Thursday, September 20, 2007

Does Lee Strobel Believe His Own Malarkey?

Driving home last night, I caught Lee Strobel touting his new DVD version of "The Case for a Creator." on the Bible Answer Man radio program with Hank Hanegraaff. Strobel was bragging about how he interviewed “credentialed scholars” and “cross-examined them with skeptical questions.” Not surprisingly, he found the evidence “overwhelmingly positive” to the existence of a creator for those who are honest enough to analyze it. Of course, virtually all of Strobel’s experts were supplied by an anti-evolution think tank called the Discovery Institute which has no standing whatsoever in the legitimate scientific community. No doubt they scripted the questions they wanted Strobel to ask.

To see how Strobel’s experts stand up when exposed to real scrutiny, I would recommend "Monkey Girl" by Edward Humes. This fascinating book recounts Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District where Judge John E. Jones (a Bush appointee) correctly identified the pseudo-science of intelligent design as a religious doctrine. Most of the Discovery Institute's scientists chickened out by withdrawing as expert witnesses rather than face real cross-examination in open court. The only one with the guts to appear was Michael Behe who was unable to explain why he has never done the research that he thought would convince the skeptical scientific community of the validity of his theory of “irreducible complexity.” The book also describes the persuasive and overwhelming testimony and evidence offered for the scientific theory of evolution by scientists who were not only credentialed, but tenured at leading research universities and published in peer reviewed journals as well.

I have been amusing myself recently by politely pointing out to evangelical bloggers that Strobel’s pretended skepticism is belied by the fact that he only interviews conservative Christian scholars (not counting eighty-three-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer Charles Templeton in "The Case for Faith"). At Confessions of a Recovering Pharisee, Kevin Bussey insisted that Strobel “does a good job of presenting both sides” of the debate about the historical reliability of the New Testament in his new book “The Case for the Real Jesus.” I was curious how he knew that Strobel had done a good job, so I asked him whether he had ever read any books by Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan or John Shelby Spong. He responded that he had “no reason to read them” because they “were not reputable.” Obviously, Kevin does not know whether Strobel has fairly presented positions other than his own.

I am not denying that I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people whose opinions agree with my own, but I always like to check and see what criticisms their opponents might offer. After reading (and enjoying) "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman, I searched conservative Christian web sites to find out what they thought of him as a scholar. Contrary to Kevin’s assertion, it turns out that his expertise in scriptural manuscript history and linguistics is acknowledged by many evangelicals although they disagree with the conclusions he draws from the historical record. The nice thing about checking sources like this is that it helps me avoid being made to look stupid in debates.

Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, never seem to feel any need to verify their sources. Before the "Culture Campaign" cut off commenting, I had several discussions about the current thinking of the scientific community on whether homosexuality is a choice. When I cited the American Psychiatric Association's rejection of reparative therapy, one of the bloggers challenged me to look at the work of Dr. Robert Spitzer whose findings, he claimed, were being ignored by the APA. It turned out that Spitzer had interviewed 200 self-proclaimed "ex-homosexuals" who had been referred to him by clinics that practiced reparative therapy. Spitzer concluded that some had successfully changed their sexual orientation. Since Spitzer did not interview anyone who stayed gay, his study had nothing to say about the likelihood of success or the potential harm when the therapy fails. It turned out that other researchers had done so and found that reparative therapy had a high failure rate and often caused harm to those who failed. So it turned out that Spitzer’s research did not give the APA any reason to change its position. The blogger confessed that he really did not remember much about Spitzer's researh (other than his belief that it proved the evangelical position).

When confronted with the fact that their position is not really supported by objective evidence, evangelicals often switch to a claim that both sides of the debate are really just matters of opinion or faith. The blogger who directed me to Dr. Spitzer insisted that he was sure the research that supported the APA was biased. A blogger with whom I was discussing “The Case for Christ” insisted that our whole economy is just a matter of faith. Of course, creationists always claim that scientists’ belief in the theory of evolution is just as much faith as their belief in the book of Genesis. Relativism is supposedly one of the greatest evils promoted by secularism, but evangelicals have no qualms about resorting to it when it suits their purposes.

I have much more respect for Christians like Billy Graham than I could ever have for the likes of Hennigraf and Strobel. When faced with the doubts that his friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton developed when studying modern scriptural scholarship, Graham decided to go with faith.

