Project Reason Video Contest

Project Reason has an annual video contest.  There are only six, and they’re short (1:30 or less).  Check them out.

My favorite is “Conflict”:

Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager. Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly. If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much. But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell. Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post. But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager. If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking. He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led. Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god. The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible. For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever. Or support slavery. Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed. But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

Infinity—Nothing to Trifle With (2 of 2)

(See Part 1 for the beginning of this discussion in progress …)

We can compare the sizes of two sets of numbers by finding a one-to-one correspondence between them, but in the case of infinitely large sets, strange things can happen. For example, compare the set of positive integers I = {1, 2, 3, 4, …} with the set of squares S = {1, 4, 9, 16, …}. Every element n in I has a corresponding n2 in S, and every n2 in S has a corresponding n in I. Here we find that a subset of the set of integers (a subset which has omitted an infinite number of integers) has the same size as the set of all integers.

Playing with the same paradox, Hilbert’s Hotel imagines a hotel that can hold an infinite number of guests. Suppose you ask for a room but the hotel is full. No problem—every guest moves one room higher (room n moves to room n + 1), and room 1 is now free.

But now suppose the hotel is full, and you’ve brought an infinite number of friends. Again, no problem—every guest moves to the room number twice the old room number (room n moves to room 2n), and the infinitely many odd-numbered rooms become free.

Infinity is best seen as a concept, not a number. To understand this, we should realize that zero can also be seen as a concept and not a number. Consider a situation in which I have three liters of water. I give you a third so that I have two liters and you have one. I now have twice what you have. I will always have twice what you have, regardless of the number of liters of water except for zero. If I start with zero liters, I can’t really give you anything, and if I “gave” you a third of my zero liters, I would no longer have twice as much as you.

Not all infinities are the same. Let’s move from integers to real numbers (real numbers are all numbers that we’re familiar with: the integers as well as 3.7, 1/7, π, √2, and so on).

The number of numbers between 0 and 1 is obviously the same as that between 1 and 2. But it gets interesting when we realize that there are the same number of numbers in the range 0–1 as 1–∞.

The proof is quite simple: for every number x in the range 0–1, the value 1/x is in the range 1–∞. (If x = 0.1, 1/x = 10; if x = 0.25, 1/x = 4; and so on) And now we go in the other direction: for every number y in the range 1–∞, 1/y is in the range 0–1. There’s a one-to-one correspondence, so the sets must be of equal sizes. QED.

(Note that this isn’t a trick or fallacy. You might have seen the proof that 1 = 2, but that “proof” only works because it contains an error. Not so in this case.)

The resolution of this paradox is fairly straightforward, but resolving the paradox isn’t the point here. The point is that this isn’t intuitive. Use caution when using infinity-based apologetic arguments.

Let’s conclude by revisiting William Lane Craig’s example from last time.

Suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: . . ., –3, –2, –1, 0. We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before? By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should already have finished by then.… In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished.

The problem is that he confuses counting infinitely many negative integers with counting all the negative integers. As we’ve seen, there are the same number of negative integers as just the number of negative squares –12, –22, –32, …. Our mysterious Counting Man could have counted an infinite number of negative integers but still have infinitely many yet to count.

For a more thorough analysis, read the critique from Prof. Wes Morriston.

And isn’t the apologist who casts infinity-based arguments living in a glass house? The atheist might raise the infinite regress problem—Who created God, and who created God’s creator, and who created that creator, and so on? The apologist will sidestep the problem by saying (without evidence) that God has always existed. Okay, if God can have existed forever, why not the universe? And if the forever universe succumbs to the problem that we wouldn’t be able to get to now, how does the forever God avoid it?

This post is not meant as proof that all of Craig’s infinity based arguments are invalid or even that any of them are. I simply want to ask apologists who aren’t mathematicians to appreciate their limits and tread lightly in topics infinite.

Of course, if the apologist’s goal is simply to baffle people and win points by intimidation, then this may be just the approach.

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • “Aleph number,” Wikipedia.
  • Wes Morriston, “Must the Past Have a Beginning?” Philo, 1999.
  • William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” Truth Journal.

