# Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

In this installment of Comparing Religions, we will tackle two of my proposed questions in a single post, which has the nice side effect that it brings the post numbers and the question numbers into synch with each other.

4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?

Sometimes a document that purports to be from the distant past is simply an outright forgery.  For example, the Book of Mormon's anachronistic description of American cultures that somehow left no archaeological evidence, supernaturally preserved in a nonexistent language on invisible golden plates.  Some supernatural claims really are more obviously bogus than others!

Other times, a book may be a collection of mythological stories from an even earlier era.  For example, the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue with Krishna, who is supposed to have lived around 3,000 BC.  Since this was thousands of years before writing came to India, that's obviously much too early for this text to be a historical record, even leaving aside the obviously mythological content.  (There was some discussion of this in the comments to another post.)  The Gita is one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic which (like Homer) involves gods living among men in various shapes and guises.  Although traditionally the Mahabharata was believed to be authored by the Vyasa (a sage mentioned in the story), in fact the earliest known possible external reference to the Mahabharata dates to the 4th century BC, and it might have continued to change significantly until the 4th century AD.

(The Vedas, a more foundational set of Hindu religious texts, include hymns that are probably significantly older than the Mahabharata; I gather that these were composed during the Vedic period c. 1500 – c. 500 BC, but I have not studied them enough to comment intelligently about them.)

In Judaism, the traditional date of the Exodus/Torah is around 1400 BC, give or take a century or two.  This is significantly later than the supposed date of Krishna, and postdates the invention of the alphabet.  Even so, there is difficulty confirming the events in question from archaeology or other written sources.  Although there are a few corroborating details, they are hard to fit into a consistent chronology with e.g. Egyptian histories.  While I personally accept the historicity of the Exodus (and its accompanying dramatic miracles) this is mainly because I am already a Christian for other reasons, and also because some parts of the Torah (especially all the boring bits!) sound rather like the minutia of real historical documentation.  It is not because I think there is strong extrabiblical evidence for it.

Other parts of the Old Testament were written significantly later, and some of these parts do have confirmation from other ancient historical records.  Notably, the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib is in both Isaiah/Kings and in Herodotus' Histories.  Herodotus was the father of Greek-style investigative history, although sometimes he is often a bit overcredulous.  His version of the event is significantly different from the biblical account: in it the Assyrians are defeated because mice eat all of their bowstrings.

On the other hand, the New Testament comes after Greek historical methods were widely disseminated (this was because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, which spread Greek culture all over the place).  There are many other histories generally regarded as reliable, written at around the same time in the same culture, and some of them mention Jesus as a historical figure.  We know pretty much when he was born (c. 4 BC), and when he died (30 or 33 AD).  He fits into the 1st century Jewish context and makes sense in that context, etc.

Similarly, no reasonable person can deny the historical existence of Mohammad, or that we have at least some accurate accounts of what he said and did.  (There are unreasonable people who subscribe to Mohammad mythicism just as there are unreasonable people who subscribe to Jesus mythicism, but they are regarded as crackpots by the greater scholarly community.)  And of course the same goes for most founders of modern religious movements.

5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?

Reading fictional myths about great heroes like Achilles or Beowulf or Frodo is a very different experience than reading actual historical documents, which fit into the historical context of the real world, talk about circumstantial details in the right way, provide plausible and realistic reportage of people's reactions, and so on.  For the most part, we can tell which books in the library are fiction and which are nonfiction by their literary style.

Educated ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that Homer and the other ποιητης (poets, but the word literally means "makers") were writing fiction about the gods; the Athenians laughed at people who actually took them literally.  Sure, the Greeks thought the Trojan War was an actual historical event, but Homer's description of it was their equivalent of Shakespeare, not the Bible.  Which is why the poets began by invoking the Muse, who is the goddess of literary inspiration, not historical accuracy.

It is true that a religious fanatic like Euthyphro might answer affirmatively when Socrates asked him if he took the myths literally:

And do you believe that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets, and other sacred stories such as are embroidered by good writers and by representations of which the robe of the goddess is adorned when it is carried up the Acropolis?  Are we to say that such things are true, Euthyphro?

(Plato's Euthyphro, Grube translation)

but we know from earlier in the dialogue that Euthyphro was generally regarded by other Athenians as being nuts!

No sensible person could believe that the myths about e.g. Hercules are sober documentary histories, comparable to e.g. the history of Thucydides (the first really excellent Greek historian).  This is not to say that the Greeks disbelieved in their gods, or that you wouldn't get into trouble for completely denying their existence; but their actual religion was not really identical to their mythology; still less was it the same as their philosophy or their history.  These things were kept somewhat separate.

But Christianity brings historical claims and theology together.  At the level of literary genre, the Gospels (and Acts) read much more like actual accounts of real events; they talk about contemporary historical individuals (such as St. John the Baptist, Joseph Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, etc.) whom we know existed from other historical writings.   Not to mention St. Peter and the other Apostles, who founded an organization that is still around and left written records.  There are numerous miracles, but they are pretty firmly embedded in this particular historical context.

The New Testament fits into its historical context

One of the Gospels opens its account of Jesus' ministry with the following words:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  (Luke 3:1-3)

In other words, these are events whose beginning can be dated precisely based on the political administration in a particular year (AD 29), and which took place at a known geographical location.

The New Testament includes practical details

And throughout the Gospels, the sense of being actually present (e.g. having to deal with logistical concerns related to bustling crowds) is often quite palpable:

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed.  When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.  Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him.  For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.
....
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.
(Mark 3:7-10, 20)

These are not the sort of practical details that one would expect to be included in purely mythological fiction (any more than an ancient poet would bother to tell us where Perseus stopped to use the restroom on the way to kill Medusa).  Yet this sort of texture pervades the canonical Gospel narratives.

(The Fourth Gospel, attributed to St. John the Apostle, has a noticeably different style from the other three "synoptic" Gospels; for example there are long conversations between Jesus and his interlocutors, and his claims to have divine status—while not unique to John—are more frequent and explicit.  However, there is still a significant overlap with the events of the Synoptic Gospels, and its narrative parts show detailed knowledge of 1st century geography, architecture, and Jewish feasts.  And in several places, the Gospel of John actually reads the most strongly of any gospel as if it were written by an eye-witness of the events in question, who sometimes even seems eager to "correct the record" regarding quite minor circumstantial details of events reported by the other 3 Gospels.)

The New Testament Jesus is recognizably Jewish

Unlike later Gospels that were rejected by the Church, the Gospels portray Jesus and his contemporaries as Jews, with Jewish concerns.

While this fact may seem obvious (Jesus was in fact a Jew, so his Jewishness ought to be obvious in any historically accurate representation of him), it provides a sharp criterion for distinguishing the historically informed primary source material from all the unreliable legends composed later (after Christianity became detached from its parent religion and there was no incentive or ability to portray Jesus in this way.)

As another Christian blogger St. Anne / "Weekend Fisher" writes at her blog:

In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today."  Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy.  The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen.  The original edition (1913) was in German.  At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written."  His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others.  Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

The fact that the canonical Gospels are useful historical sources for a Jewish liturgist with no interest in Christianity, besides the desire to gain period knowledge about Judaism, shows that they are not mere legends but contain significant quantities of historically accurate information.

It's hard to make a good fake

Neither do the Gospels have the same character as forged historical texts, a process which tends to give itself away through tell-tale signs.  As Richard Feynman wrote (about a fake Mayan astronomical codex):

Those people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different.  If you find something that is really new, it's got to have something different... In addition, there should be a number of things in it that are not understandable, and are not exactly like what has been seen before.  That would be a good fake.  (Bringing Culture to the Physicists)

Most forgers have very little historical sense, and their forgeries end up being transparently obvious.  They are derivative where they should be original, yet somehow fail to partake of the spirit of the things which they are copying, and they are missing the little details which ought to be to provide a sense of reality.  There is not enough "roughness around the edges", showing the cut of the original unpolished wood.

To illustrate this point, here's some nice examples of pseudo-apostolic frauds: The Gospel of Mary and 3rd Corinthians.  The former being a Gnostic gospel fragment, and the latter an anti-Gnostic piece of correspondence purportedly between the Corinth and St. Paul.  Just reading the texts makes it instantly clear, to the trained eye, that neither is authentic.  They try to copy the mannerisms of the New Testament, but it sounds forced: it is clearly not the sort of thing which an actual person at the time would ever have written.  I'm not going to say that fakes are always this obvious, but usually they are!

