Back from the Reason Rally

Atheism clashes with ChristianityI’ve recently returned from the Reason Rally, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (photos here).  There were an estimated 20,000 people there, in the rain, which is a lot more than I would have predicted.  The organizers figured that it was the biggest secular gathering in world history by a factor of ten.

The atheist glitterati were all there—Michael Shermer, James Randi (founder of The Amazing Meeting), Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina (my favorite atheist blogger), PZ Myers, Tim Minchin (whose beat poem “Storm” is awesome), Eddie Izzard, Jessica Ahlquist (American Atheist’s “Atheist of the year” for her lawsuit against the religious banner in her public high school), Rep. Pete Stark (the only open atheist in Congress), Sen. Tom Harkin (not an atheist [!] but a senator who welcomed us anyway), Penn Jillette, Todd Stiefel (whose foundation helped sponsor the event), Nate Phelps (an eloquent and estranged member of the infamous Phelps family), and many more.  The Rally proceeded without a break for over seven hours.

The 2012 American Atheist conference was the following two days and had 1300 attendees.  The theme this year was “Come Out,” and many speakers talked about both the need for that and for dealing with the challenges that coming out as an atheist can impose on someone living in America today.

After being away from the office, I’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’ll be busy with the Northwest Freethought Alliance conference here in Seattle this weekend.  I’ll get back to a regular posting schedule soon.  Thanks for all your comments to the posts of the past couple of weeks; I’ll be responding ASAP.

Any brief summary will be inadequate to cover the Rally and conference.  I’ll just summarize some of the highlights.

  • Roughly ten Christian protesters held signs at the Rally.  Discussing apologetics with Christian sign carriers is one of my hobbies, but each was surrounded by lots of atheists—sometimes conversing thoughtfully and sometimes haranguing.  The only one that I talked to at length admitted that he had no arguments in favor of Christianity but was just mindlessly on the Mall, witnessing for Jesus.  I wondered what the point was, since he’s not informing anyone of anything.  He had no new arguments, and simply stating the tenets of Christianity (all he seemed capable of doing) to atheists better informed than the average Christian was pointless.
  • Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh spoke of the Muslim response to her writings—riots, burned cars, and house arrest.  After hearing this, it was hard to compare any struggle atheists might have in coming out with hers.
  • Physicist Lawrence Krauss said that philosophers asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like Johannes Kepler asking “Why are there five planets?”  It’s an irrelevant and outdated question!
  • Too often, the Christian says, “Morality is built on a foundation of God’s existence!” and the atheist response is a tepid, “But we are moral, too.”  We need to take morality back.  Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking.
  • Richard Dawkins spoke of a poll his foundation did in the UK.  Of self-identified “Christians,” many accepted non-Christian beliefs (ghosts, fate, reincarnation), many don’t believe in the power of prayer, many don’t read the Bible and know very little about it, and some don’t even believe that Jesus was a historical figure.  Conclusions: most “Christians” aren’t, and we shouldn’t accept Christians’ self-identification but rather ask what they mean.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

But when asked where they seek most guidance in questions of right and wrong, only one in ten (10%) said it was from religious teachings or beliefs, with over half (54%) preferring to draw on their own inner moral sense.

  • Jerry DeWitt is a cheerful ex-pastor who left religion half a year ago through the Clergy Project, a group trying to find a soft landing for doubting pastors.  I’ve written before about Rich Lyons, a local ex-pastor who had to get through the process solo and suffered from PTSD after leaving his pulpit.
  • PZ Myers gave an interesting quote from Sean Carroll: “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.”
  • PZ Myers on trying to juggle science and religion: “Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place.  It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”
  • Religion is a natural part of the human mind.  Okay, and smallpox is natural, too.  That doesn’t mean you resign yourself to it.
  • This chart from a 2009 Gallup poll documents the long-term change in religious preference in the U.S. and shows that the increase in atheism and erosion in Christianity has been fairly steady and not just a recent phenomenon.

