High upon a hillside, a preacher tells a story to a crowd He tells the same old story, a thousand times he's read that story loud He wants to give the answers, but his words are only Answers to nothing Lying in my bedroom, a man comes on my TV with a grin He tells me to believe him, he said that I should put my faith in him He says he has the answers, but his words are only Answers to nothing
-- Midge Ure
Skeptics Answered doesn't.
Skeptics Answered is a ridiculous work of apologetics published in 1997 by D. James Kennedy, leader of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Excluding its tiny bibliography, Bible study group questions, and index, the main text runs only 160 pages. Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, through its scarily-named Center for Reclaiming America, are at the forefront of an aggressive fundamentalist movement to transform America from its current inclusive, representative democracy into a harsh Christian theocracy. One of Coral Ridge's more infamous recent activities involves giving both material and financial support to bigoted Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and his flagrantly unconstitutional installment of a ghastly 5000 pound Ten Commandments monument in a public building in that state.
Kennedy -- henceforth referred to as DJK -- is highly respected among the Christian community, who think of him as an intellectual authority. This is unfortunate, as DJK's attacks on science and evolution, to list only one example, are composed of outright disinformation. But if Skeptics Answered truly represents the work of the "cream of the intellectual crop" (as one amazon.com reviewer put it) of contemporary fundamentalist thought, then it's a thin cream indeed. It would be one thing to point out that this book contains not one single new argument in defense of the faith that athiests haven't already heard and countered. But Skeptics Answered goes farther than that, as the dishonesty of its author's position and presentation are made palpable from the first chapter.
The book is divided into three parts, and I will refute it almost point-for-point in the following essay, which is also broken up into three parts to match the book. This might seem a little long, but I encourage you all to read it, as it is important to understand not only the arguments fundamentalists put forth, but the devious rhetoric they also engage in to support those arguments. It's also important because DJK is a fundamentalist who wants to "reclaim" America with his religious beliefs as the supreme law -- freethinkers are thus helped by knowing how such a man thinks. As the saying goes, a little bit of BS takes a lot to wash out.
Part 1: A Reasonable Faith
Part 2: How I Know God Exists
Part 3: Answers to Common Objections
Part 1: A Reasonable Faith
The problems begin right away in Chapter One.
Magnanimously titled "Skeptics Are Welcome," DJK quickly makes it clear that isn't strictly the case. After all, what exactly does DJK mean when he talks about "skeptics"? This was a question I had from the moment this book was brought to my attention; a true believer's definition of a skeptic may mean something entirely different from what an actual skeptic will tell you it is. So is DJK referring to informed atheists with a background in debating theists, or is he simply referring to "doubters" who want to be converted, but simply have an issue or two they'd like smoothed over first?
If you said, "the latter," go to the head of the class, though DJK is wishy-washy on this point and throws in logical fallacies designed to give the appearance his position is being bolstered. He opens by saying that skepticism is a good thing, but quickly assures his readers that
...many skeptics have looked at Christianity's historicity and have ended up coming to faith in Christ.
The fact that this is immaterial to determining the truth or falsehood of a proposition is ignored by DJK (and is an example of the appeal to belief fallacy). Many skeptics have looked at Christianity's historicity and haven't ended up coming to faith in Christ, so an argument like this is feeble at best and a waste of paper at worst. But does DJK give us examples of who these "many" skeptics are? Sure. A whole two of them, in fact.
DJK's first example is Gen. Lew Wallace, who authored the original novel Ben-Hur.
Not only was [Wallace] a skeptic, but he also set out to disprove the Christian faith. After several years of intense research, he became a Christian. It would have been intellectually dishonest for him to do otherwise!
If you aren't already doubled over in hysterics, here's the problem. Whenever a Christian tries to tell you about some famous person who "set out to disprove Christianity" only to be bowled over by the evidence and converted on the spot, kindly point out to them thattrying to disprove something that hasn't yet been proved is a moot exercise. Remember that the burden of proof for a claim always rests upon the person claiming the existence of the thing in question. Since it is theists who are claiming a god exists, it is up to them to prove their claim, solely. This holds just as true for people who believe in God as it does for people who believe in Bigfoot or UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster. If they fail to prove their claim, unbelievers are entirely justified in their unbelief. I do not feel I need to "disprove" Christianity in order to refrain from believing it, any more than Christians feel they have to "disprove" the existence of Zeus in order to refrain from believing in him.
