Dialogue w Atheist on Bible Difficulties & Plausibility Structures

Dialogue w Atheist on Bible Difficulties & Plausibility Structures June 10, 2017

GlassBroken3

One crack in the glass often leads to many more cracks, and eventually the whole thing collapses. Belief-systems work in the same way. Photograph by “fotobias” (11-3-09) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]

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Jon Curry is a friend of mine, whom I know in “real life.” He used to be an evangelical Protestant. I thought this was an honest and helpful discussion of the issues (on Facebook). We’re both speaking from the heart and being amiable, even though we completely disagree. Jon was originally replying underneath my paper, Alleged “Bible Contradictions”: Most Are Actually Not So. Jon’s words will be in blue. Words of Frank J. Tomasic, another Catholic, will be in green.

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Definitely a big deal for me in my de-conversion. I think the difference between you and me though is not whether two texts represent a logical contradiction. I can agree with you that a given problem is not a logical contradiction. The difference is how plausible is your explanation as compared to mine.

So let’s take Mary Magdalene at the tomb. According to Matthew Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb and find it empty. Except for an angel who lets them know that Jesus is raised as he had said he would. They returned to tell the disciples, fearful yet excited, and on the way meet Jesus, worship at his feet, and then continue off to tell everybody. John picks up when they arrive to tell the disciples. What does Mary Magdalene say to the disciples? “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” The disciples leave and Mary sits there crying. Jesus then appears. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks “Woman, why are you crying?” She replies “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” She assumes Jesus is the gardener and asks “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus doesn’t react to say “You know, we just met a few minutes ago, have you forgotten?” She becomes aware he is alive for the second time.

Gleason Archer explains this issue as follows: When she arrived to speak with the disciples it turns out she forgot about her earlier encounter with Jesus and also the explanation from the angel at the tomb.

That’s one explanation. There is no logical contradiction between John and the Matthew. In that we agree. She could have forgotten.

Here’s another explanation. She didn’t forget anything. These are two different accounts. Matthew thinks she arrives to tell the disciples and is at that moment aware Jesus is raised, John thinks when she arrives to tell the disciples she is unaware that Jesus is raised.

So for me the problem wasn’t whether or not there was a logical contradiction. There wasn’t. The question is, how plausible is this explanation that seeks to reconcile these accounts? Because if my standard is any old explanation is good enough even if it’s implausible, I think a lot of books are infallible by that standard. Probably every religious text ever written. I judge that the explanation that these accounts are contradictory is much more plausible than the explanation that these accounts are accurate and Mary forgot. Or the other alternative means I’ve heard of trying to reconcile these accounts.

Does that make me a “skeptical hyper critic” going with “incoherent reasoning.” I don’t think so. I’m not saying it’s a logical contradiction. I’m saying Matthew and John see things differently and told things differently. I get that logically it’s possible that they both could be right, but I think it’s more plausible to assume that at least one of them got some of the details wrong.

If there is no contradiction, why does there remain a need in your mind to “reconcile” the accounts? The only reason to reconcile is if there is contradiction. Complementarity doesn’t require it, and plausibility is an irrelevancy. Plausibility comes into play when there are alleged contradictions, which are then debunked in one way or another, and atheists and Christians have different standards for what is plausible or not. So, e.g., the atheist instantly rules out all supernatural reports. Thus in this story, any notion of an angel is rejected outright before the text is even interpreted. For the atheist, there is no such thing, so it was imagination or hallucination or a flat-out fairy-tale, made out of whole cloth.

But you grant that there is no contradiction. Where, then, is the problem? I think this is one illustration of the hyper-rationality that you often exhibit. You miss the forest for the trees, in your relentless analyses of relative minutiae and trivialities.

You even contradict yourself above. You say three times (maybe four) that there isn’t a logical contradiction. Then you say (in direct opposition to those statements), “I judge that the explanation that these accounts are contradictory is much more plausible . . .” So for you, there is no contradiction (that’s logical analysis), but for atheist you and wishful thinking you (always skeptical of the Bible), there is, anyway, despite what your mind just “told” you. This makes no sense. Maybe it does somehow in your mind. It certainly doesn’t make sense to me.

Part of my reasoning in these “difficulties” is that, if there is a possible explanation, the text should be given the benefit of the doubt. It may not seem particularly plausible (a higher level of acceptance) to one given to skepticism already, but if it’s possible, the objection ought to be dropped.

But atheists and theological liberals have had way too much mischievous fun with all of these through the centuries, so I don’t expect logic and fair-mindedness to start kicking in anytime soon.