A slightly better example, but still obviously biblical fan-fiction, is the Protoevangelium of James, which supposedly describes the birth and childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, but is generally dated to the 2nd century.  It shows little evidence of compatibility with known Jewish customs of the 1st century BC.  Most shockingly, it describes the child Mary as being allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet it does not describe angry mobs demanding her execution (as would inevitably have happened if people thought she had profaned the holiest site in the Temple, which not even the priests were allowed to enter, except for the High Priest once a year).  It is not as though the Jews already believed she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  It reads exactly like the sort of text that a later Christian would make up, in order to fill in the disappointing lack of detail regarding Jesus' parents.

As St. Lewis pointed out, when people make up legends, it's actually really hard to make them sound like historical reportage (and mostly forgers didn't even try very hard).  Speaking of the canonical Gospels, he writes:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read.

It took until modern times for novelists to figure out how to make fiction sound like history, and even then, it usually doesn't.  (Modern novels, whether "realistic" or "fantastic", tend to deviate from documentary reportage in the opposite direction, by giving far more circumstantial detail than anyone would ever remember about an event unless there was a camera-man following them around.)  It seems like it should be easy (just write whatever you would have written if it had really happened), but it is actually quite tricky, since the little details give you away.  It's a bit like how you can easily tell whether a picture hanging in an art gallery is a painting or a photograph, just by looking at it.

I suppose I should go on in this post to describe some examples of non-Christian religious scriptures whose style and content clearly indicates that they are legends.  But, it turns out that it will be more convenient to give some examples in the following post, which concerns dating.  So stay tuned for the next installment!

Next: Early Sources

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
This entry was posted in History, Theological Method. Bookmark the permalink.

### 38 Responses to Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

1. Anne K says:

Thank you for the kind mention of my research.
Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

2. Dear Aron Wall,

I liked the way you are analyzing religions. But I consider you are relying FAR TOO MUCH on historical evidence. You accepted somewhere that mathematical truths > scientific truths > Historical truths . I too accept that. But I think you are assuming that the difference between their credibility is more are less comparable. I think the difference is very humongous i.e. mathematical truths >> scientific truths >> Historical truths. We can't decide the most important question about the universe by just seeing history made by humans.

Humans can be fooled very easily. As Richard Feynman said: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool". You gave valid arguments that Jesus almost certainly existed. But even if people like Abraham are mythological then your religion will become invalid since it is based on their existence too.

I want to give an example to show why I think you are wrong. Sathya Sai Baba is a very famous Hindu guru who did many miracles infront of large number of people and is believed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (another very famous divine guru). He also claimed to be the reincarnation of Shiva (the 2nd most of important Hindu god after Vishnu. Vishnu, Shiva & Brahma are called Trimurti and mainstream Hindus believe that the other 2 are also manifestations of Vishnu somewhat similar to your Trinity). The then Prime Minister of India and current PM of India and many sports stars and cinema stars in India are his devotees. 500,000 people attended his death ceremony. He died in 2011 (I live 100km away from his ashram and I was 9 years when he died and many of my friends advised me to visit him before his death but I said he was just cheating people even though I was a Hindu back then. I know some people who saw his miracles). As mentioned in Wikipedia: "Sai Baba's purported materialisations of vibhuti (holy ash) and other small objects such as rings, necklaces, and watches, along with reports of miraculous healings, resurrections, clairvoyance, bilocation, and alleged omnipotence and omniscience, were a source of both fame and controversy". Most common people believes this. But some people like Indian physicist Hosur Narasimhaiah challenged him to do miracles infront of him which he did not accept. I am not saying that he is a bad person, he did a lot of philanthropy. His motto was "Love all. Serve all. Help Ever. Hurt Never". His followers were mostly Hindus but there were also many American or European Christian followers. Hindus believe that you can go to heaven by either doing good things or by praying gods. So even other religion people and atheist (like me) can go to heaven unlike Christianity. So he did not ask those Christian followers to renounce Christianity even though he is a Hindu guru. He earned a lot of donations from his followers(although Western Christians were small fraction of his followers they donated significantly portion as they are far richer than Indians). He used most of the money he got for charity and I know many poor people in my locality who are still benefitting from his charity.

Now consider the 11 questions you asked. Hindus do not need the evidence for the existence of Krishna just like you don't need the evidence for Abraham. He said he is the reincarnation of Shiva and Sai Baba of Shiridi just like Jesus said he is God. Many people saw his miracles and historically speaking they are much more believable because they are recent and more people saw his miracles that Jesus's miracles. Also people living in Jesus's lifetime were much more foolish and primitive compared to current day Indians and can be more easily deceived. Except this question - 8) Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it? all other are satisfied. Most witnesses neither gained nor suffered. But there are also many poor people who were helped by his philanthropy so it is possible that they are biased to make him look more "holy". From this question I am guessing that in Christianity the witnesses suffered. But then again it is possible that those witnesses wrote they were suffered even though in reality they were not since it makes a more convincing story that they were not lying.

But my claim was not that he is a really divine guru, all I want to say is it is easy to convince many people that you did miracles even today let alone 2000 years ago. Historical evidence should not be taken very seriously. Especially when we are discussing about the most important question about universe. I am sure you will not believe in Sathya Sai Baba's miracles since it won't fit with your Christian ideology. Even if Jesus lived today and he was believed to be doing miracles, I will not believe in them just like you don't believe in Sathya Sai Baba. But the evidence for Jesus is far weaker than Sathya Sai Baba's miracles. It is entirely possible that Jesus was a normal kind guy and after his death his fans wrote that he did miracles and people believed in them. I asked many of my friends who are Hindus (and they think Historical evidence is important) and they said they think Jesus probably did miracles but he wasn't sent by Gods. In Hinduism miracles which are more miraculous are very common, for example Indrajit (a minor character in Ramayana) killed 670 million Vanaras (monkey people) in a single day; nearly exterminating the entire half vanara race using Brahmastra. Arrows in Ramayana are more powerful than nuclear bombs. I am talking about side charachters let alone main characters like Krishna and Rama who the reincarnation of the Supreme being Vishnu.

As an atheist this historical evidence is far too weak for me to consider Christianity seriously and different religions also have similar historical evidence.

Also I can't think that a god who is far more intelligent than us mere humans would sent messages by REVELATIONS (which I guess is how god speaks in all Abrahamic religions). In many Hindu myths important announcements by gods will be done by Akashvani in Sanskrit which will be heard by all people in a very big region like a city. Even this is not a good way of communicating with humans. It should be said such that every one hears in their own mother tongue and it should be audible to everyone in the world instead of a city. Even better way of giving information is God should come and talk to every kid at the age of 15 years (visible and audible only to that kid) and explain to the kid his rules. Of course I assumed god can be at different places at a single instant of time (since many kids turn 15 in a day) similar to electrons in John Archibald Wheeler's One-electron universe theory. Even better god can create some robots who keep reciting his holy book and he gave each robot to a single street. If any robot is damaged some nearby robot should come and fix it. Also I think instead of "holy book" there should have been "holy animated video" which can be easily explained to illiterates and those robots will project this video on a wall. It fits easily in my worldview that Abrahamic religions were made by primitive people who thought revelations were the best way to inform humans.

3. JamesH says:

“Also I can't think that a god who is far more intelligent than us mere humans would sent messages by REVELATIONS (which I guess is how god speaks in all Abrahamic religions).“

First of all, it is not a claim of mainstream Christianity that God communicates exclusively through revelation. Secondly, even if He did, you have not shown that this is not a credible means of communication. You have simply presented, implicitly, a logically fallacious argument from incredulity: I find it incredible that God would communicate in this manner, therefore the claim must be false.

“...It fits easily in my worldview that Abrahamic religions were made by primitive people who thought revelations were the best way who thought revelations were the best way to inform humans.”

It seems to me that your implicit argument here is also fallacious. Whether the individuals concerned were “primitive” or not (and you have not defined that term) need have no bearing on the veracity of their message. A “primitive” person could impart a true message and a sophisticated one a false message.

Finally, you *seem* to suggest that Christian belief is based, or needs to be based, on belief in miracles- this is incorrect.

