I’m continuing where I left off in my mostly-chapter-titles book review of Roger Carswell’s Christian apologetics, Before You Say “I Don’t Believe”. In Part 1, I introduced the next question:
(18) Have you ever wondered why, unlike other leaders, Jesus’ name is used as a swear word?
By Jove*, I have! I doubt the assumption that Jesus’ name is the only one, but I have thought about why we swear. The clue is in the name, to swear or curse, which for many centuries was how people emphasized their words (and their “word”). They would make a promise, swearing on something they were known to value. People are still sworn in to office. Sometimes “swearing” offered actual prayers in a moment of crisis or sudden shock (“God, help us!”) and sometimes it delivered curses, entreating one’s deity or saints to “damn and blast” a foe. Over time, with increasing secular thinking, many common phrases simply lost their religious association.
But what is the author on about? As usual, he’s not asking a question, just introducing his propaganda, the gist of which on this occasion is that he considers it blasphemy,
an act of dishonouring and disobeying God, who has revealed in the Bible that all of us will have to give account for every word spoken here on earth.
I’m a little shocked by an English Christian taking blasphemy seriously in this day and age. Here in England, a sweet and cuddly kind of Christianity took over from the fire-and-brimstone type.
Carswell says that we have
an inbuilt antagonism to God and godliness […] every part of us is permeated with a bias to defy God, our Maker, Judge and Lord.
The fact that the name of ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ is such a commonplace swear word not only demonstrates our true self, but is a pointer to the fact that Jesus is Himself God.
There are several mistakes here. There are two assumptions: that those swear words are particularly commonplace (if we adjust for the language and cultural influences of the speaker); and that “our true self” has any ontological meaning. Then there are the non sequiturs: that the first indicates the second (it is also disturbing that Christians see our “true self” as a foul-mouthed, rebellious blasphemer, despite being made in God’s image); and that any of this points to the “fact” that Jesus is God.
I was determined, inshallah, to avoid any gratuitous swearing for comedy effect in this passage, and I think I managed it.
(*Jove, the Roman God, Jupiter)
(19) Have you considered why Christians make so much of Jesus’ death on the cross?
Because you can’t resurrect a living person?
As Carswell says in the chapter, but fails to see the significance of, we all love a story of self-sacrifice. Knowing that we are flawed, delicate and mortal creatures, and nevertheless being able to conceive of and desire perfection, invincibility and immortality, Christ is one imaginative scheme (among many) that gradually emerged from pre-history, told and re-told, to crystalize in the Jewish faith, by which humans thought they could attain that wish. Their prophecies were played out – if Jesus was real at all – under Roman occupation in a desperate, revolutionary act, a historically quite common, spiritually-sanctioned coup attempt, led by a crazy, brave and caring man, defying both the Romans’ rule and the colluding Jewish authorities.
By declaring that he was the awaited God-King, he sealed his fate, but this course was triggered by his mother declaring her pregnancy virginal, approximately in the right place, and her groom running with it. If you leave precious prophecies lying around long enough, the laws of chance say someone will eventually pick them up.
(20) Have you seriously considered the weight of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus?
This is, of course, the crux of the matter. I have. It is very slim indeed.
Carswell’s chapter consists of several paragraphs indicating eminent lawyers and doctors who consider the resurrection one of the most well-established facts in history, several of whom began investigating the matter to write a disproof of the religion. There is absolutely no attempt at a balanced critique.
Wikipedia again provides more nuanced and reasonable consideration of the historicity of the narrative. For example:
An early alternative interpretation was provided by George Bush, Professor of Hebrew at New York City University, in 1845 in a book entitled The Resurrection of Christ. He reviews in detail the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus and demonstrates how they can be better understood as visions of a spiritual or celestial body rather than as appearances of a material body using, in many cases, a careful analysis of the original Greek or Hebrew words.
