Friday, September 10, 2010

Inside Richard Carrier's padded cell

According to Richard Carrier:

“Ever since The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (TCD) came out we've been expecting deluded and irrational attacks. One such going the rounds now is the laboriously long treatment by the Christian crackpots at Triablogue…”

An obvious problem with this opening salvo is that it doesn’t mesh with Carrier’s worldview. To say somebody is a “crackpot” is normally a putdown–the assumption being that to be a “crackpot” is something undesirable.

And yet, from a secular standpoint, it makes no difference in the great scheme of things if the maggot is gnawing on the brain of a dead crackpot or a dead infidel. Both the infidel and the crackpot suffer the same fate.

That’s one of the intrinsic problems of atheism. If you’re right, you might as well be wrong. You lose by losing the argument, but you also lose by winning the argument. It’s like having the winning ticket to your own execution.

“…which they have amusingly titled The Infidel Delusion (I say amusingly because the ‘I know you are but what am I’ tactic only reinforces the stereotype that many Christians are emotionally stunted children--who also have no grasp of irony).”

i) If the fact that I named The Infidel Delusion after The Christian Delusion reinforces the stereotype of Christians as emotionally stunted children, then does the analogous fact that John Loftus named The Christian Delusion after The God Delusion reinforce the stereotype of infidels as emotionally stunted children? Carrier talks of irony, but the self-incriminating irony of his putdown is lost on him.

ii) Let suppose the contributors to TID are “emotionally stunted children.” In a godless universe, what difference does that make? Does the cemetery care whether or not the rotting corpse six feet under belongs to Richard Carrier rather than Steve Hays? Who is Carrier trying to impress? The maggots? In a godless universe, what difference does it make who believed what? How you lived or how you died?

It’s not as if infidels are happier than crackpots. Crackpots can enjoy a very cushy standard of living. Crackpots can have a lot more fun than a stoic martyr to the cause of science. In a godless universe, which would you rather be: a happy-go-lucky crackpot, or a dutiful scientist who slaves away 18 hours a day, 7 days in a windowless laboratory to score some scientific breakthrough? Suppose he emerges from the lab 20 years later with albino skin and a Nobel prize? Was it worth it? Burn the best years of his life for a plaque on the wall?

Even Richard Feynman preferred surfing and womanizing to physics. And from a secular standpoint, who can blame him? Why not party until you drop dead?

iii) And while we’re on the topic of “emotionally stunted children,” notice Carrier’s emotional need to feel intellectually superior to his opponents. He’s like a preschooler who won first prize for his Play-Doh dinosaur. Why does he feel the need to have somebody pat him on the head?

“Their entire collection of rebuttals is a good example of a delusional construct. It's built on delusionally failing to read statements in the very same text which contradict them, delusionally misreading statements in the text and then rebutting the whole book by rebutting things it never said, and delusionally believing that logically fallacious arguments are rationally sound.”

That’s the pregame bravado you get from two boxers talking smack about their opponent: “My opponent is overrated! My opponent has a glass jaw! I’m gonna knock him out in the very first round! I’m gonna take his belt!”

Both boxers say the same thing about their hapless opponent. The winner says it and the loser says it.

“And all that in an attempt to avoid the conclusions of the book: that they are all deluded precisely because they refuse to take the Outsider Test for Faith for fear of its results, and consequently they fail to admit the demonstrated inconsistencies in their belief system, by building an even more elaborate system of inconsistencies that possess the superficial appearance of being correct.”

Notice that Carrier treats the OTF as a given. But, of course, in TID we subject the OTF to a sustained critique. Therefore, Carrier is in no position to take that as a given. For the cogency of OTF is one of the very issues in dispute.

How does that question-begging objection demonstrate the rationality of Carrier’s position? It doesn’t. Quite the opposite.

Here is their argument analyzed formally:

1. There are many different Christianities.

2. If there are many different Christianities, no two Christianities have any elements in common.

3. If no two Christianities have any elements in common, then no collection of essays purporting to refute Christianity can refute Christianity.

4. TCD is a collection of essays purporting to refute Christianity.

5. Therefore, TCD cannot refute Christianity.

That’s a straw man argument. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to our actual argument. At a minimum, Carrier needs to supply a verbatim quote from our detailed response(s) to show how he derived that summary.

“Premises 2 and 3 are blatantly false. Premise 2 is false because all Christianities share core elements in common, without which no relevant form of Christianity is true, e.g. that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and that believing this secures us eternal life.”

That’s irrelevant to our critique of Eller. We were responding to Eller, not Carrier. Carrier is making up an argument that doesn’t correspond to Eller’s argument. Carrier’s rebuttal is therefore irrational.

“Premise 3 is false as well, because obviously a collection of essays can collectively refute a whole array of Christianities, by attacking overlapping sets of Christianities.”

In principle, that’s true. However, one of the many problems with TCD is the way in which one essay often contradicts another essay. Therefore, they don’t present a united front against Christianity.

“Indeed, Part 1 of TCD applies to any and all forms of Christianity (not just one single form of it). Since Christianity has not passed the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF), i.e. when Christianity is judged by the same standards as other religions, Christianity is no better supported than any other religion (and therefore no more likely to be true than they are)…”

Once again, that begs the question by assuming the cogency of the OTF. But that is one of the issues we challenged.

“…and Part 1 of TCD proves beliefs that have not passed the OTF are very probably false, therefore Christianity tout court is already refuted thereby. One can only retreat from this conclusion by trying to get Christianity to pass the OTF. Which the remaining chapters in TCD show can't be done for any relevant form of Christianity.”

