Christians’ Favourite Delusions 36: The Universe Is Fine-Tuned For Life.

  1. The return of an old favourite(?)! Christians’ Favourite Delusions. The other 35 posts in this series start here

The vast universe, almost infinite in size, was created, according to Christians, with the sole purpose of bringing us humans and the other creatures who share this planet with us into existence. This fine-tuning argument is used to ‘prove’ that the God of the Bible really exists.

According to Ken Ham, we’re the only life forms in the universe, while other Christians speculate that there may be other intelligent creatures out there somewhere. If there are, then, so says the late Larry Norman, ‘(Jesus) has been there once already and has died to save their souls.’*

The fine-tuning argument proposes that the universe exists so that this minute, insignificant blue dot we live on, and possibly a few other tiny specks, could produce life of some sort. But what of the rest of the universe: the other 99.9999% that doesn’t have life, because it is entirely hostile to it; the vast bulk of the universe that is made up of nebulae, gas clouds, lethal radiation, black holes, anti-matter and lifeless planets?

Taken as a whole, the universe is cold and dead; not finely-tuned for anything, let alone life. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Richard Carrier debunking the whole fine-tuning argument:

‘[T]he only way we could exist without a God is by an extremely improbable chemical accident, and the only way an extremely improbable chemical accident is likely to occur is in a universe that’s vastly old and vastly large; so atheism predicts a vastly old and large universe; theism does not …

Likewise, if chance produced this universe, we should expect it to be only barely conducive to life, indeed almost entirely lethal to it (as in fact it is), since there are vastly more ways to get those universes by chance selection, than to get a universe perfectly suited to life throughout. … Design predicts exactly the opposite.’

And here, several more scientists, philosophers and other interested parties do the same thing:

https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/non-fine-tuned-universe/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.technologyreview.com/2011/01/18/260556/evidence-emerges-that-laws-of-physics-are-not-fine-tuned-for-life/amp/

https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2015/12/31/sean-carroll-debunks-the-fine-tuning-argument-for-god/

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9O5wXsgqrc

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/fine-tuning-argument-debunked

https://www.answers-in-reason.com/religion/christianity/fine-tuning-debunked-holy-koolaid/

Life is remarkable, it is true (but then we would think that, wouldn’t we, when we are it) but it is no more remarkable than any other of the phenomena the universe has produced in its 13.7 billion years of its current existence. No God has been required for any of it. No fine-tuning = no fine-tuner

*In his 1972 song ‘UFO’.

Assertions

Don likes to take me to task for what he says are assertions in my arguments. I do make assertions, as do we all, because not all points in an argument need to be demonstrated every time they’re used. Indeed, not all assertions can be.

There are assertions that we all accept are likely to be true: the sun will ‘rise’ tomorrow; the Earth is a sphere; evidence is better than no evidence and so on. There are those who dispute these assertions but the onus is then on them to provide the evidence or argument that their counter-assertion is true. Yes, there may come a day when the sun doesn’t rise but it is statistically improbable; the Earth is demonstrably not flat; faith is not an reliable substitute for evidence. There is abundant evidence and sound argument why these things are not the case. But – and this is my point – this evidence does not have to be trotted out every time an argument relies on such probabilities; they can be asserted.

I write, and indeed live my life, on the basis of the fact (‘assertion’) that the supernatural does not exist. Over the last ten years, I’ve posted several arguments why this is the case. I frequently provide a link to these arguments when asserting that, outside of the human imagination, gods, spirits, angels, devils, demons, powers, principalities, ghosts, avatars, heaven and hell do not exist. These arguments form the backbone of any subsequent assertion that the supernatural is not real.

Nonetheless, the onus to ‘prove’ that this is the case does not rest with me. First, because it is impossible to prove a negative. Consider, for example, the Christians challenge to prove their God doesn’t exist. While there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that this is the case, there is no absolute ‘proof’ of God’s non-existence (as I’ve argued before, it all comes down to probability, or, in God’s case, improbability.) Absence of evidence is invariably evidence of absence.

