Scaling the Secular City by J.P. Moreland

Summary: A scholarly, methodical philosophical work marred by an amateurish defense of creationism.

It is no surprise that the primary stated purpose of Christian apologetics is to win converts. However, the majority of apologist books that I have read go about this task in a highly prejudicial, even intellectually dishonest way, by presenting distorted or unfairly slanted versions of opposing arguments, if indeed the existence of another side is ever mentioned at all. J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City was, I am happy to report, a welcome change of pace from such tactics. Unlike other apologetics books, such as The Case for Christ, which attempt to shut out or divert the reader away from alternative positions, Moreland’s book is generally marked by scholarship and diligence. He often takes pains to list the positions opposing his own, describe them accurately, and properly cite the people who hold them. This fair-mindedness deserves commendation. Also, Moreland plainly values arguments from evidence highly, as a true philosopher should. (In the introduction, he mentions the story of Doubting Thomas, which this site has previously discussed, in support of the importance of evidence in order to justify belief.) Again, this was a refreshing change from the appeals to blind faith which are otherwise so prevalent in Christian apologetics.

That said, I must criticize him for his embarrassingly inept and frankly incompetent defense of creationism. In a book that is otherwise of high philosophical caliber, it was disappointing to see how readily Moreland has swallowed the erroneous arguments of the creationists. For example, in the introduction he claims that there has been “a crisis” (p.11) in the neo-Darwinian synthesis, a claim which is flatly untrue and laughable to anyone familiar with the past twenty years in the field of evolutionary biology. This topic will be revisited and held up for additional criticism later in this review, but first his other arguments will be addressed. I will not respond to every single argument Moreland makes, because doing so would require writing a book nearly as long as his; but I assure my readers that there are more than satisfactory rebuttals to all of his claims, whether mentioned in this review or not.

CHAPTER 1

The first chapter of the book presents the kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence. While the rebuttals raised in “Unmoved Mover” still stand, there are a few points worth making in regard to Moreland’s presentation of it.

Moreland first briefly presents two forms of the classic cosmological argument, the Thomist and Leibnizian versions. Strangely, he states that they are “good arguments” (p.16), overlooking the massive special pleading that is required to use either of them as an argument for the existence of God. Even if we concede these arguments’ logic and grant the existence of a necessary First Cause, what reason do we have to believe that the first cause was anything like the deity of Judeo-Christian religion? Why not conclude that the universe itself is the first cause, existing from eternity uncaused and giving rise to all other causes? Moreland references a version of this rebuttal given by Bertrand Russell and states that he finds it unsatisfying, but does not explain why it should be more satisfying to withhold the set of properties specified by Russell from the universe and grant those exact same properties to God instead.

We then proceed to the kalam argument, which Moreland presents in the form given by William Lane Craig. He defines the notion of an actual infinite, a set which neither increases nor decreases in size and which has as many members as one of its proper subsets (for example, the set {1,2,3…} has as many members as the set {2,4,6…}). A potential infinite, on the other hand, can increase to arbitrarily large size but will always be finite. Moreland argues that an actually infinite number of events could not have occurred before now, because it would be impossible to traverse that infinite set and arrive at the current moment, and therefore the universe must have had a beginning.

He then presents the second law of thermodynamics as confirmation as this, arguing that this well-established physical law makes it impossible for the universe to have an infinite past. Moreland frets that if an atheist takes the obvious step of denying that this law applies to the universe taken as a whole, “certain implications follow which seem damaging to atheism… The ‘universe’ becomes an entity which seems to be immutable, outside space and time, self-existent, and nonphysical… In fact, the ‘universe’ now possesses certain attributes that classical theists would ascribe to God, and the atheist has come perilously close to holding to the existence of God – or a Being very much like him – and simply calling him the ‘universe’” (p.37).

This conclusion is overwrought and premature, however, to say the least. If one believes that the universe as we observe it had a beginning, a conclusion which is supported by the evidence, then one must conclude that there was a time at which the second law of thermodynamics as we know it did not apply. Both atheists and theists can agree on this. Atheists can explain this in terms of another supervening physical law, while theists explain it as a miracle. If one accepts the atheist conclusion, one can then continue to scientifically investigate to determine what this additional law is. Nothing about this comes even close to the traditional conception of God (for one thing, the universe is not a “being”).

What is remarkable about this passage is that Moreland is viewing his own special pleading, from behind as it were, and drawing entirely the wrong conclusion. Observing that the universe, in an atheist’s view, and God, in his view, share several properties, he triumphantly concludes that the atheist has elevated the universe to the status of God. In fact, he is the one who has without justification stripped these properties from the universe and assigned them to God, and then affects surprise upon noticing how similar the two look. This move is highly unparsimonious, to say the least, since we have ample observational evidence for the existence of the universe but none comparable for the existence of God.

Moreland then states that, since the universe had a beginning, that event must have had a cause. Anticipating the objection that quantum mechanics shows some events to be causeless, he argues that some thinkers interpret QM in a “nonrealist” fashion in which the universe is actually determinate, but our ability to know the relevant causes of any event will be forever limited, and that in light of this interpretation the law of cause and effect should be taken as a given for every event, even quantum ones.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to distinguish between possibility and necessity. As with William Lane Craig, Moreland objects that the causeless nature of certain quantum events has not been proven, since some scientists and philosophers have alternative ways to interpret the theory; but what he fails to realize is that a realist interpretation of QM in which some events do not have causes is still possible. This is all an atheist needs to establish, since the cosmological argument fails if it is possible that the universe was not created by God. It should also be noted that at the time this book was written, Moreland’s preferred interpretation of QM (called a “hidden variable” interpretation by physicists) had already been contradicted by experiments such as those of Alain Aspect, which strongly indicate that the outcomes of quantum events are truly random and not deterministically caused.

Moreland next considers models in which the universe arises from nothing via the simultaneous creation of equal amounts of positive and negative energy. Remarkably, despite the strong experimental evidence (such as the Casimir force) showing that such a thing really does happen, his response is to deny that this is possible, insisting bluntly that “nothingness has no nature, causal powers, or tendencies toward anything whatsoever” (p.41). But the evidence shows that this view is wrong, plain and simple. Moreland is simply refusing to come to terms with the fact that his philosophical “intuition” is not necessarily an accurate guide to the true nature of reality. Unfortunately, he attempts to disguise this weakness in his argument with an ad hominem attack against those who hold this view, calling it an “ungrounded logical possibility which provides the atheist with a last-ditch effort to avoid the existence of a first Cause” (p.41). (Why should the creation of matter from nothing via the act of a rational agent not be considered an “ungrounded logical possibility which provides the theist with a last-ditch effort to believe in a first cause”?)

