Saturday, February 18, 2017

David Marshall & The Oppressed Faithless Disciples

A few days ago I put up a post questioning whether or not belief in specific religions could be rationally justified. I'm not completely sure that this argument works yet, and so I specifically requested rebuttals.

The first response I got comes from Christian apologist David Marshall.

Unfortunately for David, his response had quite the opposite effect - I'm now more convinced there's some teeth in the argument. Lets get into a number of misconceptions and problems with David's rebuttal.

In responding to my statement about how a theist is supposed to go from mere theism to Christianity we're going to hit on the argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, David writes:
"We're mostly on the same page so far.  But I'd include the entire raw data of the gospels and the New Testament, as among the premises for "going from theism to Christianity."  And also the raw data of world religions and the nature of man and, while we're at it, of the whole universe."
I'm not sure adding the entire raw data of the gospels and New Testament is going to help David's case for Christianity, after all there are demonstrably false additions to the gospel narratives (the ending of Mark 16 and drinking poison, the resurrection of saints in Jerusalem in Matthew). However engaging in arguments on these specifics is not going to be relevant to this discussion, it's more about problems with the arguments for the resurrection in general.

Still, why stop at the New Testament? After all Jesus not only claimed he was "God" he claimed he was the son of Yahweh, the Jewish conception of a classical theistic god.  So the Old Testament is going to be just as relevant as the New, and there are a ton of thorny problems there.

Also if David thinks raw data of world religions and the whole universe points specifically to the truth of Christianity in particular, well that's one hell of a whopper. About 2/3 of the worlds population is going to find that laughable.

Next, David starts to take issue with my point about the fact that belief in historical miracle claims relies completely on testimony, writing the following:
"Mostly true.  Here are some other facts for which the "only evidence I have" is testimony:

* Human beings have sent space-craft to Mars.
* Iraq exists.
* German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union in 1940.
* I possess a liver.
* I was born in Seattle in 1961.
* The man and woman with whom I lived for my first decades are my parents.
* I presently live in Washington State, but have also lived in China.

So I'm thinking that the bare fact that a given belief depends on human testimony does not in any way imply that the belief is unwarranted.  Otherwise, not only history, but even science, are completely screwed.  Along with gossip, what I learned in school, everything in books and on the Internet, even street signs and maps.

Almost everything we know depends on human testimony."
This is at once a strawman and utterly confused. I never implied that belief in something only on the basis of testimony is not rationally justified.  The argument is based on the idea that if we're going to uncritically accept testimony about miracles, especially when we have multiple eye witness accounts, then you're going to have to start accepting a whole lot of miracles as true.

The problem with that is that the fact that miracles being performed by an individual are taken as evidence that what they are teaching is true.

So once we start accepting multiple miracle claims of being true, we start having evidence that mutually contradictory teachings about the nature of god, eternal life, and moral obligations.

So either the reports of one set of miracle claims are false, or god allows other malicious supernatural agents to enable miracles to perpetuate false teachings - and so a similar problem emerges where we must question whether or not any given religion and it's supporting miracles are the actions of a god or malicious devils.

That all said, David is conflating beliefs about mundane things for which we can have a variety of non-testimonial evidence for (the fact that he has a liver, that Iraq exists, etc) with belief in miracles.  This is also not at all relevant to miracle claims which do not comport with our general background knowledge.

In fact the entire model I offer later on in the post is to increase our general background knowledge so that belief in specific miracle claims would be justified!

Next David seems to be quite confused about the nature of my argument about why we should believe the testimony of the gospels when we have contemporary eye witness testimony to the miracles of someone like Sathya Sai Babba:

"This is a very common argument, so common that we often fail to recognize how odd it is, in several ways.   
Consider an analogy:
"George claims that he has the basketball.  But that can't be true, because Ralph also claims that he has the basketball.  Therefore it is unlikely there is any basketball."  
This "argument" assumes that there must be only one basketball, in other words that real miracles can only occur in one tradition at a time.  But who said that?  When did God ever say, "I promise never to heal a Buddhist or a Shinto without your permission?"  God can heal anyone he wishes to heal -- that comes with the job."
First of all, I'm not explicitly arguing in favor of atheism, so the basketball analogy falls flat. The consequence of this argument isn't that "there is no god" it is "I can't rationally justify belief in Christianity vs other world religions, therefore I should not be a Christian".

