What Rennie Is Doing Wrong

Brian Holtz     2003-02

At http://www.tektonics.org/JR_WS.html, Jason Rennie and Kyle Gerkin discuss which grounds should be decisive for deciding whether Christianity is true or not. Rennie is fundamentally correct to say that the Resurrection is the crucial issue, though like most Christians he makes unjustified assumptions about what would be entailed by the truth of something like the Resurrection. Gerkin is fundamentally correct to say that supernaturality is a bigger assumption than is necessary to explain the evidence, but he seems to repeat the common skeptical mistake of claiming that miracles by definition can never be the best explanation for any evidence.

Rennie writes:

Originally this article was going to be about the nature of skepticism and why people strive so hard to disbelieve in Christianity.
It is indeed interesting to explore the personal reasons that people have for asserting atheism or Christianity -- not, of course, because those facts have any bearing on the truth of the underlying question, but rather because those facts can help one judge whether one is in a category of people who would ever find the other side's arguments convincing.
If all [the skeptics'] literary diarrhea was printed on paper I fear there wouldn't be a tree left standing on the planet.
Rennie's scatological hyperbole is ironic, given that the Christian Bible has consumed far more trees than it would take to print all extant skeptical writings. (This is not a complaint, since any open copy of the Bible helps expose Christianity for what it really is.)
If the resurrection is a real historical event, then by extension everything else is true. [..]
While the truth of the resurrection would indeed greatly increase the likelihood of other controversial things in the Bible being true, it would by no means establish the truth of everything in the Bible.  There are many different ways that the resurrection could be historical without the Bible being the inerrant revelation of the perfect salvific plan of an omnipotent omniscient benevolent Yahweh.
The whole of Christianity stands or falls simply on the historicity of the resurrection. Next time you are thrown into doubt by some complex argument about contradictions in the Old Testament, or are confronted with the "proof" that science has disproved the existence of God (as if it could even hope to ask the right question!) remember that Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection, not on anything else.
Christianity indeed falls if the Resurrection falls, but it's simply not the case that inerrantist orthodox Christianity is established if something like the Resurrection happened.  Christians almost always ignore the alternative explanations consistent with accepting that superhuman events led to the gospel accounts -- primarily because many such alternative theses are those of Skeptics almost never bother debating how to interpret a conclusion that superhuman events really do lie behind the gospel accounts. Since the number of adherents of a particular interpretation (i.e. heresy) has more to do with historical accident than with reasonableness, orthodox Christians don't have many people arguing against them for alternative interpretations. The result is that orthodox Christianity is unjustifiably assumed by Rennie and most others as the inevitable logical consequence of any belief that superhuman events led to the gospel accounts.
[skeptics] produce huge lists of contradictions
I agree that most of the biblical contradictions cited by skeptics do not count as weighty evidence against the central proposition that Jesus was a superhuman savior.  That is why my book's argument against Christianity does not bother with Bible contradictions except to cite I'm not much impressed by the myriad other contradictions (especially in the OT) that can easily be explained as Indeed, these latter kinds of biblical problems are a dime a dozen, and endless enumeration of them simply dilutes the impact of the crippling contradictions that lie at the core of Christian revelation.
The Jesus-myth approach seems to be the best approach as far as I can tell.
On the contrary, Jesus' ahistoricity seems to me to create more problems than it solves.
Best to stick with Christ as myth, because any sort of a historical Jesus keeps looking like he was raised from the dead.
Any theory that Jesus' life didn't happen can (ceteris paribus) be simplified into a theory that just his miracles and resurrection didn't happen, and thus gain in explanatory economy.
I may never have looked at apparent atrocities in the Bible, and attempted to understand them properly if not for skeptical questions in that direction.
Christians not reading their Bibles is indeed one of the reasons why Christianity isn't dying more quickly.
Also, with the skeptics attacking all of the different parts of the Bible, believers have (after the arguments have been taken to pieces) an even greater confidence in Bible as a reliable account.
A certain fraction of believers will always increase their devotion in proportion to the stress their beliefs come under. More telling is the fact that so many Christians have discarded so many parts of the Bible as non-literal. Multitudes of Christians believe in the Resurrection but deny the literal truth of much of the Bible, so Rennie's claim about the consequences of the Resurrection's truth does not even hold among this sympathetic sample.