The onus instead lies with the one making the incredible claim. Those who take it as fact that the supernatural and God are real need to demonstrate to the rest of us that this is the case. They have, in my long experience, failed to do this. The best they can do are the various arguments (the ontological, Kalam cosmological, teleological, fine-tuning and the argument from design) that suggest the possibility of the supernatural but fall far short of convincing evidence that the supernatural is real, and further still that the Christian God exists. They depend in the end on the feelings they have in their heads and the Bible (or some other holy book.) This is wholly inadequate

Consequently, I’ll continue to operate from and make my assertion that the supernatural does not exist until such time as Don or any other of his co-religionists demonstrate the probability that it does.

From my assertion, backed up, remember, by earlier arguments, a number of other facts follow:

With no supernatural, there are no gods; YHWH in all his incarnations is a God, therefore YHWH does not exist.

Much follows from this:

If YHWH does not exist, Jesus cannot have been either his avatar, Son or incarnation;

Jesus cannot have been raised from the dead by a being who doesn’t exist;

Stories that he did so must therefore be merely that: stories;

The celestial, eternal Jesus who sits at the right hand of God in heaven is not real;

Any experience people have of this being is entirely within their own imaginations;

The Bible is based on such imagined encounters with these imagined characters;

There is no after-life or judgment;

The Christian faith, including my own, cannot be explained in terms of the supernatural;

Only explanations that are rooted in naturalism, as in science, have any validity.

There are more implications that can be drawn from the premise that there is no supernatural, including the fact that the world makes much more sense (if it makes any sense at all) without drawing gods and demons into it.

Consequently, I shall continue to make my assertions, like those above, supported as always by previous argument. Any religious believer who wants to challenge them is welcome to do so, but must do more than point out the obvious, that they are assertions. They must provide the evidence for the supernatural, and all that follows from it, independent of the goings on in their heads and without reference to holy books written by those with similar subjective feelings.

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes

Some years ago, when my grandson was 5 and new to school, he asked me whether people could come back from the dead. My father, his great grandfather, had recently died and I wondered if this had prompted his question. I told him I didn’t think people could return from the dead and asked him what he thought.

I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘They told us at school that Jesus came back from being dead but I don’t believe it. Do you?’ I told him, as he’d asked, that I didn’t.

It would be weird if great granddad came back from the dead, wouldn’t it,’ he said.

It certainly would,’ I agreed.

Flash forward to this weekend. Dennis and I are looking after my granddaughters. The eldest, 5 herself, mentions Easter. ‘They said at school that Jesus died in the cross and came back to life. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in God or Jesus. It’s all too silly.’

*****

Apart from these two conversations, which they initiated, I’ve never discussed religion with my grandchildren. I’m opposed to the indoctrination of young people. As a teacher my aim was always to help them think for themselves. While I’m only their grandfather, I want my grandchildren to make up their own minds about the claims of the ideologies they encounter. The views both my grandchildren expressed about God, Jesus and the resurrection were entirely their own.

What do their responses reveal?

1. That the much vaunted Christian assertion that we are born with an instinctive awareness of and desire for God is nonsense. I’ve come across several blog posts recently, including one by those boneheads at Answers in Genesis, claiming just this. It’s a notion loosely based on Paul’s claim in Romans 1.19 & 20:

…what can be known about God is plain to (people), because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

On the contrary, until children are actively indoctrinated with notions of God and the Christian fantasy, they do not have an innate sense of any of it.

2. That pushing ideas about God and Jesus on to the supposedly impressionable young minds is counter-productive. Even very young children have a level of discernment that can distinguish between fact and fiction. Not subject to peer pressure and free from the ridiculous notion that they are sinners, they are capable of seeing through ‘silly’ religious ideas.

3. That Jesus was way off the mark (as usual) when he said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ They’re not interested, and the longer they’re able to keep away from him, the better.

 

Making Prophecy Work

Recycled image and still no second coming

Never one to belabour a point, Don Camp has responded to my posts and comments about prophecy over on his own blog, Biblical Musing. This is a modified version of my response to that post.

What you seem to be saying, Don, is ‘leave a selected prophecy long enough and eventually it’ll appear to come true’. Perhaps, but then, if you take any selection of predictions from any source and you’ll find this to be the case. Why? Because:

1) You’ll have cherry-picked from the start so only those ‘prophecies’ that are vague enough or appear to have been fulfilled already will make up the bulk of your selection.

2) The vagueness of many that are chosen will make it relatively easy to scout around and alight on circumstances that seem to demonstrate some sort of fulfilment. You may even invent some that do, like the synoptic gospel writers do.

