Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If Atheism Was True It Would Have A Coherent History

Atheism struggles to explain when and how western civilization came off the rails and became Christian. They love the Greeks. They were not really atheists but they valued reason more than any society before. Then Athens and Jerusalem got together and produced Rome. How did that happen? What did a Hellenistic empire find so appealing about Christianity? If reason is superior to religion why was that not clear to people back then?

When you look at the reasons people of the day actually gave it becomes worse. They refer to miracles. Many miracles but one central one, the resurrection of Jesus. Why did they believe these stories? Don't rational people just know they are all false? The best they can come up with is that the previous generation believed them. That is a bit lame. People don't just accept what the previous generation believed. Didn't youth question their elders back then? Again, when you read what they wrote, it appears they did. St. Augustine's Confessions is a good example of a young man asking many of the same questions young people ask today. He certainly didn't just accept what his mother told him without thinking about it.

Beyond the fact that the "previous generation" explanation is lame it really does not explain anything. It just pushes the question back. Eventually you get back to the time of Jesus and the Apostles. That is when worlds collide. Of course the writings of scripture and any writings related to them are treated with massive skepticism. No reason is needed to assume wild conspiracy theories. I get that it is hard for atheist zealots to be be rational about such matters. Why should we believe these hyper-credulous people?

Except they were not hyper-credulous. The Hellenists we have already said were very rational. Exactly the kind of people who should never believe miracle stories. Then we have the Jews. They were huge religious conservatives. They were still following the writings of Moses. They were willing to die rather than let the Greeks or Romans mess with their religion. Then when Jesus came along they had him killed because they didn't like religious radicals. Many of his followers got the same treatment. So this picture of a hyper-credulous society is purely something modern people have asserted to get their theories to work. It does not fit the data at all.

So what we have is a mismatch. You have what we are assuming are false stories about Jesus and His miracles and the apostles and their miracles. Then you have those who clearly believed these stories were true. But how did one flip to the other. When did the first Christians get out of "make it up as you go along" mode and get into "guard the deposit of faith with your life" mode? That is never very clear. You can see why. As soon as you start to say when it happened and how it happened and who was involved then you have a ton of problems. So the strategy is to be non-specific. Just make vague assertions and maybe nobody will notice that your theory in incoherent.

Caravaggio: Martyrdom of St. Peter
But if atheism is true then there should be a actual true history out there that makes sense. Christianity is simple. People responded to real miracles. People responded to real truth. People discerned the inadequacy of pure reason. From an atheist perspective people were responding to nothing at all. They were accepting a very demanding religion that could get them killed for no apparent reason.

Then they allowed that religion to exert a dominating power over society for thousands of years. You can assume they never really questioned it but there is a lot of evidence they did. Evangelism was constant because doubt was constant. People kept coming back to the faith. Not just the stupid people but many very bright minds. The kind of people who were capable of declaring that the emperor had no clothes. Anyway, looking at the history of the middle ages is another topic but it is another period of history that atheism cannot make sense of.

The problem is that atheism is a rather obvious religion. So obvious that it is hard to imagine that any serious thinker in history did not consider it. So it becomes hard to explain why humanity has had such a hard time arriving at such a simple and obvious truth. Why the greatest minds of human history rejected it. It is even harder when you read their writings and see how seriously they took these questions.

9 comments:

  1. Ah here. There's entire libraries of books on the subject.

    Atheism struggles to explain when and how western civilization came off the rails and became Christian.

    Christianity spread throughout the poor and the disfranchised who were attracted by the remarkable claim of life after death and the claim of equality. It then become politically important.

    They love the Greeks. They were not really atheists but they valued reason more than any society before.

    We are interested in the Greeks and Roman philosophers because we interested in how intelligent minds thought we should live our lives and organize our communities. The Classical world was a melting pot of ideas. The Stoic school of philosophy were polytheists; Epicureanism was an atheist philosophy; Skeptics and Cynics traced their roots back to Socrates and on and on. It was a huge melting pot of ideas and culture.

    Then Athens and Jerusalem got together and produced Rome. How did that happen?

    Rome conquered both Athens and Jerusalem. Romans were highly pluralist in their worship of Gods and allowed the Jews a large degree of freedom to worship; Greek become the language of educated Romans and Stoicism and Epicureanism become the dominant philosophies of the day.

    What did a Hellenistic empire find so appealing about Christianity?

    Absolutely nothing for the first 200 hundred years. Christianity was considered the bizarre death cult that threatened the social structure of the roman communities.

    Christianity was only taken seriously among the educated classes when it stopped denouncing Greek philosophy as demon inspired heresy and started reconciling it with their religion. Aristotle and Plato were suddenly 'divinely inspired' but corrupted by pagan faith. Justin Martyr is credited with reconciling Greek philosophy with Christian faith.