Of course, increased confidence in beliefs is justified when a believer seeks out the best available arguments against his beliefs and does not find them difficult to rebut. For example, a core argument for Christianity is the Trilemma, a semi-competent version of which Turkel provides here. Five rounds of Turkel trying to defend his argument have indeed left me even more confident that his argument fails, just as Turkel is surely convinced that his argument is now stronger than ever. Each of us probably explains the other's deafness to our arguments as an idiosyncratic result of the other's personal history and investment, though I'm willing to compare my case to that of Turkel or any other Christian.

All of these differing lines of attack in the long run seem mainly to strengthen rather than weaken my trust in the reliability of the Bible and the character of God.
If the OT had one fewer prima facie atrocity in it by Yahweh, would Rennie really admit to a nagging doubt that his deity is not quite bloodthirsty enough? I wonder to what extent Rennie's entrenched (and seemingly embattled) beliefs are a product of non-rational factors. In particular, I wonder how many inerrantists (if any) arrive at that position without being unduly influenced by any of the factors I list here.
So, skeptics, I challenge you to successfully attack the resurrection. Two thousands years of trying and the same tired and well-refuted arguments being recycled time and again would indicate that you are doomed.
If Rennie seriously thinks that the long-term outlook is in Christianity's favor, then he would do well to read:


Further, I invite him to fully answer the first five sets of these questions for theists.  If instead Rennie is merely saying that skeptical arguments usually cannot overcome the cultural factors that lead to fundamentalism, he is of course correct.

Kyle Gerkin responds to Rennie:

For every exhaustive list of Biblical problems Skeptics produce, Christians have an equally exhaustive list of explanations. Which way a person goes on any individual issue depends largely on their predisposition.
Indeed: very few Christians can claim that their acceptance of these baroque apologetic explanations is independent of predispositions deriving from the aforementioned confounding personal influences. Similarly, many atheists cannot claim that their rejection of Christian explanations is similarly independent. Such observations of course do not tell us which side is right, but they can help us understand how likely it is that current or future people will find these Christian explanations persuasive.
For any given recorded historical event, we cannot say with absolute certainty whether it actually occurred or not. After all, there are always four possibilities:
The person is telling the truth and such an event really happened.
The person is telling the truth but they were mistaken about the event they thought they witnessed.
The person is telling the truth but they were delusional and/or hallucinated the event.
The person is lying.
This analysis fails to consider that historical accounts can be corroborated (or not) by demonstrably-independent accounts and by material evidence that is independent of all accounts.
because history is not reproducible, we can never fully eliminate any of the possibilities, no matter how remote they may seem.
This is true only in the trivial sense that all synthetic knowledge is provisional. Some historical facts are indeed tenuous, but others (e.g. that Columbia was destroyed on Feb 1 2003) are less subject to overthrow than have been some of even the most reproducible conclusions of the laboratory sciences.
what level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event? The answer: no level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event. Why? Because historical evidence always leaves open the possibilities 2-4 enumerated above. And as long as those possibilities are open, one must default to them in favor of a supernatural explanation.
This is a common dogma among atheists, and is not really defensible (unless 'default' here implies that the evidence for a supernatural explanation can sometimes override the default). A supernatural explanation is just like any other explanation, except just that it posits that a fundamental physical description of the universe must make irreducible reference to some agency's volition.
But isn't this anti-supernatural bias? Perhaps. But it is a bias based on the very solid footing of the uniformitarianism principle. More or less, this principle assumes that the world operates pretty much the same today as it has through out the past.
Any such assumption is valid only insofar as it is an application of the principle of parsimony. But if parsimony and uniformitarianism conflict (e.g. as with the Big Bang, or if there were empirical corroboration of the  Resurrection), then parsimony wins.