Once again, that assumes the very thing Carrier needs to prove. We wrote a systematic critique of TCD, chapter by chapter. At a minimum, the burden of proof is now on Carrier to present an adequate counterargument.

Here is their argument analyzed formally:

1. Cultural background determines how one will believe.

2. If cultural background determines how one will believe, then this is as true for atheism as for Christianity.

3. If this is as true for atheism as for Christianity, then Christianity is not a delusion.

4. Therefore Christianity is not a delusion.

Here Premise 3 is not established. Nor is it even plausible. Because claiming atheism is a delusion "for the same reasons" in no way argues Christianity is not also a delusion. Thus the conclusion does not follow. This is therefore an irrational argument.

In fact, claiming atheism is a delusion merely because "Premise 1 is true" would entail Christianity is also a delusion (because Premise 1 is just as true for it as for atheism), thus refuting their conclusion.

Actually, our counterargument was a tu quoque argument. I, for one, don’t concede Long’s claim that cultural conditioning determines every belief of every individual. I’m merely responding to Long own his own terms. What are the implications of his position for his own position? For someone who takes pride in his powers of rationality, Carrier is strikingly unsophisticated.

“But of course Long does not argue that it does. All he argues is that because Premise 1 is true, we need to make sure our beliefs are not delusional. In other words, Long's chapter proves Christianity (like atheism and any other belief) needs to pass the OTF, and that if it does not, it's probably false (for all the scientifically established reasons he documents).”

But that’s self-contradictory. If our beliefs are delusive due to the irresistible force of cultural-conditioning, then we all lack the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. If, due to our cultural-conditioning, we’re all delusional, then none of us can pass the Outsider Test (even assuming the cogency of the Outsider Test). A delusional test-subject will subconsciously filter the Outsider Test through his delusive cultural-conditioning. He will subconsciously convert every Outsider Test into a culturebound Insider Test. So it’s self-defeating to invoke the Outsider Test when you stipulate at the outset that every test-subject is delusional by dint of his cultural conditioning.

“They cannot avoid this conclusion with the irrational dodge they have attempted. Such avoidance behavior is typical of the delusional, however.”

Far from “avoiding” the issue, we marshaled a series of arguments to the contrary. Carrier’s refusal to engage the argument is an irrational dodge, which is all too typical of delusional infidels.

“Moreover, John Loftus already rebuts their entire argument in Chapter 4 of TCD, demonstrating that Christianity is only a delusion because it has not passed and does not pass the Outsdider Test for Faith (OTF), whereas atheism does pass that test, and therefore Premise 1 does not entail atheism is a delusion, but does entail Christianity is a delusion. They don't want to honestly face this argument, so they come up with hundreds of pages of delusional excuses to avoid it.”

Of course, Carrier is hardly entitled to that value-judgment when he has failed to interact with the “hundreds of pages” of our counterargument. Notice the gaping chasm between his rationalistic rhetoric and the actual level of his intellectual performance.

Using the word “rational” in every other sentence doesn’t make you rational. Carrier substitutes rationalistic adjectives for rational arguments.

In other words, the argument of TCD is:

1. Cultural background (and common psychological biases and mistakes) determines how one will believe (collectively proved by Eller, Tarico, and Long, in Chapters 1, 2, and 3), unless one corrects for these influences when deciding what to believe.

2. One can correct for these influences only by ensuring a belief will pass the OTF.

3. A belief that does not pass the OTF is very probably false (proved again by Eller, Tarico, and Long, and by Loftus in Chapter 4).

4. A belief that is maintained in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is probably false is a delusion.

5. TCD provides overwhelming evidence that Christianity does not pass the OTF (regardless of whether atheism also does not).

6. Therefore, TCD provides overwhelming evidence that Christianity is probably false.

7. Therefore, Christianity is a delusion.

Nothing argued in Triablogue's rebuttal to Long (or Loftus or anyone else for that matter) actually challenges any premise in this argument. And the argument is formally valid. Rejecting a sound and valid argument is irrational. And a belief that can only be defended by irrationality is a delusion.

i) Actually, the argument is self-refuting. If cultural-conditioning determines our belief-system, then we cannot correct our delusional belief-system by taking an Outsider Test–for the test-subject is culturally-conditioned to view the Outsider Test from the perspective of culture-bound insider. A delusional test-subject can’t assume the viewpoint of an outsider. His attempt to be objective will turn into yet another delusional exercise.

ii) Moreover, Carrier keeps defaulting to the OTF as if that represents an uncontested frame of reference.

Here is their argument analyzed formally:

1. The Bible is unclear about many crucial and important things a God should want us to know (proved in Loftus' chapter).

2. If the Bible is unclear about many crucial and important things a God should want us to know, then it is unclear about anything and everything it says.

3. If the Bible is unclear about anything and everything it says, then Babinski’s and Tobin’s chapters must be false (because those chapters argue the Bible is clear about several embarrassing things).

4. Therefore, "if Loftus’s chapter is true, Babinski’s and Tobin’s chapters must be false!"

Actually, our argument went well beyond that: The problem with Loftus’s argument isn’t simply that it contradicts the policy of Tobin and Babinski–although that would be bad enough. A deeper problem, as I pointed out, is that his argument is self-contradictory. Loftus takes the clarity of Scripture for granted whenever he imputes error to Scripture, or takes umbrage at some Biblical narrative or injunction.