4. Dear JamesH,
"you have not shown that this is not a credible means of communication." I thought it was obvious, so I haven't explained it earlier. What I meant was that there are many different versions of Bibles ,Torahs and Qurans. I have neither read Bible nor it's history, but a simple Google search says the oldest available Bible called Codex Sinaiticus was written between c. 330–360. There is no guarantee that it hasn't changed significantly by then since Jesus or wasn't there to verify. If god sent a "Holy Animated Video" through self repairing robots, then his message would not have changed. Even if all current existing Bibles are EXACTLY same (which I doubt) there can be different interpretations of same paragraph (like there are literalists who think age of universe is 6,000 or 10,000 years and Evolution is false (Adam-Eve believers) and there are moderate people who think these are just metaphors). With a "Holy Animated Video" god could have explained his rules properly without saying vague paras which can be interpreted differently. I think it was YOU who did a logical fallacy by not explaining why REVELATIONS are the BEST way and simply saying I was wrong . Also I haven't said that God talks ONLY through revelations. Even if Bible had a single version and unique interpretation it is still possible that Jesus changed the message God said to him since he was the only one who heard it unlike in my other "better" ways of sending information where everyone heard it and it is statistically HIGHLY improbable that everyone on earth lies. I am sorry if I hurt your feelings or beliefs.

Kasi, the comparison between Sai Baba and Jesus is a poor one in my opinion. Sai Baba's alleged ability to materialise "small objects" sounds very suspicious, like the kind of thing a conjurer would do. In fact, it is so suggestive of fakery that we would need definite proof to overcome the doubts.

But that is the least of the problems with your comparison. The remarkable thing about Jesus is the way that things unfolded after his crucifixion. Jesus' (shameful) death should have spelt the end for the movement that he founded. Instead, the movement continued and is still going 2000 years later. Furthermore, it has had a remarkable impact on history. Christianity was born into a world of idolatry. The Jews believed in a God whom they saw as the one true God and as the foundation of order and morality in the universe. Pagans believed in the gods but they had a very different idea about the nature of the divine realm. Their gods were capricious and amoral beings who could never have been a source of order and morality. In other words, the pagan gods were unworthy of worship.

Two thousand years ago something happened that would ensure the death of the pagan gods and the widespread acceptance of the one true God. That something was the (purported) resurrection of Jesus. This was an extraordinary moment in history. Unless Sai Baba has a similar impact on history, we cannot compare him to Jesus.

6. JamesH says:

“Kasi: Even if all current existing Bibles are EXACTLY same (which I doubt) there can be different interpretations of same paragraph (like there are literalists who think age of universe is 6,000 or 10,000 years and Evolution is false (Adam-Eve believers) and there are moderate people who think these are just metaphors). With a "Holy Animated Video" god could have explained his rules properly without saying vague paras which can be interpreted differently. I think it was YOU who did a logical fallacy by not explaining why REVELATIONS are the BEST way and simply saying I was wrong.”

I did not argue -and do not maintain-that revelations are the “best way” for God to communicate. Even if I did take that view, a failure to explain why I held it would not amount to a logical fallacy.

On the question of how the Bible is to be interpreted, I take the view that this should be done in the light of the best available scholarship- sometimes this will be fairly straightforward, but with some books of the Bible an interpretation may be a more contentious matter. And I think you have committed another fallacy here: you seem to be arguing that if various books of the Bible have, historically, been interpreted in different ways, that that means that God has not provided us with a clear message (your ‘Holy Animated Video’). But that simply doesn’t follow; it is quite possible, for example, that one or more of the recipients of the message interprets it incorrectly. Indeed, the Parable of the Sower makes it clear that the Word may be received in different ways by different people.

“Also I haven't said that God talks ONLY through revelations. Even if Bible had a single version and unique interpretation it is still possible that Jesus changed the message God said to him since he was the only one who heard it “

God the Father and Jesus are two persons (the Holy Spirit being the third person) of the Trinity, and are one substance, so they are not different individuals imparting different messages.

7. Aron Wall says:

Kasi,
Welcome to my blog. First, of all, there is absolutely no need to apologize for politely stating your point of view, as one purpose of this comment section is to allow discussion between people of differing views! And I'm glad you enjoyed my black holes review article.

Regarding Sathya Sai Baba, if you had read a little farther in this series (which is admittedly getting pretty long) you would have seen that I did have a brief comment about him in my post Comparing Religions VII: Natural Inexplicability. This post contains a link to some pretty convincing testimony that Sathya produced his trinkets by means of prestidigitation (stage magic) and also that he sexually abused minors. This is enough for me to say that he is not a genuine miracle-worker, nor even a good person. It is not enough to preach kindness or to tell others to give money to charity, if you also leave a trail of abuse and lies behind you.

So I agree with St. David that your comparison here is not apt. Yes, there is contemporary evidence concerning the Sathya Sai Baba, but since this contemporary evidence clearly shows him to be a faker, Jesus certainly comes out ahead of this comparison. (Although if Jesus' miracles had involved conjuring small valuables from his person, I wouldn't consider that to be good evidence for his ministry, even if there were no surviving reports of it being faked---given how easy it is to fake such things. Much harder to figure out how to walk on water.)

Also people living in Jesus's lifetime were much more foolish and primitive compared to current day Indians and can be more easily deceived.

I don't see why you think people living 2,000 years ago were necessarily more foolish---I think there are intelligent and foolish people in all eras of history.

In Hinduism miracles which are more miraculous are very common, for example Indrajit (a minor character in Ramayana) killed 670 million Vanaras (monkey people) in a single day; nearly exterminating the entire half vanara race using Brahmastra. Arrows in Ramayana are more powerful than nuclear bombs. I am talking about side charachters let alone main characters like Krishna and Rama who the reincarnation of the Supreme being Vishnu.

These stories are set in prehistoric times so they fail at question #4. Jesus lived in historical times (e.g. we know about some of the political leaders in the New Testament from historical sources outside of the Bible.)

I liked the way you are analyzing religions. But I consider you are relying FAR TOO MUCH on historical evidence. You accepted somewhere that mathematical truths > scientific truths > Historical truths . I too accept that. But I think you are assuming that the difference between their credibility is more are less comparable. I think the difference is very humongous i.e. mathematical truths >> scientific truths >> Historical truths. We can't decide the most important question about the universe by just seeing history made by humans.

I think that here you are remembering to my post Theology: Less Speculative than Quantum Gravity. But you left out the weakest field of inquiry, which was important for the post I was making. The epistemic inequality I wrote down was:

Math & Logic > Science > History > Most Philosophy

and my point was that Naturalism actually falls into the category of "Philosophy" rather than "Science". (Naturalists try to act as though Science implies Naturalism, but it really doesn't follow legitimately from any legitimate scientific theory or experiment without the use of controversial arguments that are of a distinctly philosophical character.) From this perspective, it doesn't matter whether you write > (greater than) or >> (much greater than); the point is that the arguments for Naturalism, being metaphysical verbal reasonings, are less reliable even than historical evidence tends to be.

As St. Luke Barnes has pointed out, you can't use Naturalism to predict what the specific laws of nature are. Naturalism is not itself a scientific theory.

You also wrote:

Also I can't think that a god who is far more intelligent than us mere humans would sent messages by REVELATIONS (which I guess is how god speaks in all Abrahamic religions). In many Hindu myths important announcements by gods will be done by Akashvani in Sanskrit which will be heard by all people in a very big region like a city. Even this is not a good way of communicating with humans. It should be said such that every one hears in their own mother tongue and it should be audible to everyone in the world instead of a city. Even better way of giving information is God should come and talk to every kid at the age of 15 years (visible and audible only to that kid) and explain to the kid his rules. Of course I assumed god can be at different places at a single instant of time (since many kids turn 15 in a day) similar to electrons in John Archibald Wheeler's One-electron universe theory. Even better god can create some robots who keep reciting his holy book and he gave each robot to a single street. If any robot is damaged some nearby robot should come and fix it. Also I think instead of "holy book" there should have been "holy animated video" which can be easily explained to illiterates and those robots will project this video on a wall. It fits easily in my worldview that Abrahamic religions were made by primitive people who thought revelations were the best way to inform humans.

First, a purely linguistic point: the term "revelation" in theology, actually refers to any communication of God to human beings, so if such events occured they would still fall under the broad category of "revelation". So I'm not sure what you mean by this term "revelation" since a "holy animated video", if it existed, would still count as revelation.

Second and more importantly, I think there is something fundamentally misguided about the paragraph I quoted above. You start by talking about a God who is "far more intelligent than us mere humans", but then you seem to think you can predict what he would do by asking "What would I do if I were God?". That is, you assume that God's greater intelligence comes in purely in his ability to perform greater technological marvels, but you don't seem to allow for the possibility that a being infinitely wiser than you might also have a different set of goals and priorities than you do. To me, it would be very surprising if this were the case. Basically you are assuming that it is not possible for any being to be much wiser than a human such as yourself.

