On Goat-Herders, Resurrections and Inconclusive Arguments

On Goat-Herders, Resurrections and Inconclusive Arguments April 25, 2009

One of the biggest problems with the intellectual stance of the angry atheist-materialists is their presumption that anyone who disagrees with them is necessarily stupid.  And, as we are stupid people, it is not necessary for them to engage us in genuine dialogue.  Mockery will do the trick just fine.  For a prime example, just Google ‘Richard Dawkins’ and ‘leprechauns’.

Apart from the fact that calling people stupid and ignoring what they actually believe will do nothing to convince them that you are right, this attitude leads to intellectual and argumentative laziness.  It means that the atheist often loses the ability to distinguish between good arguments and bad ones.  Any argument for the atheist’s position is, by definition, good, and any argument against it is, by definition, bad. (Not that religious people are immune to that little temptation.)

Adding to the confusion is that fact that the materialist often subscribes to the notion that there is really only one way of reasoning about things (that provided by the scientific method) and that that particular way of reasoning leads to arguments that are basically irrefutable.  This means that the materialist is in a particularly weak position when he or she tries to make an argument from history.  What is conclusive in historical argumentation is a quite different thing from what is conclusive in scientific argumentation.

In the Easter season, it is not uncommon for Christians and atheists to engage one another on the question of the Resurrection of Jesus.  Such debates are generally quite banal.  Scientific evidence is basically ruled out from the start since the claim is a supernatural one, though that doesn’t stop people from trying to use it.  Science cannot, by definition, investigate the supernatural.  Were science to find something demonstrating the Resurrection, all it would prove is that the event was a natural one.  This would not vindicate Christianity but eviscerate it.  Of course if science finds nothing, which is what the atheist and the thinking Christian both expect, we are no closer to resolving our differences.

The arguments then turn to the historical.  Christians ask, “How can we explain the shocking series of events in the Christian community following Jesus’ death without reference to the Resurrection?”  The atheists are quick to point out, in this instance, that no such arguments can be conclusive.  They are all speculative.  Speculative arguments can be more or less plausible, but they cannot rule out the possibility of alternative explanations.  On this count, the atheists are right.

The problem is that the atheist does not take his or her own advice.  The standard rhetoric against Christianity is full of speculative claims.  This past Easter week, I came up against one of the more spectacularly implausible ones.  It goes something like this.  First-century goat-herders are stupid and gullible.  They didn’t understand how the world works.  They are likely candidates to be duped by claims about Resurrection.  Modern people know better and have no excuse for going in for such nonsense given the level of our ‘scientific’ understanding.

There are almost too many things wrong here to count, but I’ll point out a few.  First, every culture thinks it knows ‘how the world works’, and every culture eventually gets its worldview replaced.  Modern western post-enlightenment culture will be no exception.  Second, the historical witness makes it clear that first-century goat herders (never mind Greek philosophers) knew just as well as we do today that claims about the Resurrection were scandalous.  Third, following this, relatively few of the stupid and gullible first century folks became Christians.

And here’s where the argument runs into the wall.  The presumption is that stupid people in the ancient world couldn’t tell fact from fiction when it comes to the Resurrection because of their inadequate scientific resources and overly supernatural worldview.  But a simple look at the numbers shows the inverse relationship between scientific knowledge and belief in the Resurrection than the one presumed by the argument.  Relatively few first-century goat herders became Christians, but in the modern post-enlightenment period roughly one-third of the people on the planet believe in the Resurrection.  Furthermore, a good chunk of the two-thirds who do not believe in it are people operating in a worldview quite distinct from the western post-enlightenment view.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Animists make up a much greater percentage of people who reject the Resurrection than do materialists.  Finally, the scientific method, that holy grail which will eventually teach everyone how to think if they’d only let go of their emotionally immature and intellectually stunting need for faith, emerged in a culture where something quite close to 100% of people believed in the Resurrection.

Now, such numbers do not do anything like conclusively prove the Resurrection.  What they do prove is the vacuity of the atheist claim that ignorance of the modern scientific worldview is at the root of belief in the Resurrection.  And, in as far as historical argumentation will allow, they prove it rather conclusively.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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