Ironically, here we have the shockingly irrational and patently delusional black-and-white thinking that Tarico and Long warn against in their chapters. It’s a fallacy of false dichotomy: either the Bible is entirely clear on every point, or it's entirely unclear on every point. Yet neither is even probable. Loftus only argues for the middle case (which the Law of Excluded Middle requires any rational person to take into account): that the Bible is only unclear in enough places to be a self-refuting foundation for Christianity.”

But, of course, that’s ad hoc. Carrier or Loftus would have to show how Scripture just so happens to be clear when it’s offensive to the politically correct sensibilities of a liberal atheist writing in 2010 (or thereabouts). Well, that’s very convenient, now isn’t it?

Needless to say, that coincidental clarity is a textbook case of special pleading. The Bible is accommodatingly clear or unclear at those just those turning-points in his argument where he needs it to be clear or unclear. And the Bible is clearly wrong when it uncannily anticipates sociopolitical positions which offend the liberal dogmas of a white American atheist living in the first decade of the 21C. Good luck with that.

Here is their argument analyzed formally:

1. Avalos is a moral relativist.

2. Avalos concludes the Christian God is morally evil in respect to Christianity's own moral ideals.

3. A moral relativist cannot consistently argue another moral system is inconsistent with itself.

4. Therefore, Avalos' conclusion is inconsistent with his moral relativism.

That’s another straw man argument:

i) As I pointed out at the time, Avalos wasn’t actually commenting on “Christianity’s” moral ideals but, at most, Paul Copan’s moral ideals.

ii) Moreover, Avalos didn’t limit himself to judging Biblical ethics on its own terms. To the contrary, Avalos ventured his own value-judgments along the way. Take statements such as:

“Treating workers like the master did is an injustice” (217), and “this contrasts to the cruel attitude expressed by Sarah concerning Ishmael…So where Abraham might represent a humanizing tendency, God actually demands the more inhumane option” (217-18), and “basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species” (233), and “Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences” (233), and “if the word ‘moral‘ describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist” (233).”

So it’s demonstrably false to suggest that Hector’s attack on Biblical morality was merely a case of evaluating the sacred text on its own terms (“inconsistent with itself,” “in respect to Christianity’s own moral ideals”). And a large part of my argument against Avalos was predicated on that fact.

For Carrier to so thoroughly misrepresents Hector’s actual argument, as well as my counterargument, is quite self-incriminating, coming on the heels of his allegation that TID “is built on delusionally failing to read statements in the very same text which contradict them, delusionally misreading statements in the text and then rebutting the whole book by rebutting things it never said, and delusionally believing that logically fallacious arguments are rationally sound.”

Carrier’s summary of our argument commits the “delusional” mentality which he imputes to us.

“Which makes this yet another irrational objection to what is actually a soundly proved conclusion: that God is evil by Christianity's own standards. Avalos is simply arguing that Christianity is delusional because it is internally incoherent. Moral relativism makes no difference to whether that conclusion is true. Even if moral relativism is true, Christianity is still internally incoherent, and continuing to believe what has been soundly and validly shown to be internally incoherent is still delusional.”

i) It’s true that, in principle, a moral relativist could try to show that Biblical ethics falls short by its own standards. That, however, is not the argument which Avalos deployed. He tried to judge Biblical ethics by his own standards.

ii) And even if, for the sake of argument, Avalos were successful in that regard, so what? Why should a moral relativist care about delusional beliefs? He doesn’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with entertaining delusional beliefs. So why spend so much time and effort trying to convince the reader that Christianity is delusional? To what end?

“Meanwhile, moral relativism itself is internally consistent.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is true. So what? If moral relativism were true, then there would be no moral value in the internal consistency of moral relativism. If moral relativism were true, then there’s no virtue in consistency. Why not be incoherent?

“Avalos can objectively prove the God of the Bible is inhumanly cruel (and he does; my online supplement The Will of God decisively supports him on this), which conclusion has no inherent moral status, and then from his own moral principles he can declare that cruelty immoral (and thus unworthy of worship) without requiring readers to agree with that judgment. But they still must agree with the first judgment, as inhuman cruelty is not a value judgment but an objectively defined set of behaviors.”

i) Words like “cruelty” and “inhumanity” have ethical connotations. That’s why writers use them to characterize a “behavior” they oppose.

ii) A moral relativist declaring “from his own moral principles” that cruelty is “immoral”? And what does that declaration amount to? It can’t be objectively or intrinsically immoral. Indeed, from the standpoint of a moral relativist, cruelty is amoral.

“Anyone who then also shares Avalos' personal belief that inhuman cruelty is evil (which is the moral truth ‘relative to him’) must also share his value judgment, too (that the OT God is evil), even if moral relativism is true.”

The “personal belief” of a moral relativist that inhuman cruelty is “evil”? Once again, what does that personal belief amount to? It can’t correspond to any objective moral fact about inhumane cruelty (even if, ad arguendo, we grant that tendentious characterization).

“Otherwise they are being irrational. Which is exactly what the Triablogue crew is being.”

i) Nothing is more irrational that Carrier’s illogical exercise in special pleading to salvage Hector’s hopeless argument.

ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the “Triablogue crew” is irrational. So what? If moral relativism were true, then rationality instantly ceases to be an epistemic virtue. There is no epistemic duty to be rational.

Jason has already responded to Carrier’s example of Price, so I’ll move on.