Infinity—Nothing to Trifle With

Snowflake curveThe topic of infinity comes up occasionally in apologetics arguments, but this is a lot more involved than most people think. After exploring the subject, apologists may want to be more cautious.

Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig walks where most laymen fear to tread. Like an experienced actor, he has no difficulty imagining himself in all sorts of stretch roles—as a physicist, as a biologist, or as a mathematician.

Since God couldn’t have created the universe if it has been here forever, Craig argues that an infinitely old universe is impossible. He imagines such a universe and argues that it would take an infinite amount of time to get to now. This gulf of infinitely many moments of time would be impossible to cross, so the idea must be impossible.

But why not arrive at time t = now? We must be somewhere on the timeline, and now is as good a place as any. The imaginary infinite timeline isn’t divided into “Points in time we can get to” and “Points we can’t.” And if going from a beginning in time infinitely far in the past and arriving at now is a problem, then imagine a beginningless timeline. Physicist Vic Stenger, for one, makes the distinction between a universe that began infinitely far in the past and a universe without a beginning

Hoare’s Dictum is relevant here. Infinity-based arguments are successful because they’re complicated and confusing, not because they’re accurate.

One of Craig’s conundrums is this:

Suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: . . ., –3, –2, –1, 0. We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before? By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should already have finished by then.… In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished.

Before we study this ill-advised descent into mathematics, let’s first explore the concept of infinity.

Everyone knows that the number of integers {1, 2, 3, …} is infinite. It’s easy to see that if one proposed that the set of integers was finite, with a largest integer n, the number n + 1 would be even larger. This understanding of infinity is an old observation, and Aristotle and other ancients noted it.

But there’s more to the topic than that. I remember being startled in an introductory calculus class at a shape sometimes called Gabriel’s Horn (take the two-dimensional curve 1/x from 1 to ∞ and rotate it around the x-axis to make an infinitely long wine glass). This shape has finite volume but infinite surface area. In other words, you could fill it with paint, but you could never paint it.

A two-dimensional equivalent is the familiar Koch snowflake. (Start with an equilateral triangle. For every side, erase the middle third and replace it with an outward-facing V with sides the same length as the erased segment. Repeat forever.) At every iteration (see the first few in the drawing above), each line segment becomes 1/3 bigger. Repeat forever, and the perimeter becomes infinitely long. Surprisingly, the area doesn’t become infinite because the entire growing shape could be bounded by a fixed circle. In the 2D equivalent of the Gabriel’s Horn paradox, you could fill in a Koch snowflake with a pencil, but all the pencils in the world couldn’t trace its outline.

Far older than these are any of Zeno’s paradoxes. In one of these, fleet-footed Achilles gives a tortoise a 100-meter head start in a foot race. Achilles is ten times faster, but by the time he reaches the 100-meter mark, the tortoise has gone 10 meters. This isn’t a problem, and he crosses that next 10 meters. But wait a minute—the tortoise has moved again. Every time Achilles crosses the next distance segment, the tortoise has moved ahead. He must cross an infinite series of distances. Will he ever pass the tortoise?

The distance is the infinite sum 100 + 10 + 1 + 1/10 + …. This sum is a little more than 111 meters, which means that Achilles will pass the tortoise and win the race.

Some infinite sums are finite (1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + … = 2).

And some are infinite (1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + … = ∞).

(And this post is getting a bit long. Read Part 2.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • “Zeno’s paradoxes,” Wikipedia.
  • “Zeno’s Advent Calendar,” xkcd.com.
  • “Paradoxes of infinity,” Wikipedia.
  • “Is God Actually Infinite?” Reasonable Faith blog.
  • Peter Lynds, “On a Finite Universe with no Beginning or End,” Cornell University Library, 2007.
  • Mark Vuletic, “Does Big Bang Cosmology Prove the Universe Had a Beginning?” Secular Web, 2000.
  • Wes Morriston, “Must the Past Have a Beginning?” Philo, 1999.
  • William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” Truth Journal.

Gay Marriage Inevitable?

