Evidence for Christmas

Once again we’ve had some tussles with atheists who keep asking for ‘evidence’ for the Christian faith. The whole question of evidence is interesting because we have to ask what sort of evidence they require. Whenever I ask this question they all skirt around the issue in one way or another.

There are many different kinds of evidence for many different aspects of the faith, but this is a complex matter for different questions demand different sorts of evidence. The evidence for the existence of God, for example, would be very different from the evidence for the Christmas story as recorded in the gospels. Evidence for a miracle like the resurrection would be very different from the evidence for the historical reality of King David. Evidence for Noah’s Ark or Jonah and the whale would be very different from evidence on the authorship of the Psalms or the original meaning of the Book of Revelation.

Anyway, at this festive season I thought you might like to consider the interesting evidence on why December 25 is the most accurate date for the birth of Jesus Christ. Taylor Marshall summarizes the evidence here very neatly. Enjoy!

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  • http://benwallis.blogspot.com Ben

    Fr. Longenecker,

    You complain that atheists are often unclear about what sort of evidence they require. This is a common complaint, in fact. There appears to be an unspoken assumption here that if atheists really are interested in evidence, then they would know what sort of evidence they would find persuasive. But this assumption is false.

    Let me give you a counterexample. The mean density of the moon is said to be approximately 3.3464 g/cm^3. But what evidence could we have for this? Well, we would need the total volume and mass, but how would we measure those? Personally, I have no idea. Of course, astrophysicists are likely to know how to measure such things, but not me, indeed not most people. Instead, I rely on the expertise of the astrophysicists. But if you asked me without the benefit of their expertise what evidence I would require to be convinced that the mean density of the moon is 3.3464 g/cm^3, I would have to profess ignorance. And unless you happen to be an astrophysics buff, no doubt you would too.

    In the case of the existence of God, we are MUCH worse off to set up a program for collecting evidence. The closest thing we have to experts on the subject (philosophers) disagree widely, and for those groups who do agree, they still disagree widely on their justification! Still others (myself included) argue that in principle we cannot know whether God exists, and hence that the search for evidence is necessarily hopeless.

    In the end, though, it is the job of the person claiming to have evidence to explain why the evidence is good enough to justify the desired conclusion. In contrast, skeptics have no burden to draw up an alternative program for collecting evidence. They need only explain why the evidence marshaled so far fails to justify the conclusion.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    When I suggest that the atheists should suggest what sort of evidence they require they never give an answer. You have attempted to do so. You have used scientific language to discuss the question of ‘evidence’ implying that some sort of scientifically verifiable evidence is required to prove the existence of God. Theists reply that this is a nonsensical question and therefore unanswerable. You might as well try to analyze the pigments on a red valentine to discover if there is such a thing as love. This is why the primary question of what kind of evidence you require is the first necessary conversation. From my experience by ‘evidence’ most atheists are thinking of scientific or forensic evidence of some kind. They wish for evidence from the physical world–by by very definition we are talking about an immaterial personality. Asking for material or forensic evidence is simply asking the wrong question–using the wrong tools to do a job– it’s like requiring the DNA for an angel before you will believe in it. Angels aren’t physical. They don’t have DNA. Therefore, if you were really looking for evidence of non-physical beings you would have to come up with a completely new language with which to ask the questions and find the answers–or you could use the language humans have been using and refining to engage in these matters for thousands of years: it’s called religion.

  • http://benwallis.blogspot.com Ben

    Fr. Longenecker,

    It’s cool that you found the time to reply on Christmas morning, thanks. But I don’t think you understood my points, so allow me to clarify.

    You wrote: “When I suggest that the atheists should suggest what sort of evidence they require they never give an answer. You have attempted to do so.”

    But this is not at all what I was attempting to do. Rather, I explained that no answer is necessary, and in fact no answer may be possible.

    You continue: “You have used scientific language to discuss the question of ‘evidence’ implying that some sort of scientifically verifiable evidence is required to prove the existence of God.”

