Choose Your Miracle

Choose Your Miracle January 14, 2017

I came across the meme above on Facebook. On the one hand, it does usefully highlight the willingness of many atheists to posit the seemingly miraculous, ironically precisely in an attempt to do away with the need to discuss any ideas of God or transcendence.

But on the other hand, it is unclear how a miraculous divine creation of the cosmos is any less a “virginal conception” thereof. Indeed, for Luke, it is quite possible that the infancy story he tells is supposed to echo the creation narratives in the Jewish scriptures, depicting Jesus as the last Adam and the start of a new creation.

Ultimately, the meme poses a false antithesis. There is no need to choose either miracle. One can claim that it is irrational to view the universe as self-extant or as merely having popped into existence from nothing, and reject the virginal conception of Jesus as equally unlikely, both inherently and because of the problematic historical evidence.

And so my response is to emphasize that one’s choice is neither between two kinds of irrationality, or between reason and religion. Rational religiosity is an option, and always has been.

Of related interest, see Steve Hackman’s piece highlighting the secondary place that the teaching of Jesus plays in conservative Evangelicalism, replaced instead by…a focus on belief in miracles.

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  • Your meme is broken.

    Christians believe in a god magically coming into being, then magically creating the universe, then choosing a single planet out of billions to magically create his chosen people, but they disobeyed him so, incapable of fixing it simply, he magically had himself born of a virgin so he could be killed 30+ years later and this would magically save his chosen people as long as they were willing to believe without any evidence.

    Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff.

    There. Fixed.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Of course, because we have plenty of evidence that all matter is eternal. Excellent point!

      • Brian Westley

        No, but you can try to ridicule “I don’t know” honest answers again, in order to defend magical non-explanations.

        • I agree with you that Scrivener is positing magical non-explanations; but I think both Ian Cooper’s comment and Phil Ledgerword’s reply constitute strawman ridicule.

          Phil is wrong that materialists assume that all matter is eternal, but Ian is wrong that all Christians believe in all of the literal miracle tales of the bible. I even had an online discussion recently with a Christian who believed the resurrection of Jesus was metaphorical, not literal. Christians come in all shapes and sizes.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          That’s not at all what the commenter said.

          • Brian Westley

            Sure it was. Your reply was idiotic.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Ok, let’s take a look.

            “Your meme is broken.

            In the first line, the commenter suggests that there is a fundamental problem with the central conceit of the meme, which is interesting because this article also says that there is a problem with the central conceit of the meme.

            “Christians believe in a god magically coming into being, then magically creating the universe, then choosing a single planet out of billions to magically create his chosen people, but they disobeyed him so, incapable of fixing it simply, he magically had himself born of a virgin so he could be killed 30+ years later and this would magically save his chosen people as long as they were willing to believe without any evidence.”

            In this paragraph is a strawman characterizations of a hodgepodge of beliefs that are not shared by all Christians, and I doubt you could find a single one, regardless of their beliefs, who would say, “Yes, this is an accurate portrayal of exactly what I think.” It is obviously designed as a mockery in order to set up the false dichotomy the commenter intends, which we find in the next line:

            “Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff.”

            Ah, yes. The old “You believe based on faith, but I believe on evidence” saw.

            So, tell me Brian, which of these things happened:

            1. The universe began from a very tightly compressed body of all matter that existed that has no origin, but exploded.

            2. The universe emulsified from subatomic particles that, due to the nature of the quantum field, by very nature cannot have an observable origin, but the emulsification pattern caused the coherence of matter as well as the observable ridges we find in ambient radiation.

            3. The base material of the universe was formed from the decay of light bosons that, due to unnaturally high temperatures at the time disrupted the typical pattern of a unit of matter and antimatter such that more units of matter remained.

            4. Something else.

            Please use hard evidence in your answer.

          • Brian Westley

            In this paragraph is a strawman characterizations of a hodgepodge of beliefs that are not shared by all Christians, and I doubt you could find a single one, regardless of their beliefs, who would say, “Yes, this is an accurate portrayal of exactly what I think.”

            You have a problem with sarcasm?
            Oh, wait, you replied with “Of course, because we have plenty of evidence that all matter is eternal”, so of course not.

            It’s OK when you do it.

            So, tell me Brian, which of these things happened:

            Like I said, you seem to have a problem with “I don’t know” answers.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            But the original commenter didn’t present an “I don’t know answer.” He said quite clearly that the Materialist view of the universe was grounded in evidence.

            (For the record, I like option #2).

            YOU may be comfortable saying you don’t know how the universe came into being, but the original commenter clearly drew a distinction between some kind of aping of a theistic position – which has no evidence – with the Materialist position, which does.

            The problem isn’t the sarcasm; the problem is that his comments are unfounded.

            Then you came rushing to his defense, replacing his position with your own and pointing out how I failed to accurately critique that. It’s true; I’m very bad about responding to future arguments. I’ll give you that one.

          • Brian Westley

            He said quite clearly that the Materialist view of the universe was grounded in evidence.

            It is. But he never claimed “matter is eternal” — that’s your ridiculous straw man. Protons might decay, for example.

            YOU may be comfortable saying you don’t know how the universe came into being, but the original commenter clearly drew a distinction between some kind of aping of a theistic position – which has no evidence – with the Materialist position, which does.

            I didn’t notice Ian Cooper making a claim about how the universe came into being. That’s your straw man again.

            The problem isn’t the sarcasm; the problem is that his comments are unfounded.

            What, specifically? “Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff”?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            “It is. But he never claimed “matter is eternal” — that’s your ridiculous straw man. Protons might decay, for example.”

            Yes, that was my sarcastic example in exchange for his.