I quite agree that if God's top priority were for every single person on earth to believe the correct religion (in this life), then indeed we all would. But the Bible nowhere says that this is God's only goal, and obviously this is not in fact the case.

Is it so hard to believe that God might place some value on some people being allowed to discover for themselves what is true and good? To make a world where there is room for spiritual growth and development? Atheists are always talking as if such a world is valuable and freeing---except when they are arguing with religious people, and then they usually act as if God were somehow morally obliged to run the planet in a fundamentalist manner.

(Of course, if all non-Christians automatically go straight to Hell when they die, then this would indeed raise grave moral problems related to the majority of the world population not being Christians. However, I take a somewhat more nuanced view of this issue. Since, at the final judgement, God has the ability to judge people based on what information they had access to, there is no danger that making a world where people are free to explore ideas, will lead to people being condemned unjustly.)

What I meant was that there are many different versions of Bibles ,Torahs and Qurans. I have neither read Bible nor it's history, but a simple Google search says the oldest available Bible called Codex Sinaiticus was written between c. 330–360. There is no guarantee that it hasn't changed significantly by then since Jesus or wasn't there to verify.

Yes, there are errors that are introduced by copyists. However, there is a field of study called Textual Criticism, which is generally regarded by secular historians as being a good way to identify the original contents of a text that has multiple surviving copies. The key point is that copies evolve in trees, so you can reconstruct the original text similarly to how scientists reconstruct the original genome in evolutionary biology.

There are a few places where there is scholarly uncertainly about certain verses were in the original text. A scholarly translation of the Bible will put footnotes in such places when there are significant variant readings. Fortunately, most of these variants are extemely minor, and no major Christian doctrine exclusively depends on them.

(Of course, nothing in life is 100% certain, but you are the one who is demanding close to 100% certainty. I only need a sufficiently high probability to justify obedience.)

Incidentally, you'd be better equipped to have this conversation if you'd actually read one of the Gospels. Most scholars think the Gospel according to St. Mark was the first to be written, and it is fairly short, so why not read it before commenting further about the miracles of Jesus?

8. Dear Aron Wall,
Even though naturalism is a philosophical proposition, I think it is still more probable to be true than the historical evidence for Christianity. In my opinion historical facts like Hitler or Einstein existed are practically 100% true and naturalism has lesser probability than them but more than the historical evidence for Christianity.
Some questions:

1) I saw this video (Disclaimer: This channel portrays Abrahamic God as a bad person) and I couldn't believe what I saw. Exodus 11:4-6. How can a good God kill every firstborn son in a country just becauese the ruler did bad things? (God even controlled the ruler and hardened his heart. So God also is a part of this evil doings but he is killing innocent children) Why exactly he did this according to you? In my view the writers of the book were angry at Egyptians so they imagined this happened. You might say whatever God says is defined to be good and he can do anything to us as he owns us. But I think morality can be defined without invoking God. Also a Good god should allow people to suggest and question him. Even deistic god if he exists CAN'T be good since he is allowing a lot of evil like earth quakes, tsunamis etc. let alone a God who kills innocent children purposefully.

2) Also why is God angry only when Israelites are enslaved. But he supports slavery if others are enslaved. A good God should stop all slavery.

3) He sent all prophets to Israel. But even if he did not love other places as much as Israel, I think at least he should have sent 1 prophet to India, China, North and South America etc. each. You seem to think that he will not send all non-believers to hell which would make him a better God.

4) Why is god impressed by Solomon killing large number of innocent animals? (video). Jesus eating meat is moral at that time but a good God should have mentioned that 2000 years later agriculture will be advanced and everyone should be VEGAN.

5) Both infinite time in Heaven or Hell would be very boring. In my view people who wrote that book probably didn't know how big infinity is and thought it would be good to have infinite time in Heaven. Most people would live some 1000s of years and will kill themselves if suicide is given as an option.

6) Old non Jewish influences on Christianity: Flood myths were present far before any Abrahamic religion wrote it. Akkadian Atra-Hasis (18th century BC), Sumerian creation myth (c. 1600 BC), Hinduism, Chinese mythology, etc. but the evidence expected if it happened is absent. Moses crossing of the Red Sea is similar to Vasudeva crossing Yamuna with baby Krishna (except here not only water makes a way , a many headed snake will become an umbrella). As you said I CAN'T predict exactly how an infinitely intelligent God thinks. But if repeatedly a book supposed to be said by God looks similar to older religious books (which both of us agree to be false) then it will be suspicious. In my view due to lack of creativity people who made religions copied from other religions.

7) Do you think Adam and Eve alternative to Evolution is right?

8) Why do you think most theoretical physicists don't believe in a personal God? (I am not saying this would make religion wrong as it is a fallacy) Among the founders of QM only Heisenberg was a Christian. Among the founders of Quantum Field Theories only Freeman Dyson was a Christian. Don Page is also a Christian. But these belong to the minority. Einstein, Dirac, Schrödinger, Weinberg, Feynman, Penrose, Hawking etc. were all non-religious. (You can find interesting quotes by them)

It is possible you have answered some of these in some blog post. I really hope that soon fine tuning will be understood with a deeper theory.

9. JamesH says:

“Kasi: Even though naturalism is a philosophical proposition, I think it is still more probable to be true than the historical evidence for Christianity. “

On what basis? I think that the prior probability of theism is higher than that of naturalism (pace Draper). And, of course, if theism is true, then that raises the probability of NT being true.

Kasi, you seem to be firing off arguments at random here. Since the topic of this post is how Christianity compares to other religions I will focus on that. When you make that kind of comparison, you have to do it fairly. You have to accept for the sake of argument that all religions are potentially true and that divine revelation is possible. You also have to accept that one religion may be true even though all religions may have flaws. It's a bit like an election. All the candidates may have flaws but one may still be superior to the others. On the other hand, if you don't believe in democracy then it would be a waste of time to compare the candidates.

So let's assume that the exercise is not a waste of time. Does one religion stand out from the others? Aron has made the case in this series of essays that Christianity does stand out. If there is a true religion then Christianity is likely to be it. You have said nothing that challenges this. Your attempt to make a case for Hinduism and for Sai Baba as a representative of Hinduism was not convincing.

It might still be the case that Christianity is less probable than naturalism but you haven't done much to show that either. Is the fact that physicists tend to be atheists a good argument for naturalism? Even you seem to realise how weak this is.

I have stated that I am NOT claiming that the fact that most physicists tend to be atheists is a good argument for naturalism. I only asked for Aron's opinion on what might be the reason why most are on the wrong track according to his world view. And I accept that some questions are not relevant to this post. But they are not relevant to any particular post so I posted here.

The reason why I think naturalism is more probably correct is because of the fact that we can explain almost everything we see using some fundamental laws of physics. From that other branches of science will emerge. Something like this was unthinkable 2000 years ago. Supplemented with the fact that almost all claimed miracles are false it supports naturalism. Also I think the burden of proof that supernatural elements exist lies on believers and the historical evidence you gave is not strong enough to believe it. Also there are NEGATIVE historical evidences for Christianity like the flood myth, it never happened and by 1840s mainstream scientists dismissed it as false. According to mainstream historians Exodus never occurred. By the beginning of the 21st century, archaeologists had given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible historical figures. These are most verifiable facts on Bible and it got them wrong. From your evidence I only believe Jesus existed not that he walked on water. I think this negative historical evidence nullifies the positive historical evidence. (There may be even more negative historical evidence) If I lived in Dragon Ball Verse where magical things happen all the time, I would have expected a God like Zeno exists. Of course if I lived 2000 years ago even the fact that humans exist seems magical without knowing how we evolved very slowly. If God exists he should be more complex that the universe he made, so how was he created? I also find it hard to imagine that God CREATED spacetime before it existed. How can someone do something when time doesn't exist? I think something like Penrose's CCC is more logical than this.

12. JamesH says:

“David : It might still be the case that Christianity is less probable than naturalism but you haven't done much to show that either. Is the fact that physicists tend to be atheists a good argument for naturalism?”

A proponent of the view that naturalism is more probable than theism is Draper, who argues that theism is intrinsically less probable than naturalism since it is “immodest”: roughly speaking the more specific claims a theory makes the less likely it is to be true. However, features like simplicity and arbitrariness arguably outweigh this consideration and make theism intrinsically more probable. Calum Miller has written about this. If theism can be shown to be likely to be true (and I think it can be), then that raises the probability that Christianity is true. I do not think that Kwasi has successfully argued that naturalism is more probable than Christianity.

