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Bad atheist arguments: “History is unreliable”

Bad atheist arguments: “History is unreliable” August 25, 2021

In our final thrilling episode with the author and his friend Fred, they are in a natural history museum. Fred wonders if he’s Alexander the Great’s chief eunuch. More precisely, how can he prove that he’s not? He then wonders if history in general is reliable. With forgeries, mistakes, interpretation, and conspiracy, how can we trust any of it?

This is the last post in our series on The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (part 1), which critiques a number of atheist arguments.

So how can we trust history?

Bannister begins with an anecdote. He’s careful to avoid a reasonable question—something like, “Given that we only see Jesus through 2000 years of history and legend, how certain can we be of the Christian story?” No, he tells of someone proposing to dismiss all history as completely unreliable. Bannister explains in careful detail how he publicly humiliated his antagonist.

Bannister tells us that Jesus is a problem for atheists. “Of all the major world faiths, it is really only Christianity that is a ‘historical’ religion, in the sense that history matters to it.” He doesn’t make clear why history matters more to Christianity than, say, Islam.

His complain about Islam is different: “Muslim theology is exceedingly clear that Muhammed was just an ordinary human being.” Yeah, and Mark, the first gospel, makes clear that Jesus was, too. It opens with Jesus being baptized. There’s nothing about Jesus being part of the Trinity or having existed forever. Avoid the Christian dogma, and a plain reading of Mark likewise tells of Jesus as an ordinary human being.

Bannister declares that to defeat Christianity, you must address Jesus and his claims. Of course, we don’t have any claims of Jesus; we have gospels saying he made claims. How reliable is that record? And if history is that big a deal, you must acknowledge that historians scrub out the supernatural. No, historians aren’t the apologist’s friend.

Dawkins uses the game of telephone (“Chinese whispers” in British parlance) to show how the Jesus story is unreliable, but Bannister isn’t buying it. He mocks this approach:

We mustn’t think of Thucydides, or Josephus, or Tacitus, or St Luke as carefully interviewing eyewitnesses, reading sources, and weighing the evidence—goodness, no, they were ignorant ancient yokels, relying on what they half-heard, whispered into their ears, after the stories had made their way through a long line of pre-school children, high on sugar and gullibility.

Where do you start with someone so afraid of honest skepticism that he hides behind straw man arguments like this? Josephus said nothing about Jesus, and Tacitus wrote in the early second century. Thucydides died in about 400 BCE and so is irrelevant; presumably, Bannister uses him to say that the period produced well-respected historians. So therefore all ancient documents are reliable? Nope, that doesn’t follow.

Let’s review some of the historical weaknesses of the Jesus story that follow from Dawkins’ example of the game of telephone.

  • There were decades of oral history from event to documentation in the gospels.
  • There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.
  • Much of Christianity comes from Paul, who never saw Jesus in person (more).
  • We don’t even know who wrote the gospels (more), which undercuts any claims that those authors were eyewitnesses.
  • The gospel of Luke promises that the author is giving a good historical analysis, but why is that believable? You wouldn’t believe an earnest supernatural account from me, so why is it more believable if it’s clouded by the passage of 2000 years?
  • Matthew and Luke copy much of Mark, something that an eyewitness would never do.

These are some of the actual problems with the Christian story. For Bannister’s next book, I encourage him to respond to them directly rather than laugh nervously and hope that he can misdirect us elsewhere.

Bannister continues: “If Dawkins is right, then all history is bunk.”

Who’s surprised that that is a mischaracterization of what Dawkins said?

“Historical skepticism is a universal acid, destroying everything it touches.”

If you’re a Bannister fan like me, you’ll remember the “universal acid” argument from earlier in the book. Historians do indeed reject the  supernatural. Universally. And yet history continues along just fine, with skepticism an important tool that is used judiciously.

He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point. (For more, see Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? p. 93–98.)

I’ll distill some of the highlights from the remaining blather.

  • Jesus really existed; don’t believe Jesus mythicists! I don’t make the Jesus-was-a-myth argument, and I don’t care whether he was a myth or not. My point is that you have no reason to accept the supernatural claims in the gospels.
  • The gospel story isn’t fiction. If it were fiction, why invent these impossible-to-follow moral rules like looking at someone with lust equals adultery? Right—I never said the gospels were fiction. (Though fiction is still more plausible than the supernatural.)
  • The gospels weren’t myth. Right—they’re closer to legend. (Jesus probably a legend here; the differences between myth and legend here.)
  • He says that the gospels have lots of place names with details about each, which refutes their being fiction. Right—I don’t say that they’re fiction. This is the Argument from Accurate Place Names fallacy.
  • He marvels at the fluency of Jesus’s rebuttals to the bad guys. What’s surprising? The Jesus story was honed over decades—I should hope that some compelling anecdotes would come out the other end. The stories that flopped didn’t make the cut.
  • He appeals to the Criterion of Embarrassment (the more embarrassing a story, the likelier it’s true) and gives as an example a passage from Mark in which a man calls Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” Yeah, that’s indeed embarrassing, and you’ve undercut your claims of deity. How does this give me confidence in the supernatural parts? Bannister notes that Jesus died when he should’ve been a conquering hero. So much for him fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah, eh?
  • “If we were dealing with theological fiction, one would expect the edges to be straighter, the language more doctrinally polished.” More to the point, we’d expect that if we were dealing with the words of the omniscient creator of the universe. You’ve nicely shown that it doesn’t hang together and could never have been inspired by a perfect being.
  • He gives Lewis’s (false) trilemma—the only possible bins to put Jesus in are Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Wrong again. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t address the obvious genre: not fiction but legend.

Come to Jesus!

Unsurprisingly, he ends the book with an altar call.

The God of Christianity, the God of the Bible, the God seen in Jesus is a God who isn’t willing to lurk in the shadows, but one who, the Gospels claim, has stepped into space-time and walked into history, who has his nose up against the window and is tapping loudly on the glass, demanding our attention.

Could you get him to tap any louder?

This is the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, which to my mind is the biggest obstacle to Christian belief. How can a god who desperately wants a relationship with us not make that happen? How can he not make his mere existence plain to us? He is omnipotent, right?

Bannister characterizes the tough spot the atheist is in: “Arguments are thus needed, any arguments, no matter how bad, provided we can hammer them like planks across any possible opening [through which God might enter].” We all, deep down, fear that “we are more broken and messed-up than we realize.” But don’t worry, kids! “All is not acidic skepticism, or unyielding despair, or hopeless lostness, or the utter blackness of the void, but that everything that is broken can be mended.”

I know of no atheist suffering from hopeless lostness. Christianity is the solution to a problem that Christianity invented. I think I’ll just discard both problem and solution since I’ve been given evidence for neither. And with it, that condescending characterization of atheists’ desperate position.

The first rule of the Liars for Jesus club
is to lie about being in the Liars for Jesus club.
— commenter Greg G.

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/27/17.)

Image from Forsaken Fotos (license CC BY 2.0)

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