash into dull, complicit uniformity.
Dogmatism vs. Dynamism
So why do we pick one faith over another, and why do some pick no faith at all? For the vast majority, the Three C’s: Comfort, Culture, and Coercion, form an unbreakable knot that binds believers to their particular dogmatic world view.
But for a skeptical minority, including children unspoiled by coercion and still forming their view of the world, the other “C”: the quality of the empirical and logical Claims is paramount. These people have a dynamic world view: with the flexibility to adopt new beliefs as they are substantiated, the courage to discard beliefs that have become discredited, and the serenity to hold their beliefs open in the presence of the unknown.