The End of Christianity?


Editor's note: This week's article is an edited version of a book-length response to the new book The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus. For Hays and company's (excellent) response to one of Loftus' other books, The Christian Delusion, click here. reformation21 will post the link to Hays' book-length response when it is released.

John Loftus, ed., The End of Christianity (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011) 435 pp.

The End of Christianity is the third installment in Loftus's serial case against the Christian faith. As he's said elsewhere, Loftus is attempting to "overwhelm" the Christian reader. His overall strategy is a parody of the cumulative case for Christianity, only he's laboring to do the same thing in reverse.

In the introduction, Loftus says Christians shoulder the burden of proof since they are making "extraordinary" claims about the supernatural. But that begs the question. If I roll sixes ten times in a row, is that extraordinary? Well, if the dice are loaded, that's not extraordinary. That's not incredible.

So before you can apply Sagan's criterion of extraordinary evidence, you have to know the background conditions. You can't say ahead of time if rolling sixes 10 times in a row is ordinary or extraordinary. For the odds depend on a number of variables.

Loftus says scientific realism is the "neutral" or "default" position. All "metaphysical claims" must be scientific.

But this is philosophically naïve. Scientific realism is up to its eyeballs in metascientific presuppositions, viz. (i) the existence of the external world; (ii) the regularity of nature; (iii) the general reliability of induction; (iv) the general intelligibility of nature; (v) the general reliability of the senses; (vi) the general reliability of the mind (or brain) to interpret sensory input; (vii) the adequacy of mathematics to describe nature; (viii) the correspondence between appearance and reality; (ix) scientific theories accurately describe or successfully refer to the natural world.

Loftus not only needs to justify his metascientific presuppositions, but he needs to justify each and every one of them on purely secular grounds.

In chapter one, it's hard to see how Eller's argument is supposed to support the main thesis of the book. Even if we accept his Darwinian analogy, the fact that, according to him, Christianity is highly adaptable in time and place hardly suggests the end of Christianity is coming anytime soon. To the contrary, that suggests Christianity is here to stay. An exceptionally survivable, time-tested religion.

In chapter two, Carrier's argument is crippled by several central contradictions. On the one hand, Christianity was long a tiny fringe cult. It only became mainstream when the power elite imposed Christianity on the unwilling masses. On the other hand, Christianity had tremendous popular appeal, tapping into preexisting religious movements and social grievances. On the one hand, Christianity was successful because Christian martyrs were banking on eschatological payback for all they suffered at the hands of their Roman persecutors. On the other hand, persecution of Christians was "limited, occasional, and sporadic at best." On the one hand, Christianity was successful because it had a seditious ideology that challenged the power elite. On the other hand, Christianity was successful because the power elite adopted and sponsored an ideology which was inimical to their power base. Christianity was tool of social control. No, Christianity was a subversive, egalitarian movement.

Carrier also indulges in his penchant for parallelomania. Yet elsewhere, he admits the paucity and dubiety of the alleged parallels.

Carrier finds it dubious that the witnesses to the Resurrection were known associates. But at the risk of stating the obvious, Jesus appeared to people who knew him since they'd be in a position to recognize who he was. That the same individual who died had risen. What would be the point of appearing to total strangers?

In addition, if more people said Jesus appeared to them, Carrier would simply dismiss that as hallucinatory. And if we had more first century records of Jesus' sightings, Carrier would contest the authenticity of the records.

In chapter three, Loftus tries to snow the reader with a blizzard of miscellaneous objections to demonstrate that Christianity is "wildly improbable." But in most cases, Loftus doesn't even bother to provide a supporting argument for why this or that example renders the Christian faith wildly improbable. He dashes off a sentence about some feature of the Christian faith, labels it "wildly improbable," then moves on to the next example. So the entire exercise assumes what it needs to prove. A catena of bare assertions.

Loftus says he must judge the past by his present experience. But that torpedoes his appeal to science, since his knowledge of science is secondhand.

