I'm going to comment on this post, by atheist Keith Parsons:
Before addressing the specifics, let's make a general observation. Urban legends can go unchallenged for the simple reason that most folks may take no personal interest in the story one way or the other. Folks have no motive to disprove the story. It has no relevance to their daily lives. Moreover, they may not have access to disconfirmatory evidence.
Compare that to the life of Christ. Roman authorities viewed the Christian faith as, at best, a politically destabilizing movement–and, at worst, positively seditious. So Roman authorities had a vested interest in debunking Christian claims. Likewise, the legitimacy of the Jewish establishment was directly threatened by the Christian movement. And both groups had access to eyewitnesses, both hostile and friendly. None of Parsons' three examples are comparable.
I got a correspondence this morning from a reader who identified himself as having been raised in a strictly orthodox Jewish environment. One argument that he had often heard concerned the historicity of the stories about Moses, the Exodus, and the delivery of the Law at Mt. Sinai. I cannot reproduce these arguments here since they were quite detailed. However, the basically amounted to saying that it is unreasonable to hold that these stories were fabrications and that there just is no reasonable way that such fictions could have been passed off as the truth. Surely, anyone concocting such stories would be laughed at, or worse. In short, however improbable such stories may seem to skeptics, it is even more improbable that they could have been made up and foisted on people who knew better.
I myself don't deny that some people are gullible. Fictions can sometimes be passed off as truth. But before we consider his examples, here's a better example: Joseph Smith. He's a manifest charlatan, yet he had many followers.
You might say I just proved his point. No. You see, many of Smith's contemporaries exposed him as a fraud. So even though he had some credulous disciples, he also had contemporaneous critics. His tall tales were challenged at the time. And they've been continuously challenged. Back to Parsons:
Here is my reply:
I cannot respond to the argument at the same length that you present it. However, it seems to me to vastly underestimate the known human capacity for fabrication. We know from many examples that stories of an extraordinary nature can arise and spread very quickly—within a generation—even when eyewitnesses are alive who could contradict the story. Here are three quick examples:
In December 1945 a flight of TBF Avenger dive bombers took off on a routine training mission from the Fort Lauderdale AFB. This was the famous “Flight Nineteen” that soon entered folklore. The flight had navigation problems, could not find land, and eventually had to ditch in the sea. The flight and all personnel were lost without a trace. Within thirty years, a story had circulated and then appeared in print claiming that Flight Nineteen had been lost in bizarre circumstances in the “Bermuda Triangle.” These records reported radio transmissions from the flight back to the Ft. Lauderdale control tower reporting all sorts of paranormal events and weird experiences. The PBS science program Nova did a critical investigation of these claims and found former Air Force personnel who had been in the control tower during the entirety of the incidents with Flight Nineteen. They flatly contradicted the claims about bizarre radio transmissions and all the weird phenomena. There is no reason to think that the flight was not lost due to bad navigation and bad weather.
That's a counterproductive example to illustrate his claim:
i) Notice that Parsons doesn't give a precise reference for the NOVA special. He just relies on memory. I'm guessing this is the program he alluded to:
Case of the Bermuda Triangle (The)Since 1945, hundreds of ships and planes and thousands of people have mysteriously disappeared in an area of the Atlantic Ocean off of Florida, known as the Bermuda Triangle. NOVA penetrates the mystery of the terrifying Bermuda Triangle.
Original broadcast date: 06/27/76
Topic: unexplained phenomena
In fact, I'm pretty sure I saw the same show when I was a kid. If that's what he had in mind, then Parsons relied on his 30-year-old memory of a TV episode he saw just once. How is that recollection more trustworthy than oral history of the Resurrection 30 years later?
Likewise, he cites witnesses who were interviewed about 30 years after the fact. Well, that's a greater interval than 1 Cor 15:3-8. And it's quite probable that the Gospel of Mark was written within that timeframe.
ii) Moreover, even though the story of Flight 19 became subject to legendary embellishment, it's not a fictional story. The basic facts are undisputed. The time. The place. The number of planes. They fact that they never returned. So although nothing paranormal happened, it goes back to an actual event. And even in the urban legend, many of the details are correct.
iii) Most Americans wouldn't have access to the witnesses. That's very different from eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. Both Roman and Jewish authorities knew who the leaders of the early Christian movement were–which, in turn, gave them access to their social circle.