3) Some prophecies will indeed come true, but at no greater rate than chance allows. A prophecy you cite may say a particular city state will fall and return to the wilderness from which it was built. To claim that when, centuries later, it does so is not a fulfilment of this prophecy; it is a happy coincidence (for you and your so-called prophet, not so much for the denizens of the city state.) Just look at the number of ancient cities to which this has happened, without there being a preceding ‘prophecy’. It just happens.

4) You’ll ignore your own failure rate, or explain it away: i) discounting those prophecies that have never come to pass, even after millennia; ii) insisting ‘they could still occur! With God a day is like a thousand years!’; iii) reinterpreting them: ‘they’re metaphorical’ etc.

5) You invoke the get-out clause; the god says ‘if you don’t do ‘x’ then I’ll make ‘y’ happen.’ “Well, praise the god, everyone did ‘x’ and the calamity was averted! It’s a miracle!” This then counts, somehow or other, as a win for the ‘prophecy’.

These are your strategies, Don. You use them in combination to demonstrate the ‘fulfilment’ of biblical prophecy. You work really hard at nullifying your own cognitive dissonance, desperately attempting to demonstrate the truth of ancient fantasies. You conclude your post by saying Jesus will return as King soon. No, he won’t. You need to apply every one of your strategies to believe this is ever going to happen.

Policing Social Media?

I wrote this post in the middle of March, just before Don pitched Camp here, as a follow up to this post. Since then, the issues I address in it have moved on at an alarming rate. I’ve revised it to reflect these developments.

Who watches the watchmen? Should those who take it upon themselves to define what we are allowed to say or view be the same as those who police what we say and view? 

I’m not arguing for the protection of those who post abusive, hateful or libellous comments online. There is no place for racism, misogyny or homophobia in life and there are already laws for dealing with them. There is no reason they should not get a free pass on social media either. The question remains, however, who should be responsible for monitoring hate speech and either preventing or removing it. The same question needs to be asked of those comments that are considered, by whoever is going to decide these things, ‘harmful’ or constituting ‘misinformation’. Should the same official bodies that determine what is abusive, harmful or ‘misinformative’ be responsible for the actual censoring? This it seems to me, would be disastrous; the kind of thing that goes on in Russia, China and North Korea, not the ‘free’ west.

Nevertheless, let’s take look at the likely candidates for the role:

Governments. Should a government department regulate social media? As far as I’m aware, no such department exists in the UK or US at present. Governments themselves have, arguably, better things to do than monitor social media. Neither do they have the skills nor objectivity to exercise new, radical powers of censorship. It would be far too easy for them to decide that anything critical of their policies or actions is hate speech (or harmful or misinformation). In any case, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, governments already have far too much control of our lives.

The Police. The police have neither the resources nor manpower to monitor all that is said online. In the UK they don’t have sufficient manpower to intercept the many paedophiles operating online, let alone to monitor the comments of billions of ordinary folk. and haven’t they enough serious crime to be dealing with? 

Social media companies. Their algorithms have, so far, largely failed to eliminate abuse, while responding with unseemly zeal to blocking and barring perfectly innocent comments because of the presence of the odd trigger word. There simply aren’t enough humans to regulate comment, nor are social media companies in the business of deciding what is harmful or misinformative (though Patheos recently ousted bloggers who wrote anything critical about religion.) Governments may occasionally express their displeasure that companies are not doing more, but it’s difficult to see how they can. The slippery Sir Nick Clegg (behind Mark Zuckerberg in the picture), former UK MP and now second-in-command at Facebook, is not, as an establishment millionaire, the man for the job.

Users themselves. It isn’t realistic to think all users could be self-censoring. Many are not, nor are they ever going to be. Those with more extremist views, who have been blocked or banned by the popular social media companies, gravitate towards other sites, or create their own, that allow and even encourage such views (say ‘hi’ to QAnon, Breibart etc.) There is no moderation, in every sense of the word, on such sites (unless of course you happen to disagree with them, in which case you’re swiftly booted off.)

What to conclude? That governments have lost control of social media? Yes.  Though I would argue that control was never theirs to take. They’ve come late to the party and find, despite their gate-crashing attempts with new ‘misinformation’ laws, that they’re not being allowed in. Ultimately, however, these new laws are meaningless; a law that cannot be enforced is no law at all.