Jesus and God and apologeticsA century ago, America was immersed in social change. Some of the issues in the headlines during this period were women’s suffrage, the treatment of immigrants, prison and asylum reform, temperance and prohibition, racial inequality, child labor and compulsory elementary school education, women’s education and protection of women from workplace exploitation, equal pay for equal work, communism and utopian societies, unions and the labor movement, and pure food laws.

The social turmoil of the past makes today’s focus on gay marriage and abortion look almost inconsequential by comparison.

What’s especially interesting is Christianity’s role in some of these movements. Christians will point with justifiable pride to schools and hospitals build by churches or religious orders. The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century pushed for corrections of many social ills—poverty and wealth inequality, alcoholism, poor schools, and more. Christians point to Rev. Martin Luther King’s work on civil rights and William Wilberforce’s Christianity-inspired work on ending slavery.

(This doesn’t sound much like the church today, commandeered as it is by conservative politics, but that’s another story.)

Same-sex marriage seems inevitable, just another step in the march of civil rights. Jennifer Roback Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute for promotion of heterosexual marriage and rejection of same-sex marriage, was recently asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. She replied:

On the contrary, [same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed. They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.

I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me. This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot. … What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”

Let’s first acknowledge someone who could well be striving to do the right thing simply because it’s right, without concern for popularity or the social consequences. I would never argue that someone ought to abandon a principle because it has become a minority opinion or that it is ridiculed. If Dr. Morse sticks to her position solely because she thinks it’s right, and she’s not doing it because of (say) some political requirement or because her job depends on it, that’s great.

Nevertheless, the infamous 1963 statement from George Wallace comes to mind: “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” That line came back to haunt him. To his credit, he apologized and rejected his former segregationist policies, but history will always see him as having chosen the wrong side of this issue.

Christianity has similarly scrambled to reposition itself after earlier errors. Christians often claim that modern science is built on a Christian foundation, ignoring the church’s rejection of science that didn’t fit its medieval beliefs (think Galileo). They take credit for society’s rejection of slavery, forgetting Southern preachers and their gold mine of Bible verses for ammunition. They reposition civil rights as an issue driven by Christians, ignoring the Ku Klux Klan and its burning cross symbol, biblical justification for laws against mixed-race marriage, and slavery support as the issue that created the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mohandas Gandhi had considerable experience as the underdog. He said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

(And then they claim that it was their idea all along!)

The same-sex marriage issue in the United States has almost advanced to “then you win” stage. Check back in two decades, and you’ll see Christians positioning the gay rights issue as one led by the church. They’ll mine history for liberal churches that took the lead (and flak) in ordaining openly gay clerics and speaking out in favor of gay rights.

If someone truly rejects same-sex marriage because their unbiased analysis shows it to be worse for society, great. But it is increasingly becoming clear how history will judge that position.

Truth never damages a cause that is just.
— Mohandas Gandhi

Photo credit: Spec-ta-cles

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Are Defenders of Natural Marriage on the Wrong Side of History?” Issues Etc., 5/25/12.
  • “Pure Religion: Revivalism and Reform in Early 19th-Century America,” The Dartmouth Apologia, Spring 2010, pp 20–24.

The Truth of the Bible

This is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.

♠  ♠  ♠

Do God and Jesus exist?“Let’s discuss the accuracy of the Bible.” Paul looked for approval from Jim, saw nothing, and continued. “Many say that the Bible contains the world’s greatest literature. It’s certainly the world’s most influential book—a book that has inspired mankind for thousands of years.”

“I won’t disagree.” Jim picked up what looked like a clumsily wrapped cigar laying on the sofa and put the soggy end in his mouth. It left a small dark stain on the seat cushion.

Paul wanted to continue but was distracted as the end of the thing bobbed up and down under Jim’s shaggy mustache while he chewed, making gentle crunching sounds. “Is that a cigar?” Paul asked finally.

Cinnamomum zeylanicum—cinnamon bark,” Jim said, his words garbled as he spoke while holding the cinnamon stick with his lips. “It promotes sweating.”