What I mean is there is a “logical” contradiction, which is like A is not A, and then there’s “contradiction” like the dictionary definition. Statements opposed to one another. There can be a logical way to reconcile them, but then they may just be different. That’s what I see when I look at Matthew and John.

For me it was apologetics that brought me down, because I used to argue with people of other faiths, like you. Like Mormons. And how did I react when I thought they were pretty well cornered but they came up with logically possible but implausible justifications for their beliefs? I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t good enough. Should it be good enough for me? I had a lot of Catholics throw this argument right in my face. When I said that a certain biblical text was opposed to Catholic teaching they’d offer some logically possible but in my mind implausible rebuttal. And when I said that was silly they’d say “You do the same with atheists. Look at Mary at the tomb. Don’t act like you are any different from us.” This was an infuriating response to me. Even if I’m inconsistent, this doesn’t make your interpretation right. You should be honest with the text we are discussing.

But you know what? They were right. I was holding Catholics and Mormons to one standard and myself to another. This tore me up. It was very unsettling. I started to become convinced that I wasn’t being honest with myself. How can I conclude the Catholic is accountable for not accepting the clear meaning of the text but rather an implausible but logically possible explanation, and yet I’m not accountable for doing the same when facing an atheist? Does God blame an atheist for taking the straightforward meaning and rejecting implausible contrived rationalizations? How can that be? This was a very difficult problem for me. Beyond difficult really, it was a full on crisis. Well, you know how it turned out.

The key question here is what determines plausibility? That can be a very different thing for different people, and it is somewhat subjective by nature. People have “plausibility structures.” But we all operate on a set of assumptions that stand or fall as a whole. If we keep seeing things that contradict our view (either in fact, or mistakenly in our perception), eventually, the cumulative evidence (or cumulative falsely perceived difficulties) causes us to overthrow our set of assumptions. That’s what happened to you. It happened to me in a different way, in going from Protestant to Catholic (where I thought there are real and serious difficulties of many sorts with Protestantism, and so had to change). So I understand it in a way.

One would have to examine all the particulars in your case. But you have made up your mind.

In a broader sense, I would note that any worldview whatever has difficulties and anomalies in it that have to be dealt with in some manner. It’s unrealistic for anyone to think that they have all the answers. Nobody does. So we all place our “faith” or allegiance in what we think best explains the world and reality.

From our perspective, if you die and stand before God, He will ask you why you rejected belief in Him. So you’ll [maybe] say, “well, I couldn’t wrap my mind around all of these contradictions involved in Christianity.” And He will say back to you: “Why would you think you could figure everything out in the first place? You knew enough to know that I exist and that Christianity was true. You knew enough to exercise faith.”

Basically, I think what God will say to atheists on Judgment Day is what He says to Job’s “comforters” in the book of Job: that their reasoning was woefully inadequate all down the line because they presumed to explain (or at least complain about) every seeming difficulty that they were confronted with.

Apologetics can and sometimes does “bring someone down” if too much emphasis is placed on it: if a person is hyper-rational and puts it too high in the scheme of things. The apologist must always understand that reason is not all there is. There are many other kinds of knowledge, and grace and faith. The apologist doesn’t claim to have absolutely every answer for everything, and must recognize his limitations.

That’s my opinion on what happened to you, though I immediately add that all conversions and deconversions are extremely complex and multi-faceted. You didn’t realize that any book as large and complex as the Bible will have “difficulties” of many sorts that have to be worked out, or that simply perplex us. Why would anyone expect otherwise? Any text that purports to come from God (if He is anything like He says He is) will be difficult to understand in places. And there are manuscript errors that have crept in as well.

The trouble, too, in your case, is that you go on from at least potentially semi-plausible objections of this sort (Bible “difficulties”), to manifestly ridiculous positions, such as claiming that Jesus of Nazareth never existed in history, and is pure myth. Thus, in that case, you take a position that many many atheists or otherwise non-religious persons agree with me is poppycock and intellectual suicide. In that instance, you have views that you think are plausible and believable that most scholars who would be in a position to have an informed opinion think are most implausible.

Thus, plausibility is a bit of a two-edged sword for you.

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When folks jump through all those hoops to not believe, to me it’s a sign then wanted to find something to make them NOT BELIEVE…comfort zone finding for them…

Frank,

I disagree. I think (as someone who knows him a bit) that Jon wanted to keep believing, but felt that all these perceived difficulties made it impossible to do so. To me it is a problem of unreasonable conclusions and bad logic and not seeing the forest for the trees. But only God knows in the end for sure why someone doesn’t believe in Him.

Nope, sounds to me like he was just looking for a reason….because I’ve seen folks like Jon in my life….complaining about contradictions, and no matter what you responded, they stuck with that, and used it as a crutch to walk away.