Finally, it doesn't occur to Loftus that his Humean standard is a double-edged sword. Loftus must take the antecedent, unfalsifiable position that each and every witness to a miracle was either a deceiver or deceived. Just one isolated exception will dash the entire argument.

But surely the claim that there's a 100% failure rate in the whole of human history to reported miracles is nothing if not an utterly extraordinary claim. And that, in turn, demands extraordinary evidence. If extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, then extraordinary disclaimers demand extraordinary evidence.

Loftus rigs the argument by defining "ordinary" in secular terms. But that begs the question.

He cites the existence of the devil as an "extraordinary" claim. But that's prejudicial. If the devil exists, is it extraordinary that he exists? What's extraordinary about admitting that something which exists...exists? Isn't that a tautology?

Of course, Loftus doesn't think the devil exists. But unless you already know that the devil does not exist, you're in no position to classify existential claims about the devil as extraordinary claims. For if the Devil is real, then what's so extraordinary about acknowledging the existence of an actual existent?

Loftus can't preemptively classify existential claims about the devil as extraordinary claims. That's not something he's entitled to define ahead of time. If the devil exists, then there's no presumption that he doesn't exist. There's no extraordinary onus to overcome. Loftus is trying to take illicit intellectual shortcuts. To prematurely anticipate his conclusion.

So even if the maxim (that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence) were sound, you can't use that maxim to prejudge what's extraordinary. You can only apply that in case you already know what's actual or possible in any given case. An abstract maxim is uninformative. It has no predictive power. A blind maxim.

Chapter four is a hodgepodge. Avalos asserts that medical science has no room for supernatural explanations. But many physicians are Christians who do believe in miracles, demonic possession, and the efficacy of prayer.

Avalos imputes anti-Jewish statements to the New Testament, yet the NT writers were Jewish. Moreover, what the NT says about Jewish unbelief is downright tepid compared to the searing indictments we find in the Old Testament prophets. Is the OT "anti-Jewish" as well? That's the reductio ad absurdum of Avalos's allegations.

Avalos also makes self-refuting claims about textual criticism. For he himself relies on secondhand copies of various sources. He lacks access to the Urtext of everything (or anything) he routinely cites.

In chapter five, Gericke tries to portray Yahweh as a Zeus-like figure. But his argument is flawed on many grounds.

He disregards the use of spatial metaphors and other theological metaphors, as well as literary conventions like interior monologue and rhetorical questions. He artificially isolates the kingly metaphor, while ignoring other theological metaphors for God, viz. shepherd, potter, farmer, father, husband, redeemer, judge, light, and rock.

By the same token, he treats heaven as a cosmic palace, disregarding the cosmic temple imagery. He also confuses the moral law with the ceremonial law.

He confuses judicial execution with human sacrifice. And in his treatment of Jephtha, he fails to distinguish between normative characters and foil characters. A narrator doesn't endorse everything he narrates. Jephtha is not the hero.

In chapter six, Tarico tries to psychoanalyze Christians. Unfortunately for her, that's a two-way street. The reader could just as easily psychoanalyze her atheism as a reactionary feminist projection. Yahweh reminds her of the patriarchal "fundamentalist" environment of her childhood. The male authority-figures in fundamentalism. Her atheism reflects arrested development.

In chapter seven, Ken Pulliam attacks penal substitution. His treatment suffers from two fundamental flaws. For starters, he tries to put Scripture in a straightjacket by beginning with an a priori definition of retributive justice, then attempting to show that penal substitution is inconsistent with his definition. But even if that's the case, this doesn't show that Biblical concepts of justice and vicarious atonement are self-contradictory.

Moreover, Pulliam makes selective, self-refuting appeals to moral intuition. On the one hand he claims penal substitution is intuitively immoral. On the other hand, vicarious sacrificial practices are widespread in the ancient world, and carry over into the modern world. So practioners don't share his moral intuition.

In addition, many atheists deny objective moral norms. But in that event, Pulliam's moral objections are at variance with his atheism.

Pulliam says "It seems to be a contradiction for the same person to be both the subject and object of that verb propitiate."