Peter Kirby, the founder of EarlyChristianWritings.com, states that, “Many scholars doubt the historicity of the empty tomb.” According to Robert M. Price, Christian “apologists love to make the claims … that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested event in history”, but “probabilistic arguments” show that “the resurrection is anything but an open-and-shut case”. Robert Greg Cavin, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cypress College, states that, “our only sources of potential evidence, the New Testament Easter traditions, fall far short of providing the kind of information necessary for establishing the resurrection hypothesis.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resurrection_of_Jesus#Historicity_and_origin_of_the_narrative)
My reasons for doubt – to the point of confident rejection of the claim – are:
- My default position is one of doubting supernatural claims of all kinds, since
- I have not experienced any myself, and
- The scientific literature is full of hundreds of years’ worth of research trying to discover supernatural events of all kinds, with entirely negative results.
- Psychology is replete with research findings indicating the great extent to which people’s memory of events is constructive, skewed by all manner of pressures and expectations, their susceptibility to group-think, confabulation, etc., and their reluctance to concede error when faced with contradictory evidence (such as when end-of-the-world or resurrection prophecies pass beyond the expected time).
- Natural psychological phenomena such as the above indicate probable early experiences of a visionary (imagined) kind, only later being written into the Gospels as physical appearance.
- There are many discrepancies between the Gospels, suggesting likely exaggeration of original visions; they are supportive, even zealous, documents, not unbiased mutually-supportive histories.
- There would be incentive for Jesus’ followers to expunge from the record his failure to resurrect, both in order to avoid their own cognitive dissonance and to continue their defiance of Jewish and Roman authorities. If they expected a physical resurrection, they could accommodate this by simply changing their minds: the spirit of Jesus had awoken, so visions would do. People also believe rumours, and tell little white lies for a “good cause”.
- These visions could then be re-written later, as physical reincarnation. Scholars such as Richard Carrier explain just how poor the evidence is, and, rather, how likely it is from biblical analysis in which he is an expert, that visions gradually turned into the early Church doctrine of a physical resurrection.
- I also view this in the context of the Gospels and the Bible generally, which are extremely doubtful in all sorts of ways, casting doubt on this central issue. In Part 1, for instance, Carswell told us the Old Testament predicted details of the fate of Babylon. Having disproved that, if one believed it to be the inerrant word of God, it actually disproves the whole (not that there’s any lack of similar examples). This is why non-literal theology was invented, after which the non-literalist can pick and choose which bits to present as true and which as metaphor.
- Richard Carrier describes how religions in the region evolved from earlier ones, for instance in this video, Christianity being a blend of Judeism with resurrection myths from Helenism.
(21) Why do you think human beings are so incurably religious?
“Incurably”? I don’t think the illness is incurable, just pernicious. I’ll modify the question: Why are human beings so commonly afflicted? (I’m being facetious: in fact, delusions have advantages, or they wouldn’t hold us, so the illness metaphor is too strong.)
Religion is based on a range of thinking and behaviour styles that have advantageous precursors in animal instincts, in particular what Daniel Dennett calls “the intentional stance” (also known as hyperactive agency detection), in which we imagine parts of nature have intentions. This is linked to superstitious behaviour, demonstrated even by pigeons fed at random in a Skinner box, as I mentioned in an earlier post on the origins of religion. In the human species, these primed us to the idea of spirits moving the physical world, and of our behaviours eliciting their help or hindrance.
Children hold a particular set of attitudes toward their mothers and fathers, which is projected in the case of religion on to God(s). Ideally, parents satisfy every need of a small child, and their love is instinctively elicited (by smiling or crying, for instance). Parents have entire authority, dispensing comfort and joy or judgement and pain.
But parents are mortal. Belief in a deity provides a parental figure that engages these responses in us on a permanent basis. The fickle injuctions of parents are replaced by clear rewards and punishments of an immortal being, and promise us immortality if we’re good. God, furthermore, being just an idea, can be moulded, a religion chosen to suit our needs, and a relationship developed that is under our control, through prayer and other rituals. Yes, I’m saying religion is irrationally extended infanthood.
(22) Have you ever tried reading the Bible?
Yes; thankfully, from Genesis. This probably saved me from the brainwashing of the Gospels, because the unscientific creation story, followed by an interminable list of begettings put me off.
(23) From where do you get your moral compass?
Short answer: my genes.
