Saturday, June 13, 2009

N.T. Wright's Personal Incredulity

I guess I am not amazed at how often Christian apologists resort to arguments based on personal incredulity, i.e., "I just can't believe that Christianity could have caught on so quickly unless everything in the Bible really truly happened." After all, what else have they got? On the other hand, I am amazed (or saddened) by how often otherwise seemingly rational people fall for such crap.

Recently, a Christian pointed me to N.T. Wright's "refutation" of the hypothesis that that the first appearances of the risen Jesus were visionary or hallucinatory experiences:
My response to this proposal is (a) that it requires enormous credulity to suppose that, even allowing Peter and Paul to have had such fantasies or hallucinations they would have generated more than a passing comment of sympathy among their colleagues or contemporaries; (b) that psychological theories of this sort—about people two thousand years ago in a different culture—are at best unprovable and at worst wildly fantastic. But, and most important, (c) the proposal simply does not make sense within the world or first-century Judaism.

Let's just think about this:

(1) It is an established historical fact that large numbers of nineteenth century Americans abandoned their homes in upstate New York for an arduous trek to Navoo, Illinois, followed by an even more arduous trek to Salt Lake City based on Joseph Smith's claim that he had looked into a hat and used magic seer stones to translate golden plates whose location had been revealed to him by a native american angel. Nevertheless, it somehow strains Wright's credulity to think that first century Jews and pagans might have been taken in by claims that a man had risen from the dead.

(2) Wright believes in the literal truth of every supernatural story in the Bible up to and including the zombie saints of Matthew Matt 28:53. Still, he insists that the possibility that Paul and Peter had a hallucination borders on the "wildly fantastic."

(3) Wright sneers at the notion of proposing psychological theories about people living two thousand year ago in a different culture. Nevertheless, he claims to understand first century Jewish thinking so well that he can confidently dismiss the possibility that they might be as gullible and uncritical as the nineteenth century followers of Joseph Smith, the sixteenth century followers of Sabbati Zevi, and the twelfth century followers of Francis of Assisi who all believed that God had acted miraculously through their leaders.

Is there anything in there that withstands thirty seconds reflection?


  1. I think we religious people start with a personal experience of the divine within us. Something "in here" resonating with something "out there."

    From that beginning, we draw a lot of conclusions. Some perhaps more warranted than others.

  2. I respect your candor Seth and I have had such experiences in my own life and I am not prepared to dismiss them completely. That is part of the reason I consider myself an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    The rationalist in me says that the ability to experience the spiritual is probably some adaptation that was hard-wired into man's psyche by evolution millions of years ago. On the other hand, I don't think that science is anywhere near explaining how it happened.

    More importantly, I don't think science is anywhere near understanding the function that the spiritual side of the mind still might play in man's ability to cope with the profundity of consciousness. That is why I cannot go along with the more militant atheists who are prepared to dismiss all religious belief as superstitious and anachronistic. I am not convinced that it might not still meet an important human need.

    On the other hand, I do see big problems with the need to objectify subjective spiritual experiences. I don't think a person has to abandon the capacity for rational thought in order to maintain religious belief. However I do think a person has to suppress it in order to uncritically accept an argument like Wright's as so many evangelical Christians seem prepared to do.

    I will admit to my liberal biases--whether it be in religion, politics, or economics--but I try not to adopt someone else's argument as my own unless I have tried to figure out what the other side's strongest response might be and how I would meet it.

  3. 'Nevertheless, it somehow strains Wright's credulity to think that first century Jews and pagans might have been taken in by claims that a man had risen from the dead.'

    Gosh , all those stories in the Bible about people believing Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah are just lies....