Finally, Moreland asserts that the cause of the universe must have been personal, because only a person could choose to spontaneously act outside time to cause an event to happen. He makes no attempt to explain why an impersonal timeless cause would not suffice, except to say that if the necessary and sufficient conditions for an event exist, that event should happen “spontaneously”, with “no deliberation, no waiting” (p.42). As with Craig’s version, this argument suffers from a serious confusion of terms. If the universe arose out of a timeless state of affairs, temporal words like “spontaneous” or “waiting” are inappropriate, and asking why the universe did not begin at an earlier or later time is incoherent. It should also be noted that Moreland assumes far too much about what a free agent can and cannot do, a point that will be revisited later in this review.

In summary, despite its greater complexity, Moreland’s kalam argument is an instance of special pleading just as the ancient cosmological arguments were. He states that it is a “category fallacy” (p.38) to ask for a cause for God, but an atheist could just as well say that it is a category fallacy to ask for a cause of the universe. Moreland’s sole response to such rebuttals is that he finds them “unsatisfying”. If he insists on pushing the first cause of existence back one additional step and calling this new first step God, so be it, but an atheist can just as well cut out the extra step and apply the necessary properties, not to an unobserved supernatural being, but the universe as a whole.

The most important point about this chapter, however, relates to Moreland’s argument for the impossibility of an actual infinite. Whether this argument is valid or not need not be addressed here – except to say that, if Moreland is correct, the god of Christianity cannot exist either. If God is omniscient, he knows an actually infinite number of true propositions, and if God is omnipotent, he can create an actually infinite number of possible worlds. These sets cannot be potential infinites by Moreland’s own definition; according to him, a potential infinite increases its size over time (p.22), and no form of Christianity I am aware of asserts that God is constantly gaining new knowledge and abilities which he did not previously have. But by Moreland’s argument, an actual infinite cannot exist in reality (“It does not seem that an actual infinite could exist” (p.28)), and therefore his own logic proves that it is impossible for an omniscient or omnipotent being to exist.

CHAPTER 2

Moreland next presents the argument from design. This is an old and long-discredited theist argument, and his version adds nothing new to it. If anything, it is incredible how blithely he assumes that a purposeful arrangement of parts can only originate from a mind, as if the past one hundred and fifty years of scientific progress had not happened. For example, he states that “Just as the purpose of a watch… is evidence for a plan in the mind of a designer of the watch, so the purpose of the eye… is evidence for a plan in the mind of a designer of the eye” (p.46). This is a literally unchanged version of William Paley’s original argument. Until Moreland and other apologists can come to terms with the vast quantity of scientific progress explaining how order and purpose can originate without an intelligent plan, their arguments will remain obsolete historical relics.

Moreland first argues, quoting apologist Richard Swinburne, that the regularities in the universe point to design. Although conceding that physical laws can account for these regularities, he asserts that the existence of the laws themselves is best explained by positing a rational agent as their source, rather than accepting them as brute facts. It is not clear why this is a superior solution. Why is it an improvement to replace physical laws whose existence must be taken as a given with a rational agent whose existence must be taken as a given?

Moreland next reviews several other variants of the design argument. Bizarrely, he claims that the world’s simplicity is evidence for design, and also that the world’s complexity is evidence for design: “Hand in hand with design as simplicity is the notion of design as complexity” (p.48). This is incoherent. If a proposition P is evidence for a conclusion C, the negation of P cannot also be evidence for C. A conclusion that can be supported by any imaginable evidence cannot be supported at all. He also states that the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor) in science arose from the medieval theistic view of the world as a text, a sweeping conclusion for which he does not provide citations or evidence. Next, he claims that the beauty of the world indicates design, and that beauty is not a subjective perception but an objective fact. This is an exceedingly strange claim to say the least, and he does not attempt to defend it in this book.

Next, Moreland argues for design in the human body. He asserts that if our senses and cognitive faculties were not designed, there is no reason to trust that they would reliably inform us about the world. The obvious objection is that natural selection would favor the evolution of creatures who could perceive the world at least mostly accurately, but he dismisses this: “For one thing, it is not clear that the ability to know truth from falsity is necessary to survive” (p.50). This claim is obviously false. On the contrary, it is quite clear that, all else being equal, greater accuracy of sensory faculties will always be a survival advantage. For an in-depth defense of this claim, see the following two articles by Richard Carrier: [1, 2].

As evidence of this claim, Moreland asserts that “As long as an organism interacts consistently with its environment it need not interact accurately” (p.50). The two examples of this which he provides are seeing “blue things as though they were red and vice versa” and “large things as small and vice versa”. However, the first of these analogies is patently irrelevant and the second is false. If we saw blue things as red, then “red” would be the name we give to the color we currently call “blue”, and vice versa. This is not a “false belief”, merely a different way of labeling the world, and would not affect our survival ability. As for the second, this example is incorrect; such perception would negatively affect survival. For example, if early humans perceived mice as gigantic, dangerous predators and constantly fled from them, they would waste enormous amounts of energy; while if we perceived genuinely dangerous predators such as jaguars or alligators as small and unthreatening, we would soon be devoured. Similarly, if we perceived obstacles as different from their actual size, we would not know how to move to avoid them.

The final version of the design argument which Moreland presents is the fine-tuning argument, which is refuted here. As with other versions of the design argument, he adds nothing new to it, and props it up by stating as fact several things he cannot possibly know, such as the following: “The numerical values of these constants could have been different and there appears to be no scientific reason why they are what they are… the value of one constant is not a function of the value of another in most cases” and “Had the values of these constants been slightly smaller or larger, then no life would have been possible” (p.52).

Though Moreland generally presents opposing arguments fairly, there is one noticeable instance of out-of-context quoting in this chapter. Rebutting arguments that if the values of the constants had been different we would not be here to notice that fact, he quotes the atheist J.L. Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism:

“There is only one actual universe, with a unique set of basic materials and physical constants, and it is therefore surprising that the elements of this unique set-up are just right for life when they might easily have been wrong. This is not made less surprising by the fact that if it had not been so, no one would have been here to be surprised. We can properly envision and consider alternative possibilities which do not include our being there to experience them.”

However, Mackie was presenting this argument rhetorically to demonstrate the flaw in it. Here is the following paragraph from the same page of that book:

“I suspect, however, that this objection also is being presented in a question-begging way. Though some small variation from the initial materials and constants would, perhaps, eliminate the possibility of life’s having developed as it did, we really have no idea of what other interesting possibilities might have been latent within others of the endless range of possible initial conditions. We are not in a position, therefore, to regard the actual initial materials and constants as a uniquely fruitful set, and as surprising and as specially calling for further explanation on that account.”