Secular morality is such a big topic, it deserves at least a post of its own. Instead, here I’ll look at Carswell’s rather stuck moral compass.
Morality comes from God and is absolute; any other source is shifting sand, reflecting what is convenient for the way we live.
Well, give me shifting sand. What is wrong with convenience? Absolute had better be absolute, or that could turn out to be very inconvenient indeed (history, in fact, attests to this).
Carswell imagines that his fixed position means he can bemoan the fact that
since parliament in 1967 legalised abortion in England and Wales, more unborn babies have been aborted than the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. Someone has said that the least safe place to be in the UK is in a mother’s womb.
But people’s physical death doesn’t matter, does it, according to the doctrine? Surely it’s fine to kill babies or Jews, since their souls are judged and dealt with appropriately by the Lord. We can forget the women whose insides were wrecked, often dying in the backstreets. They should have been more chaste, like the Virgin Mary. We really need to resist disgusting teachings like this.
Instead, we can consider the shifting sands like rational grown-ups: discuss moral questions and scientific findings, and honour the right of us all to dissent from the arbitrary dictats of religious absolutists. Muslim extremists bemoan the number of stealings that happen without someone’s hand being cut off.
(24) Would you be willing to consider the possibility that you may have been brainwashed against Christianity?
Certainly. So, this is the possibility that I’ve been brainwashed by empirical science, sceptical inquiry, and rationality against the idea that an invisible God, having created a universe humans messed up, tried to fix it by becoming his own son and killing himself as a human sacrifice? No, I don’t think so on balance.
The chapter is a long rant about how Christianity is being sidelined in schools and the media, particularly the BBC, with their secular default position. Christians are criticised and ridiculed, he says. Well, if they bring that on themselves, it’s nothing to what they imagine I bring on myself by not believing, is it?
Nobody ought to be beyond criticism. Ridicule isn’t pleasant, but I’m not sure anyone ought to be beyond ridicule either, or we’re into dodgy ground where freedom of speech is concerned. Are we going to start censoring everyone? These are moral questions that a quarry-load of carved stones will not – and should not – answer. Are you going to be allowed to tell me I’m going to hell, but I can’t laugh at your ridiculous delusion?
If you’re confident in your views, ridicule is often taken with good humour, but if you’re insecure in them, you tend to feel defensive and hurt. I’m biased, of course, because I think Carswell’s views are indefensible. I’m also in an ethical dilemma, because there’s an argument for respecting everyone’s right to hold whatever beliefs they do. Oh, if only we had an absolute moral compass!
This is the serious problem of absolutists, and, since they don’t see it, that is dangerous. People need to work together and make compromises on our precious moral certainties.
The (true) Christian, however, wishing to spread indefensible ancient superstition, has another problem:
[In our schools] so many subjects taught have content that is directly contrary to biblical teaching.
What could be at odds with biblical teaching, I wonder, evolution through natural selection, basic biology, the heliocentric solar system, multiverse theories? I wish he gave examples, but he doesn’t. They’re contrary to Scientology and Mormonism: should we be concerned about those being under-represented, too, or just the one true religion?
Carswell seems to imagine a conspiracy at the BBC.
Have you noticed how many BBC anchors are atheists? And do you wonder what the BBC’s reason is for this?
No, and no. I don’t give a moment’s thought what religion a BBC anchor has. I don’t expect to discover it unless I google them. Is that what you do, Roger, google and count the atheists?
Even if the BBC kept to their stated aims, there is a problem. All religions are not the same, and indeed cannot all be true.
Good observation (they could all be false, though). The BBC’s stated aims are to be balanced. So it’s not balance he wants. He goes on to compare several religions, then implies that Christianity is more important culturally:
The Christian doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ (that people are saved through faith in the finished work of Jesus in His death and resurrection) impacted the whole of Europe at the time of the Reformation. Countries in the north were radically transformed by that one belief. Today millions rely on Christ and are ‘justified by faith’. Yet the media rarely, if ever, carry that message.