I never said a god couldn't heal people of other religions, but it is a problem when someone who is teaching things contrary to ones own religion is then able to perform miracles. Because we are expected to take the performance as miracles as evidence for the truth of ones teachings. After all, we're supposed to believe Jesus was correct when he said he is God because he rose from the dead.

Then we get to this gem:
"The "argument" also seems to assume, very strangely, that the more testimony we have for a given class of events, the less likely it is to be true.  One would think, on the contrary, that if millions of people in thousands of distinct cultures all reported miracles, by Bayes' Theorem, materialism would be vanishingly unlikely to be true.  (And maybe CA is beginning to think that, judging by some of his comments in this article.)"
Well that's not the end of the story. We have different kinds of "miracle reports". Some are of the kind that I am interested in - the verifiable miracle kind. None of those seem to be repeatable, or testable. When we do get reports of the verifiable miracle kind that are either ongoing or repeatable, they never hold up to investigative scrutiny. It always turns out to be something mundane in these cases.

Amazingly the miracle claims don't really get video taped, their purveyors don't repeat them or won't do so in controlled conditions (Sai Babba is guilty here too).  The long lasting effects aren't easily noticeable (healing amputees), or have natural explanations.

So at best you could say that we have miracle claims coming from purveyors of different conflicting religions that if we accepted them all, we would be forced to conclude that conflicting supernatural forces were at work - which would put a bit of a wrinkle in many theologies, let alone giving any justification for one religion over the other.

As for materialism, I am becoming inclined to say I'm not a materialist - not because I think it's implausible, but because I'm not sure you can rationally justify any kind of metaphysical view on this category.  This is it's own separate discussion.

Next up David wants to bring the character of the miracle worker into play:
"Sai Baba was no Jesus Christ, more a Jim Jones or a Rasputin type.  He was seedy, perverse, manipulative, offered no great and original teachings that I know of, and merely copied the good works that Christian missions had long since introduced to India.  I argued that whatever Sai Baba was doing, it was emphatically not the same sort of thing that Jesus did in the gospels.  Call it magic, call it hocus-pocus, call it something more sinister, but if you fail to distinguish between Sai Baba's acts and those of Jesus, you are missing the most obvious and important things about the two men."
First off, the character of the miracle worker has nothing to do with the justification we have for believing a miracle occurred based on the evidence available.  After all, many religions preach that their god uses or redeems fallen or flawed people.  Paul was a murderer, who complained about a continual sin that he couldn't rid himself of, yet you believe your god used him to write the bulk of the New Testament.

 As for "original teachings" that's a farce. The "golden rule" Jesus spoke of existed hundreds if not thousands of years before he came around.  Many of Jesus's teachings don't make much sense unless you look at them in the guide of someone who thought the world was going to imminently come to an end.  Try telling the US military to always "turn the other cheek".

Similarly, Sai Babba and others like Joseph Smith have the downside of being relatively contemporary where records of their misdeeds survived. Older figures get their true character shrouded by history, and in Jesus's case he gets his reports written 30-50 years after his death by anonymous authors writing evangelistic material.

Either way, either you're going to believe Sai Babba pulled off miracles because we have multiple independent witnesses for instances where he supposedly did this, much like a host of other figures in history - or you're going to need more than the gospels to establish Jesus's miracles.

David then goes on to talk about the nature of the miracles involved, with Jesus's being good (emphasis added):
"In fact, the couple who introduced me to Lu Shengyan, on whom I did anthropology research, had quit that sect not because it did no miracles, but because they had come to believe bad spirits were involved, and that their friend the guru was getting into some nasty stuff.  They then became Christians.  And in my research, I did indeed find that the nature of the "signs" in the True Buddha Movement, and in the Tai Ping Movement, were quite different from those in the gospels."
Now this is quite interesting. It appears David is arguing that because Jesus's miracles are somehow different than the kinds of "signs" that are exemplified by the True Buddha Movement. But this is not a question of whether or not there was a difference in the type of miracle done - but rather whether or not we have a rational justification for accepting one set of miracle claims over the other.

I wonder if David, having personally met two eye witnesses to supposed miracles performed by a Buddhist sect, believes that those miracles actually occurred?

It doesn't matter if the miracle was caused by bad spirits, good spirits, or the one true god - the question is whether or not he thinks the evidence of two eye witnesses he knows justifies belief in those miracles.  If not, why not? If so, then David has very intriguing views on spiritual ontology and a new set of problems can open up.

David then questions my view of exclusivity in Christianity, but is kind enough to assume that I came to these views honestly. That's rather nice, considering it is the kind of Christianity that I was raised with and taught in the variety of religious schools I attended over the years.