Mackie, then, did recognize the flaws in the fine-tuning argument. Had Moreland quoted this paragraph, it would have made it impossible for him to gloss over them as he does.

Moreland then attempts to overturn objections to the design argument, including those of David Hume, which are still decisive today. For example, Hume states that if we take the analogy of the design argument seriously, we should logically conclude that there are multiple designers of the universe and that they are corporeal, since that is what we observe human design originating from. Moreland’s objections to these points are weak. First, he asserts that we live in a universe and not a plurality of universes, and therefore we should conclude that there is only one designer; but this can hardly hold up, since multiple human designers often collaborate to produce a unified result. More to the point, this world contains conflicting designs, such as the human immune system and the HIV virus, for which multiple designers are a far more reasonable explanation than a single designer.

To address the corporeality aspect of the analogy, Moreland asserts that human corporeality is an “accidental” feature that accompanies our designing intelligences but is not an essential characteristic of them. “All examples of human artifacts have the properties of coming from intelligence and coming from beings ninety-three million miles from the sun. However, if artifacts were discovered on another planet, the former would be relevant but not the latter. The design argument supports a rational, free, powerful designer and these properties are relevant to the argument. Human corporeality is not” (p.65). But this hardly seems to be true. In all instances of design that we know of, corporeality is a necessary feature, required in order for the designer to interact with the world to produce design. (How else do we make things except with our hands?) Hume’s criticisms remain valid: even if the design argument is accepted, it can only point to a designer very different from the god of Judeo-Christian theism advocated by Moreland.

Hume also asks why we should not consider different analogies, for example comparing the universe to the growth of a plant, rather than the handiwork of a human. The most Moreland has to say in response is the following: “In the case of a vegetable, we have a process where organized bodies generate other organized bodies… There is no radical generation of order here but merely transmission of order from one entity to another. Living organisms cannot be used to explain order, for they themselves presuppose and exemplify such order” (p.66). But these criticisms apply with equal force to Moreland’s design argument! Just as in the case of vegetative growth, in the case of human design there is no “radical generation” of order, but rather transmission of order from a highly complex designer to another, less complex entity. It does no good to explain the complexity of the universe by postulating a designer of equal or greater complexity. Moreland also patently begs the question by stating that plants still need a designer, so even if the universe were more like a plant we could still consider it designed.

In fact, there is only one type of design-like process that involves a radical generation of order: a process of evolution. In light of this, it is disappointing to see how readily Moreland dismisses this possibility: “…it is simply false to say that macroevolution is clearly true and without serious problems” (p.71). He presents no arguments for this view, merely offers citations to the long-debunked fallacies of Henry Morris and other creationists. Although his standard practice is to cite both sides of the debate, he cites no rebuttals to these easily rebutted claims.

CHAPTER 3

Moreland’s next argument for the existence of God is the argument from mind, which he defines as follows: “…man as a rational agent implies God as the Ground or Cause of his rationality” (p.78). It is beyond the scope of this essay to give a full account of how determinism in a physical sense can be made compatible with rationality, moral responsibility and free will, but several holes in Moreland’s claims can be examined.

First, Moreland attacks the view that everything that exists is physical, seeking to establish that a non-physical object such as a soul could exist. In defense of this claim, he cites such things as numbers, laws of logic, and moral values. However, this argument is confused at best, and a well-articulated physicalism is not in the least bit threatened by it. These things do exist, but not in some ethereal, non-physical, Platonic realm; they are descriptions of certain types of patterns found in the matter and energy of the physical world. They exist as concepts, not as real things that are themselves causally efficacious on the world. Moreland is equivocating between different definitions of “exist” here.

We then encounter the well-worn argument from qualia, as Moreland claims that the subjective, “what it is like” characteristics of sensory experience could not be identical to the physical changes in brain state that are their correlates. He does nothing to show that this is the case, merely asserts it by stating that “A physicalist, scientific description of the world leaves out this character of subjective awareness” (p.86). This is assuming what he wishes to prove. Furthermore, he ignores the extensive evidence that qualia are unified with physical brain states, evidence which shows that certain types of brain damage can alter or erase qualia. (See “A Ghost in the Machine” for this and a more extensive discussion of qualia.) It is unclear how a mystical, dualist theory of qualia could accommodate such evidence. If qualia and consciousness reside in some other plane of existence, how could physical damage to a physical brain affect them?

Moreland similarly claims, in a very cursory manner, that a purely physical system could not possess intentionality (“aboutness”), unity over time, or free choice. Since he spends little space on these arguments, this review will similarly skim over them, except to note that they have been addressed elsewhere, and that he provides no explanation for how a dualist self could more easily accommodate them. For example, Moreland states that a purely physical human being, since people are constantly changing over time, would not possess the same absolute self throughout life. In a certain sense this may be true; but why should it be taken for granted that soul-based hypotheses have a better solution? Given the undisputed fact that we do change throughout our lives, in what sense is the soul one has at birth the “same” soul one has at death, if most or all of one’s major character traits and desires have altered? Moreland’s own example, in which replacing every part of a table yields a new table not the same as the original, would seem to be applicable analogously to the soul. Again, he makes no rigorous attempt to explain how his preferred alternative can overcome these problems.

The major argument developed in this chapter is that physicalism is self-refuting, because it implies that people come to hold beliefs – such as physicalism – as a result of the material causes acting on them, and not as the result of a process of reason. However, this is a false dilemma. Why can it not be the case that we believe a statement is true for causes and also for reasons? (In essence, this is a rehash of the argument from design for senses already given in chapter 2. See the above articles by Richard Carrier for rebuttal.)

CHAPTER 4

The next chapter presents arguments related to the meaning of life. Moreland’s claim is that Christian theism provides the best answer to the question, “Are there any objective values which provide significance for the universe as a whole, human life in general, or my life in particular, and which provide a goal or purpose for the universe, human life, or my life?” (107)

It is somewhat difficult to tell what the argument is here. Is Moreland arguing that we should believe Christian theism because it provides the most satisfying and comforting answer to this question, or because objective values do exist and Christian theism provides the best explanation for this? The former would be an obviously fallacious argument from consequences, and yet it seems to be what Moreland is saying, inasmuch as he presents no arguments in this chapter for the claim that objective values exist.

The chapter considers four views which each have a different answer to the previously posed question: nihilism, optimistic humanism, transcendentalism, and Christian theism. In response to the first, Moreland states that nihilism is false because he knows that certain moral statements, such as “it is wrong to torture babies” are true, and that this is something he knows intuitively, not based on any criteria, and therefore needs no justification (p.116). While I do agree that torturing babies is morally wrong, it is bizarre to say that this is not based on any other criterion – that there is no reason why torturing babies is wrong. Of course there are criteria by which we know this to be true – the criterion of needlessly increasing human suffering.

