I recently ran across an essay by Lydia McGrew. She claims to be making a no-fail argument for Christianity’s validity. As we’ll see shortly, however, it is neither unique nor successful. Last time we went over Arguments from X in general. Today I’ll show you her weird take on the specific logical fallacy called the Argument from Miracles, and also how it fails on an almost comical scale.
Everyone, Meet Lydia McGrew.
In an interview found on Common Sense Atheism, Lydia McGrew describes herself as “a homemaker and homeschooling mom” who does “analytic philosophy in some of [her] spare time.” On her personal website, we learn that she holds a PhD in English, which has apparently prepared her to write that kind of super-lofty Christian apologetics that makes people roll their eyes the hardest. I could see nothing there indicating that she’s had any kind of education or training in Biblical criticism or ancient history. She might not even know any of the ancient languages we’ll be encountering.
If I’m making her sound preposterous, that’s probably unavoidable. We’ll talk later about the ongoing epidemic of Christian faux-experts in apologetics, but for now, just know that Lydia McGrew has never had any sort of training or education in anything she’s talking about in this essay.
Her complete lack of qualifications doesn’t necessarily mean that everything she writes is untrue, no. But it does mean we need to be careful in double-checking her ideas.
Her tribe, after all, will not be exercising that due diligence.
The Argument from Miracles.
McGrew titled her essay “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” And right out of the gate, I’m dubious.
As we discussed last time, the Argument from X is one of the most popular logical fallacies in Christianity. The basic format of an Argument from X, just to review, runs thusly:
Premise 1: Here’s this thing.
Premise 2: This thing couldn’t possibly happen on its own.
Conclusion: Therefore, my particular religion’s supernatural claims are true.
So I’d expect an Argument from Miracles to look like this:
Premise 1: This event happened and was miraculous.
Premise 2: Miraculous events like this one couldn’t happen without supernatural assistance.
Conclusion: Therefore, my preferred flavor of Christianity is true.
The drawbacks of an Argument from X, whatever the X is, are catastrophic.
First and foremost, the premises are usually not true. We can usually easily tell that the miraculous event isn’t really that miraculous. Often the apologist won’t even offer evidence that it happened at all.
Second, we have no reason to think that the event, even if it were wildly improbable and really did happen, couldn’t have happened without supernatural help. Nobody’s ever credibly demonstrated that anything supernatural is real. We’ve had thousands of years to do it, and yet nobody ever has. Similar events have always had some natural explanation. Christians might lack the imagination to figure one out, but that doesn’t rise to the level of evidence that the supernatural exists.
And third, the conclusion is almost always a non sequitur, which means that it doesn’t follow the premises. Gods don’t exactly sign their miracles. The miracle could prove some entirely different religion’s validity. It could mean that another flavor of Christianity is totally true. The Christian apologist leaves out a whole bunch of steps from this thing happened to this thing totally leads us straight to my religion.
Oops, They Did It Again.
The funniest part of all is that Christians themselves don’t get why these apologetics tactics are so bad.1 Certainly Lydia McGrew herself doesn’t. I mean, she gave her paper the name of a logical fallacy!
My first impression of it: Wow, this paper would totally flunk my blog engine’s readability widget. I can hardly imagine a more convoluted, obfuscated way of writing than this. I guess it’s her English PhD talking.
As for the paper itself, it runs 75 pages. It has an introduction, mathematical-looking equations, footnotes, and a six-page-long bibliography. Exactly one of her many dozens of sources is critical of Christianity: an essay by Richard Carrier in The Empty Tomb, which she includes purely to assault with her more biased sources.
Fair and balanced, this paper is not. Lydia McGrew wrote this paper for her pals and herself, not to persuade non-believers.
Why This Fallacy?
Lydia McGrew begins by explaining why she thinks that the Argument from Miracles is a completely valid apologetics tactic. She’s sad that it’s gone out of fashion.
It is a curiosity of the history of ideas that the argument from miracles is today better
known as the object of a famous attack than as a piece of reasoning in its own right. It was not
Yes, and that would be because back in Christianity’s Goode Olde Dayes, logical fallacies weren’t considered big problems. We know better now. That’s why contemporary writers don’t spend a lot of time on them anymore. Some informal apologists do, like Ray Comfort, but most sensible Christians know that they’re BS artists of the worst order.