Still, even if one says they are a Christian, it seems odd for them to accept that god rose Jesus from the dead, but then god also permitted evil spirits to enact miracles through people who preach things that are in direct contradiction to the things Jesus taught.  I must admit however, that a universalism of this sort, combined with acceptance of a wide variety of miracle claims would at least be consistent and possibly rational.

Next we move on to David's treatment of my description of "unverifiable miracles".  There's some more treatment about the quality of the character of the miracle worker, which I've already addressed so I will skip it.  David is clear that he doesn't want to reject these kinds of miracles a-priori however, and speaking against my criticism that these kinds of miracles are a far cry from what we see in the Bible he writes:

"But we also get the more "mundane" sorts of probabilistic miracles in the gospels as well -- Jesus sending a disciple to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, telling the disciples where to catch fish, foretelling events that one might guess, such as his death."

We sure do see some of these, but I've yet to hear an argument that I should believe Jesus is the son of god because Jesus told a disciple to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth and lo and behold, the disciple did it!

There's a reason I discount these kinds of miracles - they're far more common, among a wider variety of practitioners and religions, than the second kind of miracle.

Next we get David's thoughts on "verifiable miracles":

"And yet the gospels also record the surprise with which Jesus' contemporaries greeted Jesus' miracles.  "No one has ever healed a man born blind!"  "If this man were not from God, he could not do these things."  "The disciples were sorely afraid."
So even at the time, Jesus' miracles were recognized as unique.  They are described as a sign confirming Jesus' status and ministry.  True, Jesus promised that his disciples would also do miracles, and indeed, miracles are one reason why Christianity spread to become the world's largest community of faith.  (Surveys of new converts in Ethiopia and India have shown this, and I have seen it informally in China.)  
But Jesus' miracles were not gaudy, nor compulsory.  Jesus did not turn the temple into an egg, or make blood fall from the sky, or anything like that.  Most of his miracles were directed at practical problems, and confirmed the faith of individuals -- like most genuine miracles in the Christian tradition."

No kidding the records show surprise by his contemporaries, miracles are always going to be impressive, no matter how many times you see them.  The same kinds of reports come from other miracle claims as well.  Uniqueness comes from a variety of other miracle claims as well, Jesus isn't the only one who has claims about their healing of people with obvious disabilities.

I am frankly shocked that David thinks contemporary miracles, presumably of this sort, are still occurring by Christian disciples. I must wonder why they always occur so far away from the US, or why nothing ever gets caught on video.  I'm willing to believe, I just need some miracle workers. Pity there never were any when I was in churches most of my life.

As for Jesus's miracles not being gaudy or compulsory - that's silly. He turned water into wine. He walked on water. Other miracles in the bible have god sending fire from the sky.   Give me some practical problem solving miracles, lets see the regrown limbs, before and after pictures. People born blind being made to see after a prayer was said over them. All of this with testimony, preferably video, medical reports. - Except it doesn't exist.

David then disdains my example of the kind of repeatable miracle we should expect to see if we wanted to use history as a method to justify belief in the resurrection, calling it disgusting.  I suppose he must not like the miracle of transubstantiation, which Catholics think occurs every Sunday.  The point however was to come up with a miracle that is obviously a miracle, that is repeatable, and that wouldn't have possibly disruptive effects like the consistent ability to heal.

So David, just change the example to sanctified priests being able to change water into wine during a ritual.  Only they can do it, no other religions, and it can be done as many times as they are able to stay sanctified. It can be done in controlled conditions, etc.  It's also exactly a miracle that Jesus supposedly performed, in keeping with your aesthetics.

Next though, we get to the real crux of where I feel David goes completely off the rails in his response as he tries to respond to the kind of evidence we'd need to justify belief in Jesus's miracles (emphasis added):

"That aesthetic does not, it appears, involve forcing most of us to believe, whether we want to or not.  Miracles of the sort CA calls for here would arguably make real faith impossible -- not because faith is not based on evidence, but because we would all feel as if a very tasteless God were hanging over us all the time, without allowing us any freedom to act, any real adventure (if every Christian could cure as Jesus cured), and miracles (and life itself) would lose their drama. 
I am glad we do not live in CA's world.  I think I'd go crazy.  I find willow shoots coming up in winter more subtle, but also more beautiful and genuinely persuasive.
Christian miracles work from within our hearts, even as they are outside confirmations: they are messages in a language we can understand, being telos-minded creatures ourselves.  The "signs" the world, and sometimes the Church, seem to prefer, are tasteless, tacky, and sub-human, showing they are not really from God."
Here I can't help but channel my New York, Italian-American roots:

Get the fuck outta here!