Moreland next moves on to optimistic humanism, which he accurately describes in saying that, while humanists do not believe there is a predefined purpose or meaning to life, we as human beings are free to find our own meaning and set our own purpose. However, he states incorrectly that humanists do not believe in real, objective moral values (p.120). That is not an essential part of this worldview. Some humanists, no doubt, do think that morality cannot be objective. I do not agree with them (see “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“). This renders several of Moreland’s arguments irrelevant as far as I am concerned, for example, when he states that humanists cannot “offer a rational objection to Nazi treatment of the Jews in World War II” (p.121).

This chapter does raise several other objections to humanism, none of which succeed. For example, “As far as rationality is concerned, it has nothing to offer over nihilism” (p.121). Nothing could be further from the truth! There are several ways in which optimistic humanism is rationally superior to nihilism as a worldview. First, nihilism is literally a self-refuting position. If nihilism was true, then no values – no “shoulds” – would exist, and therefore it would not be true that anyone should believe in nihilism; and if nihilism is false, it is of course not true that anyone should believe in it then either. Either way, nihilism is an irrational worldview. Humanism is not.

In another section, Moreland apparently unwittingly exposes a severe inconsistency in his own case. He writes that a leading humanist, Paul Kurtz, “admits that the ultimate values of humanism are incapable of rational justification” (p.121). For a decisive refutation of this fallacious argument, read three paragraphs back in this review. Just several pages earlier, Moreland himself admitted that some statements of value need no justification! In fact, he correctly stated that to attempt to offer a criterion justifying every previous criterion would lead to an infinite regress, and the chain of criteria must stop somewhere. And yet, only five pages later, he seems to have forgotten his own writing, and attempts to turn the argument which he himself debunked against humanism.

Finally, Moreland argues that “[f]or the optimistic humanist, life has no objective value or purpose; it offers only subjective satisfaction. One should think long and hard before embracing such a horrible view” (p. 122). But why is this such a “horrible” view? He does not even attempt to explain the reasoning behind that assertion. What is so horrible about the idea that we can find satisfaction in life by choosing for ourselves what makes us happy and our lives meaningful, and then choosing to pursue those ends? If anything, the idea of having our purpose in life prearranged before we were even born, so that our whole lives are merely a pointless march toward a foreordained end, sounds far more terrible and bleak to me.

In addition, what is “objective purpose”? This term, though central to the chapter’s argument, is never rigorously defined. Would this mean that life had a certain purpose even if no one living had that purpose? That is a strange claim at best, and probably a contradiction in terms. Purpose is subjective by definition, because it can only exist relative to a mind – for there to be purpose, it must be the purpose of someone, and since minds are all different, purpose will vary from person to person. This does not make it less real or less important, but it does show that Moreland’s objections are ill-formed.

The end of the chapter naturally claims that Christian theism offers a better answer to the issue of life’s purpose, but the arguments it offers are easily overcome. Most of these objections are well-rehearsed and we need not spend much space on them here. For example, Moreland attempts to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by grounding morality in God’s character, without acknowledging that this merely moves the dilemma rather than solving it. He also states that having a preordained purpose does not diminish us because “God has given man freedom to choose what he will do with his life” (p.129), ignoring the fact that this “freedom”, in a belief system that postulates a Hell for the disobedient, is hollow at best and blackmail at worst. Most remarkably of all, he closes the chapter with the intellectually threadbare Pascal’s wager, arguing as if Christianity is the only possible choice and no other religions had hells of their own: “If one chooses Christian theism, he has lost very little if he is wrong” (p.132).

CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5 offers a case for the historical reliability of the New Testament. Moreland does not address the mythicist theory of Christian origins, instead assuming throughout the chapter that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical human being. This review will not present a comprehensive case for the alternative, but several anomalies in the traditional view, which Moreland either glosses over or deals with somewhat awkwardly, are worth calling attention to.

The chapter opens with a common Christian argument, that we possess so many extant copies, especially as compared to other ancient works, that the textual accuracy of the NT should be beyond dispute. It should be said, of course, that this can at best prove accuracy of transmission, not truthfulness of content, and Moreland states this forthrightly. However, what he downplays is this: he states that “Most historians accept the textual accuracy of other ancient works on far less adequate manuscript grounds than is available for the New Testament” (p.136), but fails to point out that the Roman historians and chroniclers he lists as examples did not write in the tendentious atmosphere that existed in early Christianity. No one, as far as we know, had any vested interest in modifying or altering these works; but the records readily show that Christianity was initially a maelstrom of competing interpretations and incompatible gospels, whose followers struggled fiercely with each other, seeking to reinterpret or stamp out differing views. (Even Paul speaks disparagingly of Christian sects who preach “another Jesus” in 2 Corinthians 11:4, and warns followers against accepting any gospel different from his own in Galatians 1:9.) This contention makes it far more likely that the gospels and epistles were altered or rewritten in the first few generations, something which is not true of the ancient non-Christian historians.

Moreland then lists several general tests for reliability, such as if a document is a personal letter, written by eyewitnesses, or intended for small audiences (p.137). However, in the case of the NT books, this is begging the question. One cannot know that these books actually were personal letters to small audiences – rather than, say, later pseudepigraphical compositions mimicking the presumed style of early apostles – without assuming that they are what they represent themselves to be, which is what is in dispute. Amusingly, Moreland even claims that the gospels can be shown to be eyewitness accounts, if only we rewrite them so that that is what they are: “For example, if a number of pronouns in Mark (see 1:21,29) are changed from the third-person plural they to the first-person plural we, they can easily be seen as eyewitness reminiscences of Peter, who gave Mark much of the material for his Gospel” (p.137).

He also claims that, in general, a document should be believed “unless, under burden of proof, it is shown to be unreliable” (p.138). The idea that a text which contains stories of events such as mass resurrections from the dead, demon possessions causing insanity, and people walking on water, stopping storms and magically speaking other languages might constitute prima facie evidence of unreliability seems not to have occurred to him. Clearly there is a significant degree of bias affecting the analysis here.

Next he asks, “if the New Testament picture of Jesus was not based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, how could a consistent tradition about him ever have been formed and written?” (p.138) – ignoring the fact, as already stated, that early Christianity was a confusion of incompatible sects and beliefs, each with their own preferred gospels and epistles. He says that if no eyewitnesses controlled the early tradition, “there would have been almost as many Christologies or portraits of Jesus and his significance as there were believing communities” (p.139). But this was exactly the case. The one Christian sect that ultimately gained superiority did so not through superior evidence and argument, but through force, by gaining the ear of an emperor.