However…

Since I wrote this post, the UK’s Culture Secretary, the befuddled Nadine Dorries, has decided she wants to regulate streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+, lest they make available to paying adults content that might be regarded as ‘harmful’. If she is successful in having her bill pass into law, the government’s own media watchdog, Ofcom, will be able to force streamers to filter (out) what they provide in the UK, just as they have to do in China. It’s as if the late Mary Whitehouse finally won*. This is not what democratic governments are for.

* Mary, for my readers in the U.S., was a self-appointed guardian of public morals, not unlike your very own Monica Coles.

Prophecy: The Bible’s Track Record

In earlier posts we saw how the authors of Mark and Matthew’s gospels rooted around in the scriptures for anything that might be passed off as a prophecy. They then turned what they found into stories about Jesus.

What though about passages in scripture that actually declare themselves to be prophecy? How do these fair in the fulfilment stakes? As you might guess, not well. There are many failed prophecies in both Testaments; here I’ll take a select few, just to give you a flavour of how hopeless they are:

In Exodus 23:27, YHWH declares that all of Israel’s enemies will run from them:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.

Oops! The scriptures themselves are replete with examples of the Israelites’ defeat at the hands of their enemies.

In Ezekiel 29:8-12, the Lord proclaims his intentions towards the hated Egyptians:

The Nile is mine; I made it, therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush. The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

None of this ever happened.

Isaiah has it in for Egypt too. In 19:1-8 the Lord promises:

The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.

The Nile has never dried up.

In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, the Lord promises that the descendants of David will rule forever:

(David) is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

The Davidic line ended with King Zedekiah in about 586BC. Much is made in the New Testament of Jesus’ descent from David on his father’s side (while also insisting he didn’t have a human father!) and this prophecy is altered in Acts 2:29-31 to make it fit Jesus’ supposed kingship. This is neither what it says nor means in its original context.

The deranged Zephaniah, writing in the 7th century BC, prophesies that the end of the world is imminent:

The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

Another failure, unless you’re prepared to consider 2600+ years and counting as being ‘near and coming quickly’.

The earliest prediction we have of the Christ’s appearance on Earth is from Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1-8. You’ll note how he says how everything he describes will happen soon to the people he is writing to:

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Notch that up as another non-event.

How about the prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, thought to have been written circa AD50, that the Christ will not appear from heaven until ‘the man of lawlessness’ takes up residence in the Temple?

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us – whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter – asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 before the man of lawlessness could make his appearance. Unsurprisingly, not a single prophet foresaw the catastrophe. (No, not even Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark’s gospel was written around AD70 and that Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the temple’s destruction was composed after it had happened.)

And then, finally, prophecies about the end times, whether from the scriptures or from Paul, are inserted into the synoptic gospels so, miraculously, they become the words of Jesus:

‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (a quote from Isaiah 13:10; 34:4.) At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13.34).

And thus, Jesus is likewise made into a false prophet.

Then again, what other sort is there? Prophets are zealots who believe they’ve been granted special access to the Lord’s plans. There are still fantasists today who believe the Lord speaks to them with portents of future disaster. It would be generous to say that all of them – those in the Bible and their modern descendants – are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, they are always wrong; it is impossible to know the future. Meanwhile, so-called interpreters of prophecy, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and their equivalents today, alter ‘prophecy’ and unrelated statements to suit their needs, shaping their stories to create the illusion they have been miraculously ‘fulfilled’.  

Fakin’ It

Here’s my dilemma. I got this letter from a group of students at the university of Selcuck in Turkey. Well, when I say I received the letter, it was addressed to Professor Paulson who was head of the Philosophy department here in the 90s. He’s been dead now over 20 years of course, so when I picked up the letter, I thought I’d just write back and tell them that and that they’d have to work out their problems for themselves. Then I thought, ‘well, hang on a minute, the Professor was your tutor back in the day. You know how he thought and how he’d address these particular problems. Hell, you’ve even got some of his old papers locked away in your filing cabinet. You could take one or other of those and with a bit of tweaking, concoct a reply yourself. That’d be perfectly legitimate wouldn’t it?’ I mean I occupy the chair he once did so I am in effect his replacement.