Paul had never considered sweating worth promoting. He tried to ignore the noise, deliberately looking down at his note card to avoid the distraction. “So what I’m saying is that the Bible is very accurate. Researchers have found thousands of copies, enough to convince them that errors introduced from copy to copy have been insignificant. And old, too—less than 400 years after the New Testament originals.* In other words, today’s English translations started with a copy that differed minimally from the original text. Aside from the different language, we read almost the same words as were originally written two to three thousand years ago.”

Jim shook his head. “That’s a foolish argument.”

Paul’s jaw went slack.

“I can say the same of Homer’s Iliad,” Jim said. “It’s quite long and very old—older than much of the Old Testament. We have many old copies of the Iliad, and today’s version may also be a decent copy of the original. Using your logic, must we conclude that the Iliad is correct? Must we say that Achilles really was invulnerable, that Cassandra really could see the future, that Ajax really was trained by a centaur?”

“But that’s not a good comparison,” Paul said. “No one believes the Iliad. Biblical fact is quite different from Greek mythology.”

“Don’t change the subject. You introduced the question of the accuracy of manuscript copies. Does your logic help us judge the accuracy of ancient books or not?”

“I don’t think the Bible and the Iliad can be compared is all.”

Jim sighed. “To your point, no one believes the Iliad now, but they once did. Achilles, Hector, Helen, Aphrodite, the Trojan War—the Iliad tells much of the history of the Greeks just like the Bible is a history of the Jews. And, of course, many of the places and people in the Iliad actually existed. Archeologists have found Troy, for example.”

Jim held up a hand as Paul opened his mouth to speak. “Of course I see the difference. While the Iliad and the Bible were the histories of their people, only the Bible is believed today. Here’s my point. Let’s assume that the Bible and the Iliad are both faithful copies. That doesn’t make them true.”

Paul said, “It’s not just the Bible—other sources confirm Bible stories. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, for example, writes about Jesus.” He glanced at a note card in his hand. “Also, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and other writers from that time.”

Jim jerked a hand as if dismissing a gnat, and his face showed an exasperated disgust. “I’ve read these sources, and they strengthen your case not a bit. They basically say, ‘There are people who follow a man named Jesus’ or ‘Jesus is said to have performed miracles.’ I already agree with that! I’d be interested if an eyewitness from the Jerusalem Times newspaper wrote a report the day after a miraculous event, but that didn’t happen. You’re left with four—not thousands, but four—written accounts that summarize the Jesus story after it had been passed around orally for decades, and they’re not even completely independent accounts. I need a lot more evidence than that.”

Paul thought for an instant how satisfying it would be to take their argument to the street, even though it would be an unfair fight. He rubbed his right fist against his left palm and strained the muscles of his upper body to drain away some rage. In five seconds he might remind this atheist of his manners. But he had to take the high ground and he pushed on, using a response that Samuel had given him. “Why do you need more evidence? You never saw George Washington, but you accept the historical account of his life. The Bible has the historical account of Jesus’s life—why not accept that?”

Again Jim shook his head. “We have articles from newspapers of Washington’s time published within days of events, and there are hundreds of accounts by people who met him. We even have Washington’s own journals and letters. By contrast, Jesus left no personal writings, we have just a few Gospels as sources of his life story, and those are accounts of unknown authorship handed down orally for decades before finally being written. They were even written from the perspective of a foreign culture—Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic, and the New Testament was written completely in Greek.”

“You’re overstating the problem. If you don’t like Washington, take Caesar Augustus—you accept the story of Caesar’s life even though he’s from the time period of Jesus.”

“How can you make this argument? Are you stupid?” Jim leapt to his feet. “The biographies of historical figures like Washington and Caesar make no supernatural claims!”

Paul opened his mouth to protest but retreated as Jim waved his arms as he stalked back and forth in front of the sofa like some hysterical prosecuting attorney.

“They were great men, but they were just men. Suppose you read that Washington was impervious to British bullets during the Revolutionary War or Caesar was born of a virgin—these claims were actually made, by the way. You would immediately dismiss them. Or what about Mormonism: Joseph Smith invented it just fifty miles from my hometown of Syracuse, shortly before I was born. We have far more information about the early days of his religion—letters, diaries, and even newspaper accounts, all in modern English—and yet I presume you dismiss Smith as a crackpot or a charlatan. In the case of Jesus, the most extravagant supernatural claims are made—why not dismiss those stories as well? The Bible has tales you wouldn’t believe if you read them in today’s newspaper, and yet you see them as truthful ancient journalism.”