“Eller doesn't argue for any morality being true in this chapter.”

That’s an understatement. He argues against any morality being true.

“Eller only argues that Christianity is not the source of all morality but is just one source among many for one morality among many, therefore Christianity cannot be considered the foundation for morality (and he's right).”

This is another case in which Carrier offers a deceptive summary of the actual argument by one of his contributors to TCD. Although Eller says that, that’s not all he says. He goes on to make a far stronger claim–as I documented in my original response. He also makes statements like:

“There are many people who assert that morality is ‘natural’ or ‘real’ or ‘objective,” and therefore independent of religion; in fact, they use (supposedly) natural/real/objective standards to judge, and often to reject, religious ‘morality.’ I am not, for reasons not manageable in this chapter but hopefully obvious in this chapter, one of these people; morality is too diverse and contradictory to be natural or real or objective…” (358).

“The question that is generally not asked in the discussion of morality, but that should be asked, is not ‘what is the basis of morality?‘ and certainly not ‘what is the true morality‘ and not, as some well-intentioned thinkers have done, ‘why be moral?‘ Asking ‘why be moral?‘ is no more sensible than asking ‘why be linguistic?‘ or ‘why be bipedal?‘ (361). ”

Does Carrier lack elementary reading comprehension?

“Neither Avalos nor myself argued that our chapters refuted Christianity. To the contrary, our chapters show examples of what sorts of delusions many Christians succumb to or resort to in order to bolster their delusional belief that Christianity is correct and necessary for modern society…Another significant point of our two chapters is that there are millions of people, even trained scholars, who actually are this deluded. If the Triablogue authors wish to concede that these are delusions, and that their fellow Christians should abandon them, we welcome their help in getting those delusions dispelled. But they cannot honestly deny that millions of Christians, even trained scholars, still embrace these delusions, as our chapters document both their widespread embrace, and that they are delusional. This should cast serious doubt on the ability of many Christians and even many Christian scholars to arrive at rational beliefs about the world and its history.”

i) “Millions” of Christians? Let’s see. Hector’s chapter on the Holocaust pans a book by Dinesh D’Souza, while Carrier’s chapter on science pans a book by Rodney Stark. How does Carrier extrapolate from two individual writers to “millions” of Christians? Does he have scientific polling data to show that what Stark and D’Souza argue represents the belief of “millions” of Christians?

ii) There is also Carrier’s systematic and demagogic use of the word “delusional.” However, a delusional state is a psychotic statement. But even if Stark or D’Souza were mistaken in their historical analysis, that hardly makes them psychotic.

Or if it does, then it also makes Carrier psychotic given the number of times he’s changed his position over the years on the historical claims of Christianity.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Evolutionary amorality

(Posted on Steve's behalf.)

Christian apologists are frequently accused of lying about atheism when we argue that atheism can't justify objective moral norms. However, it seems as if an increasing number of atheists, often in the name of naturalistic evolution, are coming out of the closet on the moral nihilism implicit in a naturalistic Darwinian worldview. Case in point.

Where have they hidden The One True Church®?

23 Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There he is!' do not believe it. 24For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25See, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, 'Look, he is in the wilderness,' do not go out. If they say, 'Look, he is in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. (Mt 24:23-26).

Once upon a time, Gerry Matatics was a PCA pastor. From what I’ve read, he was a distinguished student.

But then he became disillusioned in Protestantism and began his quest to find The One True Church®. After converting to The One True Church® (i.e. the church of Rome), he once again became disillusioned. Due to the apostate papacy, he now had to locate the real One True Church® within the shell of the spurious One True Church®. He knew that the godless liberals in the hierarchy didn’t represent the One True Church®, yet a faithful remnant of the One True Church® could still be eked out amongst Traditionalist Catholics.

But recently he’s become disillusioned with Traditionalist Catholicism. Even sedevacantism is sullied by fatal impurities. See what he’s come to:

I've always kept very busy, but it's been insanely busy, without let-up, since Christmas. I've been working non-stop, round the clock -- usually skipping a night of sleep at least once a week to work right through the night and the following day -- on several different projects concurrently, with no time left for updating the website.

We need to be energetically inviting people aboard the Ark of the Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation, just as Noah offered people refuge aboard the ark in his day. (See Genesis 6-7.) I mean of course the real Catholic Church, not the Vatican II counterfeit.

I have been stunned to discover by my in-depth research over the last two years into sacramental theology, moral theology, and canon law, that most such clergy today do NOT possess this mission and jurisdiction, and to discover that because such unauthorized clergy culpably violate God's law in these matters they are NOT authentically functioning to bring the graces they claim to bring to Catholics during the current crisis.

Most of what calls itself "the traditionalist movement," in other words, is in reality as much a "counterfeit" as is the Vatican II religion. This is a truly traumatic awakening for those of us Catholics who, disaffected with the Novus Ordo, have spent years living among the various tribes of the "traditionalist movement," but facts are facts. Stay tuned for many more essays from me on this painful problem in the coming weeks.

It’s hard to be the last Catholic on earth. To be the last man standing after the dust settles.

In once sense, Matatics is unintentionally comical to an outsider. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, maybe you’re looking in the wrong place. If you can’t find the answers you seek, may be you’re asking the wrong questions. He’s like a man with his back to a stream, dying of thirst.

It would be easy to dismiss him as a nutcase, but that misses the point. He represents the logical alternative to Protestantism. What’s his problem? Matatics is too good a Catholic for his own good. He takes the claims of Roman Catholicism too seriously to find a home in The One True Church®.