Perhaps they don’t. Christianity’s long “impact” has been seen for what it was, incidental (since another religion might have been ascendent) and not altogether good. How can anyone glibly state that “countries in the north were radically transformed” without acknowledging the more than 10 million who died in the centuries of religious wars that followed (even if there were other incentives besides religion)?
People who Carswell says “rely on Christ” only imagine they rely on Christ, but they do rely on not being slaughtered for heresy. Nothing is ‘justified by faith’: that is an oxymoron.
Not to mention the East and West and South! Waking up to our white Christian ancestors’ guilt for rampaging over the world forcing people to convert or die (or not even offering that choice), puts the media and most of us in a bit of an ethical pickle. Not Carswell, though. His compass points to true North.
If we’re comparing religions, and complaining that one of them doesn’t get a fair hearing, what about all the others? Would Carswell encourage more Taoists or Mormons or Flat Earthers on Thought for the Day? Shall we count the anchors who are Rastafarians and Zoroastrians, too, have a nice slot for L Ron Hubbard on the Beeb? Shall we make sure all the different Buddhist sects get a good hearing in school? No, he just wants more “real” Christianity. His brainwashing – his “incurable” religiosity – is the only mitigating circumstance excusing this display of preposterous arrogance.
(25) How do you explain how people’s lives are radically changed when they put their faith in Jesus?
Delusions can be helpful for the person in question. An exalted principle is inspiring, even if it is unreal, as long as the believer thinks it real. Lives can be radically changed by other means than faith in Jesus. Therefore the covert suggestion made here is invalid.
(26) Why do you think Christians have always been at the forefront of social reform?
This is going to be about Wilberforce, isn’t it? (Yes, it was.) A Christian ended the slave trade, and only a Christian could. Let us forget all the Christians whose slave ownership and slave trading were defended, against all humanitarian appeals, by their Christian exceptionalism, directly quoting Bible passages.
I am not denying that Christians, motivated by their faith, have done wonderful things and continue to do them. But we must recognise the concatenation of non sequiturs that this question dumps in the unsuspecting mind.
It takes the narrow view of a culture steeped in Christianity in the modern age. If we consider the whole world and extend our idea of social reform through time, all manner of faiths and non-faiths will be seen to have contributed, such as the ancient Greek philosophies, Confucianism and Buddhism.
It is common to imagine, but simply untrue, that Jesus was unique in telling his followers to love everyone. Love, empathy, forgiveness and peace played (and still play) a central role in all manner of teachings. The feature of Christian theology that is specifically cited as inspiring selflessness is the sacrifice of Jesus, but self-sacrifice is not unique either: it occurs both as means and ends in all manner of moral philosophies.
As already noted, Christians are by no means innocent in hindering social reform, a fact wriggled out of only by denying wrongdoers the status of “real” Christians or reiterating the doctrine that we are all sinners. But people like Carswell are useful in reminding us just how dangerous true Christianity is, which takes the Bible seriously. The Crusades, witch-hunts, the Inquisition, the enslavement of millions, the genocides of Jews and Muslims and anyone non-Christian, horrific wars between Christian sects, all these are traceable to biblical texts expressing the absolutist and exceptionalist tendencies Carswell illustrates. If “we’re all sinners” is your chosen defence, you’re not the good guys putting it all right.
Even if every good was done by Christians and every evil by non-Christians, it would not indicate that Christianity is true. You’d only have an argument that we ought to believe it on pragmatic grounds.
(27) Have you noticed that real Christians are willing to forgive those who have hurt them?
Since it would be easy to repeat the points above in relation to this question, I’ll take a different tack. I have always found it deeply ironic that Christianity makes a big deal about forgiveness, but God has little use of it in the case of non-believers. It is made quite clear in the alleged words of Jesus.
(28) How would you define a Christian?
This is just a random heading to pontificate about how marvellous Christians are.
(29) Is your view of ‘church’ how church really is?
Find a church where the Bible is unconditionally believed and preached.
What, all of it? That’s insane. And really, what is this insistence on unconditional belief? Why do some people engage in such deliberate self-lobotomy?
(30) Have you ever wondered why Christians have been persecuted through the last twenty centuries?
For the same reason Christians have persecuted others, for their unconditional belief and preaching of absolute moral values.