            “I didn’t notice Ian Cooper making a claim about how the universe came into being. That’s your straw man again.”

            In general terms, he certainly is. Otherwise, what is he saying? “Unlike Christians, I have evidence for my position, and also, I have no position?”

            I mean, you are reading the whole thing, right?

            James posted a meme and critiqued it. The meme compared the Christian belief in the virgin birth of Jesus with the Materialist belief in the virgin birth of the cosmos.

            So, we have two things being described – virgin birth of Jesus, virgin birth of cosmos. That is the beginning context of this discussion. Are you following so far?

            Against the background of that context, Ian says the meme is broken because the first position lacks evidence, while the second is based on evidence. If Ian’s comment were found on a notecard blowing in the wind, then you could plausibly argue that Ian was just making a general comment about theistic explanations, and how Materialist’s won’t make any kind of commitment or declarations without hard evidence.

            But we didn’t find his comment on a notecard; it was in response to and specifically critiquing a meme that was highlighting a materialist explanation for the origin of the universe. See, I’m from this old school notion of thought that you have to interpret the things people say or write against the surrounding context that gave rise to what they said, because that context contains critical interpretive information. I have discovered this way of understanding the things people say and write is not very popular in certain circles, such as fundamentalist ones. Still, old dog, I guess.

            So, I ask you, if Ian is not saying Materialist views on the origin of the universe are based on evidence, then what IS he saying and what relevance does it have with the meme he has explicitly stated he is critiquing – a meme that only mentions Materialism in the context of a view of origins?

            I’m not trying to be difficult; I’m just honestly astounded at your claim.

            So that brings us to

            “What, specifically? “Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff”?”

            Yes, precisely, with respect to the origins of the universe. For the record, I think the universe emerged from totally naturalistic causes, myself (like I said, option #2 is my favorite). I also know that such a position entails risk, a host of unknowns, and a rather large chunk of guessing that doesn’t have evidence that proves it.

            So, to say that a Materialistic theory of origins limits itself to evidence while various theistic ideas have no evidence is simply a gross inaccuracy. It’s just stupidity (or dishonesty) with a veneer of smugness.

            Now, if you are correct – if Ian was just stating aloud his contention that Materialists based all their contentions on evidence, but he realizes that we can’t do this with the origins of the universe and, therefore, Materialists would be unwarranted in making such claims (i.e. your position – although I seriously doubt you have no position on the origins of the universe), then yes, I misread, although I would have to wonder why he thought such a thing would possibly be a critique of this meme he explicitly said he was responding to.

          • Brian Westley

            “I didn’t notice Ian Cooper making a claim about how the universe came into being. That’s your straw man again.”

            In general terms, he certainly is.

            Ridiculous.

            Otherwise, what is he saying? “Unlike Christians, I have evidence for my position, and also, I have no position?”

            He’s saying “Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff.”

            He’s not saying there’s any kind of consensus on how the universe came into being.

            Against the background of that context, Ian says the meme is broken because the first position lacks evidence, while the second is based on evidence.

            Yeah. So? Are you seriously arguing that a religious myth about a virgin birth has evidence comparable to evidence for a big bang?

            So, I ask you, if Ian is not saying Materialist views on the origin of the universe are based on evidence, then what IS he saying and what relevance does it have with the meme he has explicitly stated he is critiquing – a meme that only mentions Materialism in the context of a view of origins?

            You seem to think that claiming that evidence exists implies a single, immediate, unanimously agreed-upon theory.

            “What, specifically? “Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff”?”
            Yes, precisely, with respect to the origins of the universe.

            So you’re saying his comments are unfounded?

            Now, if you are correct – if Ian was just stating aloud his contention that Materialists based all their contentions on evidence, but he realizes that we can’t do this with the origins of the universe

            That isn’t my position.

            Materialists would be unwarranted in making such claims (i.e. your position – although I seriously doubt you have no position on the origins of the universe),

            You don’t appear to allow for any sort of uncertainty.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            “Ridiculous.”

            That is a well-thought out refutation. It’s amazing how something can be totally predictable but still disappointing.

            “Yeah. So? Are you seriously arguing that a religious myth about a virgin birth has evidence comparable to evidence for a big bang?”

            “So you’re saying his comments are unfounded?”

            Yes, they are. Materialists believe things without evidence.

            Some Materialists, for example, believe that the matter for the universe was the result of light decaying into various types of bosons. Our only observations of this phenomenon always result in particle of matter and antimatter (granted at the level of a boson which introduces the difficulties that come into observation at the quantum level). But the theory is that the universe prior to the generation of matter was not only full of light (from an unascertained light source) but superheated such that the massive temperatures would allow for a decay where the composite bosons that were matter could slightly outstrip the animatter rate, ultimately.

            Once we have even a slightly accelerate rate of material over anti-material generation, then we can move on to the coagulation of matter as dispersed by the irregularities in radiation.

            Now, on the one hand. We know light exists, obviously. We know light can decay into subatomic particles. But every instance we’re aware of is always an equal amount of matter and anti-matter. The empirical evidence we actually have would -disprove- a theory based on the idea that this process would ultimately produce more matter. And yet, the hope is that this minor difficulty could be offset with theoretically high temperatures and a long enough amount of time.

            Is there evidence for this theory?

            Well, if you mean, “Are there verifiable ingredients that can be arranged in a way that has theoretical explanatory power,” then yes, there is, much in the same way a broken cookie jar on the floor is evidence for my son’s story that it’s actually the dog’s fault. And in that sense, there are plenty of arenas where a Materialist is no better off than an Evangelical. They also have verifiable raw materials with which they can construct their explanatory claims – materials at least as verifiable as matter emulsifying from quarks, multiple universes whose gravity affects the distribution of matter, etc.