Not really. That's a side-effect of God exacting justice. Moreover, the notion of divine "wrath" is somewhat anthropopathetic. It's a colorful way of expressing the fact that God will not allow wrongdoing to go unpunished.

Pulliam says "If the divine nature cannot die, then it cannot pay the penalty for sin."

But this objection is unclear. As a rule, exacting justice isn't contingent on the nature of the avenger. In principle, even a fellow sinner can exact justice on another sinner.

In chapter eight, McCormick tries to mount a dilemma for Christians. According to him, there's better evidence for the Salem witch trials than the Resurrection. But if we don't believe the former, then we shouldn't believe the latter. And if we believe both, then that leaves us open to mutually contradictory miracles.

But there are two basic problems with this argument: to begin with, the primary evidence at the Salem witch trials was spectral evidence. That's hardly equivalent to the Resurrection accounts.

Moreover, miracles, per se, can't contradict each other. Put another way, events can't contradict each other. At most, you can have contradictory interpretations regarding the respective significance of two or more events.

In chapter nine, Price jumbles together several different theories to provide a naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection. However, his attempt suffers from several debilitating problems.

He combines mutually contradictory theories; he rips verses out of context; and he arbitrarily discounts any textual evidence that runs counter to his theory. So the entire chapter is an exercise in special pleading.

In chapter ten, Parsons assails the traditional doctrine of hell. One basic problem is that he quotes a few passages of Scripture, which he doesn't bother to exegete. He simply takes his interpretation for granted, then builds on that presumptive interpretation. His entire objection to hell is predicated on the torture chamber model of hell. Without that presupposition, his case collapses. Yet he fails to defend his key interpretation.

He also says there must be a better possible world than a world with hell. But that's equivocal. Better for whom? Worse for whom?

There are possible alternatives, but the alternatives have tradeoffs. For instance, a sinless world would be more pleasant to inhabit. However, the inhabitants of a sinless world are not the same set of inhabitants as the inhabitants of a sinful world.

The damned are better off if they never existed, but the existence of the damned is intertwined with the existence of the saints. Take godly children of ungodly parents. You can't have one without the other.

He objects to the duration of hell for "finite" sins. But it's not as if sinners are merely punished for discrete sins. A sinner does what a sinner is. Sins are just the expression of the sinner's underlying character.

Passage of time doesn't make the guilty guiltless. Once you do something wrong, it will always be the case that you did something wrong. Your culpability doesn't have an automatic expiration date. You're just as guilty a year later as you were a moment later. Only redemption can atone for sin.

Sinners don't cease to be sinners when they go to hell. To the contrary, they become even more sinful in hell, since they lose all self-restraint in hell.

For that matter, consider all the things we would have done wrong if we thought we could get away with it. That's culpable, too. Although damnation is never-ending, the damned only experience their punishment in finite increments. A day at a time.

Parsons objects to credal requirement. However, no one goes to hell for disbelieving in Jesus. Disbelief is an aggravating factor. But the hellbound are already lost. Refusing the gospel isn't what renders them damnable.

In Christian theology, nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the gospel. This doesn't mean nobody can be damned unless he knows and rejects the gospel. Rather, to be lost is the default condition of sinners. To be lost is not a result of spurning the gospel. To the contrary, it's because sinners are lost in the first place that they desperately need to be saved.

If a drowning swimmer refuses the lifeline, that's not why he drowns. He's already drowning. The lifeline was his opportunity to avoid drowning.

In chapter eleven, Eller says science is committed to naturalism/materialism because spiritual agents are both indetectible and unpredictable. However, that's a false dichotomy. Even if personal agency is unpredictable, that doesn't make it indetectible.

Moreover, science is an example of personal agents. Scientists may intervene in nature at any time and change the outcome. So by his yardstick, science is unscientific!

Science is supposed to be a descriptive discipline. A scientist doesn't know, before he conducts his investigations, what the world is like. That's something he must discover.

By contrast, methodological naturalism is a prescriptive principle. Methodological naturalism dictates a foregone conclusion. Before the scientist peers into the telescope or microscope, methodological naturalism tells the scientist what he's permitted to see.