Unlike other converts to Rome, he is truly uncompromising. We keep reading Catholic epologists who assure us that Catholicism is The Answer! The antidote for all that’s allegedly deficient in Protestantism.

Well, when he first converted to Rome, he thought he found The Answer! But as he’s discovered over the years, The One True Church® is actually a skyscraper with many different doors on many different floors, with outer rooms leading to inner rooms, and side rooms, and backrooms. Which floor is the right floor to the right door to the right room?

Matatics goes from floor to floor and door to door, trying each door, to find The One True Church®. Year after year he goes from room to room in search of The One True Church®. Just when he thinks he finally found The One True Church®, and settles down for the night, he has nightmares. It turns out, on closer inspection, that this isn’t really The One True Church®, but just a crafty facsimile of The One True Church®.

Where did they hide The One True Church®? It must be behind one of these doors! But which one?

He’s a man who begins with a definition, then keeps searching for something somewhere that matches his definition. He begins with his Roman Catholic definition of The One True Church®, but after years of searching high and low, after many false leads, The One True Church® seems to be more elusive than ever. Just when he thinks he’s closing in, when the prize is almost in view, darned if it doesn’t turn out to be another false hope! It's enough to make a grown man cry!

In the meantime are all those lost sheep he left behind so many years ago when he made his escape from the City of Destruction. All them benighted “Bible Christians” who strayed from the path of The One True Church®.

Yet somehow they still find Jesus whenever they open their Bibles to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yep. Jesus is still there–right where they found him the very last time they opened their Bibles to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He didn’t disappear when they went to make coffee. He’s been there all along.

Where is the church of Jesus? Where Jesus is. That’s where. Find Jesus, and you will find his church.

Is Hawking's disability germane?

I ran across a Christian blogger who made the following observations:

Stephen Hawking has written a new book, The Grand Design, in which he makes statements about God, or at least asserts that God is not necessary to explain the universe.

This isn’t a post about that. James Anderson wrote a helpful reply if you are interested in exploring that issue further.

No, this is a lament: There are ‘Christians’ who seem to think Dr. Hawking’s disability is worth mentioning in their usually-inadequate defense of God or the Bible. And by ‘mentioning’ I mean they use it in ways to make fun of or defame Dr. Hawking.

There were enough negative references to his disability on Twitter that a Washington Post blogger wrote a column on it.

I was hoping this was an over-statement – how could anyone be so rude? Or childish? Or uninformed? Unfortunately, after I read the comments attached to a couple of major newspaper articles, I saw the same thing as that Post blogger. It wasn’t many, but enough to be discouraging.

I expect this new book from Dr. Hawking will be an item for a while. So, even if it is only a few who conduct themselves badly in public, let’s help people in our churches understand two things:

Stephen Hawking is not an idiot; Christians (and everyone else) look foolish when calling him that. He may be an opportunist – there is a reason he writes ‘popular’ works rather than limiting his writings to peer-reviewed journals and seminars – but he is no ‘idiot’ in the sense that most people mean.
Dr. Hawking’s disability is no indicator of his standing before God. God is completely free to do whatever he wants to with his creation, including creating geniuses to live with significant disabilities who will deny him.

I’d just say the following:

i) I agree with him entirely that we shouldn’t make fun of Hawking’s disability. Or make fun of Hawking via his disability. Lev 19:14 comes to mind.

ii) I also agree with him that we shouldn’t call Hawking an “idiot.” He’s clearly very bright.

That said, I’d say a few things:

i) Hawking’s disability isn’t necessarily irrelevant to the quality of his latest book. At this stage of his degenerative illness, I seriously doubt that he’s physically capable of writing (or even dictating) long supporting arguments for his position. So all we’re likely to get from him are witty, zippy, quotable, epigrammatic one-liners.

ii) Indeed, there’s a reason he coauthored the book in the first place. He isn’t up to writing a book by himself, even a book for popular consumption.

iii) On a related note, even if he were in perfect health for his age, he may well be past his prime as a theoretical physicist.

iv) Apropos (ii)-(iii), I remember atheists gleefully discounting Antony Flew as a senile old man because he coauthored his final book.

iv) Although Hawking’s not an “idiot,” he is a “fool” in the Biblical sense of the word.

Is evolution falsifiable?

In answer to an email correspondent:


One of the claims about ID is that it isn't science because it isn't
falsifiable. But is the theory of naturalistic evolution falsifiable, either
conceptually or practically?


Of course, Darwinians would say evolution is falsifiable. But I have at least three problems with that claim:

i) Darwinians have generated many face-saving distinctions and harmonistic devices which can reconcile their theory with opposing lines of evidence, viz. analogy, ancestral homology, derived homology, homoplasy, convergent evolution, parallel evolution, co-option, exaptation, recruitment, evolutionary reversal, &c.

(BTW, I'm pulling these categories from two standard textbooks on evolutionary biology by Mark Ridley and Douglas Futuyma).

In the face of counterevidence, the Darwinian can always add another caveat to his theory.

ii) Given the state of the evidence at any given time, an evolutionary biologist will narrate an evolutionary pathway by which one thing led to another.