So that’s what I do. I take one of Professor Paulson’s papers and I use it as the basis of a letter. Of course, matters in philosophy have moved on a bit since the Professor’s time so I add quite a bit of my own stuff, which is all pretty good and in line with what he might have thought, had he lived this long. After all, I studied under him in the ’80s so I have a pretty good idea of what he might think today, if he were still with us. If I do say so myself, it’s pretty good stuff. Nobody could tell Paulson didn’t write it.

Now, I do consider admitting at the start of the letter, or maybe the end of it, that I wrote the letter and not the Prof. But then I think, well, these folk don’t know he’s no longer with us so what’s the harm? I’ll just send it and they can reach their own conclusions. I mean, it wouldn’t be my fault, would it, if they jumped to the wrong conclusion. And then I think, well, if they’re going to do that I might as well sign it as if it is from the Professor. I mean, who’s to know? And maybe I could add that bit at the beginning suggesting it was from him. Suggesting? Saying it is from him. That’s what I do, and off it goes.

I hear later, on the grapevine, it’s gone down pretty well. They like what it says and are convinced it’s from Paulson. Everybody’s happy.

And then I find out, a couple of months down the line, that it’s been published. The Selcuck students have had it published, in an influential journal no less, and the academic world is celebrating the final lost paper of Professor Paulson’s. And here’s my dilemma: it’s not, is it. It’s me. I’ve taken his old paper, embellished it and sent it out into the world as if it’s his. What do I do? What would you do? Confess it’s not what it seems? Or bask in the knowledge that what I’ve written is as good as anything he wrote in life? A fake, yes, for sure, but a damn good one that, with a bit of luck, no-one’s ever going to spot. Do you know, I think I’ll leave it, say nothing. The joke’s on them.

Of course such a thing could never happen. Or could it? The letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament claims to have been written by Paul. It starts with this greeting:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

and ends with some vaguely autobiographical details.

But it wasn’t written by Paul. Scholars think it was created in the 80s, about twenty years after Paul died. Much of the letter is a reworking of Colossians, the authorship of which is similarly disputed. Here’s the opening of Colossians:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

The Ephesians opening is a direct lift. None of Paul’s genuine letters follow this format. The letter itself has a style and vocabulary unlike that in the genuine Pauline letters and there are significant differences in theology too. Here’s how Bart Ehrman summarises the problem (though note he is not the only scholar who disputes Paul’s authorship of Ephesians; it is the consensus view): 

Ephesians does not resemble Paul’s writing style and the letter contains an inordinate number of words that Paul does not use in any of his undisputed letters. As in Colossians, Ephesians suggests that the believer has already been raised with Christ-a view that contradicts Paul’s undisputed writings. The author of Ephesians, moreover, uses the term “works” differently than Paul. For Paul, “works” refers to adherence to the Jewish law, actions that cannot save. The author of Ephesians, however, understands “works” to mean those actions that demonstrate one’s faith.

Some generously describe Ephesians and other letters attributed to Paul that aren’t by him, as Deutero-Pauline: ‘in the tradition of Paul’. Some speculate that they were written by one of Paul’s disciples but there’s no way of knowing this for sure. Others prefer the term Pseudepigrapha, literally ‘false inscription or writing’, which is nearer the mark.

The author of Ephesians, like those of other pseudepigraphical letters, such as the pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) claims explicitly to be Paul knowing full well he is not. This is not some disciple trying to express the views of the master, this is someone passing themselves off as someone else, pretending they are the more well-known, revered and authoritative figure. Even if they were someone familiar with Paul’s teaching (the differences in theology suggest otherwise) would it be legitimate for him to claim he is Paul?

Like my fictional individual above, the author of Ephesians is a deceitful impostor, his work a forgery, designed possibly to ‘correct’ Paul’s position on certain issues. And yet here is his letter in the New Testament; God’s Holy Word no less. While there is a very human history of how works were selected for inclusion in the New Testament, how on Earth did God, in the guise of the Holy Spirit, allow this and other forgeries to become part of the canon?

Of course, God had nothing to do with it. The author of Ephesians duped not only the letter’s original audience, but also the later believers who included it in the Bible. He continues to deceive the faithful down to this day.  I know: I was one. 