Turkel interjects:

By now it has become abundantly clear why I am pleased to embarking on the Scholarly Diplomacy series with Kyle in particular.
Indeed: Gerkin's position of seemingly defining the supernatural out of existence is untenable, and makes an understandably tempting target. To save Turkel some time, here is a long thread on alt.atheism.moderated two years ago in which I refuted the similar arguments of some atheists who claimed that miracles by definition can never be the best explanation for any evidence.
If there is one mistake, then what you have is a collection of documents that could still theoretically include inerrant messages -- or just put it this way, the truth! -- which must then be evaluated on their own merits.
Yes -- but Christians rarely if ever invest in comprehensively exploring the space of such possible evaluations. For example, the Bible warns of false revelation and deceptive miracles, but where is the Christian analysis of why the entire Bible should not be considered a malevolent agency's false revelation based on deceptive miracles?
Over years of study I have found that the vast majority of "problems" invite easy answers. [..] These days Skeptics don't get the benefit of the doubt from me because the vast majority simply don't know or care about such things.
Turkel here confuses lack of knowledge/caring with what is actually just a radically different metric of what constitutes an "easy" (i.e. parsimonious, economical, plausible, convincing, relevant) answer. This perhaps is Turkel's rationalization for why self-professed reasonable truth-seekers would disagree with him: they are ignorant or uncaring.  Does Turkel consider that no reasonable truth-seeker with his level of knowledge and caring could ever honestly disagree with his ultimate judgment that Christianity is true?

Turkel's standard of knowing and caring also smuggles in an assumption that the things he knows and cares so much about are as relevant (or dispositive) for the issues in question as he thinks they are. For example, I'm confident that I know and care much more than Turkel about physics and cosmology and exobiology and epistemology, and can argue that all of these are relevant here, but it would be specious of me to vouch that Turkel's beliefs are unjustified simply because of my greater knowledge and interest in these fields.  If Turkel used to give skeptics "the benefit of the doubt" but no longer does so, it's probably not because skeptics are much different than earlier in Turkel's life, but rather because Turkel now has a deeper emotional investment in the relevance and value of his self-education about the Bible.

I've asked Kyle to take a gander at my piece de resistance -- The Impossible Faith -- as an apologetic for the Rez as the best available explanation.
Turkel's piece is answered here, and his attempt at a rebuttal is proving to be straightforward to dismantle in my forthcoming (low-priority) reply.
For me, hearing that some pagan deity is credited with a miracle means this: "That's nice. So what do you expect me to do about it?"
One thing we can not expect is for Turkel to show us where he has ever seriously analyzed the possibility that the Bible and associated events are the false revelation and deceptive miracles of demons like the ones he admits he believes in.

Rennie responds to Gerkin:

when the "mountain of problems" turns out to be, for the most part, a combination of misreading of the text that borders on the criminally negligent and a complete ignorance of the setting of the varied documents, then it seems reasonable to suggest that the the problem is not with the documents.
("Criminally negligent"? "Complete ignorance"?  Hyperventilating hyperbole.) What Rennie does not consider is the issue of whether the Bible is the best revelation that Yahweh could possibly have effected. Either he has to say that omitting even a single prima facie "problem" would have made the Bible imperfect, or he has to admit that Yahweh did not bother to arrange for an optimal scriptural revelation.
G: I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that, "If the resurrection is a real historical event, then by extension everything else is true."

R: Absolutely. The original statement was simply hyperbole.

Thus Rennie knew it misrepresented the truth, but wrote it anyway. (Is hyperbole recommended for atheists too, or is deceptive exaggeration something that only Christians should try? Does the Bible contain any hyperbole, and how are we to tell if a verse is hyperbolic or not?)
You want to claim that a resurrection is impossible because we don't see them happening under conditions we observer today.
Yes, Gerkin's complaint is no more valid against the Resurrection than it is against the Big Bang.
If it happened like that everyday, then it wouldn't be miraculous and you would in effect be free to argue that there was nothing special about the event.
I disagree. An event could happen every day -- e.g. mass-energy non-conservation effected purely by prayer -- and it could still be very special in the sense that, as far as science can tell, the intentions of an agency are having an irreducible and fundamental physical effect.
G: And as long as those possibilities are open, one must default to them in favor of a supernatural explanation.

