Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Naive Epistemology of the "New Atheist" Movement

I saw this graphic a few days ago on and felt compelled to just mention a few things because I've heard this type of argument in one way or another for quite some time now by prominent figures in the New Atheist Movement (just never this concise and direct!).

I'm focusing mainly on the comment, "If you propose the existence of something, you must follow the scientific method in your defense of its existence."

Now, lots could obviously be said and this is of course the subject of much debate. However, I want to just define a few terms very roughly and say what I think is missing in much contemporary debate.
Religion is a very loose term. How we often define "religion" today in popular Western media (at least) wouldn't even be recognizable to those who launched a fresh new “movement” or “lifestyle” in first century Jerusalem because they believed a man named Jesus from Nazareth was the promised Jewish Messiah who became the world’s Lord when he lived, died, and rose from the dead, a.k.a. Christianity (look at my posts on the Book of Acts, among others, to see why!). Let’s be clear on that, first.
And the “scientific method” is a loose term as well. I’m not sure if there’s a concise definition out there, but I’ve understood it to basically be the epistemological method (a way of knowing things) that entails:
1) Defining a specific question
2) Gathering raw data via observation
3) Forming an explanatory hypothesis to make sense of it all
4) Testing the hypothesis via experiments (often repeated)
5) Analyzing the results to draw conclusions that corroborate, modify, or refute the hypothesis
6) Publish or share the results for public scrutiny
And perhaps 7) Retest when other questions are asked or certain aspects need clarification
Now, I have two things to say.
First of all, Christianity did face this type of scrutiny, and it passed. What I mean is, at the time that Jesus began his ministry, people were asking the question, “In what generation will Yahweh end the exile of our people/forgive our sins/return to reign in Zion/etc?” In other words, “When will these prophecies about restoration come about?” And at the same time, there were various ideas about what this Messiah-figure(s) would be and what he would do to cleanse the temple and establish pure Torah-observance and what he would do to vindicate Israel against her oppressors. And Jesus began a public ministry in which he lived, died, and then rose from the dead to vindicate his messianic claims as Israel’s Savior and King of the world.  If you’re following where I’m going, you’ll see that those 7 steps above were followed on a corporate or public level during Jesus’ lifetime (as opposed to many "religions" founded and supported by one man), and the time of the Apostles and Paul. One book I'd highly recommend for that evidence and scientific historical research is N.T. Wright's masterpiece,  “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (which is also under my list of recommended books for biblical studies. And you could include "Jesus and the Victory of God" while you're at it, haha.)
Secondly, the type of epistemology where one claims that all knowledge that can/should be known is that which is based on observing repeatable events is quite deficient for explaining and interpreting the whole of reality, in my opinion. To be sure, this is limited to quite a small field of inquiry. Historians and archaeologists, for example, work with this overall model of “question, test, analyze,” but what they’re observing isn’t repeatable (a key point in the debate). Much of what we claim to know is NOT observable. Now, I’m not sure if the above graphic is advocating only knowledge of repeatable events is certain (as one observes in biology, chemistry, and physics, to name a few), but I get that sense from many things I’ve read and heard.
For example, how can you prove World War 2 actually occurred by only using repeatable observations? You can’t repeat experiments and test the data. Historians deal with this all the time, and it’s not seen as a striking deficiency. You simply take the data you have, and make the conclusion which makes most sense of all the data. And when new data comes to light, you re-test previous conclusions and go on from there. This can be done to Christianity in ways it can’t with most (if not all other) religions. The prominent scholar N. T. Wright writes extensively and eloquently about this in volume 1 of his magnum opus “The New Testament and the People of God” where he advocates a critical realist approach (which is on the right in my list of recommended books for biblical studies). Wright proposes this method of inquiry as a way to navigate through what he sees as the Modernist/Post-Modernist “morass” the Western world is currently stuck in. I found a blog entry which quite succinctly highlights the major points of Wright’s chapters on this issue.
So this is what I have to say to the New Atheists (to begin, not end discussion). I know what I wrote above doesn’t mean case-closed, no more questions to ask, etc. However, this should mean for those in agreement with above graphic, YOU HAVE A REASON TO LISTEN!


