Dear Mr. Atheist…Let’s Have a Conversation (Part 1)

So I have eagerly been awaiting the review of my chapter in the book True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism from Mike D’s blog The A-Unicornist. I actually forgot for a while that he was doing a chapter by chapter review of the book that I contributed Chapter 13 to, but stumbled upon his review of it yesterday. My Chapter was entitled “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.”

I want to say, first of all, that I appreciate Mike’s willingness to work through the book. I have not read through the whole book myself due to some other priorities, but his engagement of the book is far more appreciated than those who presume out of hand that it’s not worth the time of day simply due to the conclusion. I’d certainly much rather have a reviewer label a work as BS if he’s given it a thorough reading than one who won’t even touch it. 

But, alas, in order to avoid being disingenuous of his time to read through the book, I thought it would be fitting to respond to many of Mike’s thoughts. He was, after all, not too impressed. In hopes of preserving time (both mine and yours) I will try and deal only with the areas Mike takes issue with and I will try (though perhaps not succeed) in making this both as lucid and brief as possible. I am afraid, simply because I know the attention span of blog readers, this will require two posts. But there’s great news! Over on the right side of this blog is a subscribe button. You should click it and get the next update sent to your e-mail. 😉

Mike opens up his review by stating,

If the gospels aren’t demonstrably reliable, then there’s no reason to believe Christianity is true at all.

Well, from the very beginning I disagree. Mike’s position is a popular misconception which emphasizes the gospel record and downplays the resurrection. But Christianity does not rise or fall on the reliability of the gospels. Simple. If the Beatitudes never were preached, this does not imply that Christianity is false. It merely means that Jesus never said them. If Jesus never healed Jairus’ daughter, this does not mean that Christianity is false. It just means that this particular event didn’t happen. Mike may be surprised at my position on this, as there are certainly Christians who hold that the truth of Christianity rests on inerrancy. But this is a very fundamentalist understanding of scripture which feels threatened by higher criticism. I do not and neither do the vast majority of scholars I read and work with. If Mike is at all interested, two books may serve him well on understanding my viewpoint, namely, Kenton Sparks God’s Words in Human Words and The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

The narrative of the gospels is not the essence of Christianity. It is, as many theologians and scholars–both Christian and non-Christian note–the resurrection of Jesus which provides the foundation for belief in Christianity. Now, does that make this chapter a moot point? Of course not, as an historian knows that reliable data increases the confidence one has and the conclusions one draws about a particular event in history.  Further, the gospels provide with information on the things that Jesus said and did, the rise of the Church, and–most importantly–a reflection of the face of God. They compel our lives forward, they lead us in our ethics, and they allow us to know, in an incarnational way, who Christ was and is. The reliability of the Gospels is not a moot point by any means but I also disagree with the sentiment that Christianity (or more to Mike’s words, rationale for belief in Christianity) rises or falls on their reliability as historical texts. [For the record, I wanted to make a second point here concerning other evidence for Christianity specifically but for sake of space I will refrain from doing so.]

Mike makes some other points concerning philosophy, but I will let them stand for the moment since my concern is much more on the historical side of things. Perhaps Mike will be willing to have a dialogue with me on these points of philosophy and naturalism in the future.

Mike goes on to address a remark I made about many atheists never having interacted with the works of Christian intellectuals. He documents his own list of interactions (I could recommend some better ones btw, especially in light of his claims about history), but he goes on to quote me here as if it somehow is one of my major points about the reliability of the Gospels (an odd thing to bring up, especially given how much he actually chose to ignore). I will address it though. He notes,

A better question here is why Hardman assumes that atheists are unfamiliar with such arguments.

Because many are, Mike. And note that I said “many”, and did not make a categorical statement like your quotation above suggests. I very much appreciate you documenting your bibliography/videography. But I’ve personally encountered many atheists–both online and off–who have failed to read anything of relevance by Christian intellectuals and refuse to do so because, well, it’s Christian. My experience is that many ardent atheists have a handful of names which they are familiar with not by reading books of various stripes and colors but by watching Thunderf00t and Amazing Atheist videos and complaining about how stupid Christians are. And before anything comes back the other way, let me say with full disclosure, I recognize that many (perhaps most) Christians would equally refuse to give an ear to atheist discourse. So don’t take it personally…I harp on both sides for not having broader conversation partners.

Okay, now we’re on to the meat of the post:

In my chapter I wrote the following:

New Testament scholar David DeSilva suggests that if we can get past an anti-miracle bias and leave open the possibility of such occurrences, the potential for engaging the Gospels and Acts on their own terms increases exponentially. 14 That is, if one leaves open the question of the resurrection as historical possibility— and therefore the question of God’s existence— one will be able to read the Bible with a fuller, more complete sense of options and voices. 15 The historian is not committed to denying the miracles of scripture, while forcing data to fit explanatory paradigms too small to hold it.

