This post is a response to the December 11th episode of Raborn Johnson and Steve Sensenig’s wonderful podcast Beyond the Box. The podcast is basically the two’s take on Christianity free from the interpretational filter of organized religion. Even as a non-believer, I find the podcast intelligent, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend listening to them. I especially recommend listening to this episode in order to fully understand my response.
Hello Steve and Raborn,
Thanks for tackling this topic and answering some of my questions. It’s challenging but very interesting. You guys approach your beliefs with an astounding mixture of enthusiasm and intelligence. As I listen, I’m amazed at how well you anticipate my next question and then proceed to answer it. It enabled you to cut straight to the heart of the issue. You can color me impressed… again.
First, allow me to express my thoughts on historical accounts and why I have my doubts about the resurrection of Jesus so that you can get an idea of where I’m coming from. There are at least a couple of ways to verify that a historical event actually occurred. The best way is via multiple, first-hand accounts, as you two note. First-hand is best because it has only one layer of interpretation, bias, and embellishment. Multiple sources enable us to reduce said interpretations, biases, and embellishments via comparative analysis. A second way to verify is forensic/physical evidence. For the examples of Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations that you cite in your episode, we have bodies with bullet wounds to the skull, for instance. With respect to the resurrection, we have only second-hand accounts at best and no physical evidence.
There is also the problem of how much evidence is enough to be convincing. For this, I often appeal to Sagan’s Balance. Stated simply it says that extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence. Another way of stating this is that the amount of evidence required is proportional to how outside of normal experience the event is. Assassinations of political leaders happen quite frequently. Resurrections are far less common (if they occur at all) and well outside of normal experience. Thus the burden of proof that Lincoln and Kennedy were killed is much lower then a reported fantastic event like the resurrection.
In another part of the episode, you claim that not only were there eye-witnesses to the resurrection, but these witness later died for sticking to their accounts of what happened. I’ve heard the eye-witness and the martyrs explanations before, but never in combination. It’s an interesting angle. But isn’t it the case that since Paul wrote about the eye witnesses, we actually don’t have a first-hand account? No one wrote “this is what I saw”, but instead “this is what they saw”.
This is where my Biblical ignorance my lead me to err, but I thought that the Bible didn’t say that the disciples were martyred. I thought those accounts were supplementary (and likely apocryphal) Catholic texts.
In any event, the founders of a religion being martyred is not unique to Christianity. For one example, see the persecution and, indeed, execution of Bab and his followers. Does this make the Baha’i faith just as legitimate as Christianity? After all, Raborn said that he can’t imagine anyone [the Bab and his followers included] dying for something that the person didn’t believe in.
When you start talking about presuppositions is when you cut to the core of the issue. You are correct; people do try to downplay their suppositions. Here is one of mine: The only way humans are capable of discerning truth from fiction is through the faculty of reason. Here’s another: inductive reasoning is generally reliable. Pretty much everyone agrees with the later, whether they know it or not. This is the reason that Raborn ‘has faith’ that his Bank of America account actually has the funds the webpage displays. Every time the webpage says he has funds available, he has been able to withdraw those funds. The verification is not only repeatable, but has been repeated multiple times in the past. Now if he receives a one-time email saying that he has $1.2 million in a Nigerian bank account, he has reason to doubt since he has never withdrawn funds (and thus has no inductive basis for belief) from said account.
Beyond those two, I am not aware of any further presuppositions I may hold. Does this preclude the miraculous? Partially. However one chooses to define miracle, it always has an aspect of a temporary suspension of the way the world usually operates. As such, a miracle by definition is a violation of inductive reasoning.
Note that I said that inductive reasoning is generally true. There can be exceptions. So what is a rationalist to do when confronted with an apparently miraculous event? First, see if it’s repeatable. If so, repeat the event looking for a way to understand how it occurred. If it’s not, check the evidence to see how valid the account of the miracle is. This is where many parts of the Bible fall apart and where we differ. I’ve examined evidence in support of and against the accuracy of the Bible as you two undoubtedly done as well. We appear to have come to differing conclusions.
The part of your podcast that I disagreed most with is when Raborn claimed that skepticism is an article of faith. Using your own definition of faith that you used in the podcast: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, skepticism is the opposite of faith. Skepticism is doubt about things not seen and the rejection of believing things simply because we hope for them to be true. Thus skepticism is the rejection of faith not a manifestation of faith.
I think you both are doing a great service to modern Christianity by re-inserting rational discourse and some skepticism into the increasingly doctrinal religion. Far too many churches claim to have a monopoly on interpretation and socially ostracize any one who dissents too much. I encourage the continuation of that practice. If more believers approached their beliefs and non-believers in the same manner you both do, I have no doubt that Christianity would regain much of its respectability that it lost when evangelical leaders began lusting after political power. I am glad that we can disagree on even the most deeply held beliefs and still maintain mutual respect.