A Response to Zhubin, Part 1
Zhubin Parang is a fellow Vanderbilt grad whose blog I read with regularity and with great pleasure. He's by far the wittiest blogger that I know - if I ever get around to that "funniest blog post" contest I said I was going to do months and months ago, he will have at least two entries that left me laughing so hard I cried (and I'm probably forgetting some). And since we share many of the same political opinions - especially a dedication to the rule of law - I enjoy reading as he says the things I want to say, only with more wit.
Several weeks ago, Zhubin wrote two posts attacking (he might say debunking) Christianity and Christians, based on his reading or Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. It has taken me a while to figure out how to respond. My first instinct was to respond in the strident, sarcastic manner of Dawkins - but I realized that all I could accomplish there was a flame war. My next instinct was to go into full-blown apologetics - before I realized that (a) that would practically require writing a book to go into all the points and counterpoints made throughout history, and (b) I'm not sure I would convince anybody of anything. Christy wanted to tell her personal story - how she went from sharing some of Zhubin's opinions about Christians (she once found evangelicals like myself to be "cultish") through her struggles with faith and God to becoming a Christian herself. That's a worthy story to tell, and maybe someday I'll post her story on this blog (or my own story, for that matter)....but not today.
Today, my ambitions are limited - and more blog-post length. I want to respond briefly to two of his assertions. Maybe this will lead to other discussions in the comment section or future blog posts. (Hopefully, they won't be one-sided discussions. The other reason for my delay in writing was that I haven't had time for more than the occasional one-sentence comment on friends' blogs, much less discussions which require actual thought and time commitment. How does a first-year law firm slave like Zhubin find the time to do this stuff?) (That was a dig at law firms which overwork their attorneys, not at Zhubin.)
The first assertion I want to respond to:
[A]ny assertions of divine intervention are actually scientific hypotheses, testable and falsifiable through the scientific method. . . .
Here's where it sucks for you as a Christian: because your religion wholly depends on divine interventions, and claims of divine interventions are subject to empirical analysis, you have committed yourself to hinging your religious beliefs on scientific analyses of those claims of divine intervention. And there is NO scientific evidence to prove a single damn one of any miracle Jesus made, let alone the Big One.
But come on, you say, it's impossible to find samples of Jesus's DNA to prove his divine heritage, or of evidence to prove his miracles two thousand years ago. Well, tough shit for you. It's on you to prove his divinity, and if you can't gather the evidence for it, what possible reason should anyone have to give your claims more validity than Scientology's claims of Xenu? You have NOTHING more going for you, you realize that? YOU HAVE WHAT SCIENTOLOGY HAS.
Tell me, Zhubin, do you believe in the existence of Julius Caesar? Do you believe he was a military leader in an ancient empire called Rome? Do you believe he was assassinated by a group of senators? That among his assassins was a guy called Brutus (or some variant on that name)?
I'm guessing that you - like any person with a reasonable grasp of history - do believe these things. What basis do you have for believing these things...or believing in the existence of any events in the ancient world? You have documentary evidence...things written by or about Caesar, as near to the time of his existence as possible.
And I have the eyewitness accounts as written in and/or recounted to the writers of the Gospels. (Along with accounts of historians hostile to Christianity in latter decades that confirm at least some of the details of the Gospels.)
Before you scoff and say I'm just making the fallacy of relying on a sacred text to prove its own truth, wait up a second. I'm only asking that they be judged on the same standard as any other historical document.
What makes a historical document reliable in the eyes of historians? 3 things come to mind:
First - Eyewitness accounts (or first-hand writings of the person himself) count more than second-hand accounts. The reason for this is kind of obvious. Same reason courts prefer direct testimony over hearsay.
Second - Number of manuscripts. This allows comparisons of one manuscript to another for accuracy and discrepancies. If an event is significant, many manuscripts would be produced. The greater the number of manuscripts shows greater circulation, geographical spread, and widespread public acceptance and knowledge.
Third - The time between the event and the earliest manuscript found to date. The more time, the more room for manuscript makers to insert embellishments and the like. If an event happened 1,000 years ago and all we have is current manuscripts, who's to correct an error in the manuscript? It's at least a lot harder than if....say, someone said the planes on 9/11 flew into the Sears Tower and the White House. We would instantly refute that assertion based on what we saw with our own eyes on TV. If someone said JFK was killed by a car bomb, we'd call him a liar...even though we personally weren't alive then, many who are alive could have conclusively refuted him and laughed him out of town. If someone said the south won the Civil War or the American Revolution was fought against Holland, we'd make sure she wasn't a history teacher that's for damn sure. Nobody alive now was alive then, but we are still close in time to know events did not happen that way.
Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars describes events happening in his lifetime (eyewitness accounts, that's good), 100-44 B.C. The earliest copy we have of his works are from 900 A.D., 1000 years after the event. We have 10 manuscripts from that era. Take most other ancient writings, and the story is the same...the works of Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) - Earliest Manuscript: 1000 A.D....Time lag: 1400 years. Number of Manuscripts: 193.
The New Testament (written about 40-100 A.D.). Earliest known manuscript: 125 A.D. Time lag: 25 years. Number of manuscripts: 24,000. (Caveat: not all are complete manuscripts of every part of it...some are only portions.)
We believe in the existence of Caesar, Sophocles and the like...and believe we are reading at least a rough approximation of their words. And we believe it based on much less - and much weaker - documentary evidence than we have for the eyewitness accounts of Jesus.
But, you say, these are religious texts...not to be believed. First off, ancient historical documents are rarely written without an agenda, but we still believe them in at least the broad strokes. (And most documents written with an agenda wouldn't make their heroes look like such losers...as most of the main characters of the New Testament except Jesus look. Someone who was more concerned with truth might be less willing to make themselves look better...and would record even their dumb moves.) Second, the fact that - decades after they were written - early church fathers chose to group these eyewitness accounts into a sacred text and call them the Gospels doesn't really affect whether they were true or not. Third, secular historians like Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus wrote about the Christian movement around the same time, confirming it in broad strokes and without any sympathy to their cause.
Okay, now I'm just rambling. I don't expect to convince people of the truth of Christianity with this. But I do intend to show that we have more than Scientology has. My point was to show that, contrary to Zhubin's assertion, Christians have evidence of their faith - documentary historical evidence. Does this prove it a 100% certainty - the same certainty with which we can say that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius? No, but neither can we prove the existence of Julius Caesar to any greater certainty. How, aside from the historical record, is the assertion that any event took place in the ancient world "testable and falsifiable"?
I will respond to another of Zhubin's assertions in my next post. I've decided to split them into two posts because they would likely spark two very different discussions and I don't want one discussion to dominate the other.