"Chuck, look, I haven't a good enough mind to settle these questions," Graham finally declared. "The finest minds in the world have looked and come down on both sides." Graham concluded that "I don't have the time, the inclination or the set of mind to pursue them. I found that if I say 'The Bible says' and 'God says,' I get results. I have decided I'm not going to wrestle with these questions any longer."
Maybe Graham did not have much intellectual curiosity, but at least he had the intellectual integrity to admit the basis for his beliefs.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On Certainty and Apologetics

I have occasionally been told that I am unreasonable in the amount of evidence I demand from apologetics. As I understand it, my accusers believe that I demand much greater certainty from the evidence for their claims about Jesus and the Bible than I would demand from the evidence for other propositions that I am willing accept as true. I don’t think that is quite right, but I do think there are valid reasons to scrutinize the claims of apologetics a little differently.

When an evangelical Christian asserts that the gospel accounts are “true,” he does not mean the same thing as a person who says Ulysses S. Grant’s biography is true in its depiction of the siege of Vicksburg. The Christian is asserting that every word of the gospels is true and inerrant. He is saying that everything Jesus said is accurately quoted. He is saying that God made sure that the Gospel writers got everything correct. He is saying that that I need not be concerned about anything Jesus said or did that was not recorded because God made sure that the gospel writers included everything the world needs to know about Jesus. In short, the evangelical Christian claims that the Gospel accounts are true in a way that no other historical accounts are considered to be true. Moreover, the evangelical Christian claims that this unique type of truth makes everything else in the Bible equally trustworthy and true. Given such an extraordinary claim, I think that it is reasonable to expect the evidence that supports the accuracy of the canonical gospels to be particularly impressive.

Not only does the evangelical Christian insist that the gospel accounts be understood as historically true in a special and unique way, he also asserts that our way of thinking about what is true and what is false in other fields must be adjusted as a result of this special sort of truth. For example, because the Bible is uniquely true, the scientific study of geology and biology become unreliable and need to be understood in theological terms. Conclusions based on empirical data must be understood as anti-religious expressions of faith. The conclusions of psychology and psychiatry as they apply to sexual orientation must also be rejected due to conflicts with this unique understanding of historical truth. Many evangelical Christians believe that foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of their understanding of God’s ancient land distribution schemes. Some reject findings of climatologists because they conflict with their understanding of how God orders nature. This special notion of truth is capable of trumping a wide variety of scholarly conclusions.

So concluding that the gospels provide a thorough and accurate picture of Jesus is not just a matter of deciding that this is the scenario that best fits the evidence in regards to the gospels. It would also require the conclusion that there is some inherent flaw in the way that scholars and thinkers generally apply reason to evidence to reach conclusions about the way things are. Unfortunately, this would call into question the conclusion that had just been reached.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

On the Lack of Debunking

One of the arguments I see frequently from Bible believers is that Jesus’ tomb must have really have been empty on that first Easter morning because there is no way the story could have gained traction if it wasn’t true. After all, if there were people around Jerusalem in 33 A.D. who could prove that Jesus was still in the tomb, they would have debunked the resurrection story and nipped Christianity in the bud. Therefore, we know that the empty tomb was accepted by the people of the day.

Assuming that the empty tomb story dates to the earliest days of Christianity (which many scholars do not), the fact that it was not successfully debunked does not seem to be in any way probative of the truth of the story. For example, there might have been a first century Lee Strobel who, when faced with hundreds of witnesses swearing on a stack of Torahs that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, dug up (pardon the pun) five believers who claimed that had seen Jesus walking around. After all, when faced with the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion in favor of the theory of evolution, the modern Lee Strobel shamelessly asserts that “more and more” scientists are being persuaded by the theory of intelligent design. Why should we think that first century believers were any more willing to acknowledge contrary opinion than modern believers.

No doubt, the first century Strobel would reassure his followers: “Don’t worry, I have carefully examined both sides of the question and considered all the evidence.” Then, just like the modern Strobel did in “The Case for Christ,” he would talk to a handful of people who agreed with his position while ignoring everyone who didn’t. No doubt he also would have attacked the atheistic world view of anyone who challenged the resurrection as well, telling his followers that such skeptics were in league with the devil.