Having demonstrable miracles, like priests being able to turn water into wine would make real faith impossible?

I know for a fact David would go apocalyptic if I said faith is belief without evidence, and here he necessarily is using the term faith as being greater if there is less evidence.

Let me ask you a few questions David.  Were the 12 apostles and those who witnessed Jesus's miracles lacking "real faith" having seen the wide variety of miracles Jesus performed?

Would the apostles be justified in feeling as though a tasteless god was hanging over them?

Were the apostles oppressed, not free to act, having seen the variety of miracles before Jesus rose from the dead? Did Peter not deny him three times, despite witnessing him heal the blind, the lame, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead!?!  Do you David sin only when you doubt the existence of god?

Note I specifically chose an example that wouldn't cause a drastic change in medicine by having Christians be able to heal. I mean just having the correct sect of Christianity, and only them, be able to perform miracles to a repeatable degree.

This miracle wouldn't lose its drama. It'd be amazing, the highlight of every single church service. Every repeatable test in controlled conditions would be met with praise from the expanded Christian Church.

This does not "force" belief. Technically, I could logically be consistent in denying god and being a naturalist by attributing the actions to aliens with sufficiently advanced technology. It'd be outrageous to think so, but I could still do it in the face of that evidence if I really wanted to avoid belief.

Except far more people would believe, because the model we use for believing in things requires that kind of evidence!

How come I don't see arguments for the fact that I should specifically believe Jesus is the son of god because willow shoots come up in winter?

What's more, if these kinds of tacky miracles aren't from god, why did Jesus do them? 

Why aren't willow shoots in winter and Jesus's teachings on their own enough to prove that he is the son of god and we must trust in him?

Why did he have to come back from the dead in order to confirm his teachings?

Finally we draw to the end, where David responds to my points about how using the historical method would require the kind of background knowledge the prior contemporary miracles to continue to occur (again, emphasis added):
"CA is neglecting the excluded middle.  Maybe God exists and has given us ample, but not overwhelming, reason to believe, revealing His nature as well as giving our faith intellectual support.  In fact I think that's the case.  Compare Sai Baba's tacky miracles.  Aside from being a creep and apparently a sexual predator of sorts, Sai Baba also had bad taste and affronted our humanity.  Now read the gospels.  "Rational basis" is more than just "historical or scientific evidence," it is also evidence of a genuinely divine touch that fulfills our humanity."
Again this isn't an argument against the existence of a god, but rather an argument against belief in a specific religion.

First David seems to admit here that in terms of explicitly historical evidence, Christianity is going to fail the test.

Second, the addition of "evidence of a genuinely divine touch that fulfills our humanity" is outright laughable.

That and $3 will get you on subway David. Sai Baba had literally millions of followers. They'll tell you his preaching and miracles had "evidence of a genuinely divine touch that fulfills our humanity". You'll get the same thing from nearly every religion and their preaching/miracle claims.

All you're doing is smuggling in subjective experience as a way to rationally justify belief, which is exactly what is discounted by the disparity in testimonial evidence of the variety of world religions.

I wouldn't trust my IRA to a company because I liked their name, or because they had warm feel good commercials, or a host of hand-picked testimonials. I'd want evidence, hard data of their performance, reports on any ethics violations in their history.

And you want me to put my rational trust, my faith in some everlasting life, assuming such a thing existed, in your specific religion because you think Jesus's miracles were aesthetically pleasing vs. the others?

You gotta be kidding me!

You're not even close to answering the argument here, and to be honest given what I'm seeing I'm hard pressed to think I'm going to find something worth reading in your books where you make the rather outrageous claim that the variety of world religions points to the specific truth of Christianity. My guess is you're going to bring in some very ad hoc and Christian favorable metaphysical assumptions as well as aesthetic preferences that favor the Christian story and then extract the generic parts common to most religions and make it fit a just-so narrative.

Perhaps my argument doesn't work because of other reasons, but the ones you're giving me here certainly don't seem to be the problem. 


  1. I ran into David Marshall on Stephen Law's blog back in 2012, on a thread discussing Law's paper arguing that unevidenced miracle claims contaminate the whole NT story and so give us reason to distrust the NT evidence that Jesus existed (I don't think Law's argument quite works).