Kasi, the success of science is compatible with theism. The regularity of nature and our ability to understand that regularity are what we should expect of the Christian God. The more fundamental question is what underlies that order and regularity. Naturalism has to take it as a brute fact. Theism postulates something beyond this. I won't pursue that point as it is not really the topic of this post.

Is the mythical nature of Noah's flood a good reason to doubt what Christians say about Jesus? No, it isn't. History as a discipline began around 500 BC. If we are looking for God to intervene in such a way that it leaves a definite impression on history then we should be looking at a time later than 500 BC, not in the very distant past. I don't whether you have studied the debates between Christians and atheists over the resurrection of Jesus. If you haven't then it might be worthwhile to do so. In my opinion atheists have never offered a satisfactory answer to this question.

James, good point. Thanks.

14. JamesH says:

“Kwasi: The reason why I think naturalism is more probably correct is because of the fact that we can explain almost everything we see using some fundamental laws of physics.”

This is glaringly fallacious: it does not follow that if fundamental laws of physics can explain “almost everything we see” that naturalism is more probable. It is not a claim of theism that the natural world cannot be explained scientifically. Naturalism and supernaturalism are metaphysical not physical explanations and cannot be evaluated scientifically.

“...Something like this was unthinkable 2000 years ago. Supplemented with the fact that almost all claimed miracles are false it supports naturalism. “

If *almost all* claimed miracles are false then it doesn’t mean that naturalism is more probable; for example, if even one miracle (miracle understood here as a supernatural event) occurred that would mean that supernaturalism, not naturalism, was true. So your second (inductive) argument doesn’t work either.

“Also I think the burden of proof that supernatural elements exist lies on believers and the historical evidence you gave is not strong enough to believe it. “

No, the burden of proof falls on the individual making the claim to knowledge- in this case that is you. We have seen that you have offered only flawed arguments in support of naturalism

“...Also there are NEGATIVE historical evidences for Christianity like the flood myth, it never happened and by 1840s mainstream scientists dismissed it as false. “

Since many Christians do not interpret the Flood literally, this claim (if true) only counts against Biblical literalism. The same applies to your other examples.

“If God exists he should be more complex that the universe he made, so how was he created? “

This is an old Dawkins argument and is also flawed.
First of all, since God, by definition, is a maximally powerful being it is incoherent to suppose that He can be created by another being. Secondly, we cannot assert that a supernatural being such as God is complex, since that term is applicable to physical entities not supernatural entities of which we have limited knowledge. So Dawkins has committed a category error. Furthermore, God is said to be a spirit , i.e. he has no parts. If an entity has no parts it cannot complex in the physical sense which Dawkins tries to employ.

“I also find it hard to imagine that God CREATED spacetime before it existed. How can someone do something when time doesn't exist?”

This looks like another implicit fallacious argument from incredulity: I find it incredible so it cannot be so.

15. Zsolt Nagy says:

Hallo Aron,

Firstly I hope, that you and your family are enjoying the best of wealth and health, that one might can have these days.

Secondly I have off topic questions for you.
Well, it is regarding your previous response and this specific link to Luke Barnes blog post, that you have provided there.
My questions are:
How come that scientists might always consider, what the specific conditions are for statistical significance for their hypothesis test because of the possibility of false positives and false negatives occuring, yet philosophers never do that?
Philosophers are only considering, which specific hypothesis might explain a specific data better than another hypothesis, but where is their and your consideration, Dr. Wall, of the possibility of that specific data being supposedly “best” explained by a specific hypothesis according to our current “best” of knowledge, yet that specific data being actually caused by not that supposedly “best” hypothesis to our current “best” of knowledge, but being caused by another hypothesis – the possibility of the occurrence of either a false positive (a hypothesis falsely attributed being the best explanation for the considered specific data) or false negative (a hypothesis falsely not attributed being the best explanation for the considered specific data)?

Note, that I also stated these questions on Luke's blog post.
I'm really curious about both of your responses - from you and Luke.

Best regards,
Zsolt

16. JamesH says:

“Zsolt: My questions are:
How come that scientists might always consider, what the specific conditions are for statistical significance for their hypothesis test because of the possibility of false positives and false negatives occuring, yet philosophers never do that?”

I don’t want to preempt what Aron might wish to say about this, but to me the answer to your question seems rather obvious: philosophers are not, for the most part, engaged in testing empirical hypotheses and therefore the question of false positives/negatives or statistical significance generally does not arise; philosophers, at least those working in the analytic tradition, are predominantly concerned with formulating deductive arguments.

There is no doubt that the Old Testament records real history, although things become murky before the time of David. That is not to say that the biblical record of events before the time of David is pure mythology. That certainly hasn't been proved. However, the real issue here is one that is usually overlooked. The overall theme of the Old Testament is that Israel were the chosen people of God, that divine providence was at work their history. Is there any evidence for this claim? Indeed there is. Israel continued to exist as a self-identified group after the destruction of the first temple and exile. They also continued to exist after the destruction of the second temple and continue to exist even today. That is remarkable. I can't think of anything else like it in history. It is definitely not what you would expect if Israel had been a tribe just like any other tribe in the ancient world.

This is something that the critics of Judaeo-Christianity don't take into account. They think their job is done if they can cast doubt on biblical history. By doing that they may weaken the case for Christianity to some extent but the evidence overall is against them. From an atheist perspective, there simply shouldn't be any evidence that makes Israel stand out in history. So in terms of the historical background, Christianity comes out on top, and that is before we consider the evidence for Christianity itself.

18. Aron Wall says:

Kasi,
There's an old debater's trick where you try to fire off as many arguments as possible, hoping to overwhelm the other side. But if you want to have a good conversation, it's better to pick whatever single argument you think is most important and we can discuss that in more depth.

(Of course, if we only discuss one issue at a time, then it's possible you will end up being persuaded about that one issue, while still remaining an atheist for other reasons. But that would at least involve some progress, whereas if we try to discuss 10 different issues at once we probably can't do justice to any of them. Not everything can be done at once in a single conversation.)

That being said, here are some old blog posts I've written which are at least partly related to your questions:

Secondly, I'm not really interested in enaging with atheist youtube channels via a proxy. If I wanted to debate with an atheist youtuber I would do it directly, rather than by arguing with somebody who hasn't read the Bible himself but relies on other people to tell him what it says. If you want to have a genuine conversation about the Bible, please go read an entire book of the Bible first, and then we can discuss the individual verses in a fuller context.

Nevertheless, here are a few brief points about each of your questions:

1. The book of Exodus states that Pharoah hardened his own heart, before it states that God hardened his heart. The way human free will and divine providence fit together is somewhat mysterious, but it should not be regarded as being along the lines of mind-control where God forced Pharoah to do something Pharoah didn't want to do. Rather, he gave Pharoah the strength to do the thing Pharoah wanted to do the whole time. (And whenever we rebel against God or indeed do anything else, God gives us the strength to do it.) Also, I'm not sure why you object to earthquakes and tsunamis specifically given that we all die of something.

2. Ephesians 6:5 is not an endorsement of slavery as an institution. Rather, St. Paul (the writer of Ephesians) is writing to individuals in Rome who converted to Christianity who happen to be slaves, and advising them to submit in their present circumstances (rather than rebel against their masters, and most likely be killed). The advice is practical, not idealistic. In Ephesians 6:9 he goes on to say "And masters, treat your slaves in the same way". I think it is pretty radically egalitarian to tell masters to treat their slaves in the same way that slaves should treat their masters. St. Paul also says that if slaves can obtain their freedom than they should do so:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. (1 Cor 7:21-13)

As a historical matter, when the Christian Church got powerful enough in Europe it worked to abolish slavery, although unfortunately it was reintroduced by the Early Modern slave trade.

3. There is nothing in the Bible which states that God never sends prophets outside of Israel, in fact a few non-Israelite prophets are mentioned. But I agree that God treated Israel differently. However, he does so for the benefit of all nations. The greater degree of intervention with Israel served the purpose of preparing the right social conditions for the Messiah, Jesus. After Jesus came the message of salvation is for all nations.

4. The purpose of animal sacrifice was to show the seriousness of sin, and to give Israel concepts such as "atonement" which are important for understanding the death of Jesus. As for veganism I don't agree with you that this is morally obligatory today (but I do think that modern factory farms are ethicaly abominable).

[Setting aside temporarily the question of the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, and reading it literally:] In Genesis chapter 9, after the Flood, God explicitly gives human beings permission to eat meat. However, because this permission was granted at the time of Noah, one could argue that prior to that time people were supposed to be vegetarian (see Genesis 1:29-30), and that eating of meat is a sort of plan B and that God chose to tolerate meat eating, perhaps because this issue was a lower priority than how human beings treat each other. The New Testament recognizes that some Christians will restrict their diet to vegetables for ethical reasons, while others will not, and tells both sides not to judge the other person about this.

More generally, you are operating under the assumption that God ought to have started out by giving his people a perfect culture. Whereas I see God more as working within existing cultural frameworks, and trying to give them very basic lessons in theology and justice, so as to produce a morally critical culture that has the ability to improve itself with time.

5. I think here you are speaking way beyond your knowledge. It's hard to believe that God would be unable to make paradise interesting forever. Since God is the one who implanted us with our sense of boredom (to keep us from limiting ourselves to a single type of good when other types of good are avaialble) he would presumably be capable of turning it off if it became a source of unhappiness. But I am not sure that is even necessary. To take one very limited example, I think there are probably an infinite number of interesting mathematical theorems!

More importantly, God himself is the Supreme Good, and utterly fascinating and mysterious, and as such he is capable of satifying the human mind forever. That is what we were made to do. In my experience the saints who know God the best are the people who seem least bored with existence. Those who think that Heaven would be boring, are simply showing that they do not have an adequate notion of God's goodness.

6. Culture includes mythology. While I believe the parts of the Bible that seem to be historical are mostly historical, I think that the earliest parts of the Bible (e.g. Adam and Eve and the Flood) belong to the genre of mythology rather than to history. But it is divinely inspired mythology, so it still carries an important theological message. That is, I believe that the Holy Spirit was working with existing myths and shaping them in order to tell the story he wants to tell. There are also some pretty significant diferences from pagan myths, for example Genesis teaches ethical monotheism rather than polytheism. The reason why I don't think this undermines the Bible is that to me the center of the Bible story is Christ, who is historical.

7. I don't think of Adam and Eve as an alternative to Darwinian Evolution. I believe that Darwinian Evolution is a correct theory of biology, while the story of Adam and Eve is the (partially mythological) way God has chosen to describe the human condition to us. Both contain important truths, but of different sorts.

8. Obviously, an argument from authority based on sociology of scientists is very different from an actual scientific argument! (And much weaker, as you acknowledge.)

While some arguments from authority are reasonable, it seems to me that most theoretical physicists don't really have the right sort of expertise to answer these questions. Yes, the majority of contemporary theoretical physicists are atheists, but most of them have thought about the issue even less than you have! So this seems like an argument by authority where you aren't even polling people with the right sort of authority.

More generally, I think that people's beliefs about religion are heavily influenced by their cultural surroundings, and there's a lot of room for academics to be influenced by current intellectual fads (for example, at the time of the invention of QM Postitivism was a current intellectual fads, which is anti-religious (as was Marxism, Freudianism...). But it is now widely agreed upon by analytic philosophers that Positivism is not logically consistent).

If you had instead polled 19th century physicsts, you would find that the majority of them were Christians (e.g. Sts. Maxwell, Faraday, Kelvin etc). One possible explanation for this is that sometime around the year 1900, some specific scientific advance happened which made Christianity a lot less plausible. But another possible hypothesis is just that different ideas are fads at different times, and that they change without always tracking the truth. As St. C.S. Lewis wrote about his friend Owen Barfield:

In the first place [Barfield] made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

You wrote:

If God exists he should be more complex that the universe he made, so how was he created?

With all due respect to Dawkins, this is a really dumb argument. Why do you think God would have to be more complex than the universe? And why do you think he needed to be created?

In classical theism, God is in fact completely simple in the old sense of the word "simple" (not made of any parts). This should not be confused with the idea that God is easy to understand! There are some respects in which God's attributes are unlimited/infinite (he knows everything, is morally perfect etc.), but he is not a Rube Goldberg machine made of a bunch of parts that somehow came together. That is (one reason) why it is not necessary for God to have a cause.

See this essay for a better perspective.

I also find it hard to imagine that God CREATED spacetime before it existed. How can someone do something when time doesn't exist?

Whether or not you can "imagine" it is not the important point. There are lots of physics ideas that are hard to imagine, and that doesn't make them wrong.

God exists timelessly, so he creates not by acting within time, but rather by inventing time and causing it to exist. I don't see why there is any logical inconsistency in taking the idea of causation, and then abstracting away from it the idea that it occurs at a specific time. If you want to persude me there is a logical inconsistency, you'll need a more specific argument than that.

For a bit more, see my post:
Fuzzing Into Existence
and my 6 part series about "God and Time".

19. Doc says:

Hi Aron,

If there were any particular happening somewhat close the turn of the century that would have an impact on the beliefs of the scientific community, my best guess would be Darwin & his advancement of the evolution idea. This seems to be what many atheists point to, and their belief that we as humans are nothing more than a lucky roll of the dice.

I wholeheartedly disagree of course, but I think that was a bit of a turning point in the scientific community in regards to religion.

20. Dear Aron,
Thanks for replying even though I asked many questions. Since this discussion is becoming large I am stopping it even though I disagree with some of them. I will read Bible (instead of searching for unscientific and immoral lines) in future when I have time not because I think it can convince me but at least because it is the book which impacted humanity the most.

21. Aron Wall says:

Doc,
The Origin of Specices was published in 1859, and was certainly widely discussed in the following decades. So that seems a little too early to account for a change that seems to have taken place c. 1900.

An important discovery that did happen around the turn of the century was the discovery of radioactivity. Until that time, it was unclear how the Sun could generate enough power to survive for the hundreds of millions of years that are required for Darwinian evolution. Before that time, while many biologists and geologists were insisting that the evidence required an Old Earth, it was not clear how it was physically possible.

But in general I think it is naive to try to pin such changes of sensibility on singular scientific advances, as though culture and philosophy made no difference.

22. JamesH says:

"Doc: I wholeheartedly disagree of course, but I think that [Darwin's discovery of evolution] was a bit of a turning point in the scientific community in regards to religion."

Atheists like Dawkins would have us believe so, but it's worth pointing out that Darwin's theory was only really ever a threat to Creationism. Writers like Origen and Augustine had already called into question literal readings of Genesis centuries earlier, something which many atheists rarely acknowledge (they often falsely claim that an allegorical reading of Genesis is a recent forced move, made by Christians in response to an onslaught by evolutionary science). Further, it was actually Matthew who discovered evolution around thirty years before Darwin- there is a very full statement of evolutionary theory in his work- and he appears to have been a Christian. Contrary to the claims of Darwin's supporters there was a lot of discussion of Matthew's work before Darwin published his theory, with reviews in India and the US. The supposed religious implications of the discovery didn't appear until Darwin. There is a very interesting book by Mike Sutton (a criminologist) who has claimed that Darwin plagiarised Matthew. It should be said that Sutton has been criticised heavily from some academic quarters, but I actually find his work quite difficult to dismiss.

23. Doc says:

I wasn't trying to make a definitive end-all cap on the discussion. From every atheist I've personally talked to, and seemingly endless articles I've read from various sources, their reasoning always circles back to Darwin. I'm happy to be wrong though, and that's why I enjoy reading your posts, and the comments/responses. I become more educated, myself, and responses like yours and James' give me more topics to read up on.

24. Aron Wall says:

Doc,
Well, it's certainly true that it would be very hard to make coherent sense of Naturalistic Atheism, without either Darwinian evolution, or something else very similar. Indeed there is a proto-suggestion concerning natural selection even as far back as Lucretius.

If Atheism would have been extremely implausible without Darwinism (but Theism is compatible with either Darwinism and special creation of lifeforms) then it follows that Darwinism is strong Bayesian evidence for Atheism, in the sense of multiplying the value of $P(\mathrm{Atheism})/P(\mathrm{Theism})$ by a factor much larger than 1. But this is totally compatible with saying that Darwinism is not all that unlikely on Theism, and even that $P(\mathrm{Theism}) \gg P(\mathrm{Atheism})$ when one considers all the evidence.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect God to create a universe in which there are no propositions P that serve as evidence for Atheism. After all, every time God chooses to act through secondary causes, rather than miraculously intervene, he excludes a particualar argument for Theism, and conversely makes Atheism more plausible than if he hadn't. But if God never acted through secondary causes, that would be tantamount to not making a causal world of Nature at all!

