10 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 2: Who is Jesus?

Dinner = Ham with pineapples (blah), boiled broccoli and cauliflower (blah), creamy scalloped potatoes (good), and a green salad (blah). Dessert = Carrot cake (blah).

Our table had some serious discussions with the organizer about unleashing the cook from the “can’t offend the taste buds of the bland old people” directive he’s been under. He’s Indian and I’ll bet he could make some killer curries if he was given the mandate to do so.

Part 1: Sermon

We watched Gumbel’s video about who Jesus was historically, what he said about himself, and the implications of these claims.

The sermon started with Gumbel talking about his journey to Christianity. According to his story, he was an atheist in college when his roommate suddenly converted to Christianity. Confused as to why his friend would do such a thing, he started reading the New Testament (NT) and he finished the thing in a few days of almost solid reading (he must have been enrolled in a slacker artsy program; no engineer would have time to read like that) and by the end of reading the NT, he had come to the conclusion that Christianity was true.

What a vomit-inducing story. I don’t know if I’m justified in suspecting the story is a lie, as I don’t like to dismiss what other people say about themselves without evidence, but it seems highly unlikely that a skeptical person could read one book about a supernatural happening and come away totally convinced. I’m also skeptical that a skeptic could be that enthralled by the bible; even most Christians don’t get enthusiastic about reading their bibles. Hell, I’ve read NT verses and have found my eyes glazing over out of boredom in minutes, and I read science and history books for fun.

Getting back to the sermon itself, it started by looking at the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, which Gumbel portrayed as being solid. Historically, the non-New Testament evidence for Jesus really is zero. All he referenced were the very meager mentions in the writings of Tacitus, Seutonius (his supposed Jesus quote probably only referred to Christians in Rome and not Jesus himself; at least he wrote a work called Lives of Famous Whores), and Josephus. He even tried to pretend that Josephus was writing practically contemporarily with Jesus, despite the fact that Josephus wrote his Jesus comments in ~94 AD. Unfortunately for Gumbel’s assertions, these guys all wrote generations after the events of the gospels and almost certainly gained all their information from the stories told of Jesus by Christians. A nice little article about this is provided on Internet Infidels.

Gumbel then tried to prove that the NT is accurate by comparing it to a number of other ancient works using this table:

Work, When Written, Earliest Copies, Time Span (yrs), No of Copies

Herodotus, 488-428 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Thucydides, 460-400 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Tacitus, 100 AD, 1100 AD, 1000, 20
Caesar's Gallic War, 58-50 BC, 900 AD, 950, 9-10
Livy's Roman History, 59 BC - 17AD, 900 AD, 950, 20
New Testament, 40-100AD, 130 AD in part 250 AD full, 300, 5000 Greek 10000 Latin, 9300 other

The big problem is that the number of copies doesn’t really matter. It’s the truthfulness of the content that is important. For instance, the table lists Herodotus, and while we don’t doubt that he was a tremendously important pioneering historian, like almost all pioneers, his results kind of sucked, in that subsequent investigations show that he was often wrong.

Unfortunately, from this point on, the NT itself was used as its own proof. Can you say:
[image lovingly ripped-off from the almighty Plognark]

So Gumbel uses the bible to prove that Jesus was human, claimed to be Son of God, and did miracles. Seriously. Gumbel’s argument to prove that Jesus said what the bible says he said is to quote the bible saying more of what Jesus said. Other "proofs" were his absence from the tomb and his appearances to the disciples, again only referring to the NT. Funny the 500+ people he appeared to didn’t write anything down about his resurrection (nor the zombies emerging from their graves at the same time) other than what found its way into the NT. He then hit upon CS Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument. With all due respect to Lewis and Gumbel, this calls out for a Spaceballs reference:

Dark Helmet [as King Roland]: Vespa, come to me.
Vespa: Daddy, is it really you?
DH [as KR]: Yes, my dear, I guarantee it. Would I lie?
V: Daddy.
[Vespa reaches King Roland, who turns into Dark Helmet]
DH: Fooled you! Ha-ha-ha!

Part 2: Small Groups

We were assigned into groups of about a dozen according to rough age. Our group had a good mix of male and female, all late 20s to early 30s. One woman became very depressed when she realized she was so old as to not be in the youngest group.

We introduced ourselves, briefly explaining why we were there. I was more or less truthful, saying that I was not Christian or religious, and I was there primarily because my wife coerced me to and there was going to be food. I also said that they were going to have to be very convincing for me to change my mind. I omitted the fact that I was also there to obtain blog content.

You know, for a course that claims to be aimed at non-Christians, the number of non-Christians in the group was surprisingly small. The number:

One. Just me.