When, due to some new scientific development or discovery, the evidence no longer supports that narrative, the evolutionary biologist simply comes up with a new backstory. The theory itself is never challenged. Rather, the backstory is instantly rewritten as necessary to yield the desired result.

iii) Darwinians also rely on circular evidence. Take the following argument:

"The study of phylogeny is really a study of homologous characters. Since all members of a taxon must consist of the descendants of the nearest common ancestor, this common descent can be inferred only by the study of their homologous character. But how do we determine whether or not the characters of two species or higher taxa are homologous? We say that they ware if they conform to the definition of homologous: A feature in two or more taxa is homologous when it is derived from the same (or a corresponding) feature of their nearest common ancestor," Ernest Mayr, What Evolution Is (Basic Books 2001), 16.

"We are all atheists"

Here’s one-liner that Richard Dawkins is fond of using: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

This, of course, is just a paraphrase of Stephen Robert’s famous one-liner: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

It’s striking that so many atheists seem to think that’s a compelling reason to be an atheist. After all, they pride themselves on their rational superiority. So why are they impressed by such a lame argument?

1. If I reject every explanation but one, is it more logical to reject every explanation whatsoever?

Suppose I feel ill. I go to the doctor. Before he can cure me, he must diagnose me. He asks me to describe my symptoms. He runs a battery of tests. He is attempting, by process of elimination, to narrow the possible candidates down to one culprit. After having excluded all of the other things that aren’t wrong with me, would it be logical for him to take the extra step and conclude that nothing is wrong with me?

Suppose a widely-hated man is murdered. This leaves the homicide detective with a large pool of potential suspects to weed out. They all had the motive, yet some had the means without the opportunity while others had the opportunity without the means. After running through the list, only one suspect had the means, motive, and opportunity. But would it be more logical for the detective to take the extra step and conclude that no one murdered the victim? He just happened to die from a gunshot wound to the back of the head?

Suppose an airplane crashes. Investigators sift through the wreckage. Listen to conversations between the pilot and the control tower. Examine the flight-data recorder. Was it mechanical failure? Pilot error? Sabotage? If mechanical failure, what type of mechanical failure?

But would it be more logical for investigators to take the extra step and conclude that nothing caused the plane to crash?

2. On another note, how does knowing why I reject Mormonism (to take one example) mean that I know why you reject Mormonism? How does one entail the other?

You can’t simple combine one man’s reason for rejecting something with another man’s reason for rejecting something, for they may have different reasons.

Several voters may reject the same candidate. Some voters are single-issue voters. For other voters, if a candidate is right on two out of three key issues, they will vote for him.

Two single-issue voters may not have the same issue. Voters for whom two out of three key issues is good enough may not agree on which two out of three issues are key. I can’t extrapolate from why I declined to vote for him to why you declined to vote for him.

An atheist rejects Mormonism because he rejects theism generally, of which Mormonism is a special case. A Christian rejects Mormonism, not because he rejects theism generally, but because he has specific issues with Mormonism.

So understanding why I reject Mormonism doesn’t mean I understand why you reject Mormonism. The inference is blatantly fallacious.

3. Moreover, it’s not true that Christians simply reject all other “gods” save our own. Although we don’t believe in Thor or Zeus or Quetzalcoatl, we do believe in something behind the pagan pantheon. Heathen idolatry isn’t purely a figment of the human imagination. There’s an occult reality which motivates, animates, and empowers paganism. From a Christian standpoint, there is something that roughly corresponds to heathen divinities.

It’s like a shell corporation. Does the corporation really exist? In a sense, no. But there’s something that lies behind and hides behind the shell corporation.

Same thing with a puppet-state. The head-of-state may be a figurehead, but somebody is pulling the strings from behind-the-scenes.

What does it say about “free-thinkers” and “rationalists” when they find a fallacious slogan like this convincing?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The cosmic toymaker

To judge by some of the reviews, Stephen Hawking has evidently given up his quest for the Theory of Everything.

A scientist is in a situation like those SF scenarios where we come into possession of advanced technology. The challenge is whether we, with our primitive technological understanding, or unevolved brains, can figure out more advanced technology.

There are variants on this scenario. The technology may be more advanced because it comes from the future. Or it may be more advanced because it comes from a superior alien civilization.

There are variants on that scenario as well. The alien technology may be more advanced because the alien civilization is further along the historical continuum, but someday we will catch up. Or it may be more advanced because the aliens are smarter than we are.

If the aliens are smarter than we are, then their technology may defy our best efforts to understand it. We can never reason at their level. So the design will remain opaque to human understanding. Or perhaps we can learn a few things from studying the advanced technology–which will jump-start our own technology–but other things forever elude our grasp.

In another variant, the technology may defeat our efforts to figure it out, not so much because the alien engineers are intellectually superior, but because their type of intelligence is simply incommensurable with ours. How they perceive the world, process information, &c.–is so different from ourselves that we have no common referent point. We can’t tell what problem they were trying to solve. We just don’t think like they do.

This scenario often takes the form of an alien cockpit. After scientists figure out how to get inside the spacecraft–or the craft obliges them–they poke around the cockpit, trying to figure out if they can operate the control panel. Is there something analogous to human experience, some common denominator, some Rosetta Stone, which will enable them to decrypt the system?

Of course, this scene tends to be a bit of a letdown since the cockpit was designed, not by superior aliens, but human beings pretending to be aliens. The cockpit suffers from the limited imagination of the screenwriter and FX dept., as well as the demands of a satisfying plot.

To what extent is our universe comprehensible? Is God like a toymaker who comes down to the level of the child? Who designs a toy that we can take apart, put back together, or recombine–in ways we can fully master and exhaust?