But Lydia McGrew knows better than all those modern theologians, historians, linguists, and philosophers! Why, she even mentions early on that the whole reason these fallacies are called Arguments from Something is that they’re going toward Christianity’s validity! (That sound you heard was a million Latin scholars blowing their gaskets.)
As we’ll see, she’ll be diving into a great many other fallacies, however.
Obviously, this entire paper centers around one logical fallacy: circular reasoning. This one fallacy alone probably shows up in almost every apologetics attempt. Indeed, McGrew’s paper wouldn’t exist without it.
A circular argument’s conclusion is also at least one of its premises. In the particular case of this paper, McGrew thinks that the Bible’s assertions about Jesus’ resurrection are true because the Bible itself is true. The paper itself provides absolutely no extrabiblical support for the Bible’s reliability as a source of truth–unless you count a lot of apologetics hand-waving in her sources.
Like most apologists do, McGrew accuses critics of her religion several times in her paper of the exact error she makes repeatedly. The irony! It burns sometimes.
A Wild Culture Warrior Appears!
We learn immediately in the paper that Lydia McGrew completely buys into her tribe’s culture wars. Unfortunately for her, that shortcoming will completely taint her entire paper.
In paragraph 2, she tells us that despite the “technical sophistication” of the higher-end apologetics arguments like the Cosmological Argument,
their factual premises are not numerous and are often commonplaces that an educated
nonspecialist can readily grasp – that something exists, that the universe had a beginning in time,
that life as we know it could flourish only in an environment very much like our own, that some
things that are not human artifacts have an appearance of having been designed.
Undaunted, she continues to insist that in similar fashion, the Argument from Miracles is simply misunderstood. She’s here to explain that it is a totally valid argument for Christians to make in defense of their faith.
Spoiler: She won’t succeed.
Just One Particular Miracle, Please.
She’s aiming for one particular miracle, moreover: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as outlined in the Gospels. The literal nature of the Resurrection itself is very nearly a universal belief for Christians, so I’m not overly surprised. Even very liberal Christians almost always insist that sure, the rest of the Bible might be metaphorical, but not this bit.
Her paper is going to try to make the case that the Resurrection totally happened and we can be sure of that. She is hoping to demonstrate that the literal truth of the Resurrection establishes that Christianity’s other supernatural claims are also true.
Obviously her first hurdle is going to be the fact that nobody has ever managed to demonstrate that the Resurrection even happened. The only time it’s even mentioned in any early-1st-century-CE documents is, well, in the Gospels themselves. Nobody else in Jerusalem took note of a single thing Jesus is supposed to have said or done. McGrew makes a big honkin’ deal about all the witnesses to his ministry, as Lee Strobel and many other apologists have done in the past, but we don’t have their testimony. We only have the Gospels. So she needs to establish that they are reliable histories.
The problem is, she never actually gets around to doing that. She literally says outright in the beginning that her starting presupposition is that the Gospels are reliable histories written by the people fundagelicals usually think wrote them–and she goes from there. This tactic is one we see in apologetics frequently, and it hasn’t gotten any less dishonest with overuse.
Besides her willful misunderstanding of what the phrase argument from X means, McGrew constantly forgets that words mean things at all.
In this paper, she will tell us that theism means “the existence of a God at least roughly similar to the one believed in by Jews and Christians,” which is not what the word means. It means the belief in some god or other. It makes no claims about what kind of god, or how many. She also uses the word evidence when she’s referring to nothing of the sort.
Later in the paper she’ll tell us in all seriousness that only Christian martyrs count as martyrs. She thinks this redefinition makes her use of nobody dies for a lie totally fair:
It is clear that neither kamikazes, Nazis, nor suicide bombers died to affirm the reality of
something that they had seen with their eyes and their hands had handled. Thus, their deaths and
the falsehood of some of their beliefs tell us nothing about the probability that a man will die to
make an affirmation like that of the apostles when it is in fact false.