Every single one of them was a committed Christian already. Some were new, most had grown up that way and were looking for a refresher. Many were talking the course for a second or third time. One honest thing about Alpha is that they claim to be welcoming and as non-judgmental as your average person can be. I can honestly say that no one was put-off or intimidated by my stating that I wasn’t one of them and that I would be somewhat confrontational wrt the contents of the Alpha sermons.

Wrt my confrontationalism, I must admit I was probably the most vocal person there. In general I stuck to either items from the video or comments other group members made, and while I was confrontational, I tried to not push or antagonize. There was one instance where I completely lost my cool, and it happened right away. During the introductions, one group member mentioned that she came to Alpha after being inspired by reading the book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel [spits]. Our group leader then recommended Strobel in absolutely glowing terms, explaining how he was a journalist who started atheist, then set about writing a book to crush Christianity, interviewed leading theologians with hard-hitting questions, looked at archeological and scientific data, and came away a Christian. She also warned that, even though the book was great, it was difficult reading.

It was at that point that I snapped and interrupted her, stating that, firstly, scientific data was part of a different book he wrote, The Case for a Creator, the science in that book was utter garbage, and that the reading level was actually very easy. I stopped short of calling her an imbecile for thinking Strobel’s writing was difficult, but it was excruciatingly hard for me because that statement pissed me off the most. I must admit that it became very difficult to take any of what she said seriously after that. That said, it was a completely over-the-top outburst that I wish I had been able to contain.

Only about half of the dozen of us contributed much to the discussions. Of these, all made a point of their emotional rather than rational reasons for their belief in Christianity. This made it difficult on me because I really have no comments to make about that. The only one who actually seemed to care at all about evidence was a divorce lawyer who had recently become Christian because of an undisclosed major event in his life, so even though he was fairly rational, he also had serious emotional reasons as the foundation for his faith.

The lawyer guy actually beat me to the punch about the "number of ancient copies" problem. Ignoring for a moment the work of scholars like Bart Ehrman which detail how the bible has changed over the centuries and why, we both emphasized that the analysis shown in the sermon only indicates that, as literature, the ancient bible copies maintained fairly good fidelity to the original writings from a few hundred years earlier. It does not help prove the truthfulness of the original writings, which were written ~100 years after the alleged events they chronicle.

I tried to hammer home the lack of extra-biblical evidence. Again, the impression I got was that everyone other than the lawyer did not care. The bible is true, why bother with what anyone else thinks? For what it’s worth, the lawyer and I agreed that Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus were all too late to be valuable as references. He also figured that Josephus, while being slightly less late, was not that trustworthy, given that he was a turncoat and political crony and all. I tried to be diplomatic and state that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; I believe my exact words were, "I’m just disappointed by the lack of extra-biblical evidence." Fair enough?

I’m afraid I got drawn into a long-slogging argument about the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument because I challenged it on its own terms. I should have reiterated that the argument is meaningless until the reliability of the bible is confirmed. Instead I went about arguing that it is possible to be a liar and still be able to spread good morals (afterall, even the vile pirate Jebediah Springfield inspired his followers: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man"):

I argued: What if you hated how the people around you behaved unethically? You have a strong, almost fanatical sense of what morality is, and you really think people should follow your way of thought. However, they don’t pay you any mind. So you tap into the local religious consciousness (unfortunately bending your own morals about lying along the way) and raise a big fuss about yourself, claiming to be God etc. Now you have followers; followers who will finally live their lives the way you believe in and will teach others to do likewise. (You throw in a little megalomania just for kicks). And there you have it: a great moral teacher who isn’t bonkers but also isn’t God - a liar who still manages to be not evil (though admittedly not as good as he could be if he wasn’t lying).

While falling on deaf ears, this did not turn out to be a complete waste of time, at least for me. I learned something about how this particular mindset of Christianity thinks. In essence, they have a really low opinion of humanity. In this case, they couldn’t fathom how someone who wasn’t God could piss people off and put themselves at risk and yet not get anything out of it themselves. They always expected the liar to be selfish. They kept asking me, "What’s in it for Jesus then?" They never could understand that helping others to be better people can be rewarding in and of itself. In a completely separate conversation, one woman couldn’t believe that someone who was not God could come up with Jesus’s teachings as they were so perfect and so different from any other human teaching. As if a species that claims the likes of Einstein, Mozart, and Plato would be unable to handle the Sermon on the Mount. Confucius was teaching things like the golden rule 500 years before Jesus anyhow.