It may be. We can’t know for sure. We don’t know all that is in a person’s soul or in their motivations. And I don’t see what is gained by speculating about it. But we can analyze their thoughts and opinions, as I’m doing now.

I agree in that respect, we cant know, but when people continually find reasons, to me, it’s because they are looking for them.

I know Jon and consider him a friend, and I think he has sincere difficulties, which led him to become an atheist (and that this was no easy choice for him at all, as his comments above suggest). I think his reasoning went astray.

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“the cumulative evidence (or cumulative falsely perceived difficulties) causes us to overthrow our set of assumptions”


Correct. There’s no single error that I can point to and say “This one seals it, there’s no way around it.” It’s that I’ve got one implausible rationalization here, another there, and eventually I have to ask if the cumulative weight of the evidence points to another conclusion: there are simply some mistakes in here. That’s where I arrived.


“And He will say back to you: “Why would you think you could figure everything out in the first place? You knew enough to know that I exist and that Christianity was true. You knew enough to exercise faith.””


I don’t think God would say that. He would know I don’t pretend that I can wrap my head around everything. He would know that I was making the best judgment I could based on my own limited abilities. It just looks like errors. I’m not saying it has to be. But the Book of Mormon also looks like it has errors. Didn’t I expect that the Mormon would make the best judgment he could, and that the best judgment was that it had errors? Even if there’s a logically possible explanation. Even if he thinks we should give the text the benefit of the doubt and all worldviews have problems.

Keep in mind also that when I rejected Christianity I did not reject belief in God. So I thought about what God would ask me. Have I been honest with myself? Did I pretend to believe what I deep down didn’t believe just to go with the flow and not upset the apple cart?

I look at you and I see a person wedded to religion. Do you squelch your own doubts because it undermines your life’s work? Undermines your livelihood? Are you concerned that when you face God he’ll say look, you knew these implausible explanations were implausible. Did you chase them down and follow truth wherever it would lead, even if it led you where you didn’t want to go? I don’t see you in a better position than me in terms of facing God, assuming there is a God. God might exist and Christianity is wrong, and God expects you to face that difficult reality. Not an easy choice. What of your friends? Will they stick by you (many won’t). What of your marriage? Would it survive? It’s not a given. So believing for you right now is the easier path.

I sincerely believe what I do, just as I grant that you sincerely believe what you do. I’ve already proven that I will follow truth wherever I think it leads, no matter what the cost, by converting from Protestant to Catholic. All my friends but two at the time were Protestants; so was my whole family: even virtually all of my extended family. I became a Catholic because I thought it was true.

And I have lived a life where I sacrifice for what I believe (financially, and in terms of all the insults that apologists receive on a constant basis). I’ve done that as both a Protestant apologist and a Catholic apologist. You know this full well. I know you know, because you have complimented me on persevering as an apologist.

As I said, I don’t claim to know all the answers to everything in religious matters (or any other matters), but I don’t feel the difficulties that you feel. I recognize that there are difficult passages, etc., but that doesn’t overcome everything I do know about Christianity and God. It’s just stuff that is hard to understand, or fully explain, which every worldview has.

I’m just delighted that you are finally talking about something besides politics.

You did make sacrifices, I’m sure you lost friendships. But that’s in the past. Today it’s a very difficult choice for you to reject Christianity. On the other hand if I came back to Christianity it would pretty much be a giant party. So many people around me are constantly praying for that, hoping for that. Sure, I’d eat some crow, but there’s a lot of draw to that for me. There’s a lot of draw for you to stay in the fold. Today. I can’t do it though because I just am not convinced, and I can’t be untrue to myself.

Same here. But I know that I follow truth wherever it leads. That’s proven by my life. You can say that was just in the past. Whatever floats your boat . . . I don’t experience the difficulties that you do, regarding Christianity and the Bible. The last time I had such cognitive dissonance was in my conversion journey to Catholicism. And that is now 27 years ago. My debates with Protestants since then have always made me more strongly convinced, due to the weakness of their arguments.

And the same applies to atheists. When I see how they argue (including the ludicrosity of denying Jesus’ existence), and what they argue for, I become more strongly convinced than ever that Christianity is true.

Not to mention the extreme hostility of so many atheists online that one encounters. That is not exactly a drawing card or enticement to become an atheist. The tree is known by its fruits. You guys love to point out hypocrisy in Christians. That can also be turned on its head by noting the ubiquity of “atheist anger” online. The very last thing that is, is appealing or any sort of good “PR” for the atheist position.

I know you understand that, too, about atheist anger and malice, because we’ve talked about it.

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