Suppose a supernaturalistic explanation happens to be the correct explanation. In that event, a precommitment to methodological naturalism automatically disallows the correct explanation. What's the value of a "scientific" method that forbids you from even considering the true explanation?

In chapter twelve, Carrier says "probability measures frequency." Is probability just a measure of frequency? A royal flush is infrequent, but if the deck is stacked, is the probability of a royal flush still a measure of frequency?

Carrier says "Bacteria exhibit intelligent behavior but are not themselves intelligent; and counting up everything like that, we're adding trillions upon trillions of examples, and things made by blind physical processes..."

But that begs the question. A robot exhibits intelligent behavior but is not itself intelligent. Would we therefore classify robots as cases of non-intelligent design, which lower the prior probability of intelligently designed things?

Actually, a hallmark of intelligent design is to design unintelligent things that exhibit intelligent behavior-like robots! It takes high intelligence to design something which doesn't know what it's doing, but can still perform a complicated task.

Carrier says "Think of getting an amazing hand at poker; whether the hand was rigged or if you just got lucky, the evidence is identical. So the mere fact that an amazing hand at poker is extremely improbable is not evidence of cheating. Thus 'it's improbable' is simply not a valid argument for design."

And what if you get three or four or five amazing hands in a row? Or what you always get amazing hands just when you happen to need amazing hands to win? Carrier says "neither was the universe designed to be easily understood nor were we well designed to understand it...Given these facts...NID is actually improbable."

Take the science-fiction theme of a flying saucer that crash-lands. Human scientists study it, but because the technology is so advanced, they can't figure it out.

Carrier says "God could easily have made the world far more intelligible by making the world itself simpler...or [giving us] brains capable of far more rapid and complex learning and computation, etc."

Of course, that entails tradeoffs. Would a simpler universe be habitable? Likewise, what's involved in giving us brains that are "far more rapid and complex"? Has Carrier considered what other adjustments would be necessary to accommodate that scenario?

In chapter thirteen, Stenger treats anecdotal evidence as unscientific. Only experimental evidence amounts to scientific evidence.

But to privilege experimental evidence at the expense of anecdotal evidence would invalidate the study of animal behavior in their natural habitat. To study animals in the wild, rather than the laboratory, would be "unscientific." Ethnological fieldwork would be "virtually useless."

On a related note, historical sciences like paleontology deal with unrepeatable past events which can't be systematically reproduced in the laboratory. If there are spiritual forces or beings in the world, then that involves personal agency. That won't operate with the uniformity or repeatability of chemical reactions.

In chapter fourteen, Carrier tries to make a case for secular ethics. However, he confuses motives with standards. What motivates us to abide by a moral standard is not a substitute for the standard itself. Objective moral norms are not reducible to subjective incentives or disincentives.

He also emphasizes the importance of empirical knowledge. But even though that's often relevant to moral knowledge, there's more to moral knowledge than empirical knowledge. The sniper in the bell tower and the police sharpshooter are, for all intents and purposes, empirically equivalent. Both are gunman. Both are killing other people. The sharpshooter killing the sniper is empirically equivalent to the sniper killing pedestrians. But while these are empirically equivalent actions, they are not morally equivalent actions.

In the afterward, Price argues that Evangelicalism is demographically doomed. However, his methodology is skewed.

As I said in the introduction, Loftus is trying to present a cumulative case against the Christian faith. Crush the Christian reader under the sheer weight of the objections. But the basic problem with this book, and others in the series, is that cumulative bad objections don't add up to a single good objection. Bad objections are weightless objections. Pile on as many as you please-a thousand bad objections are no weightier than a hundred, or ten, or one.

In fact, the exercise backfires. When the reader is treated to a string of bad objections, that unwittingly becomes a cumulative case against atheism. If the only objections that Loftus and his contributors can muster are bad objections, then that amounts to an impressive case against the atheist.

Steve Hays is the main blogger at the legendary Triablogue. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, where he served as John Frame's assistant.