            If you mean, “Is there anything we can observe in the course of scientific inquiry that would strongly indicate this claim is true?” then no. In fact, the only thing we can observe seems to strongly contra-indicate the light-decaying theory, but that doesn’t seem to stop anybody.

            I’m picking on the light-decay theory because one of my good physicist friends is a strong advocate for this theory and insists I would prefer it more if I had a better understanding of particle physics, and he may be right about that.

            But to get back on track, if you asked me why I don’t believe a virgin can give birth, what I would offer is that, out of the countless times we have observed birth, it has never involved the absence of sperm. I will grant that, if there truly were a virgin birth in first century Judea, I’m not sure what else an ancient author could offer me as proof besides his account of it, but still, I’m going to go with the odds on this one. Even within the Bible, “virgin” is a mistranslation of the Isaiah passage and this tradition seems to be absent from Paul and other Gospel writers.

            But at the same time, I could also say every time we’ve seen light reduced to bosons, it always generates equal parts matter and antimatter.

            “You seem to think that claiming that evidence exists implies a single, immediate, unanimously agreed-upon theory.”

            Well, not necessarily, but insofar as plausible theories deviate, they are obviously operating at a range from what the evidence suggests. Scientists differ on various aspects of evolution, but the variance is relatively minor. Variance on the origins of the universe is relatively vast with significantly different mechanisms.

            If you can have a good chunk of credible physicists claiming that all matter in the universe was compressed into a single point and exploded, and another good chunk of physicists behind quantum emulsification, and another good chunk behind the decay of light – you have to admit that clearly a good portion of this enterprise is going beyond what we can safely say the “evidence” would serve as a basis for.

            “You don’t appear to allow for any sort of uncertainty.”

            On the contrary. I’m not willing to say I’m an enemy to certainty, but fairly close.

            What I don’t allow for is any particular group to proclaim themselves elevated to an epistemically superior position just by virtue of holding a particular view. It drives me crazy. Possibly due to my own character flaws but there you have it. I don’t know why various stripes of non-theists are so willing to borrow from the fundamentalist playbook.

          • Brian Westley

            “Ridiculous.”
            That is a well-thought out refutation.

            No it isn’t, it’s a one-word description of your ridiculous straw man.

            “Yeah. So? Are you seriously arguing that a religious myth about a virgin birth has evidence comparable to evidence for a big bang?”

            “So you’re saying his comments are unfounded?”

            Yes, they are. Materialists believe things without evidence.

            So I have to interpret that your answer is “yes, you are seriously arguing that a religious myth about a virgin birth has evidence comparable to evidence for a big bang”.

            Some Materialists, for example, believe that the matter for the universe was the result of light decaying into various types of bosons.

            Yes, you really do believe that a religious myth about a virgin birth has evidence comparable to evidence for a big bang.

            But to get back on track, if you asked me why I don’t believe a virgin can give birth, what I would offer is that, out of the countless times we have observed birth, it has never involved the absence of sperm.

            Parthenogenesis does happen in some other animals, but no mammal cases are known.

            “You seem to think that claiming that evidence exists implies a single, immediate, unanimously agreed-upon theory.”

            Well, not necessarily, but insofar as plausible theories deviate, they are obviously operating at a range from what the evidence suggests.

            I disagree; it’s just more uncertainty, which you seem unable to grant.

            If you can have a good chunk of credible physicists claiming that all matter in the universe was compressed into a single point and exploded, and another good chunk of physicists behind quantum emulsification, and another good chunk behind the decay of light – you have to admit that clearly a good portion of this enterprise is going beyond what we can safely say the “evidence” would serve as a basis for.

            No, I would not admit that. I’d say that the evidence is consistent with different hypotheses.

            Take the old question of whether the Earth rotates, or whether the sun orbits the Earth — observing the sun move across the sky is consistent with both of these, even though they are very different explanations. Would you say both of these explanations are going beyond the observation of the sun moving across the sky? That people are being too rash to even offer these conflicting explanations?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Since 90% of your comment was just you stating your disagreement or making spurious claims about me, personally, I’ll skip down to where you advanced an actual objection.

            “No, I would not admit that. I’d say that the evidence is consistent with different hypotheses.
            Take the old question of whether the Earth rotates, or whether the sun orbits the Earth — observing the sun move across the sky is consistent with both of these, even though they are very different explanations. Would you say both of these explanations are going beyond the observation of the sun moving across the sky? That people are being too rash to even offer these conflicting explanations?”

            No, I would say that their explanations assert things the evidence does not itself establish. For instance, another conflicting explanation is that the Sun is the wheel of Apollo’s chariot and his horses are pulling it across the sky. If you are correct, that proposition also has evidence. In fact, equal evidence to the other two if we’re sticking to the observable phenomena of “the sun moves across the sky.”

            In order to adjudicate between the Apollonians and the early Heliocentrists, we’d have to incorporate other evidence. In the absence of any other evidence, you can’t just say, “The Heliocentrists base their beliefs on evidence, whereas the Apollonians are based on faith.” Nor can you say that the Heliocentrists are obviously correct because their explanation is more Materialist or science-y.

            In the example you offered, they are both operating off the the same evidence – the observation that the Sun moves across the sky. When Aristarchus proposes a heliocentric model, he isn’t just going off that observation. He is a mathematician and an astronomer and he offers a geometric model that better accounts for the observed movements of other planetary bodies, the behavior of shadows, the difference in ratios between the Sun and the Moon, etc.

            Here, let’s take an example that you and evangelical Christians would actually agree on – Brutus’ Phantom.