Soon after Charles Darwin’s death, the rumor spread that on his deathbed he had renounced evolutionary theory and accepted Christ as his savior. The story grew with the telling until, some 33 years after Darwin’s death, one “Lady Hope” wrote an account claiming that she had interviewed Darwin shortly before his death and that he had regretted his theory and accepted Christian salvation. Evangelical publications picked up on these accounts and spread them widely for years afterwards. The Darwin children, who were present during their father’s final illness and death, vigorously denied these allegations, yet they continued to spread, becoming an evangelical legend.
i) He's mentioned that before. So what? I myself am dubious about stereotypical stories like that precisely because it's…stereotypical. A pious literary genre.
ii) But even though this detail is false, many of the core details are true, viz., Darwin was real person; he lost his faith.
In the early decades of the 19th Century, George Washington was admired almost as a cult figure. One of his admirers of the period, the famous Parson Weems, concocted stories about Washington’s childhood. The most famous of these tales was the one about young George cutting down his father’s cherry tree. When confronted, young George replied, “Father I cannot tell a lie” and confessed the deed. Of course, this never happened. It was pure fiction. Further it was written at a time when there were people still alive who had known Washington personally. Yet the story became entrenched as a legend.
I've known that story for as long as I can remember. And even as a kid I never thought it was true. No boy talks that way. No boy would say that.
To me, it was on the same level as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. This is one reason why The Adventures of Huck Finn are so popular. That's what boys are really like. And male readers see themselves in that.
Fact is, his examples generate a dilemma for Parsons. Either he used to believe these urban legends or he never believed them. If he used to believe them, then, by his own admission, he's credulous. If he never believed them, then by his own admission, people aren't necessarily or even probably taken in by them.
Obviously, such examples could be easily multiplied. The upshot is that the human mind, as Francis Bacon observed, “Is not a dry [unbiased] light.” Or, as modern researchers in cognitive science have shown repeatedly by experimental evidence, the brain is a belief-forming engine. It forms beliefs and then looks for confirming evidence while discounting disconfirming evidence.
That kind of skepticism applies with equal force to the brains of atheists.
We believe stories that make us or our ancestors look like important people or which otherwise appeal to our sense of pride or self-righteousness.
i) I never felt inclined to be believe stories that heroized our Founding Fathers. I knew they were just human. And I knew such stories were deliberate, contrived national mythology.
ii) By contrast, the Bible contains many embarrassing stories about the Apostles and OT Jews.
Just as the brain is a belief-generator, so cultures are myth-generators. In addition to the studies of cognitive scientists, folklorists can show how all sorts of tales originate and spread until “everybody knows” that they are so.
Parsons hasn't begun to document that everyone, or even most people, believed in the Devil's Triangle, Darwin's deathbed recantation, or the apocryphal tale of George Washington. The fact that these stories circulate widely doesn't indicate how many people take them seriously. We have no control over what stories circulate.
Everybody has a friend who has a friend who saw it happen—so they say. The phenomenon of “urban legends” shows this. The upshot is that it is not at all difficult to see how the stories of Moses and the Exodus could have grown over time by the usual process of telling, re-telling, and re-re-telling, with an accumulation of apparently “factual” detail.
Problem is, the further you get from the source, the more anachronistic the legend. Yet Biblical archaeology confirms the accuracy of many Biblical accounts. So Parsons' theory backfires.
As another example consider how the process of transmission of tales about the Trojan War eventually produced The Iliad. The characters in the Iliad are so convincing and the events so powerfully rendered, that there is a strong temptation to believe that the account is historical in its details, though it certainly is not.
i) Really? I read about the Homeric heroes as a kid. Diomedes was my favorite. But I was never tempted to believe that he was a real person, or that he really bested Ares on the battlefield.
ii) On the other hand, the Iliad does have a basis in fact. There really was a Trojan War, as Schliemann demonstrated.
Beliefs about the past are particularly susceptible to being mythologized. You cannot visit the past, and in a society that had not yet developed the profession of the critical historian, your only access was through the tales that were told. You then pass on the tales to the next generation—maybe adding some parts here and there in perfectly good faith. You are only telling it the way it MUST have been. The result, after many generations, is tall tales enshrined as truth.
There were ancient skeptics. That's nothing new.
What's ironic about Parsons' post is his own lack of critical rigor. He just assumes that these urban legends were taken for granted. He doesn't quote any sociological surveys regarding what percentage of the population ever believed these urban legends, much less a demographic breakdown.