In support of Jesus’ historicity, Moreland states, “It is antecedently incredible that converts to and inquirers about Christianity in its early years would not want to know a good bit about the person they loved” (p.140). And yet, if we judge by the records, that is exactly what happened, since the NT epistles never place Jesus on earth, talk about any of his deeds except the crucifixion, or give biographical details other than those predetermined by Old Testament prophecy. This is exactly as the mythicist theory predicts, and goes a long way toward explaining why there were so many incompatible early Christologies: there were no eyewitnesses who could set the record straight, merely incompatible faith testimonies.

This point is unwittingly reinforced by Moreland when he states, “Furthermore, Paul himself showed interest in biographical details of Jesus’ life” (p.140) – and then gives examples of this that show just how thin his argument is. Here are the passages he cites in support of this claim:

  • Romans 15:3,8: “For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me… Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” Two vague verses that never place any of Christ’s activities in a specific time or place on Earth, and moreover, state specifically that their information was derived from scripture, not eyewitnesses.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” A metaphorical verse that says nothing about an earthly career of Jesus.
  • Phillippians 2:6-11: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Mentions the crucifixion, which the mythicist theory does not deny (though it places it in a higher plane, not on Earth). Otherwise says nothing about Jesus’ birth, life or deeds.

Next, Moreland claims that several textual features of the gospels, such as the structure of Jesus’ sayings or his use of parables, “attest to their substantial historicity” (p.144). This is an especially glaring fallacy considering that Moreland himself says just three pages earlier, in response to critics who claim that gospel sayings met the needs of the early church because the church invented them for that purpose, that “It is a false move from the form of a narrative to its historical accuracy” (p.141). As before, Moreland severely contradicts his own argument apparently without noticing, and competently debunks a fallacious argument only to turn around and apply the same fallacy in support of his own claims.

An even more baffling argument comes when the chapter says that the gospels should be seen as genuine because the early church did not avail itself of the opportunity to add material to them that would have helped it. “The church failed to put into the Synoptic tradition material that would have helped the church a great deal during the period when the tradition was passed on orally. This is surprising if the Gospels were shaped to meet these needs. So the failure to create sayings of Jesus to meet these pressing needs shows restraint in handling the Gospel materials. No saying of Jesus is to be found on several issues because no saying of Jesus was given on those issues. Some examples are circumcision, charismatic gifts, baptism, food laws, Gentile missions… several ministries of the Holy Spirit, rules governing assembly meetings, and church-state relations” (p.146).

I will grant Moreland that the gospels give Jesus no sayings about circumcision. Other than that, however, every single one of the topics he mentions is expounded upon by Jesus. See the following examples:

  • Charismatic gifts: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” –Mark 16:17-18
    “And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name. And he said unto them… Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” –Luke 10:17-19
    “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” –Luke 11:13
  • Baptism: “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” –John 3:5
    “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” –Matthew 28:19
  • Food laws: “And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” –Mark 7:14-15
  • Ministries of the Holy Spirit: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” –John 14:26
  • Assembly meetings: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” –Matthew 18:20
  • Gentile missions: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” –Matthew 28:19
  • Church-state relations: “And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” –Mark 12:17

It is difficult to understand what Moreland was thinking with this argument. Is he really so unfamiliar with his own Bible that he did not know of these sayings?

The one item whose inclusion on this list might be debated is Mark 16:17-18, which was not part of the gospel’s original text but is instead a later interpolation. But it is echoed by verses in Luke, as shown, that are not known to be interpolations and which say the same things. In any case, even this exception proves the point: the early church did feel free to add things to the Bible when it felt doing so was necessary to address a theological need.

Finally, the chapter considers the issue of when the gospels were written, with the implication that an earlier date makes them more trustworthy. The bulk of his argument is that the gospels do not discuss the Jewish War or the fall of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE, and this makes the most sense if they were written before that date. However, he does not mention the obvious rejoinder: what if the gospels were written much later by someone who merely sought to make them seem earlier by deliberately omitting those events? It is always a precarious proposition to try to date a book solely from the content of that book. More decisive is external evidence: if the gospels were written as early as Moreland claims, why is it that not a single Christian writer shows any knowledge of their existence until the mid-second century? The first Christian church father we know of who makes any reference to the gospels at all is Justin Martyr, around the year 150, and he refers to them simply as “memoirs of the apostles” and neither names nor numbers them. The first writer who lists the four canonical gospels by name and presents them as authoritative is Irenaeus of Lyons, around 175 CE! Moreland’s argument requires us to believe that the gospels existed and circulated for well over a hundred years before anyone started to take notice of them. Far more likely is that mentions of the gospels are late because the gospels themselves were late.

CHAPTER 6

Continuing the theme of the last chapter, chapter 6 takes the historicity of the NT records as settled, and argues that the most likely explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb was that he really did rise from the dead. I have no interest in arguing that Jesus survived the crucifixion and escaped the tomb, or that his disciples stole his body, or other explanations that accept the Christian claim that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and then try to explain this. Such tactics unnecessarily concede far too much. Instead, this review will continue to present the mythicist theory of Christian origins detailed in “Choking on the Camel“. In brief, there was no empty tomb because there was no tomb: the first Christians, including Paul, believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection took place in a higher heavenly plane, and wrote their letters to express this. It was only later, after the writing of the gospels, that these original beliefs were forgotten, and people mistakenly came to assume that Christians had always believed in a historical, human Jesus. This section will strive to show how this theory accounts for the facts better than Moreland’s interpretation.

First, Moreland calls attention to the seven-week delay between the crucifixion and the apostles’ first preaching as described by Acts, and states that there would be “no clear motive” (p.161) for making this delay up if it had not really happened. However, I can think of one possible motive: a misinterpretation of Daniel 9:25, which speaks of the coming of the messiah and mentions a seven-week delay.

Next comes a frankly bizarre argument, one which shows how Moreland’s interpretation must strain to accommodate facts that a mythicist perspective handles with ease. Moreland admits (in a section titled “No Veneration at Jesus’ Tomb”) that there is no evidence that Jesus’ tomb was ever a site of religious pilgrimage or veneration, but insists that this supports his view. Here is the passage in full:

“In Palestine during the days of Jesus, at least fifty tombs of prophets or other holy persons served as sites of religious worship and veneration. However, there is no good evidence that such a practice was ever associated with Jesus’ tomb. Since this was customary, and since Jesus was a fitting object of veneration, why were such religious activities not conducted at his tomb? The most reasonable answer must be that Jesus’ body was not in his tomb, and thus the tomb was not regarded as an appropriate site for such veneration” (p.161).

Can anyone possibly believe this? That early Christians would not consider the tomb a suitable site of veneration just because Jesus’ body was no longer in it? To name just the most obvious rebuttal, why then are the (multiple) sites in Jerusalem that claim to be the site of Jesus’ tomb destinations of pilgrimage today? This is light-years from being the “most reasonable” explanation of this phenomenon. Far more reasonable, as already argued, is that there was no veneration of the empty tomb because there was no tomb at all.