Mike wrote,

 I’ll agree with that, with one caveat: if you are going to take one miracle claim at face value, you have to take all miracle claims at face value. You don’t get to pick just the ones from the religion you already believe in – that’s a fallacy called special pleading.

True. And, indeed, you will notice that I recommend the same thing. I am not one that holds to the idea that all miracles not done in the “name of Christianity” are automatically false. Indeed, I think many miracles and supernatural occurrences happen all around the world. Craig Keener, in his two volume academic study of miracles (see my review in ATI), documented hundreds of these. His conclusion is not “trash them all” but, rather, to place them in comparison with the NT and OT claims. And continuity is precisely what we see: it’s not just the disciples which are doing “supernatural occurrences” but others as well, though the categories may sometimes change. At the same time, there are canons by which to go about such an endeavor of analyzing miracle claims critically. Certainly the alternative is to just throw out all claims a priori as being unworthy of a hearing.  Again, I would refer Mike to read through Craig Keener’s very well researched and thoroughly documented book on Miracles.

He may suggest one has to sift through each and every claim if one accepts that miracles can occur; fine. Agreed. But equally the atheist–if he wants to demonstrate his point that miracles don’t happen or even to uphold a justified methadological naturalism–has to sift through each one to determine that it didn’t. Methdological naturalism breaks down at a particular point, namely in the face of something which defies it. Indeed, what point is there in saying “We cannot accept a supernatural claim, even if its true!” I would rather not live in a willful lie for the sake of keeping a method. As a skeptical individual by nature, I quite refrain from labeling all miracle accounts as genuine as I hear them; I will search for alternative explanations, even mere coincidence. But there must be a point at which you have to say “Maybe there’s something to this…”

Okay. I go on. Mike says concerning miracles,

It’s not repeatable, and it by definition defies the very laws of nature.

Well, certainly its non-repeatable. But that does nothing to deter us from saying something happened anymore than the unrepeatability of the Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon (to use an example ad nauseum) compels me to disbelieve it. Further, C.S Lewis gives the illustration of placing $3,000 every day into a sock drawer. After two days you have $6k. After a week you have $21k. But what if, after a week, you went back to find $7k in the drawer with the rest gone?? You would not suppose that the laws of nature have been defied, nor would you be committed to saying “we have to have a natural explanation!” You would note by inference to the best explanation that someone–some intelligence–has intervened! This is not defying the laws of nature; it is intervening in them. We do this every day! A ball dropping with the laws of nature would naturally fall until hitting the floor; but if you set out your hand to catch the ball mid-air you have not defied nature, you have intervened in it.

Like I said, as brief as I am trying to be (really, I try!), this will need to be a two-part response. The next blog will wrap up on how the Gospel writers saw the miraculous and, beyond that, whether they provided accurate historical information in the form of oral tradition.


  • “If the gospels aren’t demonstrably reliable, then there’s no reason to believe Christianity is true at all.”

    I think an even more important question to ask in response is, upon what basis does Mike suppose he is capable of judging the reliability of the gospels? Any epistemology that subjects the question of Scripture’s reliability to the judgments of man to determine it as such necessarily begs the question that the Bible is not what it claims to be. This is due to the very nature of what Scripture is. If it is indeed the very Word of God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the origin and principium of all fact and truth, and the very basis, therefore, upon which anything is made intelligible, then it is not possible for man to subject the Scriptures to his own judgments. A jury cannot legitimately establish the reliability (or unreliability) of the very power that put them in place and makes their judging and reasoning capabilities possible. So to even start down that path is to beg the question that Scripture is not in fact what it claims to be.

    I think a much stronger approach would be to question Mike’s basis upon which he thinks he is able to subject the reliability of Scripture to his own judgment. Why does he begin by begging the question, and how would he account for his own judgment and reasoning capabilities if he begins by rejecting the Christian God?

    • Perhaps a little too much Calvinism there, Scott, for my tastes, though I would hardly suspect anything less from you! 😉 {I say that endearingly!}

      It’s a good point, especially about needing to substantiate one’s reasoning abilities. Some theologians have taken that to the extent that one has little reason to trust one’s own reasoning capabilities if God does not exist in the first place, since, indeed, our brains may be lying to us for the mere sake of survival. Nature cares nothing of truth or falsehood, fact from non-fact. It cares for survival.

      Obviously, in more of a Reformed position you would argue the applicability of this to the Christian God since you draw different conclusions about our starting point and, at that, even the approach a non-believer can have to scripture. But that’s another discussion. I am hoping that the A-Unicornist responds in due time to this and the following post.