            In the Life of Caesar, Plutarch records the following at the end (69:6-11):

            “But more than anything else the phantom that appeared to Brutus showed that the murder of Caesar was not pleasing to the gods; and it was on this wise. As he was about to take his army across from Abydos to the other continent, he was lying down at night, as his custom was, in his tent, not sleeping, but thinking of the future; for it is said that of all generals Brutus was least given to sleep, and that he naturally remained awake a longer time than anybody else. And now he thought he heard a noise at the door, and looking towards the light of the lamp, which was slowly going out, he saw a fearful vision of a man of unnatural size and harsh aspect. At first he was terrified, but when he saw that the visitor neither did nor said anything, but stood in silence by his couch, he asked him who he was. Then the phantom answered him: “I am thy evil genius, Brutus, and thou shalt see me at Philippi.” At the time, then, Brutus said courageously: “I shall see thee;” and the heavenly visitor at once went away.”

            He then goes on to describe Brutus’ death.

            So, here we have evidence that someone was visited by a phantom. We have a historical account.

            We can come up with all kinds of explanatory stories that incorporate this evidence.

            1. Brutus was actually visited by a phantom.
            2. Brutus, troubled by his conscience and/or the stresses of the upcoming battle has troubling dreams that he shares as an account of being visited by a phantom.
            3. The account of the phantom is popular folklore generated around the dramatic death of Brutus, and after hearing it from enough people, Plutarch records it as fact.
            4. Plutarch does not record the story as fact, but includes it because it is a popular story and people will get upset with them or interpret its omission as an attempt to vindicate Brutus.
            5. Plutarch, as did many ancient authors, weaves in myth in order to make points about the significance of the actual history.
            6. Plutarch, trying to villainize Brutus, invents the story of the phantom to prove his deeds were evil.

            Plenty more, obviously. All of these are explanations that account for the evidence. We have explained why this passage might have appeared in Plutarch’s history. How could we possibly adjudicate between them?

            Well, we could possibly rule out #1 (or at least judge it extremely unlikely) by examining claims for being visited by ghosts, the evidence that accompanies them, and whether or not anybody has ever produced a claim for being visited by a ghost that could be established to anyone else’s satisfaction. Note that, if we’re truly going forward on an evidentiary basis, we can’t rule out #1 purely because it posits the existence of phantoms. We have to appeal to other evidence (or lack thereof) to establish whether the claim is plausible.

            As to the others, we have no evidence for any of them (that I’m aware of, anyway – open to correction on that). We may prefer one over the other or think one more likely for various reasons, but there’s no actual evidence to help us decide. So, if a person holds to option #2 and another person holds to option #3, they are certainly going beyond what the available evidence would actually support.

            You seem to be making the claim that if any part of an explanation explains a piece of evidence, then that explanation is “evidence-based.” Well, that’s fine, just be ready to expand your horizons greatly on what can be called an “evidence-based” explanation.

          • Brian Westley

            No, I would say that their explanations assert things the evidence does not itself establish.

            Well, I would say your objections are ridiculous. Both explain what is observed, and a good next step is to determine how the two explanations differ in predicting other observations in order to eliminate one or both explanations.

            You seem to want to eliminate both, which means science gets nowhere.

            Yes, you can also add Apollo’s chariot, which also explains the observation.

            But I’ll just do exactly what you do, and say you can’t assert ANY of those three explanations. Now what do you do? If you offer the smallest explanation, I’ll cut you off.

            Your objections are ridiculouis.

            You seem to be making the claim that if any part of an explanation explains a piece of evidence, then that explanation is “evidence-based.”

            Yes. That’s what they’re FOR.

            Well, that’s fine, just be ready to expand your horizons greatly on what can be called an “evidence-based” explanation.

            And you’d better be content with ZERO explanations, since, if I use your method, NO explanations can ever be offered.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            “Well, I would say your objections are ridiculous. ”

            Yes, I know, but you’ve demonstrated fairly limited critical thinking capabilities, so I’m not terribly bothered. I’m sure you’re the smartest guy in third period Western Civ.

            “And you’d better be content with ZERO explanations, since, if I use your method, NO explanations can ever be offered.”

            Of course explanations can be offered. I’m just asking you to be honest about how much of the explanation can be proved by the evidence. You’re the one asserting the binary.

            Here’s a piece of data. Here’s a story that explains that data. The story itself requires more data to establish itself as truth. That’s totally fine; it doesn’t change the fact that you are holding to something not proven by evidence.

            I’m not saying that’s “wrong;” I’m saying it’s wrong to assert that everything you believe is established by evidence. Because if that were the case, if you really only restricted yourself to things that could be proven by evidence, you really would avoid making any statements that you couldn’t prove. But nobody does that. Because you almost functionally can’t.

            It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that you can’t discern the difference between “a story that explains a piece of data” and “a story that is established by the data.” Ian, the way I read him, doesn’t either, and neither does virtually everyone who makes such radically simplistic and deceptive claims.

            But, hey, whatever makes you feel smarter, champ.

          • Brian Westley

            Yes, I know, but you’ve demonstrated fairly limited critical thinking capabilities

            Hey idiot, I see you are reduced to insults.

            Of course explanations can be offered. I’m just asking you to be honest about how much of the explanation can be proved by the evidence. You’re the one asserting the binary.

            No, I’m not. I’m fine with plenty of alternate explanations, I don’t reject them like you do.

            But, hey, whatever makes you feel smarter, champ.

            Just keep slinging insult, loser.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, you’re the one who’s demonstrated they don’t know the difference between data proving an assertion and an assertion explaining data. I’m just going where the evidence takes us.

          • Brian Westley

            Nothing is “proven” in science, conclusions are always tentative. That’s why there’s no problem having a number of possible explanations for observations.

          • cestusdei

            So Brian here claims he is reduced to insults and then…INSULTS him lol. Hypocrisy.