Next we consider the “Jewish polemic” against the empty tomb described by Matthew 28, which Moreland says “assumes that the tomb was empty”, and adds that, “The only explanations for the resurrection of Jesus… assume an empty tomb, regardless of whether the explanation is offered by a friend or a foe of Christianity” (p.163). The only problem is that this explanation was not offered by a foe of Christianity. It was written by a Christian. There is no comparable passage in contemporary Jewish writings, and so it is purely circular for Moreland to claim that even Christianity’s foes admitted Jesus’ tomb was empty. (William Lane Craig commits the same exact fallacy in The Case for Christ – what about this passage makes it so tempting for Christians to use circular arguments?)

We also survey Joseph of Arimathea, whom Moreland concludes must have been historical because “[t]here was no reason to make up the story that Jesus was buried in his tomb” (p.167). On the contrary: there would have been a clear reason for the gospel authors to invent such a character. Namely, Jesus’ body had to be placed somewhere that could later be found empty (as opposed to the body being, for example, cremated or thrown to animals) in order for the resurrection to ring true within the context of the story. Joseph’s only function in the gospels is to provide a tomb into which Jesus’ body could be placed, and so it would make a great deal of sense for the gospel writer to invent him as part of the plot. Moreland mentions that it would be “highly problematic” to fabricate such a presumably public figure as Joseph of Arimathea, but this difficulty, like many others, evaporates if we do not assume that the gospels were originally meant to be, or understood as, historical accounts.

Moreland spends some time on the fact that the gospels make women, rather than the male disciples, the first to discover Jesus’ resurrection, a piece of information that he says would have been embarrassing to the first Christians and thus would not have been invented in a sexist society. Several things can be said in response to this. First, there is abundant evidence that women were not as lowly in Ancient Near East society as Moreland argues, and even that their presence in the scene serves thematic purpose; see this article by Richard Carrier. Second, if the story was not originally intended as a historical account, this difficulty also disappears, since no issue of “embarrassment” would exist in that case. As Earl Doherty points out in Challenging the Verdict: “[The women] are witnesses to the empty tomb within Mark’s story. That is, they serve the purpose of telling the story of the empty tomb to the reader. We are not forced to deduce… that they must have told someone, else Mark couldn’t have written the story, because that story was a fictional creation” (p.176, italics original).

A very amusing argument comes when Moreland asserts that the resurrection accounts are “incredibly restrained” (p.169) and “subdued” (p.175) and do not include the “fanciful descriptions” of the later apocryphal gospels that are more likely to be embellishments. Evidently, stories of events such as a midday darkness over all the earth, a mass resurrection of dead saints, angels descending from heaven, the veil of the temple being mysteriously torn, a great earthquake, and a revivified Jesus appearing out of thin air, walking through walls and being raised up bodily to heaven should be considered “restrained” and not “fanciful”.

The chapter also considers a very common and still effective atheist argument: after Jesus’ death, the four gospels’ accounts of the resurrection diverge to a startling degree, and no account reconciling all their contradictions has ever been produced. Moreland diplomatically describes the task of harmonization as “difficult” (p.169) (it would be more accurate to say it is impossible), but brazenly claims that this actually makes the gospels more reliable, not less: “The conflict of testimony is more a mark of the sincerity of those from whom the testimony was derived than a mark against their veracity” (p.169).

Although I admire the courage it must have taken to put forth such an argument without any sign of embarrassment, its premise is ludicrous. If, at a trial, one defense witness placed the defendant in New York City at the time of the crime and another defense witness placed him in Washington, D.C., it would do nothing to resolve the contradiction, nor repair the weakness the conflict produces in the defense’s case, by saying that the inconsistency should be disregarded because both witnesses were sincere. The existence of differences must be explained, and the only way it can be explained is to say that at least one witness is not telling the truth. The same principle applies in this case. The conflict of testimony in the gospels, against Moreland and in harmony with common sense, is a point against the writers’ veracity.

Finally, Moreland briefly considers the mystery religions common around the time of Christianity’s origin, many of which had their own dying and rising deities. The obvious inference is that Christianity’s central premise was, if not borrowed from these other religions, at least cut from the same cloth as they were. Moreland offers two arguments against this: first, that the mystery religions were intended to be “myths that served as reenactments” (p.182), not real historical narratives. If one accepts that Jesus was a historical person, this objection would have force – but I do not accept this, as already detailed, nor do I accept that the first Christian documents were intended to describe a historical individual rather than a mystical event, so this argument has no force here.

Second, Moreland states that similarities between Christian beliefs and mystery religions are often only “apparent” (p.182) and far outweighed by differences. This claim is wishful thinking at best. Though there are differences between the various mystery religions’ stories, as we would expect from cultural mutations, they are alike in many important ways. Not only do all these stories share the key element of a dying and rising god, they are often startlingly similar in even insignificant details. For example, Osiris – an Egyptian mystery savior – was killed by seventy-two conspirators, the same size as the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, and returned to life on the third day after his death. The Sumerian mystery savior Inanna was crucified, killed and returned from the dead (see this essay by Richard Carrier, especially footnotes 3 and 11). It is far from the truth that one needs to “strain hard” (p.182) to see any significant parallels with Jesus, as Moreland hopefully asserts; nor is it true that these belief systems often had only a “crude resuscitation” and not a “real resurrection”. Moreland himself cites the example of Osiris, who was literally torn to pieces and then returns to life after his body parts are reassembled. How on earth is this not a “real” resurrection? Many other mystery religion saviors, such as Inanna and Romulus, also most definitely were genuinely killed in their religions’ belief systems. Many of these stories are attested by records that date back to well before Christianity.

CHAPTER 7

The beginning of this chapter discusses several different models of science’s relationship to the truth. Moreland discusses the most common view, rational realism, which states that science accurately describes real objects that exist independently of us. Strangely, although he himself accepts this view (p.187), he spends considerable space attacking it and arguing that it need not be taken as the settled truth. The purpose of this seems to be to allow Christians to pick and choose which scientific theories they accept, believing those which do not threaten their faith, while taking a postmodernist-like “nonrealist” view of those which have implications they find disturbing. “This… should caution anyone who automatically thinks that just because science and Christianity ‘conflict,’ then Christianity must be the loser. For it may be that science as a discipline, or some particular theory of science, should not be viewed in realistic terms” (p.187).