  1. Very good point. People are willing to believe any number of wars and historical events took place in this world´s history based on first hand accounts. Yet, not only does the life of Jesus (and everything he did and stood for) have a large number of first hand accounts from multiple sources (who stood to gain nothing via their testimony, and in fact were killed or imprisoned on account of it), but on top of that it also has Old Testament prophecy to back it up.

    To not even consider the Biblical account is just picking and choosing whatever historical events they find advantageous to their system of beliefs (whether that be atheism, or whatever else).

  2. I think that your first point fails to consider that by your standards the Islamic Faith, contemporary Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Hare Krsna, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses,

    Secondly a good bit of Biblical Scholarship concludes the opposite of what N.T. Wright and evangelicals conclude. This is not to mention many evangelicalism view N. T. Wright as unorthodox in some if not much of his theology. Many of us see through textual and scriptural studies a development of Jesus as a human to a divine figure.

    Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who was seen to perform miracles.  He was elevated in one circle of followers to being virgin born.  Paul cast him in an ahistorical  Hellenistic Savior myth.  Another segment of the movement continued as Jewish followers who expected his return but did not believe in the virgin birth or that Jesus was god or divine. The Jewish Christian traditions about Jesus become elevated with the Johannine Hellenistic Logos Christology.

     The Jerusalem Church developed into the Ebionites and continued to wait for Jesus to return in "their lifetime" with the resurrection of all the saints. They did not believe in the virgin birth and saw Jesus as a mortal. The Ebionite movement was wiped out pretty much in the second revolt under Simon ben Kokba. Neo-platonic thought moved another aspect of Jewish thought with the help of the Johannine literature toward Gnosticism and Mystery Cultism( Paul). Logos Christology became predominate in the second century while Paul's writings became old hat. Marcion rejected the Jewish background of god and created the first Christian bible. Other groups of churches reacted against Marcion and Paul's writings came back into popularity as well as the pseudepigraphical ones attributed to Paul and Peter/Jude and John.  Various forms of Christianity competed with each other creating more and more writings attributed to the Apostles. The gospels were attributed to Matthew , Mark, Luke and John. Jesus became more and more divine and everybody got together and created a bunch of trinity theories. The politicians won.

  3. Continued:

    Some historical researchers in this field generally see Jesus as a wondering Cynic teacher spouting out words of wisdom and folk philosophy as opposed to a apocalyptic preacher. It does seem to be the core of what developed into Christianity and the hypothetical document Q. Jesus was a human who came from Galilee. Galilee was the only area in Palestine that was forcefully converted to Judaism. Even so only 50% of the population was Jewish. Rabbi Hannina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer were very similar characters to Jesus. Simon ben Dosa called god Abba like Jesus ( meaning Daddy instead of a reverential “father”). He spoke openly with women as Jesus did.
    The reason that historians posit these as historical is because they are contrary to the believing Jewish or Christian movement. You can see evidence that the church tried to cover up the fact that Jesus was baptized as others to get rid of sin. Historical Jesus research is a discipline to explain the sociological development of what became Christianity ... what historical kernel was the catalyst for all the mythic construction. It is commonly understood that the bible is mythic in seminaries and theological schools like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Emory, Vanderbilt. The bridge from Theological school and seminary to the church and its members is “teach it as truth and avoid the lack of factual basis.” So statements are demythologized and taken into a philosophical meaning rather than a grounded factual historical meaning. Virgin birth does not really mean a women had a child and was a virgin. It becomes a story to honor Jesus as both god and man. So you have pure historical work. Then the theologians that try to make it still meaningful and then the preachers to present it as literal. When I was in seminary my mentor (Hendrikus Boers) who wrote, “Who Was Jesus?” was from South Africa. He would point to people like Jurgen Moltmann (theologian) as a fraud that needed to be exposed. Then there is the whole moderate movement that tries to salvage some Christianity out of the historical/critical conclusions. Crossan was on the Jesus Seminar team. He knows Jesus was simply a person who got into trouble and was removed from being an irritation. The people who cared about where Jesus was buried did not know where he was buried. The people who did know where he was buried (communal grave) did not care.

    Sophisticated Theology affirms the historical conclusions of historical/critical research as well as science but as with the trend since the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann wish to convert the theological and ethical meaning of the unhistorical scripture into eternal and continued truths for the church. The stories become no more than hyper-fables. And some of their truth dangerous to our culture.