(31) Have you ever wished you had the faith of your Christian friends?
(32) What would stop you from putting your trust in Jesus Christ?
Does not compute. Considering the proposition unreal, it would be silly to put trust in it. See (34).
(33) Do you sometimes wish you knew what or how to pray?
(34) Would you be willing now to ask Jesus to become your Lord and Saviour and, with His help, start to follow Him?
This is an important question. We are told that Jesus is listening, and, if we ask him to come into our lives, he does. Presumably a lot of people have converted through this method, and consider its apparent success as confirmation of the proposition (because in time they genuinely believe Jesus is with them). What too few people know is that this is a process we could use to convince ourselves of almost anything.
So, no. I will not put any serious effort into asking Jesus to be my Lord and Saviour, even if this is presented as a scientific experiment. I know from studying psychology that my mind is delicate and I might just start to believe Jesus has answered. For all I know, there might be latent unconscious reasons why I’d begin to believe it: to please my partner, for instance, or to renew my old mystical belief that my death won’t be the end of this amazing ride.
This concern about opening myself to deliberate self-induced delusion is probably unwarranted, but what we can say is that it’s not a phobia; it’s a rational fear.
It’s important to say that, rather than, “No, it would be pointless because he’s not there.” It occurs to me that I would not feel this way about asking the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Bokonon to come into my life: those would just feel silly and arbitrary. So what does that tell me? Well, probably only that it is much more “dangerous” to mess about with major religions, especially ones with which you already have some history. After all, I was being told Bible stories before I could comprehend them, and dabbled with Jesus in my early teens, Buddha-nature later on, so deliberate attempts might reignite those deep memories and contribute to instigating Christian sensibilities and imaginings.
This suck-it-and-see invitation is offered by all religions, and some proportion of those taking up the offer become believers of that religion. That also explains the writers who set out to disprove Christianity and took it up. Our minds are not automatic bullshit-filters; they’re rather gullible sponges.
As always, I’d be glad of your view in the comments, including any corrections.
After writing my reasons for my non-belief above, I began to take more seriously the hypothesis of the non-existence altogether of the historical Jesus, although my knowledge of the scriptures and history are far too limited to have much to say on it. This would mean that the Jewish prophecies weren’t actually taken up by anyone except in fiction. The Jewish prophecies of a coming Messiah, of course, I take as fiction. Myth wrapped in fiction wrapped in a mystery cult.
I have been impressed by Richard Carrier’s apparent depth of study and refreshing approach – unlike some of the New Atheist “horsemen”, he spends very little time attacking or ridiculing, but neither minces his words on the implausibility of Christian doctrine and religions in general. He has several good videos on youtube to challenge us, like this interview (part 1 of 2).
Thanks for reading. Careful what you think. ;~)
OK, this is where I look like a plonker for even bothering to discuss these 34 questions. Even cruel, maybe. Half way through this, I thought I’d duckduckgo and find out more about this Roger Carswell fella, and discovered that he’s got about 30 books on amazon that apparently hardly anyone has read, judging by the number of reviews, and he’s not much of a self-promoter. He doesn’t seem to have his own website, or his SEO isn’t any good, although he’s listed on some sites of collections of evangelists. And then I found one video compilation in which he appears. I feel awful. After dissing someone for the disgusting arrogance of their text, you want them to be disgustingly arrogant on film, but he’s just the nicest, silliest old fool you could imagine, a people-pleaser clown of a man, visibly ecstatic as he talks about Jesus, little moments of glee passing over his engaging fat face. He guides us in the video below through three difficult words, “incarnation”, “propitiation” and “salvation” (with interesting facts about Concorde’s nose-cone thrown in) which are important in understanding why God is Love, although, as he says,
God is Love. We know that. Well, it’s told us in the Bible, so that’s sufficient.
Beautiful, sublime sentiment, I’m sure you’ll agree. He reminds me of some of the daft ‘apeths that used to teach me on a Monday morning at school. He’s like a Yorkshire, even sweeter, version of John Lennox. Oh, why couldn’t he be a horrible twisted son-of-a-bitch like William Lane Craig!