Paul struggled to keep his hand steady as he glanced at his note card. He had no response but was not about to admit it. He decided to try a new line of attack and took a deep breath. “Okay, answer this one. The Bible has stories of fulfilled prophecy. Early books documented the prophecy, and later books record that prophecy coming true. There are hundreds about Jesus’s life alone. For example, the book of Isaiah details facts about the Messiah’s life, and then the New Testament records the fulfillment of that prophecy.”

“Show me.”

“Okay, let’s look at Isaiah 53.”

Jim walked to his bookshelf and pulled off a large leather-bound Bible.

Paul turned to his own copy. “Isaiah says, ‘He is despised and rejected of men’—Jesus should have been the king, but He was rejected by his own people. ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth’—He could have proven that He was God with a word, but He chose to keep silent. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities’—this describes the beatings He endured before crucifixion. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ and ‘He bore the sin of many’—Jesus was whipped and took the burden of our sins when He died. All this was written hundreds of years before the crucifixion.”

“Unconvincing,” Jim said. “‘He is despised’ doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And I notice that you’ve ignored the part of this chapter that was inconvenient to your hypothesis: in the same chapter, God says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.’ Jesus is counted as merely one of the great ones and must share with them? That’s quite an insult to the son of God. And who are these equals? Most important, note that there’s no mention of the resurrection here. How can this be a Jesus crucifixion story without the punch line? This chapter is actually a very poor description of the crucifixion because the ‘he’ in this chapter is not Jesus but Israel.”

“But the Gospels themselves refer back to this chapter as prophecy of Jesus.”

“I don’t give a damn—this chapter isn’t about Jesus.”

Paul felt blindsided, as if he were lying on the ground, wondering where the haymaker came from. Samuel hadn’t told him about this rebuttal. Paul said, “Well, what about Psalm 22? It describes the crucifixion experience and has Jesus’s last words, exactly. It even describes the guards casting lots for his clothes. And this was written centuries before Jesus’s day.”

“Come now, think about it! The writers of the Gospels were literate, and they would have read all of the Law—what we call the Old Testament. They could have sifted through it to find plausible prophecies before they wrote the Gospels. Don’t you see? It’s as if they looked at the answers before taking a test.”

Paul leaned forward. “You’re saying that they cheated? That they deliberately invented the Gospel stories to fit the prophecy?”

“Think of the incredible boldness of the Bible’s claims,” Jim said, “that Jesus was a supernatural being sent by an omnipotent and omnipresent God who created the universe. That’s about as unbelievable a story as you can imagine. Deliberate cheating to invent this story—that is, a natural explanation of the Gospels—is much more plausible than that the story is literally true—which is a supernatural explanation. But here’s an explanation that’s more plausible still: suppose Jesus was nothing more than a charismatic rabbi. The original facts of Jesus’s life were then told and retold as they went from person to person, each time getting a little more fantastic. Details might have been gradually changed until they matched a particular prophecy. If people assumed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had to fulfill the prophecies, right? The Gospels were passed along orally for decades after Jesus’s death before they were written down, gradually translated into the Greek culture on the way. No need to imagine the deliberate invention of a false story.”

“But there was no oral tradition. The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.”

“Prove it.”

“Ask any minister!” Paul said with a chuckle that probably betrayed his unease. “It’s common knowledge. Matthew was an apostle, he was an eyewitness, and he wrote the book of Matthew. And so on for the other Gospel authors—all apostles or companions of apostles.”

“The names of the Gospel books were assigned long after they were written. No one knows who wrote them—each Gospel is anonymous, and the names are simply tradition. No Gospel begins, ‘This is an account of events that I witnessed myself.’ Even if they did, should that convince me? You take any fanciful account, put ‘I saw this myself’ at the beginning, and it becomes true? A natural explanation—that the Jesus story is just a legend—is far, far likelier than the supernatural explanation.”