            I have gone back 3 months. It’s always the same Brian. You search for anyone who dares post something that is not pro-atheism and you immediately troll them. Some small town you have never been too? No matter, you will jump right in and be a jerk. You are a hateful bigoted troll. Just wanted you to know the truth. That’s not an insult btw, it’s a fact.

          • Brian Westley

            So Brian here claims he is reduced to insults and then…INSULTS him lol. Hypocrisy.

            Nope — I insult people all the time, but I don’t use insults in place of arguments.

            I have gone back 3 months.

            You have no life, do you?

            And you still haven’t found a lie of mine to quote. How pitiful you are.

          • cestusdei

            I already did, but you missed it. I guess you are “reduced to insults” lol.

          • Brian Westley

            No, you’ve never quote a lie of mine.

          • cestusdei

            Everything you say is a lie. You claim he just insults you and then you insult him lol. Hypocrite and liar, that’s you.

          • Brian Westley

            And again, you can’t quote anything I’ve written that’s a lie. You’re pathetic.

          • cestusdei

            Everything you write is a pathetic lie. That’s not an insult. It’s the truth. Do you like this? No? Then stop trolling.

          • Brian Westley

            Hey, I’m not the pathetic troll that went back through 3 months of comments like you, loser.

          • cestusdei

            Yes you are. That’s why I went back 3 months. You’re the loser here. Get a life troll.

          • Brian Westley

            Now you aren’t even making sense.

          • cestusdei

            Liar. You just don’t understand the truth you troll.

            If you are not convinced by all of this then you might consider that YOU are not convincing anyone either. You are just trolling. Easter is this Sunday. Take a break from your bigotry and hate.

          • Brian Westley

            Hey, I’m not the pathetic troll that went back through 3 months of comments like you, loser.

          • cestusdei

            No, you are the pathetic troll who for MORE then 3 months has been harassing Christians.

          • arcseconds

            I’m afraid I think Brian is in the right here: Ian never asserted any materialist origin of the universe, nor claimed that this was evidence-based. He just said materialists base their views on evidence.

            This is entirely compatible with materialists in general, and Ian in particular, saying the answer we have to the origins of the universe is currently “we don’t know”.

            Now, maybe Ian does think there’s a well-evidenced materialist explanation for the existence of the universe, but we shouldn’t assume that he must have when he hasn’t said so.

            And this is certainly an adequate criticism of the meme to me. The meme implies that everyone accepts the miraculous origin of the universe, so everyone accepts at least one miraculous event. But in fact not everyone accepts this: saying “I don’t know” seems in fact a perfectly adequate response that does not entail accepting a miraculous event has occurred — accepting, of course, that an as-yet unexplained event is not the same as a miraculous event.

            So the meme’s underlying assumption has been undermined.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Sure, but Ian didn’t say “I don’t know,” either. He asserted that Christians accept what they do without any evidence, and Materialists – whatever they might believe – is always based on evidence. This was in reference to a meme about Materialist views of the origin of the universe.

            It is because he was responding to such a meme that I assumed he was saying that Materialist views of the origin of the universe are based on evidence, in contrast to Christianity. If he was not addressing this topic and just making a general statement that any given Materialist belief is based on evidence, and as a consequence Materialists have no beliefs about the origin of the universe, then yes, I misread him.

            If Ian shows up and clarifies that, even though the meme specifically refers to a Materialist view of universe origins, he wasn’t really speaking to that issue, I retract my objection.

    • jh

      don’t forget the magic of dirt + spit + breath = fully formed modern homo sapien. It doesn’t get more magical than that. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was in one of those Disney movies that the kids watch (plus a good song).

    • jekylldoc

      Well, there is certainly plenty of evidence for the expanding universe and the implication of a Big Bang, as well as for the inflationary model. But some of the weird stuff being proposed these days is based far more on our ability to speculate than on evidentiary leading. Starting with string theory and supersymmetry, and moving on to multiverses, wormholes and tachyons, scientists do seem to be quite willing to leave the realm of the known for a little useful fun.

      Still, I think the comparison of Big Bang with virgin birth is so far off base that anyone taking it seriously should check in with a literalism clinic and see if they can get over their addiction to special revelation. One is a claim promoted for its symbolic meaning (and clung to for the same reason) while the other is a convenient working hypothesis to manage the organization of data, in the absence of any better candidates.

  • Gary

    This presents an interesting play on words. Using “Virgin birth of the cosmos” perhaps means we can also say “Christians believe in the Big Bang of Jesus”. “Big Bang of Mary” might be a little too edgy. Or perhaps “Christians believe in the in-vitro fertilization of Mary” by the Holy Spirit.”

    Or, an example of a little too liberal a use of the word “virgin” by us Christians, (Isaiah “word play” or mistranslation comes to mind).

    • jh

      Virgin is a word that Christians (and all religious people) will never give up… even if it is a proven mis-translation. Religion is a chain that is used to bind women. What better means to ensure the cow is “pure” so they can breed proper sons on it? That’s why they are opposed to abortion. Because cows shouldn’t have rights to their own bodies. That’s why they are opposed to birth control Because cows shouldn’t have the right to sex with unapproved owners. The religion is designs to turn 50% of humanity into cows. And some of the women have been so indoctrinated that they believe that they are cows rather than human beings.

      *Why cow? it could be any animal as long as it’s not an animal that engenders the same privilege and respect as the male human animal. Children are also little cows. However, some of the little cows will turn into human beings because they have testes. The rest of the little cows will grow up into cows that belong to their male human masters.