Moreland next considers some limitations of science. He correctly points out that the statement “only what can be verified by science is true” is self-refuting, since that statement itself cannot be scientifically verified. However, this is a rather naive formulation and can easily be made more robust. Consider the following alternative: “Science is the only way to reliably gain knowledge about objects and processes in the physical, external world.” This statement is not as naively self-refuting, and I suspect many atheists and philosophers would agree with it.

What comes next is the most unfortunate part of the book, in which Moreland attempts to argue that the theory of evolution is false. First, he launches some vague and virtually detail-free attacks on abiogenesis: “The more we learn about the complexity of the organic materials necessary for life… the more implausible a strictly naturalistic account [of life's origin] becomes. Scientists one hundred years ago were not aware of the immensity of the problems in the spontaneous generation of life from some primordial soup. But today some scientists feel these problems are overwhelming” (p.207). I dare say a great number of creationists feel this way, but their pessimism is not echoed by scientists who are actually working on the problem. Moreland makes no attempt at explaining what these “overwhelming” problems are, which is ironic, considering that in the two decades since this book was written scientists have made a great deal of progress toward the goal he dismisses as impossible: for example, the major advance described as the RNA World. It is by no means true that the origin of life is a solved problem, but Moreland’s extreme pessimism is clearly driven by theological bias, not by a comprehensive study of the evidence.

Moreland next moves on to a study of creationism, about which he says that neither the age of the Earth nor the occurrence of a worldwide flood are major points of contention. Rather, he claims, the main objection of creationists to evolution regards the origin of humankind, and I can agree with this. However, I can by no means accept his next claim: that creationism is science. This is simply outrageous and flies in the face of the opinions of the overwhelming majority of actual, qualified scientists. For example, consider a friend-of-the-court brief filed by seventy-two Nobel laureates in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, which states unequivocally that creationism is not science, but thinly disguised religious dogma. Similarly, the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve, signed by hundreds of practicing, qualified scientists – all of whom are named Steve or some variant – flatly declares creationism to be a pseudoscience.

The single most important reason why creationism is not and can never be science is its inclusion of God – of miracles. Moreland protests against this strenuously, but to no avail. First, incredibly, he claims that God is “not necessarily a religious concept” (p.209) because “‘God’ may be a mere philosophical concept or theoretical term denoting an explanatory theoretical entity… For example, in Aristotle’s philosophy God was an entity, the existence of which served to explain, among other things, the existence of motion in the cosmos. But Aristotle did not worship the unmoved Mover of his philosophical system” (p.210).

Several things could be said about this. First, Aristotle’s philosophy was exactly that; it was not science. Aristotle performed no experiments to see if his hypotheses were correct, and indeed it is impossible to see what experiments could be performed to test for the existence of an unmoved mover. Second, the god postulated by Moreland and other creationists is not the distant first cause of Aristotle’s system; it is specifically the god of Christian revelation, and therefore is not a “mere” philosophical concept, and most certainly religious. Nor is it an “explanatory theoretical entity”. How could a god of unlimited capabilities and inscrutable motives be an explanatory entity? Such a postulate allows literally any imaginable scenario and rules out none; it explains nothing.

Moreland also says that “scientists of other generations recognized that God was a legitimate source of explanation in science… so why should we be required to accept a definition of science which would arbitrarily rule out as nonscience all the cases in the history of science where God was appealed to as a theoretical entity?” (p.210). This is mere petulance, and a fallacious argument from authority to boot. Isaac Newton was an alchemist, but that does not mean we recognize alchemy as legitimate science today. Divine intervention was removed from the realm of science precisely because it was unfruitful, because it added nothing to our knowledge and interfered with explanations that did – or as Laplace put it, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” It is no coincidence that science has flourished to the degree that supernatural explanations were removed from it.

Finally, Moreland presents his actual arguments against evolution. After all this time and buildup, it is disappointing to see how clumsy they are; he has uncritically accepted some of the weakest claims of the creationists. First, he returns to abiogenesis (which strictly speaking is separate from evolution), asserting that organic molecules on the early Earth would have been too dilute to react effectively and that the early atmosphere contained oxygen, fatal to many types of chemical reactions. Both claims are unequivocally false: [1, 2]. He goes on to claim that abiogenesis experiments have not synthesized anything of comparable complexity to present-day life; again, this is not denied by scientists, but for Moreland to cite it as if it constituted evidence of an unbridgeable gap, rather than a problem not yet solved, is an argument from ignorance in its purest form. Finally, he asserts that life-forming reactions are highly unlikely to occur by chance, which is true and also utterly irrelevant since no serious theory of abiogenesis claims that they did happen by chance, and that “Self-ordering tendencies in matter are not adequate to overcome these odds” (p.221) – a statement which simply begs the question, asserting what he wishes to prove. Most embarrassingly of all, Moreland endorses one of the worst creationist arguments ever, the infamous tornado in a junkyard analogy: “the fact that the earth was an open system does not refute the second-law argument, for raw energy cannot bring order or information out of chaos any more than one can form a Boeing 747 by dropping a bomb on a machine shop” (p.221). It should not need to be said that atoms and molecules are not, and do not behave like, machine parts; and again, no actual theory of abiogenesis postulates that life began in a single explosive event, rather than a gradual process that involved many steps of development and selection.

Second, Moreland considers the fossil record. The usual misunderstandings of the Cambrian Explosion are aired, as well as the standard false depiction of punctuated equilibrium as an ad hoc invention to explain away an alleged lack of transitional fossils, and “empirically equivalent to creationism” (p.222). In fact, PE was conceived of not to explain a lack of transitions, for there is no such lack, but to explain the patterns in the transitional series we do find. (Here is what Stephen Jay Gould, inventor of PE, had to say about creationists misrepresenting him.) Finally, we are subjected to the tiresome and false claim that there are no transitional fossils, which if anything is stated in a form even more outrageously false than the usual: “whenever we have the opportunity to observe an organism through successive periods of geological time, we find that… that it has no clear ancestors” (p.222). Here is a long list of transitional vertebrate fossils. Out of all these examples, Moreland alludes only to two whose existence is too well known to sweep under the rug (Archaeopteryx and the horse series), but calls them “questionable” since “evolutionists can be found who argue against each” (p.222). By this logic, doctrines of Christianity such as biblical inerrancy, the rapture, the Trinity, free will, the existence of Hell and the divinity of Jesus are also “questionable”, since there are Christians who argue against each of them. If Moreland responds that the majority of Christians do hold these principles and the others are outliers whose arguments are invalid, he has made my point for me.

Last and definitely least, the chapter asserts that macroevolution is impossible because it faces “incredible probability odds” and “there seem to be built-in limits to change in genetic material” (p.222). Neither of these claims are justified with anything remotely like evidence. He even goes so far as to claim that “incipient structures” such as the eye would not be useful in their intermediate forms, an argument whose fallacy was demonstrated by Charles Darwin himself! (See also this post.)