Or is God like a toymaker who designs a user-friendly toy that a child can play with, even though the underlying technology remains unintelligible to a child?

"Hawking Gives Up"

Peter Woit comments on Stephen Hawking's recent remarks.

The making of an atheist

Doug Groothuis reviews The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief by James Spiegel.

Credit where credit is due

The universe comments on Stephen Hawking.

"Is Witchcraft Merely a Passing Fancy?"

Doug Geivett talks a little bit about witchcraft trends among college students and other youth.

Allies or enemies?

Thus far I haven’t weighed in on the Koran-burning kerfuffle.

1. This is one of those intrinsically unimportant events that only assumes an artificial importance because some people act as if it’s truly important. Like celebrity scandals. The significance of the event feeds on itself–like the fabled Uroborus.

2. I don’t think we should go out of our way to be offensive for the sake of offensiveness. So I don’t approve of what the pastor is doing.

Of course, there’s a difference between giving offense and taking offense. Some offended parties have no right to be offended. There’s no doubt, though, that this pastor is trying to give offense. And, for him, that seems to be the only goal.

3. That said, there’s a long tradition of “protest art” in the US. This usually takes the form of radical “artists” who deliberately create sacrilegious “art” for the express purpose of dishonoring the Christian faith–as they see it. Yet we don’t hear high-ranking gov’t official denounce these calculated impieties when Christianity is the target.

Likewise, for the last few weeks we’ve been hectored and lectured by the chattering classes on how anybody who opposes the Ground Zero mosque is a racist or bigot or both. They rush to defend the right of Muslims to thumb their nose at the victims and the survivors of 9/11–only to feign indignation at a guy who is doing the same thing in reverse.

4. Gen. Petraeus expresses a valid concern. Certainly the gratuity and triviality of this affront doesn’t justify the risk to our soldiers abroad.

At the same time, his concern also exposes the dilemma of our counterterrorism strategy. We’re trying to recruit Muslims to defeat Muslims. Forge political and military alliances with “moderate” Muslims to help us defeat the militant Muslims.

Yet warnings like his remind us that the distinction between Muslim allies and Muslim enemies is exceedingly tenuous. Our Muslim “allies” will turn on us in the blink of an eye if a small-time pastor of a small-time church in a nation of 300 million inhabitants does something to inflame the hypersensitive feelings of the Muslim world.

Our counterterrorism strategy consists of cultivating a (hopefully) lesser enemy to defeat a greater enemy. But such allies are inherently fickle and treacherous. Perhaps that’s the best you can do under the circumstances. But you don’t dare turn your back on “allies” like that. For they can revert at a moment’s notice.

Instead of Burning A Qur'an, Why Not Actually Read It?

Article below taken from ABC news.
A Florida pastor ignites tensions among Muslims days before 9/11 anniversary.

The crowd in downtown Kabul reached nearly 500 today, with Afghan protesters chanting "Long live Islam " and "Long live the Quran," and burning an effigy of Terry Jones, senior pastor from the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida who is planning the event.

The protesters were well aware of the pastor's inflammatory comments, such as the "Islam is an evil religion," since they have been spread wide on the Internet. Jones has also authored a book, "Islam Is of the Devil."

The protesters' anger wasn't limited to Jones, however. Chants of "Death to America" echoed through the crowd, and U.S. flags were set ablaze alongside the effigy of Jones.

"America cannot eliminate Muslims from the world," one Afghan man told ABC News.

The angry crowd pelted a passing U.S. military convoy with rocks.

Gen. David Petraeus said he is outraged by the pastor's decision to burn the Quran, which he said could "endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort here."

Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Jack Keane, an adviser to Petraeus, called it "outrageous" and "insulting to Muslims."

"It's also insulting to our soldiers in terms of what they stand for and what their commitment is to this country and to the Muslims in this country," Keane told ABC News.

But late today, Jones vowed he would go ahead with the Quran burning, even knowing the concerns of Petraeus and Keane for the safety of U.S. troops.

"What we are doing is long overdue. We are revealing the violence of Islam that is much, much deeper than we'd like to admit," Jones said in an interview with ABC News.

A Facebook page dedicated to the day, entitled "International Burn A Koran Day" has more than 8,000 fans.

"On September 11th, 2010, from 6pm - 9pm, we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!" the page declares.

Over a hundred other pages have sprung up for and against the event on Sept. 11, incidentally the same day as a Muslim holiday called Eid, celebrating the last day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.

Some Muslims fear that images of celebration could fuel further tensions with Americans that day. But in the meantime, in Kabul, there is word that a protest planned for Tuesday could be even larger than the one today.
Be reminded that even the apostle Paul had enough sense to know that disrespecting a false god in Ephesus wasn't the way to spread his message (Acts 19:37). So, shame on you Pastor Terry for unnecessarily putting our soldiers, our citizens, and Christians in other countries in harm's way by burning things that are meant to be studied and read for apologetics purposes rather than burned!

A Review Of James White's Debate With Robert Price (Part 2)

White makes another good point when he notes that so many of Price's examples of alleged errors in the Bible are easy to answer. (See, for example, their discussion of Jesus' references to taking up your cross and following Him, which Price claims the historical Jesus wouldn't have said.) Skeptics often appeal to the quantity of their objections, even though the quality of many of them is so poor.