      • I’m not too sure what my comment had to do with Calvinism. The only assumption I’ve made is that Scripture is our ultimate authority. If that is a particularly Calvinistic view in your understanding (and I trust that’s not so) then we’ve got a bigger problem.

        My reasoning is simple, and can be seen by Calvinist and non alike. To suppose that the reliability of Scripture is a question that must be determined by the reasoning of man rejects that ultimacy of Scripture. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to such evidences to substantiate a point, but if it is assumed (as Mike does) that human reasoning is the basis of determining whether Scripture is what it says it is, then the unreliability of Scripture is presupposed from the very outset, because its authority is subjected to the supposed authority of man’s alleged autonomy.

        We have to understand (and I have to be honest, I get the feeling you like to avoid this discussion because you don’t want to be challenged, rather than consider it honestly, because we’ve talked briefly about these things before and I still don’t get the impression that you’re very familiar with my position at all), we are talking about a meta issue. On this level of reasoning, circularity is UNAVOIDABLE for anyone, and everyone. Every person, no matter what they believe, holds to an ultimate presupposition which functions as the starting point in all their reasoning. So the question is, what is one’s starting point, and are they capable of justifying it? (Circularity is only a fallacy when it is arbitrary. All reasoning is at base circular. Transcendental reasoning can provide (or refute) indirect justification for an ultimate presupposition.) One can start with Scripture, or they can start with themselves. If they start with Scripture, that starting point can be transcendentally justified. It’s not fideism. But if they start with themselves, then they hold to another authority than Scripture. They sit in judgment over it, rather than in submission to it. When that happens, any argument for Scripture’s reliability will refute itself (because Scripture, being the product of the Creator of all things, claims to be the ultimate standard of truth, and you can’t argue for an ultimate authority on the basis of another authority, hence the necessity of circularity at the grounds of any worldview), or in the case of the nonbeliever, his argument will be question begging (because he begins by assuming that Scripture is not the authority it claims to be, when he subjects that Scripture to his own (and might I add, sin-distorted) judgment. This is not something you and I should be in disagreement on if you are submissive to divine authority.

  • Randall, thanks for taking the time to read through my review. I apologize in advance if I’m not up to a real in-depth conversation over every point; I spent a good deal of time on the book, and I’m ready to move on to other projects. Instead I’ll just offer up a handful of brief responses to you, and one to T. Scott above.

    Well, from the very beginning I disagree. Mike’s position is a popular misconception which emphasizes the gospel record and downplays the resurrection. But Christianity does not rise or fall on the reliability of the gospels.

    The account of the Resurrection is in the gospels. And if we don’t have any reason to think the gospels are reliable historical texts, we don’t have any reason to think the Resurrection happened. If Jesus isn’t who the gospels say he is, and if the events describe didn’t happen, there is no Christianity.

    I can accept that a certain level of error is present. But how do you decide what the acceptable level of error is?

    I’ve personally encountered many atheists–both online and off–who have failed to read anything of relevance by Christian intellectuals and refuse to do so because, well, it’s Christian.

    The mistake I’m objecting to is the apparent implication that your experience is representative of atheists, and particularly of the ‘popular new atheists’ that the book is targeting. The overwhelming majority of Christians I’ve encountered haven’t read a great deal of atheist literature either… heck, I wrote a post bashing Alister McGrath, who wrote a critique of The God Delusion for saying something that indicated he didn’t actually read the book!

    On miracles…

    I was made aware of “Miracles” via Chris Hallquist’s review of it:

    There is one statement here I want to address:

    But equally the atheist–if he wants to demonstrate his point that miracles don’t happen or even to uphold a justified methadological naturalism–has to sift through each one to determine that it didn’t.

    There are not simply two options when evaluating claims: x is demonstrably true, or x is demonstrably false. x may be unsubstantiated and/or indeterminate. We do not have to commit to the truth or falsity of a claim that has not been substantiated. We only need to show that evidence for the claim is lacking. The burden of proof lies solely on the one making the claim. Claims that are unsubstantiated can be dismissed as easily as they are asserted. And unfortunately, due to the immense number biases of human thinking, anecdotal reports are not good evidence.

    You would note by inference to the best explanation that someone–some intelligence–has intervened!

    This is conflating mundane events with supernatural claims. Given the extraordinarily poor track record of miracles being evidentially substantiated, we are justified in being more skeptical of supernatural claims than natural ones: “Someone stole your money” is far more plausible than “a ghost stole your money”. “I saw Steve at the grocery store” is more plausible than “I saw Steve walk through a wall”. Likewise, delusions, cognitive biases and false reports are more plausible – and more parsimonious – explanations for unexplained events than unsubstantiated claims of divine or supernatural intervention.