    It seems Marshall still has this odd belief that a miracle which is a more meaningful story or a miracle which has weigher or better consequences is more likely to be true. Back then, he was keen to distinguish Law's hypothetical miracles from those of Jesus (one was magic, the other miracle, one was not morally significant, the other was, and so on), but he couldn't explain why that would make one more likely to be true, or make us more justified in believing it, than the other. (I picked out the thread between David Marshall and myself from the many other comments on Law's blog on my own, here.)

  2. Paul: Actually, I did explain why that makes a difference, and I gave the same issue, using Law's examples as fodder, several pages in Jesus is No Myth. So it's not true that I "couldn't" explain the logic: I could and I did, more than once. And indeed, the logic is obvious, and assumed (though not verbalized) by many skeptics, which is why they always focus on the most Law-like miracles in the gospels, such as Matthew's "zombie" story. So far from "odd," my basic logic is intuitively recognized by pretty much everyone, including hard-core atheists.

  3. CA: Frankly, I suspected that the appearance of objectivity or open-mindedness in your initial post was an act. But someone asked me to answer your "questions," so I did. The first few paragraphs in this piece, which I think is all that I will read, demonstrate your insincerity quite clearly.

    "Lets get into (sic) a number of misconceptions and problems with David's rebuttal.

    "In responding to my statement about how a theist is supposed to go from mere theism to Christianity we're going to hit on the argument for the Resurrection of Jesus (sic), David writes:

    "'We're mostly on the same page so far. But I'd include the entire raw data of the gospels and the New Testament, as among the premises for "going from theism to Christianity." And also the raw data of world religions and the nature of man and, while we're at it, of the whole universe.'"

    "I'm not sure adding the entire raw data of the gospels and New Testament is going to help David's case for Christianity, after all there are demonstrably false additions to the gospel narratives (the ending of Mark 16 and drinking poison, the resurrection of saints in Jerusalem in Matthew)."

    I wouldn't blame you for not getting my point, because I didn't explain it. But if you don't get something, the worst thing you can do is just take a flying jump at guessing what I might possibly mean, and then attack whatever details you feel you can get a fix on. You're so eager to debunk, that you don't bother to try to understand what you're debunking first (say by asking) -- a sure sign of a closed mind.

    "Still, why stop at the New Testament? After all Jesus not only claimed he was "God" he claimed he was the son of Yahweh, the Jewish conception of a classical theistic god. So the Old Testament is going to be just as relevant as the New, and there are a ton of thorny problems there."

    Again, you are not even trying to understand, but are looking for a pretense to dismiss arguments that have not even yet been summarized, let alone given.

    "Also if David thinks raw data of world religions and the whole universe points specifically to the truth of Christianity in particular, well that's one hell of a whopper. About 2/3 of the worlds population is going to find that laughable."

    Now you're dismissing my life work, which you know nothing about, while simultaneously pretending to tell us how two thirds of the people on Earth would respond to my arguments!

    This is the worst kind of presumption. Do you think you know more about, say, China, a big part of that 2/3rds, than I do? Do you really think your opinion on "What the Chinese people would think of Marshall's books on China, if they all read them" is worth anything?

    I took the time to offer answers to your questions. You respond with nothing but presumption, clearly without knowing anything about my work, what I am referring to, or (I will presume myself) much about the body of facts to which my claims refer.

    I'm a teacher, and you could have learned something, if you'd been open to listen. But pretending to be open to learning something new was, clearly, merely a game you were playing to amuse yourself and waste my time.

    1. I could have learned something? I don't think so, not by the quality of what you presented initially. But you wouldn't know that, because you won't even read the rest of what I have written where I get to responding to your most outrageous claims.

      And you don't get to tell me I don't have an open mind when the very next post on this blog is where I talk about how another apologist convinced me to abandon the rationality angle.

      The argument still works quite well as a rebuttal to the resurrection, but it's not enough to show irrationality of specific religious belief.

      Don't confuse your bad arguments for my refusing to learn something, it's not the same thing.

  4. Here's a point I want to zero in on. You seem to be under the impression that miracles ought to be repeatable. Now, a miracle may be defined as a physical event with a supernatural cause. So here's what I want to ask you: how do we define "natural"? Because if the answer ends up being something like "amenable to the methods of science," then anything we can reliably control will end up being "natural," and thus incapable of being the cause of a miracle. Thus, the idea of "repeatable miracles" or "miracles on demand" turns out to be incoherent.