Responding to a Christian

I responded to comments by our resident cultist, Don Camp, who replied with the following (and more: see comments). I want to pick up (in blue) on some of the points he makes:

I originally asked Don: why is it that whenever anyone asks you to provide evidence for your beliefs, or to confirm what those beliefs actually are, you invariably side-step the issue.

Don: That seems to be the procedure (your procedure, Don?) here and on most atheist blogs, I might add. I really think that I have answered that question clearly enough to be understood (you’ve responded to some questions but have provided evidence for very little of what you’ve claimed. Bible quotes are not evidence.) If not, there is my blog post. But I would ask the same and have of all of you. What do you believe to be true about life and reality? And why or what evidence do you have to support that belief?

Don, there’s ten years’ worth of blog posts on Rejectingjesus, many of which are about what I believe and the evidence I have for those beliefs. I’m not going to reiterate all of them here for your benefit. If you’re interested you could read the posts here, here, here, here and here. I suspect you’re not though; this is just another tactic to deflect the question away from yourself. Don’t you think it reasonable when you launch your sermonettes on other people’s blogs that they ask you to supply evidence for the beliefs you’re promoting? 

Don: I usually get what, I believe, Ark said when I asked about his evidence for Materialism: Everything we know has natural causes, so to presume that the whole universe has a natural cause reasonably follows. (My paraphrase) That is honest and clear. But that is the very same kind of evidence I’ve provided for my worldview. You, Neil, have not provided even that much. Usually I get something like: Atheism, is about what we don’t believe, and we don’t believe there is evidence for God. The trouble is that is negative that conveniently sidesteps the question.

So you do get answers to your questions (so what you moaning about?) I concur with Ark. However, you do not provide the same sort of evidence. You generally rely on the argument from incredulity: I can’t see how something so amazing as the universe could have come into existence on its own, therefore God must’ve done it.’ This is not evidence. You then make the further unfounded claim that this God must be your God who magically created everything via the agency of his Son. Whatever this means, it is not evidence. (Before you say you don’t do this, just check out your further comment below.)

Neil: How about answering my question: do you subscribe to Paul’s first century view that ‘the world’ is governed by wicked powers and principalities that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem…

Don: No and Yes. No, I don’t think that people are governed by those powers, but they are influenced by them. Yes, I believe there are powers that influence people. And I believe that people can so give themselves to that influence that I would say they are governed by them. (my emphasis). So no prevarication here then! Now how about answering mine. Do you believe that reality is purely material? See above and the posts I directed you to. There is no evidence for the supernatural.

Neil:  Could only a blood sacrifice, in God’s eyes ameliorate (the effects of these demons)?

Don: No. Those powers do not cause sin. We do. (And that I believe is really Paul’s view.) Right. So you know what was really Paul’s view, which, it turns out, is not the one expressed in Ephesians 2:1-3 & 6.11-13. (Addendum: it’s widely acknowledged that Paul didn’t actually write Ephesians. It’s a later forgery based on Colossians.)

Don: No. I believe that only forgiveness can ameliorate sin. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is the act of forgiveness made visible. Does your believing make it so? Where does the bible actually say this?

Neil: where is your evidence that this (Paul’s worldview) is reality?

Don: I am not sure what “this” means. There are too many possible referents. If you replace that with a specific, I’ll answer.

It’s clear and specific, Don. We were discussing Paul’s worldview. I asked if you believed it and if so, what evidence you had that ‘this’, Paul’s demon-infested world, was real. You’re side stepping again. 

Me: Or how about answering Ark’s question about whether you believe Jesus was the creator of the universe and what evidence there is for such a belief?

Don: I don’t recall that question exactly (!) But the answer is I believe that God created the universe through the agency of his Son and the earth within it. (And I think that is the crux of our differences). You’re not kidding. 

Don: Evidence “succinctly” is, to use a metaphor, his fingerprints are all over it. Is a metaphor evidence? I don’t think so. It’s a literary device. In any case, every other religion that claims a creator God says the same thing. 

HOW DO YOU THINK THE UNIVERSE CAME TO BE, AND WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE FOR SUCH A BELIEF? AND HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE DYSFUNCTION OF HUMANITY THAT CAUSES ALL THE CHAOS AND DESTRUCTION MORALLY AND SOCIALLY? AND FINALLY, WHAT IS THE REMEDY?