Jim had been noisily worrying his cinnamon stick but now set it back on the sofa. “Besides, we have lots of examples of similar things in other religions—holy books that are really just myth. For example, we can probably agree that the Koran, Islam’s holy book, is mythology. Muhammad wasn’t really visited by the angel Gabriel and given wisdom from God. Did Muhammad invent it? Did a desire for power push him to create a new religion, with him as its leader? Through extreme fasting, did he have delusions that he interpreted as revelations from God? Any of these natural explanations and many more are much more likely than the Koran being literally true. Or Gilgamesh or Beowulf or the Hindu Vedas or the Book of Mormon. They all have supernatural elements and they are all mythology. How can you and I agree that these are mythology and that mankind throughout history has invented religion and myth, but you say that the Bible is the single exception? When you cast a net that brings up Christianity, it brings up a lot of other religions as well.”

“You can’t lump the Bible in with those books. It’s in a completely different category.”

“Prove it,” Jim repeated, and he slammed his Bible onto the table.

“Why should I have to prove it?”

“Because you’re the one making the remarkable claims.”

“Remarkable?” Paul paused, his mouth open, as he collected his thoughts. “How can you say that? You’re in the minority and you reject the majority view. Christianity is the most widespread religion the world has ever seen. Almost everyone in this country is thoroughly familiar with Christianity. They wouldn’t think the claims are remarkable.”

Jim smiled. “I wouldn’t make that majority claim too loudly. Within your own religious community, your views are in the majority, but your flavor of Christianity isn’t even in the majority right here in Los Angeles. Even when you lump together all the denominations of Christianity worldwide, the majority of people on the Earth still think you’re wrong.

“It’s true that the tenets of Christianity are widely familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. A God who can do anything, who has been around forever, and who created the universe? Take a step back and see this as an outsider might. You’ve made perhaps the boldest claim imaginable. No one should be asked to believe it without evidence, and very strong evidence at that.”

Jim picked up his cinnamon stick and waved it as he spoke. “Suppose someone claims to have seen a leprechaun or a dragon or a unicorn. Next, this person says that, because no one can prove him wrong, his beliefs are therefore correct. And since they’re correct, everyone should adopt them. This is nonsense of course. He is making the bold claim, so he must provide the evidence. In other words, we are justified—no, we are obliged—to reject extraordinary claims until the extraordinary evidence has been provided.”

“I have provided evidence!” Paul said.

Jim leaned back on the sofa and looked at Paul, for the first time at a loss for a quick retort. “Son, this is what I expected from you,” he said quietly, almost gently. “But this evidence barely merits the name. What you’ve provided is a flimsy argument that might satisfy someone who wants to support beliefs that he’s already decided are correct. But don’t expect this to convince anyone else.”

Paul sat back in his chair as if hit in the stomach. He had been preparing for a debate like this with increasing intensity for two years, and he thought that he deserved more. He didn’t expect accolades for his cleverness . . . but something? He tried to salvage the discussion and glanced at his note card, almost used up. His voice felt shrill and unreliable as he began. “But you must adjust your demands given how long ago this was. You can’t ask for photographs and diaries when the events happened close to two thousand years ago. It’s not fair.”

“Not fair? Suppose you come to me and ask to buy my house. I say that it’s worth three thousand dollars. You say, ‘I’ll give you five dollars for it.’ I say, ‘No—that’s ridiculous. I must reject your offer.’ And then you say, ‘But that’s not fair—five dollars is all I have.’”

Jim leaned forward, staring at Paul and with his arms outstretched. “That would be absurd. But it’s equivalent to the argument ‘since proving the fantastic claims of the New Testament is quite hard, you’ll have to accept whatever evidence we have.’ No, I don’t! I won’t accept five dollars for my house, I won’t accept pathetic evidence for leprechauns, and I won’t accept it for God.”

Jim paused and then said, “And while we’re at it, neither should you.”

I am the punishment of God….
If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
— Genghis Khan

*Older copies have been found since 1906.

Photo credit: Sheba_Also

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