  • In a cartoon, two guys are talking.  One says, “New Atheism indeed—it’s just the same old indisputable scientific evidence again.”
  • Religion makes you happy?  Okay, but so does a puppy.  There’s no need to abandon reason for happiness.
  • On the subject of atheist accomodationists (“Do you have to be so shrill?”) versus confrontationists (“Don’t mince words—tell it like it is!”), Greta Christina likened the atheist movement to a toolbox.  If you’re a hammer, be the best hammer you can be and let the other tools be the best they can be.
  • Christina drew parallels with the gay movement and noted that for many straight people, simply knowing a gay person was key to dismantling their prejudices.  Similarly, we need to come out (where practical) to help Christian America dismantle its anti-atheist prejudices.  One important difference: when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong.  That’s not really true with atheism.
  • The Secular Student Alliance has grown from 50 chapters in 2007 to 250 a year ago and even more today.  The Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”) has three times as many chapters, but it has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and is losing chapters.

Curiously, no one talked about what I like to talk about: critique of Christian apologetics.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Does no one care about this topic?  Has everyone already moved on, comfortable in their conclusion that the emperor has no clothes?

Ah well, I guess I’ll just be the best hammer I can be.

How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith
and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
Newt Gingrich (October, 2011)

Post #100

Using fiction to explore Christianity and atheismWelcome to post #100!  It’s time to see how far this blog has come since I started last August.

Many of you know that this is actually two blogs.  Galileo Unchained (“For Those Who Have No Use for Faith”) is the doorway aimed at atheists, and Cross Examined (“Clear Thinking About Christianity”) is aimed at Christians.  The content is the same, so hang out wherever you feel more comfortable.

In December, I launched my novel, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.  My goal with both the book and this blog is primarily to encourage Christians to think.  Whether they become atheists or stronger Christians isn’t the issue but rather that they think about the intellectual foundations that support their faith.  Too commonly, in my opinion, Christians act out their faith on autopilot, not thinking much about what they claim is life’s most important issue.

And, of course, I hope to have provocative content for atheists as well, both in this blog in the book.

If you haven’t poked around in the toolbar, that’s been gradually updated, with a page listing all the posts, a glossary (with each of the Words of the Day), and a summary of the book with the first couple of chapters.

Here are some of the stats for the blogs:

Alexa ranks web sites by global popularity, and a smaller number is better.  It says that 0.00034% of global Internet users visit CrossExaminedBlog.com.  (Woo hoo—look out, PZ Myers!)

There’s no easy way to figure out word count, but all the posts add up to roughly 50,000 words.

So what’s next?  I’m thinking about podcasting the blogs.  That is, the same content, just spoken.  I hope that will provide a new audience.  I’m also thinking about consolidating the blogs, which would mean focusing on Cross Examined and no longer updating or creating links to Galileo Unchained.  (Your thoughts on these changes?)

Here’s where I need your help.

  • Who do you think would find the book useful?  Do you know of any thoughtful Christians comfortable enough in their beliefs who would be interested in exploring the foundations of Christianity?  Please pass on a link.  I’m also looking for blurbs (brief recommendations), so let me know of anyone with interesting credentials—a pastor or professor, perhaps—who might share my goal of encouraging Christians to think and who would like a free review copy.
  • Who would find the blog interesting?  Please recommend it to anyone you think would appreciate plain talk on Christianity.
  • What recommendations do you have for the blog?  Any changes in format?  Topics ideas?  Add your thoughts to the comments below or email me.

Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you find this a worthwhile destination on the internet!

Bob Seidensticker

Photo credit: kslavin

500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not likely.

How does Christianity stand up to atheist critique?Christians often point to 1 Corinthians 15 as important evidence for the resurrection.  This book, Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth, was written roughly a decade before the earliest gospel of Mark (written in 65–70CE).  This makes it the earliest claim for the resurrection of Jesus.

Here’s the interesting section:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)

Claims about this important passage are all over the map.  Some argue that it actually precedes Paul’s writing.  They say that it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement (like the modern Apostle’s Creed) that would have been recited by believers.  That is, though Paul wrote this passage 25 years after the crucifixion, it had been an oral creed since as early as a few years after Jesus’ death.  They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was even earlier than Paul’s writing.

Others propose a very different interpretation: that the different style suggests that it was added to copies decades after Paul’s writing.