Christians like DJK want to shift the burden of proof to the skeptic -- again a by-product of the appeal to belief and appeal to popularity fallacies. Shifting the burden of proof is a way of saying that because most people believe something, it must be true, so unbelievers bear the burden by virtue of being in the minority camp.
DJK also sings the praises of Josh McDowell, whose book Evidence That Demands a Verdict continues to impress Christians although extensive refutations of it exist. But since DJK has already brought up that handiest of all catchphrases "intellectual dishonesty," it's important to point out that McDowell could fairly be accused of it himself. He is known, for instance, for ignoring critiques of his work by skeptics. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, who wrote a critique of McDowell's sequel New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, has pointed out, "McDowell completely ignored our criticisms in his 'fully updated' New Evidence. This cannot be due to ignorance. I have personally tried to correspond with Mr. McDowell twice; each time I received no acknowledgement. Likewise, I know that many Christians have urged McDowell to respond to our critique, for they have written me telling me so! Clearly, McDowell has no obligation whatsoever to communicate with me or to answer our critique. But he cannot claim that his book has been 'fully updated' when he ignores a direct and comprehensive rebuttal to it." Ignoring one's critics might be a privilege any writer has, but it is not necessarily indicative of someone who is interested in the truth.
And this makes DJK's next passages all the more arrogant and hypocritical. Here is where we finally hear what he means when he talks of skeptics.
I'm not saying we can comprehend with our minds every aspect of Christian theology -- for instance, the Trinity -- but I am saying reasonable answers exist for the honest skeptic. [emphasis added]
Ah-ha, and what does this mean? Well, apparently, a dishonest skeptic is one of those pains in the ass who insist upon pesky things like rock-hard evidence. DJK relates the famous Gospel passage about Doubting Thomas, from John 20:24-29. Thomas refuses to believe Jesus has been resurrected unless he can see Jesus with his own eyes and examine the nail wounds. Considering that Thomas has just been told a man has returned from the dead, a skeptic might consider his position perfectly rational. Jesus gives Thomas the evidence he wants, and promptly excoriates him for his critical thinking.
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:29)
But wait! At the very beginning of this chapter, DJK says:
[Skeptics imply] that for a person to believe, he or she must stop thinking and asking questions. You just have to make a leap of faith -- a blind leap. My friend, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Christian faith.
Well then, why does Jesus say it is true!? Read the passage from John again. Jesus is attacking Thomas for displaying the very skepticism that DJK says is "welcome" in Christianity! According to Jesus, blind unquestioning belief makes you "blessed." Demanding evidence before committing to a belief is not a "blessed" activity. DJK says you don't have to stop asking questions in Christianity, but Jesus himself, while not necessarily opposed to the asking of questions per se, makes it clear that asking questions renders you not "blessed." And being "blessed" is what's important.
DJK also lists as a "dishonest," evidence-demanding skeptic that nasty old King Herod, who demanded Jesus perform miracles for him, and Pontius Pilate.
We have to make a distinction here between the honest skeptic and the one who's not interested in truth. When Jesus stood before Pilate and mentioned the word truth, Pilate asked, "What is truth?" (implying no such thing as absolute truth existed). [emphasis added]
Well, there goes my irony-meter again. For one thing, the only people I've ever heard argue that there is no such thing as objective truth (which may be what DJK means by "absolute" truth) have been Christians, New Agers, or other believers in the paranormal. Indeed, it's a common fallback position for them whenever skeptics point out that the evidence to support their beliefs is weak or nonexistent.* Skeptics and rationalists by their very definition are people who insist upon cutting through the spin and the ideological fog that shrouds so many belief systems in order to get to independently verifiable facts. This is, in a nutshell, the practice of science. But notice again DJK's insistence upon distinguishing between what he terms honest and dishonest skeptics. DJK paradoxically seems to be implying that the tougher or more persistent the questions are that you ask, the less likely you are to be interested in the truth! But how do you really distinguish an honest skeptic from a dishonest one? DJK backs off from that one.
Because we can't judge the heart, we don't know whether a skeptic is interested in honest dialogue or just mind games.
This is absurd. For one thing, you can judge whether someone you're debating is interested in honest dialogue simply by listening to the caliber of their arguments. "Judging the heart" is emotional language and seems to me another of DJK's irrelevancies. Secondly, to insist upon drawing a distinction between honest and dishonest skeptics and then following that up immediately with the assertion that you really can't make such a distinction after all is some kind of forensic legerdemain. DJK is simply shielding himself here from having to face the most hardball questions from the most informed and experienced skeptics. If you ask DJK a question he can't or doesn't want to answer, then apparently, you're playing "mind games!" By dismissing questions he doesn't want to hear with terms like "mind games," he's displaying -- you guessed it -- intellectual dishonesty.
In Chapter Two, "A Word about the Word," DJK makes what may be the most superficial argument I've ever seen that the Bible is the most reliable and trustworthy of all historical documents. But first, he has a few more snide remarks to hurl at skeptics.
After telling us we were "welcome" in his first chapter, DJK drops the other shoe. As they are in Jack Chick tracts, the skeptics DJK encounters are uneducated clods whose reading experience is probably limited to the Sunday funnies. They haven't formed any sound defense of their disbelief, and are motivated solely by emotion. And they are easily thrown off guard into a fit of stammering by a Christian's merest quip. The unbeliever, says DJK...
...has a desperate need to hide a diseased and rebellious heart behind a wall of denial.
In other words, we're all just a bunch of overgrown teenagers. It does not occur to DJK -- or if it does, he seems not to consider it relevant -- that many athiests have come to their atheism after a great deal of personal reflection, much of which can be emotionally painful (particularly considering the hostility that people like DJK and his ilk have for atheists), and that their disbelief in religion is based upon the honest opinion that its claims have not been proved and are in many cases unverifiable. Many of us were raised in religious households and have read the Bible. (Indeed, I've actually engaged in more Bible reading since I became an atheist than I ever did in my churchgoing youth.) DJK, who insisted upon drawing a distinction between honest and dishonest skeptics in the preceding chapter, now just labels them all as dishonest.
These kinds of personal attacks, as well as the subsequent juvenile paragraphs comparing (with a perfectly straight face) arguing with skeptics to kicking their asses like a judo master, may go a long way toward puffing up the egos of DJK and the kinds of Christians who might find such language appealing. But they hardly substitute for a well-reasoned argument or good scholarship. It takes good arguments and scholarship for a guy like DJK to earn the right to be so smug. He has neither.
For instance, he makes a blatant and easily checked mistake when he claims that the Greek root words for gospel and dynamite are the same. (Why does he do this? Oh, it's some inane attempt to pep-rally his unquestioning Christian readers by calling the Gospels "God's dynamite." Dorky, really.) The etymology of gospel is, in Old English, "godspel," or "good news." This is a translation from the Latin bona adnuntiatio, itself a translation of Greek euangelion, meaning "reward for bringing good news." And this is also of course where we get "evangelize." The Greek root for dynamite is dynamis, meaning "power." So if DJK is going to damage his credibility on a factual error so simple to verify (I did it in about 90 seconds with the help of Google), does my continued skepticism of his writings make me "honest" or "dishonest"?
Anyway, DJK explains that the way he thinks Christians ought to handle skeptics is to get them on the defensive as quickly as possible. And one way to do that is to bowl them over with the historical reliability of the Bible.
DJK's entire argument here boils down to the number of extant copies of the original -- or even close to original -- texts we presumably have of Bible scriptures compared to that which we have of other ancient texts, such as Herodotus, Plato and Homer. Since, according to DJK, we have more closely-dated papyri and scrolls from the Bible than we do of those other works, then we must concede that the Bible is one of history's most reliable documents. To reject the historical veracity of the Bible would mean that you would have to reject all other ancient texts as well, since we have more ancient Bible fragments (again, according to DJK) than ancient fragments of those works.
The foolishness of this position takes a while to sink in; it's one of those "where do you begin" scenarios. For one thing, having scrolls that date to almost the time of the original events they purport to depict may have immense scholarly worth and give you perhaps the most accurate account of a certain event you're likely to have, but the age of the documents alone cannot serve as proof positive of the trustworthiness of the document in all its particulars. After all, the bas-reliefs and carvings on the temples of ancient Egypt are, I would argue, original documents directly from the period. But the fact that we have access to those originals does not in and of itself constitute proof that the gods and goddesses and demons and kingly exploits they depict are indisputably true. Second, DJK is also assuming that the writers of these ancient papyri were paragons of journalistic objectivity, dutifully and dispassionately setting down cold hard facts that would make Joe Friday erect with delight; it doesn't occur to him that, then as now, people write what they write reflecting their cultural, political, and personal biases. And, in his "shop and compare" list of other ancient texts that we're supposed to understand are less historically verifiable than the Bible, DJK chooses two histories (one of which, Herodotus, is known to be wildly inaccurate in many instances), some philosophy, and a lot of literature (Homer, etc.). None of these are, like the Bible, works which have followers today like DJK who insist that one must believe what they say or suffer an eternity of torment in hell. The enormity of the claims believers make about the Bible, I'd submit, puts the Bible on a level requiring a higher standard of evidence than the dialogues of Plato. After all, here's DJK himself on the subject:
The Holy Bible...is more than a book. As Christians, we believe it to be perfect -- more powerful than a split atom, more true than death and taxes, and more reliable than the most sober and studied historian. ...In living, explaining, or defending our faith, we are most likely to say, "The Word of God says..." As believers, that settles the matter, no matter what the matter may be.
Well, the word for that is dogma, and last I checked, no one was making those claims about the writings of Julius Caesar or Demosthenes. And DJK has the unmitigated gall to regard people who express skepticism of such a dogmatic view as petulant kindergarten bullies!
In any event, DJK's scholarship is just plain crap, limited as it is, not surprisingly, to fundamentalist Christian writers. In regards to the verifiability of the Bible, DJK not only ignores recent archaeological work, he also conspicuously ignores his church's, and his Bible's, own history.
For instance, nowhere in Skeptics Answered will you read of the 200-year process under which the Bible as we know it today was assembled and edited, and the fierce debates that went on over which books may or may not have been divinely inspired and deserving of inclusion. The earliest New Testament canon was complied around 190 C.E. This is known as the Muratorian Canon, and did not include Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. These books were later included, of course, but along with books like Jude and Revelation there was considerable debate over their divine inspiration. The final New Testament canon was not assembled until 365 C.E., and not confirmed until 397 C.E. Now, I suppose DJK could claim that the fact the Bible underwent such a long vetting process only shores up its reliability. Wouldn't the length of time it took to assemble the final canon indicate a commitment to the truth on the part of early church leaders?
Well, not necessarily, because by the time the final canon was approved, Christianity had the support of the Roman Empire and presto, politics entered the picture. The writings of early skeptics -- yes, there were plenty -- who saw Jesus as merely a teacher or even a magician were suppressed as the church began its long, appalling history as the world's most powerful political machine. (For more info read Jesus the Magician, by Morton Smith.)
This history gets zero ink from DJK, who rests his entire argument for the Bible's historical verifiability upon the vintage of extant original writings. He assumes you won't know about the early church. Indeed, he tells Christians to belabor unbelievers on what they think the Bible's main point is -- as if that had anything to do with its veracity as a document -- and expects you to be thrown off balance by this little stunt. (What was it DJK said earlier about playing "mind games"? Sniff sniff...what's that I smell? Oh, I just stepped in a hypocrite!) So, as always, atheists are well-served in arguments with fundamentalists just by having access to the facts.
DJK also ignores recent archaeology, and his bibliography omits such notable works as Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? Recent archaeology shows that in fact, some ancient Biblical texts do indeed depict events and locales that can be historically verified -- but that does not automatically justify uncritical acceptance of all Biblical accounts. Indeed, the attitude among scholars today -- at least, those without a fundamentalist dogma like "the Bible is more true than death or taxes" to protect -- is that most Biblical writings are a combination of myth, history, and oral tradition. In their most worthwhile 2001 book The Bible Unearthed, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman point this out.
By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time there were too many contradictions between archaeological finds and the biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occured.
Finkelstein and Silberman also describe how the earliest biblical writings were motivated by powerful social and political concerns within the kingdom of Judah in and around the 7th century B.C.E. So if DJK were to ask me what I think the point of the Bible was, I'd ask him first if he meant Old Testament or New Testament, then I'd start with "Well, it was originally to unite the peoples of Israel and give them a national and cultural identity." How's that for judo? (Granted, The Bible Unearthed was published after Skeptics Answered, but the information it contains is well-documented in sources DJK could have easily researched -- that is, if DJK were really interested in scholarship and not simply filling his pews with smiling converts.)
On to page 2: Have Bible prophecies been fulfilled, and does that prove it is a supernatural document?
* In early 2000, the ACA made the mistake of having an Army chaplain speak at our weekly lecture series. (His topic was supposed to be "atheists in foxholes," but he forewent that in an attempt to preach to us. It wasn't pretty.) At the outset of his speech he tried to lay out a series of assumptions on which he thought he and us would see eye to eye. The first of these was "Truth is relative." I don't think he got to the second one.