    If reason is superior to religion why was that not clear to people back then?

    There was huge opposition to Christianity. But once Christianity become politically powerful, it closed down the rival schools and censored or destroyed their works. Consequently we only have fragments of the great writers so scholars are forced the extrapolate from hostile Christian polemics.

    When you look at the reasons people of the day actually gave it becomes worse. They refer to miracles. Many miracles but one central one, the resurrection of Jesus. Why did they believe these stories?

    Same reason people believe them today. They want to.

    Except they were not hyper-credulous. The Hellenists we have already said were very rational. Exactly the kind of people who should never believe miracle stories. Then we have the Jews. They were huge religious conservatives. They were still following the writings of Moses. They were willing to die rather than let the Greeks or Romans mess with their religion. Then when Jesus came along they had him killed because they didn't like religious radicals. Many of his followers got the same treatment. So this picture of a hyper-credulous society is purely something modern people have asserted to get their theories to work. It does not fit the data at all.

    The Jews did not believe and still do not believe Jesus rose from the dead. Once Christians gained political power, those who disagreed with the Christ myth were disposed of. It would be centuries until a person could disagree with the church without fear of his life.

    So what we have is a mismatch. You have what we are assuming are false stories about Jesus and His miracles and the apostles and their miracles. Then you have those who clearly believed these stories were true. But how did one flip to the other. When did the first Christians get out of "make it up as you go along" mode and get into "guard the deposit of faith with your life" mode?

    Christianity was and still is a death cult. The claim that suicide is a mortal sin was created to prevent Christians from seeking 'martyrdom' to enter heaven.

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  2. Indeed, most Christians find study of the early church very disconcerting. Pick up a book of early church history and you will find endless schisms and disagreements. Most schism were ended by pure chance (one or more parties being executed or exiled by the Romans) or political expediency because at it's core, the early church had no means to decide who was right and who was wrong? How could they? The history we have today was written by the victors.

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  3. Hi Observer, thanks for commenting.

    Christianity spread throughout the poor and the disfranchised who were attracted by the remarkable claim of life after death and the claim of equality. It then become politically important.

    Life after death is a remarkable claim? Most religions believed in some sort of life after death. What was the evidence for the claim? It was miracles. The apostles claimed they had seen Jesus rise from the dead. Then the apostles themselves did miracles. If those miracles never happened then you have people joining an illegal religion based on big talk and nothing else. We know better than to accept big talkers at face value. Why would they not have known that?

    Was it just "the poor and the disfranchised?" Disenfranchised is a pretty anachronistic term. It refers to a lack of political power. Why would first century peasants expect power? We live in a democracy and expect to have a say. Anyway, there is lots of evidence that both rich and poor were converting to Christianity from the beginning. Certainly Roman critics of Christianity dismissed them as a bunch of nobodies but what do you expect?

    Absolutely nothing for the first 200 hundred years. Christianity was considered the bizarre death cult that threatened the social structure of the roman communities.

    It was considered bizarre by the elites. Still it grew steadily despite persecutions. So somebody was finding it attractive.

    Christianity was only taken seriously among the educated classes when it stopped denouncing Greek philosophy as demon inspired heresy and started reconciling it with their religion. Aristotle and Plato were suddenly 'divinely inspired' but corrupted by pagan faith. Justin Martyr is credited with reconciling Greek philosophy with Christian faith.

    This is just false. Greek Philosophical categories and ways of thinking did come into Christianity. You can see the beginnings of it in the Gospel of John. There was no initial rejection of it and then a sudden reversal. It was a gradual re-thinking of Christianity in a more Greek way. But even as late as St Thomas Aquinas some reacted badly to a baptizing Aristotle's thinking.

    My question is not what Christianity saw in Hellenism but what did Hellenism see in Christianity? Remember Christianity started out as a Jewish splinter group. Why would so many Greeks find it attractive if there were no miracles?

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  4. There was huge opposition to Christianity. But once Christianity become politically powerful, it closed down the rival schools and censored or destroyed their works. Consequently we only have fragments of the great writers so scholars are forced the extrapolate from hostile Christian polemics.

    Christianity won. The question is how and why? Christians actually kept hostile writings better than one would expect. Many writings of the time, both Christian and not, were lost. It was the nature of hand copying.

    Same reason people believe them today. They want to.

    Why do they want to? I find many don't want to. They want to avoid certain moral demands. So there are some pretty big wants on the unbelief side. But the point is still true today. If we are just counting on the word of the previous generation then Christianity would die out in 100 years. People predicted that a few hundred years ago and they turned out to be wrong. That is evidence that it is ringing true to people beyond just what their parents say.