The chapter closes with a quote from Michael Denton, who was an anti-evolutionist at the time this book was written. It is fitting to point out, therefore, that Denton has since changed his mind and now fully accepts evolution and common descent. It is unlikely that this will make an impression on Moreland, but I hope it will, at the least, convince him to be less credulous when it comes to such manifestly erroneous and incompetent arguments in the future.

CHAPTER 8

The final chapter addresses some miscellaneous issues not covered elsewhere in the book. First, Moreland considers a rather crude form of the argument from divine hiddenness, arguing that it is not rational to withhold belief in God just because he cannot be seen. He points out that there are many abstract concepts, such as numbers, values, thoughts and logical laws, that cannot be seen but that it is rational to believe in anyway. “God, if he exists at all, is by definition… an infinite Spirit. It is not part of the nature of a spirit to be visible empirically as a material object would be. It is a category fallacy to ascribe sensory qualities to God or fault him for not being visible” (p.227). This is a very weak argument. God is not – at least, I would assume, according to Moreland – a number, a thought, or a law of logic. Christians consider God to be an object existing in the external world, not a mere concept existing only in human minds. And since Moreland believes God to be omnipotent, it should be obvious that such a deity could appear in visible form if he wished – as he does multiple times in the Bible (Genesis 17:1, Genesis 26:2, Genesis 32:30, Exodus 33:11, Deuteronomy 5:4, Job 42:5, and others). It misses the point to claim that God need not do this because his existence can be inferred – if he is benevolent and wants us to believe in him, why would he not provide direct evidence? It costs him nothing to do so and would win many believers who might otherwise be lost.

Next he considers the argument that God is a psychological projection of human desires and therefore should not be believed in. I grant Moreland that to offer this as a reason not to believe in God is an instance of the genetic fallacy. However, if one is an atheist for other reasons, this can certainly be offered as an explanation of why some people do believe in God. One must be careful to keep those two distinct. Moreland evidently feels even this will not do, explaining that “the biblical God is not the sort of being one would want to project. The biblical God is holy, demanding, omnipotent, omniscient… awesome in wrath and justice, and so forth” (p.230). But this defense is sophistry. Whatever other qualities Christians ascribe to God, they believe that by believing in him they will receive an essentially free pass to a blissful eternity in the afterlife, while their enemies will suffer their just desserts. And this is precisely the sort of belief system that humans would be liable to invent through projection. While it is an oversimplification to attribute the origins of theism or Christianity purely to projection, it almost certainly played a role.

Remarkably, though Moreland has pointed out the fault of the genetic fallacy, he then turns around and applies this same fallacious argument to atheists: “Thus atheism is itself a form of projective denial… Although I cannot prove it, I suspect that atheists fit a more tightly defined group than do theists, and it may be that other factors which help to define the class of atheists (for example, absent or passive fathers) may be key psychological causes for why people embrace atheism” (p.229, emphasis added). Little more need be said about this than to point to Moreland’s own admission that he has no evidence for it. In my experience, atheists do not fit a “tightly defined group”, but come from all backgrounds and walks of life, and are no more likely to come from dysfunctional families than any other group. This is anecdotal evidence, admittedly, but Moreland has not even offered that. As the last part of this section, he suggests that humans desire God, and what we desire exists. This is a novel and interesting argument, but ultimately unsuccessful; just because we desire something does not prove that it exists. Human beings desire many states of affairs which are imaginary. For example, people with incurable conditions such as paralysis may desire a cure, but that does not mean that a cure currently exists.

Finally, Moreland considers the significance of religious experience. Surprisingly, he does not even cover the obvious point, mentioned in “Unmoved Mover“, that people from a vast diversity of cultures all have religious experiences of different gods and belief systems. This alone would strongly suggest that these perceptions are influenced by culture and expectation and are not veridical. The only even partially relevant reply Moreland has is to ask if “the experience conform[s] to an objective body of revelation, Holy Scripture, which can in turn be validated by means other than numinous claims” (p.240). Aside from the obvious circularity of this criterion, it should be pointed out that this undercuts the very reason to take religious experience seriously in the first place. By Moreland’s own argument, Christian religious experience can be no more valid than the validity of the Bible, and if there are good reasons to think that the Bible is incorrect, then religious experience becomes irrelevant.

Moreland offers two reasons to believe that religious experiences should be considered significant. First is the “causal argument”, which claims that people who undergo religious conversions experience significant positive life changes, such as “a new ability to handle problems in a way not available” (p.232) before the conversion, and that this is best accounted for by God. However, he offers no evidence that such “transformations” actually happen at a rate greater than what chance would predict, or that social factors such as peer pressure are insufficient to explain them. He writes, “It begs the question in advance to assume that such experiences must be merely psychological and sociological” (p.233), but this represents an attempt to shift the burden of proof. If Moreland and other Christians wish to claim there is more to a conversion experience than social factors could account for, it is up to them to show it, and they have not done so. Though such areas involve some unavoidable subjectivity, this could be tested by, for example, tracking self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction in people who experience conversions in a variety of religions. I predict that if such a study were to be done, there would be no significant difference between Christian converts and those of other groups. Until and unless such a study is done, however, Moreland’s claim remains hanging in thin air, unsupported by evidence.

Second, Moreland draws an analogy between “numinous” sensory experience and ordinary sensory experience, asserting that “since we know the latter to be cognitive and (usually) veridical, there is justification for taking the former to be cognitive and (usually) veridical” (p.235); and again, “If one seems to see some object, then… in the absence of some relevant evidence which defeats the claim that the object exists, the experience counts as evidence for the object” (p.236). However, the diversity of religious experience again refutes this. As “One More Burning Bush” points out, many different individuals who all insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired and correct nevertheless differ drastically regarding the nature, character and desires of this being. This phenomenon occurs between different religions and even within the same religion. This religious confusion is precisely the defeater Moreland speaks of, but he omits mention of it.

CONCLUSIONS

As I have stated earlier, I commend Moreland’s scholarship. His book was forthright in citing alternative views so that his readers can check them if they wish, and for the most part lacked the irrational emotional assertions so common to Christian apologetics. However, that does not make his assertions valid, and as I hope I have demonstrated, every single one of his major arguments possesses serious flaws. Especially damaging to his case was his defense of creationism and the several occasions on which he correctly refutes a fallacious argument against theism, only to then apply that exact same fallacious argument to atheism. Otherwise I view him as a competent expounder of Christian theology, and therefore I view the flaws in his arguments as lying within Christianity itself, not merely his presentation of it. Scaling the Secular City showed conclusively, in my mind, that the logical gaps and problems in this belief system cannot be overcome.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X