And, lo and behold, before we knew it we had run 15 minutes over time and barely scratched the surface of the sermon. I’m not sure if I would say that I had a good time or a bad time. The group atmosphere was pleasant enough, but the discussions weren’t what I’d like them to be. Often I felt like a brick wall would answer questions with more thoughtfulness than many of the people in the group; there were quite a few outpourings of emotion but very few attempts at logical discussion. And, like many Christians (including my wife), there exists no evidence that can change their minds about Christianity. I’ll just have to accept that I’m of a different mindset than everyone else there and try my best to understand them in the coming weeks.

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At October 13, 2008 1:44 AM, Anonymous Karen said...

Be questioning. Be insistent. Be vocal in your attempt to understand the B.S. At some point the organizers of this silly waste of time will corner your wife and suggest that maybe you aren't spiritually ready for the Alpha Course, and she should continue alone this time. Of course, you'll be welcome again later...

At October 14, 2008 12:08 AM, Anonymous Bethanne said...

I don't agree that you are wasting your time or that Christians can't change their minds. Many atheists were once firm believers.

It all boils down to planting a seed of doubt, which leads to looking for answers. For many, particularly the literalists, that seed of doubt means questioning the reliability of the Book. Cause if you ain't got the book, you ain't got nothin'.

If the book is fallible and open to human interpretation, how can you actually KNOW anything about Jesus or God? You just can't. At best that leaves one agnostic.

Of course people are highly motivated to hang onto their beliefs because otherwise they'd have to admit life has no externally imposed meaning and we all die.

Never mind that the externally imposed meaning, when examined carefully, seems pretty empty. At least you'll see Mom and Dad again! Right?

Oh well. What's wrong with carrot cake anyhow?

At October 14, 2008 2:18 AM, Blogger Steven Carr said...

There are literally millions of documents mentioning Sherlock Holmes.

Contemporary historians of today record the existence of 'Sherlock Holmes' societies, named after Sherlock Holmes, who lived at 221B Baker Street, where even today you can find a museum , where the interior is exactly as described in the books.

Regardless of whether Jesus existed or not, if we use Gumbel's 'logic', we have now proved that Sherlock Holmes definitely did exist.

These are exactly the methods Gumbel uses in his video, except that he cannot produce a museum where Jesus house is kept as described in the Gospels.

So why do Alpha Course participants listen to Gumbel's arguments and still scoff at the existence of Sherlock Holmes, when Gumbel's arguments apply equally well to Holmes and Jesus?

Is it because Gumbel is a lawyer and not an historian, and so has no real idea of how historians work?

At October 16, 2008 3:09 PM, Blogger Carlo said...

Ungh... First off, I've read Suetonius. It's arguable whether he's refering to the rise of Christianity or the uprising of Jews that was eventually put down by Titus. It's vague, difficult to interpret (as far as I remember), and is likely biased by hindsight given that Suetonius wrote his Twelve Caesars about 90 years after Jesus's death and even by Christian accounts, the 'church' was pretty insignificant in the 1st century (e.g., not acknowledged by Rome).

Look, what you're describing is exactly what Carl Sagan was complaining about in The Demon Haunted World: interpreting evidence is not a basic human skill, it's learned. Many people just don't understand (or refuse to acknowledge) how to evaluate what ACTUALLY constitutes evidence. Creationists keep wanting us to change our standards of what evidence is.

I remember watching an interview with Richard Dawkins in front of an audience, where someone kept arguing that Dawkins was an idiot because he didn't accept the fact that some people 'feel' that God exists as evidence. Dawkins kept talking about science, and neurons, and his own feelings but none of it got through.

The solution is better education, in both sciences and logic. I agree that the seeds of doubt works (I seen it) but I'm not sure if it'll work for everyone.

At October 16, 2008 8:09 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Karen, so far the organizer seems to be enjoying my presence. I'm sure I'll get to her at some point though ;-)

Bethanne, sometimes it feels like wasting my time, but I'll certainly keep trying. One problem is that Alpha doesn't deal too much with actual tangible things I can show as wrong. Most of it talks about praying and the Holy Spirit and other ethereal stuff like that. As for carrot cake, I'm just not a huge carrot cake person. It was alright, I suppose.

Stephen, you're definitely right about the kind of logic Gumbel uses. All smoke and mirrors, but few from the flock seem to notice.

Carlo, I honestly have no idea why they would bother including Suetonius unless they were incredibly dense or knew they were lying. Either way, it makes it hard to treat Gumbel et al. with any respect.

I've actually been thinking about Demon Haunted World a lot recentyl. I really want my wife to read it. Afterall, I've done all this church stuff for her; the least she could do is read one book about my point of view. We'll see.


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