    The Jews did not believe and still do not believe Jesus rose from the dead. Once Christians gained political power, those who disagreed with the Christ myth were disposed of. It would be centuries until a person could disagree with the church without fear of his life.

    Many Jews did become Christians. The Jewish hierarchy remained unconvinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Strangely enough some do believe Jesus was resurrected and still don't believe He is the Messiah.

    You seem focused on Christian political power. That does not explain the period of 250 years where Christianity was illegal and political power was attacking them. They still grew. Even after 314 you massively overstate it. Julian the Apostate ruled in the 360's. The Conversion of Clovis was not until 496 making France the first major European country to convert. St Boniface converted Germany around 750 AD. There were times and places where non-Christian ideas were suppressed but there was nothing like a consistent global imposition of Christianity by force.

    Christianity was and still is a death cult. The claim that suicide is a mortal sin was created to prevent Christians from seeking 'martyrdom' to enter heaven.

    Christians make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. You can view it in a cynical way it you want. things like Sept 11th happen when you fail to make that distinction.

    Indeed, most Christians find study of the early church very disconcerting. Pick up a book of early church history and you will find endless schisms and disagreements. Most schism were ended by pure chance (one or more parties being executed or exiled by the Romans) or political expediency because at it's core, the early church had no means to decide who was right and who was wrong? How could they? The history we have today was written by the victors.

    A statement too weird to respond to. Have you heard of ecumenical councils? Nicea? Chalcedon? Try here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecumenical_council

    Some scholars write about church history with a very negative tone. They sneer at the church at every opportunity. They are actually very anti-scholarly despite their degrees.

    Honest assessments of the early church show it to be very Catholic and struggling hard for every inch of gain. Generally protestants and secularists are bothered by this picture. Catholics should not be.

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  5. I don't have time to construct a narrative around the rise of Christianity in the Hellenic era. Instead I will challenge your assertion that "Atheism struggles to explain when and how western civilization came off the rails and became Christian" by referring you to the field of religious studies which is taught in most humanities courses here in Europe and comparative religion.

    Religious Studies approaches the subject from the outside, which is to say it does not resort to supernatural explanations like miracles or holy spirits. It originated with a protestant professor (whose name escapes me) who sought to prove Christianity could withstand modern secular investigation. These fields offer coherent accounts of how "western civilization came off the rails and became Christian" and are compatible with atheism because they do not resort to supernatural special pleading. Even Gibbons classic "Decline and fall of the Roman Empire" offers such an account.

    The late 19th century saw of the rise of scholars treating religion as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. All these accounts are compatible with atheism.

    As a Roman Catholic you most likely disagree with this volume of work and academic field of scholarship, but you cannot claim they do not exist.

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  6. Religious studies does not create an historical narrative. It sneers at historical documents that talk about miracles. It just rejects them because the miracles are obviously impossible. That is an philosophical assumption they bring to their work. But they ignore the other problem. The reaction to the miracles changed the world. How can a reaction to nothing change the world? They have no plausible answer.

    So this seems like a phantom argument fallacy to me. I am sure there is a rebuttal somewhere but I don't have time or you need to read this book or trust me this has been disproved convincingly. There is no there there. It is a bunch of question begging assumptions that create way more questions than they answer.

    I have compare the method of these guys to the method of the intelligent design defenders. I did that in a separate post here:

    http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/2012/12/origins-intelligent-design-and-anti.html

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  7. Religious Studies neither accepts nor rejects miracles. It simply notes the existence of the belief while broadening the discussion to the wider political, social, cultural and economic circumstances.

    "But they ignore the other problem. The reaction to the miracles changed the world. How can a reaction to nothing change the world? They have no plausible answer."

    You seem to assume that because some people accepted the claim of miracles, that itself proves the miracles took place. It does not.

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    Replies
    1. Religious Studies does reject miracles. It is an underlying assumption of all those scholars. Yes many of them claim to be Christian, some are even Catholic, but they mindset they bring to their work is very much materialist. That is fair. Everyone has their bias. But their analysis fails to create a plausible historical narrative. They don't even try. That is why they don't assert dates when stuff was made up. Any date they pick would make them look like fools. So they wave their hands and say somehow, somewhere, somebody did something and the world changed.

      You seem to assume that because some people accepted the claim of miracles, that itself proves the miracles took place. It does not.

      Not at all. But if more and more people come to believe and if those people seem like solid thinkers then you wonder. Somehow they were experiencing enough to continue in faith. If atheism were true you would not expect that. You would expect natural skepticism to take over as time went on.

      Do you think St Paul believed he met Jesus on the road to Damascus? Do you think he claimed to have performed the various miracles the book of Acts attributes to him? If he didn't then you have huge question of what motivated him. You can ignore those questions but good historians don't ignore questions like that about major historical figures.

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