    Well I’m sorry if I gave you that impression, but let me be clear now that I certainly do NOT think we require scientific evidence to prove the existence of God. I simply used an example from science because it was handy. But the point I was making with the example is valid for all kinds of evidence. Namely, skeptics have no burden to develop a program for collecting evidence—whether that evidence be scientific or nonscientific.

    So hopefully that clarifies the points from my previous comment. As for the rest of your response, I agree that we should accept nonphysical evidence when it is given. I just don’t think any good nonphysical evidence has been given for the existence of God.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think we have any evidence AGAINST the existence of God either, which is why I’m agnostic.

  • Glenn Juday

    Regarding the date of Christmas and the winter tending of sheep:
    The grazing and tending of sheep in the winter establishes, not contradicts, a winter timeframe for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is one example of many where an ignorant and popular misconception isolates an irritating fact in the Gospel accounts that, when properly understood, radically confirms their verisimilitude and makes the likelihood of the alternative interpretation – apostolic Christianity as invented mythology – vanishingly small.

    Historically, most of the well-supported academic institutions and centers of popular commentary and storytelling that invent or reinforce popular myths about religion were and still are located in the world’s temperate climate zones. Naturally enough, these myth-susceptible populations will tend to interpret the world to fit what they are familiar with, particularly as they must project their interpretive understanding outward into unfamiliar parts of the world or backward into time periods they do not understand well. But the Holy Land, including the Judean hill country around Bethlehem, is part of a very small and unique Mediterranean climate and ecosystem region.

    In the humid north and southern temperate regions, prolonged winter temperatures well below freezing are certain to occur. This harsh fact enforces a requirement for winter dormancy in vegetation, including in grazing lands. Soil moisture is accumulated and stored through the winter. When suitable temperatures with minimal risk of killing freezes return in the spring, the plants of grazing pastures produce a burst of growth. Pre-formed plant tissues that enable this rapid development are rich in nutrients, and the rapid cell division that characterizes high plant growth rates provides a rich reward of proteins for animals that graze on this resource. This conjunction of timing of these vital events and resources is usually associated with spring birth of young animals, particularly lambs. Later in the fall and winter, natural plant forage that has developed to maturity without being grazed, called “cured” forage, can sustain animals in the winter but it is significantly less nutritious, requires longer gut digestion, and yields drastically less protein. In the winter, animals often metabolize fat reserves stored up during more favorable days.

    This simple experience of the seasons is universally recognized by any gardener or shepherd – so why even mention it? Exactly because it is the undoing of people with the temperate zone background in interpreting the precise biblical narrative of the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth. In short, the Mediterranean climate and ecosystem region doesn’t work on the same schedule and rules as the temperate zones. The Mediterranean climate is characterized by winter rains with minimal and very light frosts, and a nearly complete lack of summer rain with high evaporative demand in an early, very long, warm, and often cloudless summer. Green forage production is often a winter phenomenon during the time that cool temperatures, lower evaporation, and frequent rains occur. The risk of light frost is low or is countered by plant physiological traits that provide some protection. Note how the Bible assumes as a mater of fact that you understand this already: Song of Solomon 2:11
    “… for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

    Grazing and lambing in Judea in the late spring/early summer would place maximum demand on the grazing resource by the population of lactating females and rapidly developing young right at the time the quality of the forage was radically declining in quality. Better to graze the flocks a few weeks after the rains have begun for the “precipitation year” (October through September) and keep them on the pastures until the rains taper off and temperatures begin to climb in the late winter/early spring.

    If you are tracking the timing, this imperative of the Mediterranean climate and ecosystem region points to late December as the middle of the prime winter grazing season, just when shepherds would need to “… tend their flocks by night.” An author reporting the facts that any resident of the area knew would not make a great deal of this timing, but simply report it in passing. A foolish an ignorant class of scriptural commenters, particularly those with an overriding agenda of discrediting the historical accuracy of the gospel infancy narrative of Jesus Christ, would make a great deal of this “inconsistency” and even try to peddle their product to unsuspecting victims. Fortunately, the Catholic Faith is historically grounded, not a mythological invention of overactive imagination as some of its most devoted critics desire it to be. The lay faithful can properly place their confidence in the historical accuracy of the gospels, as the Church has repeatedly assured us. Merry Christmas.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I see. Thanks for the clarification and sorry for my misapprehension of your point.