To understand this interpretation, consider how we know what the epistle says.  Our earliest copy is from papyrus P46, part of the Chester Beatty collection.  This manuscript was written in roughly 200 CE, which means that our best copy of 1 Corinthians is 150 years older than the original letter.  150 years gives a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copy and recopy the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity.

But I give this simply as background.  We can’t resolve this scholarly debate about the authenticity of this passage.  What I find more interesting is one verse:

[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].  (1 Cor. 15:6).

This is a popular passage among apologists, and they see it as powerful evidence in favor of the resurrection story.  Granting for now that Paul actually wrote this in the mid-50s CE, that’s a lot of eyewitnesses, and Paul in effect dares his readers to go check out his claim if they want.  Who would make a claim like this, making himself vulnerable to readers catching him in a lie (or at least an error), if he didn’t know it were true?

But this bold and confident defense of the resurrection wilts under scrutiny.  Let’s imagine that we’re in that church in Corinth and we have just received Paul’s letter.

1. Who are these 500 people?  Names and addresses, please?  To find out, someone would need to send a letter back to Paul (200 miles across the Aegean Sea in Ephesus) to ask.  Paul’s challenge is vague, not inviting.

2. How many will still be around?  Paul is writing in about 55CE about a supposed event that occurred over 20 years earlier.  Of the 500 eyewitnesses, how many are still alive and still in Jerusalem, ready to be questioned?

3. Who would make this trip?  Jerusalem is 800 miles away, and getting there would involve a long, dangerous, and expensive trip.

4. How many candidates for this trip?  If the church in Corinth had thousands of members, the risk of someone with the means and motivation to make the big trip to Jerusalem might be high.  But Paul had only started the church a couple of years earlier.  How many members would there have been … maybe 100?

5. Who would challenge Paul?  If the founder of the church says something, who’s likely to question it?  There might well have been people who were unimpressed by Paul’s message, but these would never have joined the church.  Others within the church might have become disappointed and left.  Even if these people might have wanted to topple Paul, they wouldn’t have been in the church community to learn of the claim.

6. What did the eyewitnesses actually see?  Let’s imagine that we have the money and daring to make the trip, we’ve found at least a handful of names that we can search for to find many of the eyewitnesses, and we’re rebellious enough to spit in the face of our church’s founder and see if he’s a liar.

After many adventures, we reach Jerusalem.  What will the eyewitnesses say?  At best they’ll say that, over 20 years ago, they saw a man.  Big deal.  Did they see him dead before?  Were they close enough to the movement to be certain that they recognized Jesus?  Human memory is notoriously inaccurate.  There’s a big difference between the certainty one has in a memory and its accuracy—these don’t always go together.

7. So what?  Suppose all these unlikely things happen—we make the long trip and we track down eyewitnesses—and we conclude that Paul’s story is nonsense.  If we successfully make the long trip back, what difference will this make?  Even if we had the guts to tell everyone that Paul’s story was wrong, so what?  Who would believe us over the church’s founder?  We’d be labeled as bad apples, we’d be expelled from the church, and the church would proceed as before.  And Paul’s letter would still be copied through the centuries for us to read today!

As with the Naysayer Hypothesis, apologists imagine that this argument is far stronger than it is.  And if Paul’s claim is such compelling evidence, why didn’t the gospels include it?  None do, and they were all written after 1 Corinthians.

Who would imagine that a supernatural claim written two thousand years ago would be compelling when we wouldn’t find it compelling if written two minutes ago?

Let’s consider two possible conclusions about this verse.

  1. The resurrection happened as the gospels describe it.  (Let’s grant for now that the gospels all tell the same story.)
  2. Tales circulated orally in the years after the crucifixion among Jesus’s followers, with the number of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ growing with time.

Why imagine a supernatural story when a natural story explains the facts?  Even supposing that Paul invented the story to boost his credibility or strengthen his church, this is a plausible natural explanation that trumps the supernatural one.

Photo credit: University of Michigan

Articles in support of the Christian position:

  • “1 Corinthians 15:3–8,” Agent Intellect blog, 2/24/09.
  • Keith Krell, “The Facts of Faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-11),” bible.org.

It’s Launch Day for my Book, Cross Examined!