      • Gary

        I don’t know how exactly to respond to your comment. But I sure appreciate reading it! Although you might make a good argument for ancient Gnostic beliefs. No sex, less problems, no gender discrimination. If a person says ancient Gnostics were a form of Christianity (usually an accepted premise), then at least some Christians in 100AD passed on sex, both male and female.

  • The problem with the meme is that Materialists don’t actually “believe in the virgin birth of the cosmos” – that’s a theistic belief. The virgin birth stories depict God as the baby’s father:

    Matthew 1:18
    Mary realized that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

    Schrivener does’t seem to realize that he’s comparing two theistic miracles.

    Physicists actually study a number of different materialistic models of the universe, and don’t mind admitting that they don’t yet have enough evidence to be certain of any one. As Sean Carrol says:

    “The singularity at the Big Bang doesn’t indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension. It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time. But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past. The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity.”

  • Al Cruise

    The Steve Hackman piece is spot on. The miracle stories are meant to relate Truth metaphorically. Through Godly sorrow , humbleness , and brokenness we rebirth ourselves into compassionate and caring human beings who become the teachings of Jesus that Steve so eloquently described here….. “When you have an extra coat and see one in need, give them one
    When you do spiritual stuff do it low key and don’t draw attention to yourself
    When you are in leadership, serve those who you lead rather than have them serve you If we struggle to feel ” …. If we feel we just aren’t worthy to love ourselves or others because we feel we are just an awful person , that is where the power of these miracle stories bring forth the Truth. Everyone is loved , everyone is forgiven, everyone can love like Jesus, everyone is allowed to have Godly sorrow. These things don’t need doctrinal approval by Tim Keller or anyone else. They can happen to anyone, anywhere, time or place does not matter. They happen in spite of Faith doctrines. Conservative evangelicals ie Tim Keller try to teach these things are only valid when done in the boundaries of their strict doctrine. That is heresy, and it’s speaks more about them and their lust for power, and to portray an image that they and only they know the “Truth” . Can my Sikh brothers and sisters experience this Godly sorrow and rebirth within their faith? Can my Buddhist brothers and sisters experience this Godly sorrow and rebirth within their faith ? Can my native american brothers and sisters experience Godly sorrow and rebirth within their faith? Is it only Godly sorrow when it is done in the context of strict and literal Conservative Protestant Evangelical Theology? For over 40 years I have served shoulder to shoulder with each of these fellow travelers in street ministry/outreach/prison/ foodbanks, and see something very different. Salvation is occurring everywhere.

  • Joseph Shaw

    The Hackman article is a very interesting take on Keller’s (and many evagelical’s) prioritization of believing in Jesus literal resurrection from the dead over Jesus’ teachings.

    Seems similar to his rejection of LGBTQ lifestyles; allowing biblical interpretations to override the biblical principles of love and inclusion.

  • arcseconds

    The problem I see here is the expectation of epistemic closure. We (human beings in general, I think, as creation stories and other etiological myths seem virtually omnipresent, but at any rate people in Western culture) want explanations for everything, we want to feel we understand everything.

    When an explanation that’s well-evidence and well-understood isn’t available, but the question seems to us to be an important one, we make something up. ‘God did it’ is a perennially popular option, but there are others. On some questions for example we’re inclined to say “well, it all happens in the mind!”, which is endowed with powers such as intention and meaning-giving, and we think that’s answered the question.

    This expectation of epistemic closure seems particularly strong among theists, and (as with many other matters) they seem unable to grasp that anyone else might not be working with this expectation. They want an answer to “where did the universe come from?” and believe they have an adequate answer, and they suppose that everyone else must also want an answer to this question, but don’t have an adequate answer, so that must perforce be a problem for any alternative view.

    (Not all theists do this, of course, but it does seem a common attitude)

    But actually, we can just say “we don’t know how the universe came into being”. And that actually seems to be the truth of the matter: there are several competing theories even amongst cosmologists, and there are some other theories that don’t fit with either modern cosmology or with traditional theism that have gained some traction in recent years, like the universe being a computer simulation.

    (Of course materialists are sometimes tempted by epistemic closure too, and they might opt for a cyclical universe or fluctuations in quantum foam or a multiverse theory or something as ‘the‘ explanation. It’s not clear to me that this is a worse position than that of a theist: both are supposing they have a complete and adequate explanation within their preferred metaphysics. )

    Now, I suppose you might say that there’s two approaches to our state of ignorance about this question. We can just shrug our shoulders (which isn’t necessarily incompatible with still being interested in the question and trying to find out an answer) or we can marvel at the transcendence and mystery of it all.

    And given that you seem to see the beginning of the universe as an occasion to marvel at transcendence and mystery and talk about God, I suppose you might see a shoulder-shrug at our ignorance as also a refusal to discuss God or transcendence.

    But why is this any different from any other matter on which we are ignorant? If we aren’t inclined to think that, say, our ignorance surrounding protein folding, or the lack of a universally-accepted answer to the arthropod head problem, or even how many eggs are currently in your fridge, should be an occasion to marvel at the wonderous transcendence and mystery of everything and to start talking about God, why should the beginning of the universe be any different?

    • Nick G

      The problem I see here is the expectation of epistemic closure.

      Yes. It’s worth noting that unless all truths are necessary truths, so that we live in the only logically possible world, some truths must be “brute facts”, without explanation: “that’s just the way it is”. But we probably can’t know that of any specific empirical fact!

      • arcseconds

        Well, I think the scientific mainstream view on particular mutations (and therefore, specific details of what kinds of life there are on the planet) basically holds that we know that these are ‘brute facts’: they’re caused by random events like a quantum of radiation striking a particular molecule at a particular time.

        If the usual view of quantum mechanics is correct, these may even be metaphysically random events, but in any case they’re well into the causal noise that we don’t think we ever have a hope of disentangling, and certainly the information about most such events in the past has long since atrophied.