R: Actually I doubt somehow that you really ascribe to this position.

I doubt it too.
If I was to offer the following as an alternative to the resurrection :
A time traveling cabal of insurance salesman led by a clone of Elvis, who faked the resurrection and the whole history of Israel's encounters with God to allow them to set up the "Act of God" clause in insurance law.
This is wildly more improbable than the benevolent-Yahweh thesis, but only because: Christian apologists tend to dismiss strawmen explanations involving time travelers or aliens, but such dismissals are no better than atheist dismissals of miracles as logically impossible. There are a wide variety of possible superhuman agents that could have caused the biblical evidence, and it's unreasonable to dismiss without argument all the ones that don't happen to be  mentioned by the Nicene Creed.
What "ad-hoc" assumptions are needed to make the explanation plausible? Do the alternatives require any far-fetched assumptions that clash wildly with your everyday experience? The explanation of all of the events surrounding the resurrection of Christ as presented in the bible requires only one such assumption. That being that YHWH actually exists,
It's specious to claim that the shortest list of explanatory factors is the least ad-hoc (i.e. most parsimonious), because then "God wanted it that way" would always be the most parsimonious explanation for anything. Parsimony is about explanatory economy, and it's not a very economic explanation to say that every detail of the Bible is part of the perfect salvific plan of an omnipotent omniscient benevolent El/Yahweh.
and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically.
In a refreshing display of open-mindedness, Rennie here seems aware at some level that a tri-omni El/Yahweh is not the only logically possible supernatural agency that could have caused the biblical evidence.
Christians aren't claiming this happens everyday, they are claiming the event is unique. So appealing to a uniformitarian presupposition about the nature of the universe is useless.
I agree.
G: Christians are usually skeptical of supernatural events outside of the Bible because of uniformitarianism.

R: Actually I think this is mostly because they haven't really thought about it.

Precisely my point. It's simply a cultural accident that the only possibilities most Christians consider are 1) atheism and 2) tri-omni Yahweh.
All other genuine supernatural events do actually fit into a biblical worldview.
The problem, of course, is that all the alleged supernatural events fit equally well -- in fact, better -- into a worldview positing a responsible supernatural agency other than the tri-omni Yahweh.

Gerkin responds:

I am not saying the rez is impossible. I am saying that, based on all our experience, a rez *appears* to be impossible (in the sense that it contravenes the laws of nature).
This position seems somewhat more tenable than Gerkin's earlier statement that "as long as those possibilities [lying, etc.] are open, one must default to them in favor of a supernatural explanation." However, the history of science includes more than a few instances in which the "laws of nature" had to be revised to accommodate new empirical evidence. It is not impossible that data related to gospel miracles could constitute such evidence.
current scientific knowledge appears to preclude the possibility of time travel,
Current scientific knowledge merely precludes the (even science-fiction) practicality of manufacturing a closed time-like loop, but it does not preclude its existence. However, current scientific and philosophical knowledge does lead us to adopt a "B series" perspective on time, in which there is no way to change (as opposed to influence) a future event -- thus eliminating grandfather paradoxes etc.
so that might actually fall under the heading of supernatural
In the context of theology, 'supernatural' does not merely mean paranormal, but rather it is the thesis that the fundamental laws of physics make irreducible reference to, or were created by, some agency's volition.
R: That being that YHWH actually exists, and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically.

G: Those are mighty big assumptions!

And that is the crux (so to speak) of the matter.
Ah, but which supernatural events are genuine and which are not? How can one tell the difference?
Just as importantly: how can one reliably discern the intentions of the agency that caused the events? The Christian answer is essentially to believe whatever the agency is recorded as saying -- even if the agency warns that there exist deceptive supernatural agents!