Cover of "Cross Examined" by Bob SeidenstickerIt’s launch day for my new book—please buy early and often!

I posted a summary of the book yesterday, but here’s the one-liner: a young man takes a reluctant journey into the defense of Christianity and realizes that the truth of religion is something you must decide for yourself.

While the books of the New Atheists are nonfiction rebuttals of the reasons for Christianity, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey explores that material as fiction.  I hope that for many readers, ideas that might be tedious or boring become part of an engaging and mind-broadening journey.

Atheism has been a plot element in many novels, but this may be the first that explores the specific arguments in defense of Christianity that are energetically discussed in society today.  Whether you’re a thoughtful Christian who enjoyed the intellectual workout of books such as C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or an atheist who prefers Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, this book has something for you.

Buy Cross Examined at Amazon today (270 pages, paperback, $11.95).

Thank you!

What to Get the Atheists on Your Christmas List

Book cover for "Cross Examined" by Bob SeidenstickerThe toughest people on your Christmas list—it’s always the atheists, right?

You can give a Jesus Dressup refrigerator magnet.  Or a Darwin Fish car sticker.  Or a Buddy Christ dashboard statue.  But let me suggest something that’s a little more intellectual.

My new book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey is now available at Amazon.  I wrote my first notes about this project over eight years ago, so I’m pretty excited to finally be able to share it with you.

While many books defend the atheist position, this book takes a fictional approach to tough counter-apologetics arguments.  Indeed, the intellectual debate nearly becomes another character within the story.

The book targets two audiences.  First, I want to give thoughtful Christians something to think about and to encourage complacent Christians to critique the foundations of their religion.  Many Christian leaders make exactly this point, that they too want to push Christians to think.  I think of the book as an intellectual workout—a taxing project, perhaps, but one that leaves the reader a stronger person.

Second, I want to reach atheists who might enjoy approaching these intellectual arguments in fiction rather than in the usual nonfiction form.

The book is set in Los Angeles in 1906, in an odd new church that is suddenly world famous.  The pastor’s prediction of imminent disaster had been front-page news the day before the great San Francisco earthquake—true story.  Here’s the back-cover summary:

In 1906, three men share a destiny forged by a prophecy of destruction.  That prophecy comes true with staggering force with the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and young assistant pastor Paul Winston is cast into spiritual darkness when his fiancée is among the dead.  Soon Paul finds himself torn between two powerful mentors: the charismatic pastor who rescued him from the street and an eccentric atheist who gradually undercuts Christianity’s intellectual foundation.

As he grapples with the shock to love and faith, Paul’s past haunts him.  He struggles to retain his faith, the redemptive lifesaver that keeps him afloat in a sea of guilt.  But the belief that once saved him now threatens to destroy the man he is becoming.

Paul discovers that redemption comes in many forms.  A miracle of life.  A fall from grace.  A friend resurrected.  A secret discovered.  And maybe, a new path taken.  He realizes that religion is too important to let someone else decide it for him.  The choice in the end is his—will it be one he can live with?

Cross Examined challenges the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity and invites the reader to shore them up … or discard them. Take the journey and see where it leads you.

Buy copies for those hard-to-buy-for friends who would enjoy a different approach to the Christian/atheist debate.  It’s guaranteed to be far more intellectually stimulating than a refrigerator magnet or a Buddy Christ dashboard statue (and less cliché than frankincense or myrrh).  Thanks!

Bob Seidensticker

Word of the Day: Apologetics

Dictionary or Bible, we can ask: Does God exist?Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position using reason.  The word is so tied to the defense of Christianity that “Christian apologetics” is almost redundant.  An apologetic is a specific argument (the Design Argument or Pascal’s Wager, for example).

Though “apologetics” has its origin in common with the word “apology,” the apologist does not apologize.  The original Greek work apologia meant to make a spoken defense, such as you’d give if you were the defendant in court.

A Christian could argue for Christianity in an emotional way, but that wouldn’t be apologetics.  These nonapologetic claims might be “Christianity makes me feel good” or “I just like the worldview” or “You’ll love the community.”

Counter-apologetics uses reason to rebut specific Christian apologetic arguments.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links: