A Conversation with an Atheist Part 2
This is part 2 of a series that I am doing to address the comments made by a man who calls himself “Arkenaten”. In “Christianity and Scholarly Bias“, I went through the various sources of bias that impact secular scholars when they evaluate historical, archaeological, biological or astronomical evidence relating to the accuracy of the Bible. My point in that post was that it is not possible for a person with a basic understanding of the claims of Jesus Christ to be unencumbered by bias in evaluating the truth claims of the Bible. The best secular scholars are aware of this bias and treat it honestly, the more strident atheists tend to claim absolute objectivity despite the absurdity of this claim.
Here in part 2, I want to examine what seems to be Azkenaten’s approach to Christianity. As I intend to demonstrate, he takes highly simplified and wooden interpretation of the Bible and refutes it with highly exaggerated claims from science that he doesn’t seem to understand. His approach is typical of the atheists that I meet online and it is highly flawed.
Interpreting the Old Testament in a Wooden Way: The Genesis Creation Days
In one of his previous comments, Azkenaten accuses me of being a fool because I interpret Genesis literally and he bases this assertion on a quote from Origen:
“For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.” (Origen as quoted by Azkenaten)
What Azkenaten does not understand is that I came to Christ while in the PhD program at UCLA by reading the works of Dr. Hugh Ross and later went on to work for Dr. Ross as a volunteer apologist at his organization Reasons to Believe. Dr. Ross is a highly educated scholar who was a postdoctoral fellow at CalTech after getting his PhD at the University of Toronto and I have always found the claims that he has made in support of the Bible to be substantiated by peer-reviewed scientific papers. As elucidated by Hugh Ross, the creation days in Genesis are a literal and scientifically accurate account of how the earth was formed. Contrary to what Azkenaten has asserted, a sophisticated analysis of what the Bible says about creation yields an account that is absolutely astonishing in terms of the number of predictions that it makes and the accuracy of those predictions. In fact, as an atheist PhD student at UCLA I found this evidence so compelling that I considered it then and still consider it now to be sufficient proof of the supernatural and the claims of the Bible.
Weight of the argument -5 out of 5. Actually, one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of Christianity.
Interpreting the Old Testament in a Wooden Way: Exodus and Joshua
What I have asserted is there is evidence of how Canaan was settled and it was not through the sudden arrival of 2million people arriving the doorstep of Canaan who then went on to engage on a bloody genocidal campaign as per the fictitious biblical tale as recorded in Exodus and Joshua. (comment by Azkenaten)
“How can you say, ‘We are wise, And the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes Has made it into a lie. (Jeremiah 8:8)
When I first became a Christian, the idea of taking the Old Testament as true to the extent that the numbers in Exodus were considered to be inerrant was ridiculous to me. Human beings, after all, exaggerate numbers all the time without even thinking about it (I have done it myself a million times.) and all of the numbers in that account are large round numbers. I have since developed a much more respectful attitude toward the word of God, but I would still hardly be surprised or disappointed to find out that the actual number of Jews who left Egypt with Moses was far smaller than the estimate of 2 million that you get from a literal reading of the text.
But the more ridiculous aspect of Azkenaten’s interpretation is the simplistic, “the Israelites settled the promised land and lived happily ever after” narrative that he is falsifying. If you read the Old Testament with attention, however, it is clear that over the hundreds of years of the history of Israel, portions of the promised land were conquered and reconquered numerous times by different groups of people. Not only that, but the Israelites themselves adopted the customs and religious practices of the people that they enslaved and displaced. Critics take this complex and convoluted history of the nation of Israel presented in the Old Testament and somehow expect that the archaeology of the Promised Land should show a sudden and complete take over of every town and city by people with clearly Israelite pottery at the time of the Exodus. This is absurd and the archaeological evidence that he cites is, therefore, meaningless to me. I never believed in the simplistic interpretation of the Exodus/Joshua account that he is falsifying.
On the positive side, results from archaeology do confirm that, contrary to the assertions of Islamic scholars that there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the Israelites lived in the land and worshipped the God of the Bible almost three thousand years ago. By this we know that the Old Testament was not a whole cloth fabrication created by later people.
Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. (Deuteronomy 8:4)
It should be further noted that archaeology might be characterized as the study of historical garbage. Unless a society was destroyed by a sudden cataclysm such as occurred at Pompeii, what you typically find in an archaeological dig is the discarded refuse of a society. In this regard, the Bible specifically claims that God miraculously prevented the clothing of the ancient Israelites from wearing out. He likewise provided for their daily needs in such a manner as did not require utensils or tools (manna from heaven). This being the case, the expected footprint of a large population of people would be dramatically reduced and it becomes less surprising that they would leave no archaeological evidence of their passage, even in the unlikely event that archaeologists have collected artifacts in an area where the ancient Israelites were encamped.
The bottom line for me is that archaeology is the study of the tiny number of historical artifacts that survive the ravages of time (mostly durable ceramic pottery) to be found by the small number of practicing archaeologists in the infinitesimal fraction of the Earth’s surface that they are able to study. That only modest conclusions can be drawn from a science with such limitations is obvious. If Azkenaten or the archaeologists that he cites are unaware of or deny these limitations, that reduces the credibility of everything that they write.
Weight of the argument 2 out of 5. His best argument. The failure of archaeology to validate details of the Exodus/Joshua accounts is a blow to honest faith, but not very surprising.
Interpreting the Old Testament in a Wooden Way: Adam and Eve
The genetic consequences of a bottleneck required by a literal reading of Genesis 2-3 would be severe: at maximum, four gene-forms (two from each parent) would be passed on by Adam and Eve. Interbreeding in the (necessarily very small) population after the bottleneck would result in the further loss of some alleles due to chance alone. In short, the genetic impact of such an event would leave a stamp on the genome of that species that would persist for tens of thousands of generations as mutations slowly generated genetic diversity. (blog post cited by Azkenaten)
The science cited here is simply incorrect. In a scenario consistent with the Genesis account, the early populations would not have to be small because the lifespans recorded were very long and the geometric expansion of the early population would be unlikely to result in the loss of any alleles. Not only that, but mitochondrial and Y-Chromosome studies do show the presence of a significant genetic bottleneck in human genetic history. How can anyone argue that there is no evidence for a genetic bottleneck? All that can be argued is that the severity of the bottleneck is not as great as it would be if there were only two people.
To this point, I would argue along similar lines as Fuz Rana at Reasons to Believe. As Dr. Rana points out, studies of mouflon sheep populations show that the measured genetic diversity of wild sheep populations differ from the mathematically predicted levels of diversity using evolutionary models by a factor of 4. This means that if one was to use the measured genetic diversity of the sheep population and attempt to determine the ancestral population using evolutionary models, one would over-estimate the size of that population by a significant factor. If the evolutionary models were off by a factor of 4 for a very simple case over a few generations, it is easy to imagine that a much more complicated case over a longer period of time would result in even greater errors. The estimates of original human population size made by scientists, therefore, are highly unreliable on the high side.
So the science used by Azkenaten is inconclusive at best, but his understanding of the Scripture is also deeply flawed. Scientists talk about “Adam and Eve” and an “ancestral pair”, for example, but a careful reading of the text would reveal that Adam and Eve are not the ancestors of all human beings according to the Bible. Noah and his sons and all of their wives were the only survivors of the flood as recounted later in Genesis and they, therefore, would constitute the most recent ancestral population. This changes the way the genetic data should be interpreted from a Biblical perspective because the female ancestral population bottlenecks at Eve while the male population bottlenecks at Noah.
Weight of the argument: 1 out of 5. The genetic evidence on the whole supports the idea that human beings had a common male ancestor and a common female ancestor and that the female ancestor preceded the male ancestor. The genetic evidence, therefore, confirms the Biblical account as much as the accuracy of the science allows.
Hypotheses sans Evidence
Another argument that Azkenaten used relied on the Documentary Hypothesis or the JEDP approach to the origins of the Old Testament. This approach is extremely difficult to take seriously because it is “fact-free” scholarship. There is not a single shred of physical evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis and it is similar to alchemy, phrenology or astrology in this regard. Do claims without substantiation qualify as serious scholarship? Anyone who considers the findings of such pseudo-scholarship as being authoritative has identified himself as a biased thinker with this fact alone.
Weight of the argument 0 out of 5. Fact-free scholarship is of limited value.
No Snakes on Malta
One of the arguments that Arkenaten included in his list of reasons to not believe the Bible was the fact that the Book of Acts records that Saint Paul was bitten by a venomous snake and the natives expected him to die, but he lived. Since there are no venomous snakes currently living on Malta, this story has been urged as a problem for the historicity of the text.
Once again, this argument is an argument that ignores some very basic facts with which almost everyone is familiar. Would a story that talked about forests in Iceland be problematical from a historical perspective? Iceland today does not have forests, so how could the story be historically accurate? The answers is the well known fact that human beings have an ecological impact and can drive local species to extinction. Well known, that is, to everyone except for an atheist bent on finding problems with the Bible, in which case such an obvious explanation can be ignored as being irrelevant.
“But”, the atheists argue “we don’t find fossil records of snakes on Malta either” While I am not an expert on the fossil record of Malta, I find this fact hardly surprising. Allow me to quote from the Wikipedia article on snakes “The fossil record of snakes is relatively poor because snake skeletons are typically small and fragile making fossilization uncommon.” “But how do venomous snakes come to live on an island? That is impossible” the atheist continues. Too bad that we know of an island 100 miles off the coast of Brazil that has one venomous snake per square meter. I wonder if the fossil record supports the present day fact that the island is covered with extremely lethal pit vipers? Perhaps one of these atheists will go to the island to find out?
Weight of the argument? 0 out of 5. Human beings can have a significant ecological impact on local species and a small population of venomous snakes could easily have been present on Malta 2000 years ago.
“Errors” in the Eyewitness Testimony
Arkenaten also used a tired old argument concerning the supposed discrepancies between various gospel accounts. To understand the limitations of such an argument, consider two accounts of a fictional festival as recalled by two friends who attended together:
So Mike and I drove to the festival and then we went our separate ways. I wandered around for a while, got something to eat, met up with Mike again and we saw the Hooty Boys do a set. -Eyewitness testimony by Dave
So Dave and I drove to the festival and then went our separate ways. I went to see the Hooty Boys do a set, took a short break to get something to eat and met up with Dave again. – Eyewitness testimony of Mike
In the fictional account above, someone is obviously lying. Mike says that he saw the Hooty Boys do a set before meeting up with Dave and Dave says that they saw the Hooty Boys do a set after they met up. Their stories are inconsistent and one of them must, therefore, be lying. Or maybe not?
- Mike and Dave drive to the festival
- Dave wanders around seeing the sights and getting something to eat while Mike sees the Hooty Boys do their first set.
- Dave and Mike meet up during the intermission between the Hooty Boys first and second set.
- Dave and Mike watch the second Hooty Boys set.
One characteristic of truthful eyewitness testimony is this kind of difference in perspective. If multiple people share their truthful account of the same event, seeming inconsistencies will inevitably appear due to the complex nature of reality. If these kinds of inconsistencies are not there, then you can be sure that the testimony was rehearsed before hand in order to eliminate them. For this reason, minor inconsistencies in the gospel accounts actually strengthen the case for the authenticity of the New Testament.
Weight of the argument? -2 out of 5. The inconsistencies are actually evidence for the reliability of the eyewitness accounts. When a man makes an argument like this, he calls into question his basic competence and intellectual honesty.
Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal ‘sell’ on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? Faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your own blessed ‘moral development’? (C.S. Lewis “Man or Rabbit”)
As I have considered the arguments made by Azkenaten, I actually have to hand it to him. He is clearly a man and not a rabbit by the Lewis criteria above. I have only covered a few of his arguments here, but writing this post has still taken quite a bit of time. He has clearly spent an enormous amount of time compiling arguments against Christianity.
Nevertheless, I must question the rationality of this whole approach. Like many other atheists, Azkenaten seems determined to reject Christianity unless it is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”. He then sets the bar extremely high, uses poor arguments and subjectively evaluates all the evidence using the most wooden interpretation of the Bible possible. All the while, he treats “scholars” who claim that there is absolutely no truth to the Bible as though they are unbiased and objective. Anyone applying such a methodology is absolutely impervious to evidence and argument because this approach can only ever yield one result. This approach is completely irrational and is the hallmark of a mind closed to reality or the possibility of love and beauty. We discuss a far more rational and fair-minded way to approach the truth claims of Christianity in our next post.