        I don’t agree with everything Kuhn says, but the observation that a new research programme means some questions that were formerly thought to be pressing are now considered non-issues is a good one.

        The beginning of the universe still seems like the kind of question that we would like a scientific answer on, though. We don’t search for a detailed explanation of the exact pattern of a peacock’s tail, because our knowledge of the sorts of things that leads to that rules out us ever being able to figure out why the exact string of mutations occurred, but of course we don’t have a science of universes that would rule out getting a detailed answer to how this particular one came into being.

        (Of course, such an answer is likely to just raise a new question about whatever that answer is (‘why that?’).)

        Also, I think Kant’s point that we’re taking things that work within the universe according to our experience (e.g. cause-and-effect reasoning) and applying them to the totality itself, which may not be warranted, bears thinking about. At the very least, there seems much less of a guarantee that the sorts of reasoning that work out for events in the universe are also going to work out for the universe itself than they are for some arbitrary event within it.

  • Marta L.

    This meme does seem to misunderstand cosmology. Isn’t the prevailing view among physicists these days that the universe is contracting and expanding so it’s less a matter of reality blinking into existence at some point in time. Actually, thinking about the way Einstein talked about space and time being relative, I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about a time “before” the universe existed.

    That to me has always been the Achilles’ heel of the cosmological argumet. Even if we grant something can’t come from nothing, that there has to be a first cause to bring something into existence, that only gets you anywhere if you think of the universe as having a starting point, and a period of time before it existed. And –speaking as a fairly orthodox Christian here!– I was never really sure what those statements were even supposed to mean, never mind why we should think they were true.

    • Nick G

      Isn’t the prevailing view among physicists these days that the universe is contracting and expanding

      No, one speculative hypothesis is that there was a period of contraction before the Big Bang – but it’s not a majority view.

      I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about a time “before” the universe existed.

      You’re right, it doesn’t. There may or may not have been a time before the Big Bang (current physics is unable to say), but if there wasn’t, you’re right: the universe did not “pop into existence” or “emerge from nothing”, or have a “birth”, virgin or otherwise, because those phrases already assume a time within which such an event could happen, whereas, as far as physicists understand it. time is inextricable from space and energy.

  • John MacDonald

    I can’t agree with the mythicist claim by those like Price that the Christology of Jesus at the earliest stages portrays Jesus as a dying/rising GOD. Rather, in Mark, Jesus identifies himself, and is shown to be a fallible human prophet who cannot perform miracles in his home town. In Mark 6:4-5, we read:

    4Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.” 5So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them. (Mark 6:4-5)

    If Jesus had the power of a God, he would have been able to perform miracles in his hometown. What was really going on was that YHWH was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ powers, and when and how they worked. Jesus’ miracles were from God acting through Jesus.

    This is also illustrated in Mark when Jesus is portrayed as being filled by a power that is not simply controlled by the “WILL” of Jesus. Regarding the woman with the issue of blood, Mark writes in Mark 5:25-34:

    25A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, 26and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— 27after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. 28For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” 29Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. 30Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” 31And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” 32And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. 33But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:25-34)

    So, in this case Jesus did not “will” the woman with the issue of blood to be healed (he just realized after the fact that some of his power had been expended), but rather God healed the woman through Jesus (through a conduit). “God” rewarded the woman because she showed great faith, not “Jesus”.

    Some mythicists appeal to Paul calling Jesus an “angel” to argue for a high Christology, but the Greek word there merely means “a messenger.”

    • John MacDonald

      Jesus identifies himself as a prophet (Mark 6:4-5), and while different prophets had varying amounts of power (eg. Elijah bequeathed Elisha a double portion of his power to serve as his successor and superior), prophets were ultimately testaments to God’s power, not their own power. So, we see the superiority of Yahweh over the Egyptian Gods when Moses bested the sorcerers of Pharaoh. Likewise, we see the superiority of Yahweh over Baal when Elijah bested the prophets of Baal. Similarly, we see the superiority of Yahweh over Satan when God’s prophet Jesus defeats Satan’s demonic forces and the power of Sin. The point isn’t that Jesus was a God, but rather that he was God’s greatest human prophet who was given the purest expression of God’s power. If Jesus was a God and not merely a prophet, he would have been able to perform miracles in his home town (Mark 6:4-5), which he couldn’t.

      • You realize these are just fairy stories right? I mean, surely you don’t seriously believe these things actually happened – in reality. Right?

        • I think that the atheist (or is it agnostic?) that you are addressing is discussing the relationship of legends and fiction to the historical figure of Jesus, who is, on the one hand, clearly not purely fictional, but on the other hand, is often depicted through the lens of and in typologies aiming to connect him with and interpret him in relation to those figures from Jewish literature. Was that not clear?

          • It’s not at all clear to me that Jesus was not purely fictional. I suspect he was indeed purely fictional. The evidence for his existence is shaky at best, and it’s not like we’re talking about some mere Greek philosopher or Roman general here – this is supposedly the son of the one true god – a god that killed millions in the Old Testament and who is clearly a complete psychopath. Jesus’s existence is the most important thing anyone could ever know, yet we have nothing serious or reliable on which to base the belief that he was real. Yet 2 billion people take it as gospel. It would be funny if it were not so alarming.

          • You are on the one hand approaching this as a matter of religious significance rather than as a historical question, and on the other hand, denying the conclusion of mainstream secular historical scholarship on the matter – neither of which is an appropriate course of action.

          • I’m not approaching it as a matter of religious significance. There is nothing “religiously significant”, because religion is a complete waste of time, other than as 3rd rate entertainment for the masses (along the lines of fantasy B movies like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings). But if a god really exists, it’s a matter of significance in every real legitimate area of study. That is why the matter must be approached scientifically, and it’s why the musings of theologians (who have an inherent bias) on the matter are completely useless.