  4. The historical critical method starts with the same dangerous presupposition that evolution does.

    The presupposition is, well, this can´t be true because it requires an all-powerful God acting via miracle to work and create. Therefore, people come up with all sorts of alternative theories to try to explain away that which to a child is obvious. It makes reason king, rather than subjecting reason to the clear teachings of Scripture.

    To look at God´s creation, reveals his creating power. To read his Word illustrates his power working for our salvation.

    When you start at the dangerous presupposition that such power couldn´t possibly exist, then you end up with your theories of evolution, and your historical-critical methods which seek to rob God of any of his displayed power. Passing such power off as myth and legend.

    It is incredible the lengths some go in denying the Bible´s simple teachings...claiming there is a common manuscript between the Gospels, even though there is absolutely no evidence for one. But they would rather make up a fictitious document, than claim that what we have is truly the Word of God, true and inerrant.

    No historical event is as well documented as the life of Christ. Yet it is the most deconstructed of any historical event, as the consequences of its truth are beyond the desires of the faithless to accept.

  5. "Anonymous", thanks for your comments. I think you've made a crucial point here. Part of living in the "post-modern morass" we are in is recognizing that there is no such thing as "objective unbiased evidence." For example, even if we had a tape recording of the year 20 AD as evidence, we’d still have to ask, “Why take this angle? Why take this segment of video and not others? Why use this spot? Etc.” The key to productive dialog is recognizing your presuppositions and minimizing the effect your biases have on the data.

    And having said that, TGBaker, thanks for the concise overview of where modern “Jesus scholarship” has been going in much of contemporary scholarship. It’s a messy game! Clearly this isn’t the forum to point by point cover all the issues you brought up. But I will say this. I’m deeply interested in the new direction that’s been taking off, especially in the last decade or so where scholars seek to understand Jesus in his historical Jewish context and recognize, as I said above, that the New Testament writers would’ve found it odd to distinguish between writing history and writing theology. I feel that much of biblical studies has been influenced more by our 20th and 21st century history and philosophies instead of seeking to understand the worldview of 1st century Palestine (by that I mean their praxis, questions, stories, symbols, etc.) and Second Temple Judaism, and then let the New Testament speak on its own terms. What I mean is we need to struggle and contemplate questions like, “How does Jesus fit within the Judaism of his day? Within that scope, what were his aims? Why did he die? How and why did the “Jesus movement” take off like it did from what became Rabbinic Judaism? Why is the New Testament the way it is and what does early Christian and what do pseudepigraphal shed light on as well? To flatten Jesus into a purely political activist Jesus, or a Cynic spouting aphorisms, etc. I feel SERIOUSLY fails to take these questions into account. And likewise, this influences our ability to recognize or fail to recognize the stories the New Testament writings are telling.

    To put it another way, Second Temple Jews didn’t have our clean Enlightenment categories where history, politics, religion, etc. were separate. The Pharisees and Sadduccees, or even Essenes (of what we know about them) for example, weren’t sitting around like many of today’s scholars, writing in “journals” or sorts to hotly debating the fine points of “theology.” They were waiting for Yahweh to act to vindicate his people and bring about the prophecies which promised to fulfill his purposes to restore and redeem his creation (and not simply destroy it and zip all his people to a disembodied existence, as it seems most Evangelicals would have us suppose).

    I can’t say I’m well-read in “Sophisticated Theology,” but as I have repeatedly said and will continue to say, to “flatten out” the Bible into a concise set of “eternal truths” is to severely fail to take into account the eschatological and very Jewish/historical grounded beliefs of especially the New Testament writers. And that type of thought is endemic of the situation I mentioned in the above paragraph. And this applies to Christians, as well. Many tend to assume that the Jewish context and historical setting is somehow secondary to what Jesus was doing. And since I’m on it, that’s fine how you mention what Evangelicalism tends to find “unorthodox” about him, but if it’s not obvious from my various posts as well (and more to come), I find plenty “unorthodox” as well with Evangelicalism, is that can really even be defined!

    Of course, all this talk is the stuff of biblical studies, I love it!, and I’m anxious to become more read and more active in the field as I continue my studies.


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