  • Richard Chonak

    Prescinding from Ben’s argument, I think the example he gives (calculating the volume and mass of the moon) is not as difficult as he makes it out to be. If he took trigonometry and a little algebraic geometry in high school math, he knows how to get the volume, if he’s willing to use existing technology.

    One can find the distance to the moon by bouncing a radio signal off it and measuring the delay; then one can observe its poles through a telescope to determine the angle between them. Then one trig formula with that angle and distance gives you the diameter, and another formula gives the volume.

    To calculate the moon’s mass, we can imagine an experiment: go there and drop objects to the moon’s surface from a fixed height, Galileo-style. Their acceleration until impact will tell you what the moon’s gravitational force on the object is, using some calculus — and therefore its mass. This require a formula from freshman college physics, nothing obscure.

  • http://benwallis.blogspot.com Ben


    I’m not sure if the procedures you describe would work or not. But even if they would, I wouldn’t know how to actually carry them out. It’s not the math which holds me back—that would be easy for me. Rather, I have no idea how to go about bouncing radio signals off astronomical bodies, using telescopes to measure cosmic angles, etc. And I certainly wouldn’t know how to go there in order to carry out the rest of your experiment!

    Regardless, though, the point isn’t that we can’t figure it all out. Obviously, some of us have already done so! Instead, the point is that developing a program for collecting evidence is a task all its own, and one which is not required in order to express skepticism.

    So when atheists (or agnostics such as myself) complain that we have insufficient evidence for the existence of God, this does not commit us to developing a program for collecting sufficient evidence. Indeed due to the difficulty (or impossibility) thereof, when believers ask us what kind of evidence would be sufficient, we may not have an answer. But this is not a problem for the skeptic. Rather, the fact that we don’t even have a program for collecting evidence is a problem for the believer!

  • Richard Chonak

    As a former non-believer myself, I appreciate your position, but Fr Longenecker isn’t talking about generic attitudes of skepticism. He’s talking about the debating tactic which poses as a request for evidence.

    If someone asks for evidence regarding some proposition X with no idea of what would constitute evidence, then probably he hasn’t understood the meaning of his own question.

    It is necessary to recognize various types of questions. The question in your example was a matter of quantity for some aspect of a material object, a matter of physics.

    The religious questions are not matters of quantity, but about the truth of some proposition, and from there they vary: some of the propositions are historical (“Jesus of Nazareth lived and died during the era 10 BC – 40 AD.”) And some are philosophical (“A non-material being exists which is personal in nature and caused the being of the material universe.”) Also there are questions of moral philosophy (“Direct intentional killing of a human being is wrong.”)

    Some of the propositions are theological, dealing with points that cannot be proven starting from a blank slate, but are only believed because God revealed these truths to us. For these, we do not expect to present conclusive evidence but at most indications, if anything.

    The evidence for answers in each of the categories is different. The methodology of each discipline (history, philosophy, theology) is different.

    In asking for evidence, the questioner needs to understand the proposition being discussed, at least well enough to know what it asserts and what discipline is involved.

    If someone says, “Prove to me that a Spanish-American War happened, but you must use the scientific method of experimentation and reproducible evidence,” then he is applying the evidentiary methods of one discipline to another discipline, with absurd results. History finds evidence in physical artifacts and in testimony by persons closer to the time and place of an alleged event, not by attempting to recreate controlled conditions and see if human behavior repeats itself.

    If a questioner doesn’t understand a topic or a proposition enough to grasp what category it belongs in, then it would be better to ask more basic questions: what does this proposition *mean*? What are its implications? How important is it in your overall system of thought?

    But the pretend-debater isn’t looking for that sort of understanding. His question remains merely a verbal tactic, like a stubborn four-year-old’s repeated asking of “why”. This is, I think, what Fr L is getting at.