            As for “mainstream secular historical scholarship” (which is, by the way, the only kind of legitimate historical scholarship), there is really only one person who is working on the issue today and who actually has credentials as a legitimate historian, and he concludes that Jesus was almost certainly not real.

          • Do you not find it at all odd that you consider the only credentialed historian who has worked or works today on the issue to be someone whose area of training is not in those aspects of ancient history most relevant to the question, and who does not work as an academic?

          • Not sure who you’re talking about. The guy I’m talking about has a PhD in ancient history. But even if all of what you’re suggesting were true, how does that make his work any less reliable than anyone else, none of whom are even historians?

            The closest anyone else comes to being an actual historian is Philip Davies, who is an archaeologist (you know – a person who does actual science to help show what really happened in the past) as well as being Professor Emeritus of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield and ex-Director for the Centre for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also agrees that the evidence for Jesus being a real person is very weak, saying “a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of theology, or of the idea that Jesus was a real person.

          • I assume that we are both talking about the same person, Richard Carrier?

            This is exactly what denialists always say – individual X has a PhD, therefore I can choose to uncritically accept what they say, and reject the consensus of scholars.

            If you believe that no historians – and no scholars whose training in a related field, such as early Christianity or Classics, includes historical methods – have explored this topic, then you have been misled.

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/08/historians-on-jesus.html

          • So, a straw man. You’re suggesting that, since I mentioned his PhD, that I am wholly reliant on that and accept it without question. Do you really need to stoop that low? What next? Ad hominems? Poisoning the well? Anything so that you can take the conversation away from the topic?

            Oh well. Can’t say I’m surprised.

            And I’m sure theologians use “historical methods” to attempt to back up the conclusions they reached when they decided to believe in gods. But that’s hardly a reliable way to arrive at a legitimate conclusion.

          • I apologize if you were not saying what you appeared to be saying. Perhaps instead of blaming me for having taken what you said at face value, you can clarify what you meant? It certainly will not help you convince others that you aren’t engaging in denialism if you use the tired tactic of simply accusing anyone who dares to challenge your assumptions of having committed every fallacy in the book. Richard Carrier is in fact notorious for that. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2015/12/bringing-a-gun-to-a-review-fight.html

          • Perhaps instead of constructing straw men, you should stick to the subject at hand. If you were taking what I said at face value, you wouldn’t be talking about me choosing to uncritically accept what those with a PhD say, and rejecting the consensus of scholars”, now would you.

            Also, I think it’s ironic that you seem to be implying that a person who has a PhD is “not” a scholar. But hey, I guess in the world of theology, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

          • That is obviously not what I said. The point is that there are plenty of fringe movements with PhDs associated with them, which exist outside of the context of secular universities.

            Please don’t take this exchange in a trollish direction. Claiming that you have been misunderstood while not providing any clarification of your meaning, while in turn deliberately distorting what I wrote and pretending that I work in the “world of theology,” is obviously not going to reflect well on you or your position, which I still hope you will clarify.

          • arcseconds

            Ian!

            Now you’re here, you can solve an interpretative problem for us.

            When you said :

            Materialists believe in finding evidence before they believe weird stuff.

            How does that apply to the origin of the universe?

            See the discussion above if you have any questions.

            Thanks.

          • You seem to be insinuating that there’s a problem with the origin of the universe when it comes to science or materialism. I’m not sure where the problem lies. There is plenty of evidence showing how the early universe formed. Where there is no evidence, materialists and scientists simply refrain from believing anything – unlike theists, we’re not upset with information being unknown – on the contrary, we find it challenging. Theists, on the other hand, seem so uncomfortable with any gaps in knowledge that they are so desperate to fill them that they will believe anything – even that a magical super-being speaks everything into existence. Plugging the gaps with ridiculous nonsense is not an answer.

          • arcseconds

            You seem to be insinuating that there’s a problem with the origin of the universe when it comes to science or materialism.

            Now, why would you think that?

            If you had actually bothered to check (as I prompted you to do) you would see that I interpreted you as making basically the point you make here: that a materialist can simply say “I don’t know”.

            However, it certainly isn’t true that “where there is no evidence, materialists and scientists simply refrain from believing anything”.

            For a start, you’re implicitly supposing that scientists and theists are disjoint, and this is simply not the case. Newton, for example, was both a scientist and a theist, and of course there are many, many examples. I presume this isn’t exactly news to you, which raises the question as to why, even though you know differently, you write as though no scientist is a theist?

            Of course, those scientists who are theists an also think God created the universe (as Newton did) are already examples of scientists believing in in things without sufficient evidence.

            But it’s not just limited to theists.

            Just to take a famous example of an amazing scientist who nevertheless believed in things without appropriate evidence, Linus Pauling had two nobel prizes, yet promoted vitamin C as a cure for cancer.

            Getting back to cosmogony, there are several theories held by scientists on the matter, and they can’t all be true. It’s possible of course that none of them really believe their theories but are just throwing them out there, but Turok and Hawking certainly act as though they believe their theories:

            http://mg.co.za/article/2013-05-10-00-betting-on-the-origin-of-the-universe

            Also, Rich Terrile thinks the cosmos is a computer simulation (and he’s not the only one):

            https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/simulated-world-elon-musk-the-matrix

            I suggest that there’s no actual evidence for this. I would also point out that there’s not really that much difference between the simulation theory and the traditional theistic creation view: both take the view that the universe is a creation of an intelligent being with capabilities much greater than ours. While the simulation author may not be all-powerful in their own cosmos, they presumably would be in ours.