This is one reason why it's very important to distinguish specific arguments for the existence of God, from God himself. We should not invest the same level of trust and dependence in the former, as we rightly provide to the latter. God's policy is to give people, including atheists, room to grow and develop without (usually) hitting them over the head with his existence. What atheists perceive as God's absence in history, Christians see as his "kindness, tolerance, and patience" (Romans 2:4).

25. Dear Aron,
In a comment above you said, "Of course, if all non-Christians automatically go straight to Hell when they die, then this would indeed raise grave moral problems related to the majority of the world population not being Christians". I agree with that. But I think it will be inconsistent for you to say that. In some other post, it seemed you believe in the divine command theory, in which by definition God (if he/she/they/it exists. IDK what pronoun to use. I will use he from now) can do no evil. I believe that Combining negative utilitarianism with rights is the best ethical theory and in that theory Abrahamic god is an evil person because he is not minimizing the evil in this world. Like he has the power to go and help starving children in Africa but is neglecting them.

Also even if I believe that the story of Jesus is historically accurate (which I actually don't) even then it doesn't imply Christianity. All I believe after seeing a resurrected dead man is that resurrection is possible. It is possible that magic is true and by doing some occult things we can also do things like him. Example in the Naruto anime Hagoromo Ōtsutsuki has the power to resurrect himself and he resurrects himself after 1000 years and he can destroy continents. But in that story, he is no God. He is just a mixed alien-human who knows a type of magic called chakra (many Indians believe that Chakra is really there. That anime was heavily influenced by Hinduism) and the majority of people don't have chakra and if they saw him they might think of him as God. For me to believe that he is the creator of the world the miracle needs to be far more miraculous. He should do something like move billions and billions of stars by moving his fingers. Given historically Jesus did miracles as believed by Christians the probability that he is God is of the order of 1% in my opinion.

Aron, have you written any blog articles on why God is HIDDEN. Philosophers like Schellenberg think The Hiddenness Argument is even more against religion than the problem of evil. If a parent left his kid in a forest/somewhere and never cared about him and is enjoying his life, it is considered evil. You claim that God loves anyone more than their parents, but he will never show up to help people who are in problems. If 2 children are fighting parents should come and stop, similarily if people are waging war then God should come and stop.

Also when earlier I said earlier Jesus eating meat is morally OK, I said assuming he is a normal person in a time when agriculture was not advanced. But if I believed that he is God, I wouldn't consider him as a good God. He had the necessary amount of magic power to create vegan food from nothing. Yet he chose to eat meat instead of that.

Also, you think that God is simple. From my point of view, any person who knows every mathematical theorem knows infinite information and he necessarily violates the Bekenstein bound. You might say he is incorporeal and laws of physics don't work on him. But it just feels like you are adding ad hoc properties to him to make him simple. Although it is possible that one can think like that it is highly unlikely that God is simple. You accepted that he is not simple to understand. I believe that anything simple is also easy to understand. I do think that the ontological argument is probably true (not Anslems one but later rigorous ones). But that thing that necessarily exists is the laws of physics and something like a quantum vacuum state upon which these laws act (I don't think the ontological argument proves that only 1 thing will necessarily exist. There can be multiple things). You wrote about this but you only included laws of physics as an option. I think the laws of physics alone can't produce this universe.

That quote by Lewis (I like The Chronicles of Narnia from my childhood. But only from your blog, I found out that he is a Christian apologetic.) is a Black-or-White Fallacy. If you take ancient Greek or Hindu religious books they look more mythological than Christianity. But if you take new-age religious books they look less mythological. It's a continuous process and it's unfair to stop exactly at a point and say this religious book is not mythological but earlier books are. Even if I assume that it is really not mythological and looks like a historical book, even then it is much more probable that an unknown writer in the second century was an exceptional writer than Jesus is God.

Religious people often ask atheists why they are killing people. I think this question should be actually asked by atheists. We don't think afterlife exists. So even if we are angry with someone we shouldn't kill him and make him cease to exist. But if I am a religious person, I will think even if I kill him he will exist in heaven, and even if I am a murderer God will forgive me if I believe in him. So, atheism gives more meaning to morality.

Also, the 10 commandments sound like the author believed that other Gods exist. God is just saying that he is the greatest among them. This view is historically accurate because most modern historians agree that Yahweh was the national god of Ancient Israel and they believed that other nations have different Gods. Only later they changed him to God of the universe.

I didn't mean to hurt anyone.

26. I am sorry.
"Religious people often ask atheists why they are killing people."
This statement should be:
"Religious people often ask atheists why they are NOT killing people."

27. JamesH says:

"I believe that Combining negative utilitarianism with rights is the best ethical theory and in that theory Abrahamic god is an evil person because he is not minimizing the evil in this world."

Hello Kasi. I am not sure why you think that combining negative utilitarianism with rights is "the best moral theory". It seems to me that the most you can consistently say as an atheist is that it's *your opinion* that it's the best moral theory. However, if someone else were to say that they thought a different moral theory was the best, there are no facts that either party could appeal too-it would just be a matter of personal preference. Even if someone were to make a seemingly outrageous judgement such as "my personal interests are more important than those of other people" there wouldn't be any basis for you to claim that he was wrong. In that sense, your judgement in favour of your preferred moral theory is little different from someone saying that they prefer yogurt to ice-cream.

The same question arises with regards to "rights". Where, if atheism is true, do these originate from? Surely, they are no more than a matter of individual (or societal) preference/convention on your view.

28. Dear JamesH,
I said that I BELIEVE it is the best (in my opinion). I do not claim that I can prove or show that it is better than others from some other axioms.

Dear Aron,
I forgot what you said earlier and asked many questions. Answer those you think are valid arguments against Christianity and leave the rest.

29. JamesH says:

“Hello Kasi: You might say he [God] is incorporeal and laws of physics don't work on him. But it just feels like you are adding ad hoc properties to him to make him simple. "

Well, if someone was adding more properties to God, that would make Him more complex in terms of descriptive length, not simpler!

“Although it is possible that one can think like that it is highly unlikely that God is simple. "

I don't know what basis you have for this assertion; as you, presumably, don’t believe that God exists, it is referentially contradictory to say that He doesn’t exist *and* that it is “highly unlikely that he is simple.”

"You accepted that he is not simple to understand. I believe that anything simple is also easy to understand. "

To say that God is simple is (roughly) to say that He is not composite. But from this it cannot be inferred that He is simple in the sense of being easy to understand. So there is an implicit fallacy of equivocation here.

30. Dear JamesH,
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/simple. The 1st definition they gave is my definition "easy to understand". If there are multiple explanations for a single thing the simpler (easy to understand) one is more probable to be true in my opinion. We haven't done any experiment which can distinguish between general relativity and Brans–Dicke theory both explain gravity as long as no quantum effects are present and most people choose general relativity because it is simpler (easy to understand).
The thing about God which sounds complex to me is his consciousness. Consciousness is a highly complex emergent orgainc phenomenon. We can't predict what God thinks next and that makes him complex in my opinion. Compare with laws of physics they will not change with time. They are simpler (easy to understand or easy to completely characterize). You can completely characterize the laws of physics as equations. You can't write all properties of God on a paper and then derive that he will show partiality to Israelites. Explaining it is hard from that perspective.
But very simple in my worldview he was created by people as a storm-and-warrior deity god for Israelites (not universe). He was created by not even their own creativity, they mixed storied of El to him. I don't know about all that history but Wikipedia is saying that it is accepted by most historians.

31. JamesH says:

"Kwasi: If there are multiple explanations for a single thing the simpler (easy to understand) one is more probable to be true in my opinion. We haven't done any experiment which can distinguish between general relativity and Brans–Dicke theory both explain gravity as long as no quantum effects are present and most people choose general relativity because it is simpler (easy to understand)."

There isn't an agreed definition of "simplicity" - it is defined in different ways by different philosophers and scientists. The definition I gave was from complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam. Furthermore, when we compare different scientific theories we don't just look at "simplicity"; other criteria which we consider include parsimony, fit with existing theories, breadth, fruitfulness and so on.

"The thing about God which sounds complex to me is his consciousness. Consciousness is a highly complex emergent orgainc phenomenon. "

No, its an error to suppose that emergence is applicable to God. Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, these emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. But since God does not have parts He cannot have emergent properties per definition.

"Compare with laws of physics they will not change with time. They are simpler (easy to understand or easy to completely characterize). You can completely characterize the laws of physics as equations. You can't write all properties of God on a paper and then derive that he will show partiality to Israelites. Explaining it is hard from that perspective."