My God. You’re gone all caps lock. In answer to your very important questions, see my response above. To summarise:

It is largely irrelevant what I THINK about the origin of the universe. It’s possible, however, that the universe has always existed in some form. You claim this for your God when there’s no evidence he exists; assuming those same qualities for something that does is a more realistic prospect. It is indeed what a number of scientists think. (I expect you’ll know better).

The ‘dysfunction of humanity.’ Is it dysfunctional? Many of us are kind and decent. Humanity is what it is, and it is what it is because we’re evolved primates.

The remedy for what, Don; for what we are? It’s quite likely there isn’t one. Jesus certainly isn’t it. History teaches us that Christianity has only provided some of us with an excuse to behave even more reprehensibly (Putin claims to be a Christian albeit a Catholic; he says one of the reasons he’s invaded Ukraine is to impose traditional Christian values on the country.)  If anything is going to improve us, it’s education; it has civilised us to a significant extent but still has a lot to overcome. 

That’s it. Now go and read those old posts before writing your next sermonette. 

Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

More Matthew Make-Believe

Don Camp and other Christians contest that Matthew’s gospel was constructed by snippets from the Old Testament. Those snippets, they say, however unrelated to the use to which Matthew puts them, are prophecies about Jesus, written centuries before his birth. This is the direction of travel: from ancient text to fulfilment in the first century. They refuse to see that for random verses in the scriptures to foreshadow later events involves significant amounts of magic.

Don talks about the bible authors’ use of foreshadowing, which is a recognised technique in literature. A single author in control of their text from start to finish can plant hints early in the narrative that only come to fruition much later on. Don cites Neil Gaiman’s use of the technique, but then equates the use of foreshadowing by a single author over the restricted amount of time it takes to complete a novel, to its apparent use in the bible. But there’s no equivalence. Yes, the bible is largely fiction too, but that’s where similarities end. In the case of the bible, we have to believe that over many, many years, multiple authors set about planting clues – prophecies – for events that would not occur until centuries later. But this just doesn’t work; not without a controlling agent, like a single author who creates and manages the entire narrative. Of course, Don believes that as far as the bible is concerned, that single author is YHWH. He’s not alone in this wishful thinking; there is a whole industry dedicated to arguing that God controlled the subconscious of everyone who contributed to the biblical texts.

But this scenario makes no sense. In the first instance because many of the so called prophecies are nothing of the sort. As we’ve seen, some are random lines in a story about something else entirely. Lets’ look at another example of that, again from Matthew’s gospel:   

In Hosea 11.1 YHWH is being made to boast about how he rescued the Israelites from Egypt:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

God’s ‘son’ in context and as plainly stated, is Israel (note the use of parallelism again.) All the verse is saying is that YHWH brought his son, Israel, out of captivity of Egypt, which is itself a fiction. Nothing more; nothing about the future. Yet years later, Matthew (2.16-18) rewrote the verse as an event in the young Jesus’ life:

So (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew expects us to believe that what the Hosea verse really means is that the baby Jesus would flee to Egypt and would be ‘called out’ again only when it was safe. That is, after Herod stopped massacring baby boys, another event that never happened but is itself a rewrite of Exodus 1.22. Only Matthew has this preposterous Egypt story, because only Matthew invented it. Luke simply has Mary & Joseph returning to their home in Nazareth.

Matthew is dishonest on two counts. He knows the original line is not a prophecy and he also knows his fable about the family’s escape to and return from Egypt is not a fulfilment of prophecy. And he knows this because it didn’t happen. He made it up.

Secondly, even if we grant that the bible contains what appear to be more precise prophecies, a God who has engineered their inclusion is mere speculation. One cannot offer up fulfilled prophecy as evidence of that God’s existence and then argue that prophecy comes to be fulfilled only because God is its controlling agent. That is circular reasoning. In any case, most, if not all, of these less indistinct predictions are the very ones that have never been fulfilled. We’ll take a look at some of these next time.

So, which is more likely? A supernatural entity who controls the entire narrative of a collection of books written over centuries, who hides unlikely clues to the future in a select number of verses, or a first century author who plunders ancient scriptures to find snippets that he thinks might parallel his hero, and then rewrites them to furnish his narrative?

An interfering but non-existent God looking forward or a duplicitous author looking back? Even Don knows which it is.