    It reminds me of this old quote on the virgin birth (I forget who said it originally) that Hitchens used to repeat: Which is more likely – that the whole natural order was suspended, or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie? To which I’d add… or that the story is simply a fable?

  • Oh, and I meant to respond to this comment by T. Scott:

    To suppose that the reliability of Scripture is a question that must be determined by the reasoning of man rejects that ultimacy of Scripture.

    It’s your human judgment that is assuming its ultimacy in the first place.

    • No… a starting presupposition is not a judgement. It’s an assumption. If I ask you why you believe ‘claim X’, you’ll give me reasons ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. If I ask you for your justification for ‘reason A’, you’ll give me reasons ‘D’, ‘E’, and ‘F’. And so on. Yet, the process can’t continue use forever. You have to stop somewhere, at an assumption that is simply relied on for no other reason or judgment than the simple fact that you assume it. That’s what I’m talking about; one’s ultimate starting point. Every worldview has one.

      As one who holds to a biblical worldview, my starting assumption in all thought and reasoning is the authority of Scripture. I don’t judge it to be authoritative. That would be self-refuting (to make that judgement would mean I have additional reasons as the grounds of my belief, reasons which must therefore stem from some *other* starting point). Rather, I assume that starting point, and I do so on no grounds but that assumption, and the belief that the Holy Spirit instilled the assumption within my heart (and thus it is not arbitrary) when He brought me to faith.

      The witness of the Spirit (which has nothing to do with any judgement of my own; it is divine revelation) is my own personal justification, and it’s all I need. The external justification, that is, the arguments which demonstrate why you and others should believe the same, come afterward. Those arguments are made transcendentally, and not on an a priori or a posteori basis. We argue that this starting assumption is justified indirectly, by virtue of an observation of the fact that *without* starting with that base assumption, one cannot consistently make sense of anything at all.

      I can explain further by demonstration. So my question for you is, on what basis do you, as an atheist, account for your assumption that you are capable of making any rational judgement all? In order to argue for the unreliability of Scripture (or even just to argue the view that no one has demonstrated it to be reliable), you are presupposing that it is possible to discover truth–facts about things. How does your worldview account for this presupposition?

      • So, what you are saying in essence Scott is that you will not check the facts because you are infallible in your assumptions.

        Yet, I have seen many examples of people who claim to be “led by the spirit” proven wrong and witnessed them committing obscene cruelty, manipulation and deception. You can not assume that you are incapable of being deceived, it is very dangerous.

        • No that’s not what I’m saying. Read what I’m saying. I’m only pointing out the fact that Christianity is my worldview. The point is you do the exact same thing that I am doing, with whatever your starting assumption in all thought is, whether you realize it or not. All thought at base starts from somewhere. And that starting point must be a presupposition not based on the grounds of anything but itself (for if it is based on anything else, then that *something else* is your true starting point). The question is, can that presupposition be indirectly justified through any other means (e.g. transcendentally — that is, by assuming the starting point and then proceeding to demonstrate that it is only on the basis of that assumption that something is made intelligible). No one is assuming infallibility. And to accuse me of “not being willing to check the facts” is a gross caricature of what I am actually saying. You can’t “check the facts” behind your starting point in all your reasoning. What facts are there to justify the very assumption that serves as the basis of all of your thought? If there are such things, then what you claim to be your basis is not actually your basis, for even it appeals to something more basic.

          • The question of facts comes after the assumption. Your very method of interpreting facts is based on your starting assumption. Hence, in order to even *call* anything a “fact,” you have to begin by assuming your starting point — the basis upon which you define what fact even is — and then proceed to attempt to provide a transcendental justification for that assumption, so that you can achieve credibility in calling a fact a fact.

  • L.W. Dickel

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, love me, adore me, admire me. But please, for the love of Baal, stop with the dying for sins bullshit. It’s fucking outrageous and makes us all look like a bunch of goddamn Neanderthal retards!!!”–Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Sanity

  • Steven Carr

    Last year in London, some Christians killed a boy after he had confessed to being a witch.

    Out-dated superstition?

    In this 2 volume academic book on miracles, Professor Keener uses incisive scholarship and meticulous research to demonstrate , on the contrary, that Christian testimony of the supernatural is consistent, reliable and trustworthy and can no longer be dismissed.

  • bri

    Isn’t it possible that God is responsible for the big bang, for evolution? It’s funny how both sides, Christians and non- believers, feel that those who believe differently are ignorant. No one knows for sure what created life, none of us were there at the beginning of time. Perhaps both sides are correct. Perhaps both sides are wrong. I think we believe in what provides us with the most comfort when we close our eyes at night. We believe in what’s right for us, and as long as we aren’t encroaching on the lives and beliefs of others, we should not judge nor condemn or raise our voices in intolerance.