God is not a rival to the laws of physics. And I have already explained that there isn't a single agreed definition of simplicity. God can be said to be simple in that He can be described with a single logical predicate as a maximally perfect being.

"But very simple in my worldview he was created by people as a storm-and-warrior deity god for Israelites (not universe). He was created by not even their own creativity, they mixed storied of El to him. I don't know about all that history but Wikipedia is saying that it is accepted by most historians."

Here you have committed the genetic fallacy: the *origin* of x is y, therefore x *is* y. Historians do *not* say that God was "created"- or at least if they do, they are not doing history. This is just an unsupported assertion on your part.

32. Dear Aron and JamesH,
1) Do you think when the church burned Giordano Bruno for his philosophies and science or when Galileo was prosecuted for his support of heliocentrism or when many LGBT people were burned in the past, it was a morally correct thing to do?

2) Do you think your GOD was happy about the above things when they happened which really look barbarous to me?

33. What makes Hinduism more consistent than Christianity (as long as you deny the humongous historical and scientific evidence which is against Hinduism) is the fact that you can go to heaven without worshipping the Gods. You can go to heaven by gaining positive Karma which can be attained both by helping others and by praying to Gods. The Hindu's claim that Gods are good and Asuras (devils) are bad. But this is only true most of the time, Bali was asura or demon, but he is considered as one of the noblest people to have ever lived. Similarly, there are many stories when gods like Indra did bad things and were punished by other gods or cursed by sages.

They are not even claiming that these Gods are omnibenevolent but these gods are not sending to hell if you don't worship them. Your God is supposed to be infinitely kinder than these Gods. I guess Aron thinks the Christian god will not send nonbelievers to hell, but by saying this I think he is creating a new form of Christianity by denying one of the most important tenets of actual Christianity. The sole purpose of that tenet was to make the Abrahamic religion popular, it's only natural that it might be removed after Christianity is the most popular.

Also, it does not have the problem of evil. You can always blame the victim by saying that he did evil in the past and he deserves it and no one can disprove that. I know it sounds cruel to blame a victim, but your belief is even cruel, that just because Adam and Eve ate an apple (which is not a cruel thing at all) every human deserved eternal damnation, and somehow god is still trying to save us from him for our own sin which we totally haven't committed. Punishing descendants for their ancestor mistakes is something an evil person would do. Alteast Hindusim has some self-respect in Humanity and if you are a great sage who has meditated for thousand years without eating or drinking anything (yes many people believe it's possible) then even most gods will give respect to you except maybe the top ones like Vishnu and Shiva.

1) Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
This question of yours is also unfair. It is not necessary that the true religion is practiced by a significant fraction of the world population. When Einstein formulated General relativity only a few people believed in it like David Hilbert (who might even have formulated the field equations before Einstein). Above you said
-"Is it so hard to believe that God might place some value on some people being allowed to discover for themselves what is true and good? To make a world where there is room for spiritual growth and development?" by this you think that God never tried to convert all people and he only wants people to discover it. In your view, argumentum ad populum will become a fallacy as it is NOT necessary that most people are CAPABLE enough to find the truth. I believe if a God exists he will try to make everyone believe and except some EXTREMELY stupid people everyone will believe in him. As it is not the case I think he doesn't exist. If I thought like you that he never tried to make everyone believe then I would try to learn all religions which exist however small their population may be. If you put a barrier like at least this fraction of people should have believed in it, then you have to say that, God at least wanted this many followers which will become an unjustifiable claim.

34. JamesH says:

"Hello Kasi: Galileo was prosecuted for his support of heliocentrism "

Galileo was *not* prosecuted for his support for heliocentrism but for heresy. There was no discussion of the heliocentrism or science generally at his trial. In any case, the scientific evidence *at that time* did not favour Galileo's position. Copernicus had proposed that the earth went around the sun but his model had as many ad hoc adjustments as the Ptolemaic model, and was not as predictively accurate. Galileo insisted that Copernicanism was true but presented no compelling evidence for his position. The astronomical models were actually improved on account of the work of Tycho Brahe and Kepler. Galileo’s trial was in 1633 and by that time, astronomers were debating between the Tychonic system and the Keplerian one. Copernicanism was by then passé. Most scientific historians now acknowledge that the conflict between Galileo and the church was related to clashes of particular personalities. The Pope felt insulted by what he took to be Galileo's depiction of him in one of his popular works. The church's position was that it would adopt heliocentrism if the evidence was good enough. Most scientific historians take the view that the supposed "incompatibility between science and religion" the episode is supposed to illustrate is a complete fairy story. I have always taken the view that even if one holds that the church treated Galileo unfairly-which it arguably did- at best one can derive from this an incredibly weak inductive argument in support of the view that religion and science are fundamentally in conflict, i.e. given that this is virtually an isolated episode. If one were to look at the history of a country like the UK or the US one could probably find a few examples of scientists being treated badly by the government, but this doesn't licence the conclusion that there is a fundamental clash between the government in question and science.

At any rate, I have been posting here quite a lot recently. I don't want to "hog" all of the questions which Aron may wish to answer, so I'll take a bit of a break for the moment.

35. Dear JamesH,
Can you provide any source which states that "Galileo was *not* prosecuted for his support for heliocentrism"
Read Galileo affair, they not only gave heliocentrism as the reason, but that is the only reason they gave. Your claim that it was motivated by Pope's personal relationship with Galileo is not mentioned at all.

"Galileo insisted that Copernicanism was true but presented no compelling evidence for his position."
Read that wiki article. Galileo offered them many times to look through his telescope but they refused to do it because of their geocentrism. You might say Wikipedia is unreliable, that is true, but this is a protected article which means normal people can't edit it and edits will need good references for them to be added.

Religious people criticized him because their religious book says that the earth is fixed (Psalm 93:1), as back then all Christians were Biblical literalists. Other scientists criticized him because they did not know the concept of inertia and believed that if the earth is moving they should feel it. Galileo was the first one to state "A body moving on a level surface will continue in the same direction at a constant speed unless disturbed." which is the 1st Newton's law.

36. David D. says:

Dear Kasi,

regarding a source for info. on the Galileo affair, I'd recommend this: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-great-ptolemaic-smackdown-table-of.html

37. JamesH says:

"Dear JamesH,
Can you provide any source which states that "Galileo was *not* prosecuted for his support for heliocentrism""

I was referring to the *charge* at Galileo's trial. This was heresy. The trial did not involve discussion of the merits of heliocentrism versus the earlier model or of science generally. Nor did heliocentrism originate with Galileo; as is well known Copernicus had proposed it earlier and, of course, he was not put on trial by the inquisition.

"Your claim that it was motivated by Pope's personal relationship with Galileo is not mentioned at all."

Then it's a very poor work. Just read Galileo himself. Galileo caricatured the Pope in one of his works, (which was written in Italian rather than Latin). Further, he clashed with various other senior members of the church. It was these personal clashes which contributed to his downfall rather than scientific issues per se. If the issue was purely over heliocentrism you have to explain why Copernicus and Kepler (a cleric) were not put on trial.

"Galileo offered them many times to look through his telescope but they refused to do it because of their geocentrism. "

This is simply incorrect. For example Riccioli (see below)
had made observations with a telescope. The Church as a sponsor of science allowed church's to be used for astronomical work. And, as I said above, there was no discussion of scientific issues including telescopes at Galileo's trial. Further, heleocentrism was only established considerably later.

"Religious people criticized him because their religious book says that the earth is fixed (Psalm 93:1), as back then all Christians were Biblical literalists. "

Incorrect. For one thing often people at the time were illiterate and couldn't even read the Bible. Further, the doctrine at the time was Aristotelian and the debate was a scientific one. For example Riccioli, a leading astronomer of the day who was also a priest and a scientist, defended geocentrism, and presented 126 arguments in the topic (49 for heliocentrism, 77 against), and only two of them (both for heliocentrism) had any religious connotations, and he stated valid responses against both of them.

The Bible was read allegorically. I have already quoted this passage from Origen, but will do so again: c.180-250 AD: Origen wrote:
’For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.’ (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, p. 365). Likewise, St Augustine criticised literalism in Genesis. Literalism is associated with later Protestantism.

38. JamesH says:

"DavidD: I'd recommend this: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-great-ptolemaic-smackdown-table-of.html

Yes, this gives a very good account. I'd also recommend C. Graney's " Setting Aside All Authority". There is a brief interview with the author here:

https://strangenotions.com/galileo-was-right-but-so-were-his-critics/