The whole paper is riddled with these kinds of self-serving redefinitions of words–and with her own flip-flops on positions like the Marcan Priority. At one point in her paper she insists that “virtually every piece of external evidence we have from the first few centuries” agrees that the Gospel of Matthew came first. Later on, she says that the Gospel of Mark is “the shortest, and some scholars believe, the earliest of the gospels.”
Ignoring Devastating Contradictions.
And in either case, she makes a signal mistake of apologists generally. She either doesn’t know important details about the New Testament, or she deliberately ignores anything that damages her central presupposition. In either case she’s clearly hoping nobody who reads her laboriously-written paper will know any of that stuff either.
For example, she considers the many similarities between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to be evidence that they are reliable histories. In reality, the simple truth is that their authors willfully copied from each other and possibly from earlier sources. They made changes to their own texts to reflect their own understanding or to slam opposing viewpoints.
I’ve already mentioned that she includes no sources that are critical of Christianity except for an essay by Richard Carrier. He’s not terribly impressed with the kind of apologetics McGrew shills, as you can guess.
Nor is John Loftus, who has been talking about the inventions of the Gospel writers for years. As just one example: McGrew goes on at length in the essay about the character of Joseph of Arimathea, whom she takes to be a real person who existed and functioned as a member of the Sanhedrin. She considers his presence in the Gospels further evidence for their historical reliability.
But John Loftus wrote a devastating critique of that idea in his 2007 essay on the topic. Alas for Lydia McGrew, “Joseph from Best Disciple Town” is purely a literary invention. And really, she ought to feel relieved that he wasn’t real, considering how many Jewish and Roman laws2 the whole Crucifixion and burial sequences ignored or broke in the Gospels.
One would hate to think that a member of the Sanhedrin didn’t know this stuff–or that the Gospel writers didn’t.
Confuse ‘Em and Lose ‘Em with Bayes’ Theorem.
McGrew’s essay relies very heavily on Bayes’ Theorem. In essence, Christian apologists try to PROVE YES PROVE that their religion’s claims are true through the use of complicated mathematical equations. The results are exactly as cringeworthy as you might imagine. Here’s one of her equations:
She “explains” this equation thusly: “Verbally, this says that the ratio of the posterior probabilities is equal to the product of the ratio of their priors with the product of the Bayes factors for each of the independent pieces of
evidence.” (R is Resurrection; F is her warped understanding of Facts; P is Probability.)
Logical Christians adore Bayes’ Theorem because it lets them plug whatever factors they like into an equation and manipulate it to end up with a result that they think constitutes evidence. In reality, though, it takes a lot of education to know how to use this math correctly. Lydia McGrew is a self-taught apologist. She does not have that education. And it shows.
Even if she did, though, Bayes’ Theorem is pretty much just a theoretical tool. As this post illustrates, it’s been around since the 18th century–and yet it isn’t often used by anybody except apologists. Certainly few historians reach for it. Two people can use it and come out with totally different conclusions–and usually those results confirm whatever they think already.
Not a Slam-Dunk.
We’re going to talk next time about the biggest problem with this paper: that it looks at the Resurrection as if proving that would slam-dunk prove all the rest of the religion’s claims. That is totally not the case, and I’ll show you how the idea of slam-dunks fails in apologetics next time.
The whole reason I think it’s important to look at these sorts of papers is that Christians can’t critically evaluate apologetics. They see papers like this and assume that the scholarship and math in them are sound. Then they copy its arguments and forward them around to all of their non-Christian acquaintances. Once one of these terrible arguments lodges in Christians’ minds, it does not often leave. I want us prepared.
Plus, flexing our critical thinking skills helps us in a lot of other ways. Lydia McGrew isn’t the only person you’ll ever run across making these logical mistakes! So we’ll see you next time!
1 Would-be Christian apologists and evangelists often have this gauzy notion that using logical fallacies is bad, but they don’t usually understand what those fallacies look like. Worse, they don’t usually possess enough self-awareness to tell when they’re using one. This leads us to the hilarious sight of Christians falsely accusing other people of using logical fallacies, like all they have to do is fling the name of one out to win a debate. If we get lucky they follow this performance up with a fresh logical fallacy of their own. You get a lot of bonus points if this fresh logical fallacy is exactly the one they’re falsely accusing someone else of using.
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