Price repeatedly makes the point that there's "no evidence" in Paul's writings for things mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. But White explained why we shouldn't expect Paul to mention such things, and simply saying that Paul doesn't mention them doesn't give us reason to reject the claims of other sources who do mention them. Besides, much of what Price claims Paul didn't mention actually does seem to have been mentioned or alluded to in his writings. See, for example, here and here. 1 Timothy 5:18 seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture (George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000], pp. 233-235), which creates a series of problems for Price's view if 1 Timothy was written by Paul or even by an early follower of Paul.

Price has suggested that none of the writings attributed to Paul were written by him, not even the ones commonly accepted as Pauline by liberal scholarship. I've written against that theory at length in the past, such as in the comments section of the thread here. We have other posts on the subject in our archives. The issue came up in the White/Price debate, and Price said the following about early patristic references to Paul:

"Nobody knows a thing about Paul. Justin Martyr never mentions him."

Quotations of Paul's letters aren't the only issue that's relevant here. Allusions would be relevant as well. See, for example, the scripture index in Michael Slusser's edition of Justin's Dialogue With Trypho (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003). Oskar Skarsaune writes:

"There is no reason to doubt that Justin made extensive use of Paul's letters, especially Romans and Galatians....Justin can be shown to have borrowed many of Paul's quotations directly from him, as well as some of Paul's expositions." (in Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], p. 74)

See, also, the notes for Skarsaune's comments on that page, which give examples and further documentation.

Justin refers to "the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). Notice the plural: "apostles" and "those who followed them". The use of the plural matches our four gospels: apostles (Matthew, John) and those who followed them (Mark, Luke). Justin doesn't cite the number four anywhere, but his comments are consistent with the collection of four gospels that sources living just after Justin's time refer to. Luke was a disciple of Paul, so Justin seems to be referring to Paul as an apostle. Price's claim that "nobody knows a thing about Paul" and his claim that "Justin Martyr never mentions him" are false.

And how does Price get around the references to Paul and his writings in earlier patristic sources? He dismisses First Clement and all seven Ignatian letters as forgeries.

How does he know that First Clement is a forgery? He mentions its length. Supposedly, nobody wrote letters that long. As if there was some rule in antiquity that prevented people from writing letters beyond a particular length. As if violation of such a rule couldn't have occurred if such a rule existed. As if we couldn't just assign First Clement to some other genre rather than assuming that it must be a forgery if it doesn't meet the alleged requirements of the letter genre Price has in mind. Michael Holmes comments that First Clement "closely conforms" to the ancient genre of "a symbouleutic or deliberative letter" (The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapdis, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005], p. 24).

Price also says that First Clement's comments about the deaths of Peter and Paul are reminiscent of comments made about their deaths in later sources. First Clement 5 mentions that they died because of the jealousy of their opponents. How does Price know that jealousy wasn't involved? That alleged parallel to later literature is far too vague to support Price's theory. What if the later literature borrowed from First Clement or both borrowed from some other source? Price's defense of his theory about First Clement is absurd. The theory itself is absurd.

What about Ignatius? See here. Price objects that Ignatius wouldn't have been writing letters in a context in which his Roman guards were treating him in the hostile manner described within those letters. They wouldn't have let their prisoner write letters while they were in the process of abusing that prisoner. But as Allen Brent explains, it was common for a prisoner in the Roman empire to be allowed access to visitors and thereby receive food, send letters, etc. Those who visited prisoners would give gifts to the guards, and would relieve the guards of the responsibility of providing food and other necessities for the prisoner, thus giving the guards incentive for allowing the visitors access to the person under their watch. Lucian, a second-century pagan critic of Christianity, confirms the historicity of such practices when he describes the behavior and treatment of Christian prisoners. Thus, there's nothing unlikely about the scenario presented in Ignatius' letters, in which he's in frequent contact with other Christians on his way to martyrdom (Ignatius Of Antioch [New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2009], pp. 49-51, 110). The guards would abuse him at times, but would be open to giving him some freedom in exchange for gifts from visitors.

Regarding references to Paul and the use of his letters in other early sources, see Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford's The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006). Price's theory is terribly implausible.

The last question in the audience question segment of the debate was about the existence of souls and an afterlife. I would argue for both of those from the Bible. But there's a lot of extra-Biblical evidence as well. Price doesn't seem to know much about the subject. See, from a non-Christian perspective, Stephen Braude's Immortal Remains (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003).

A lot of other subjects came up during the debate, and Price was more reasonable on some issues than he was concerning the topics I've focused on here. But the general pattern was for him to try to plant seeds of doubt without making much of an effort to convert those seeds from possibilities into probabilities. He accuses Christians of "baptizing the improbable into the probable" (John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 289), but he spent most of the debate trying to baptize the probable into the improbable by raising unlikely doubts.

Passover chronology

From Craig Blomberg.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Accuracy or authority?

According to Orthodox epologist Michael Garten:

“Authority is the normative power to bind human consciences to believe and do certain things. Accuracy is the ability to correctly represent reality or truth, or the ability to make correct inferences. Those aren’t the same.”

Actually, I don’t see how they’re the same given this rather eccentric definition. In general, it’s certainly possible to distinguish between accuracy and authority. An authority-figure can force you to do something even if it goes against your conscience. He has the power to compel conformity, even if his claims are erroneous or immoral.

If, however, we define “authority” in “normative” terms, to “bind the conscience,” then only what is right and true is binding in that respect.

But surely we’re obligated to believe and behave in accordance with what is true for the simple reason that it is true. In what sense does authority bind our conscience over and above our epistemic duties to the truth? (I’m speaking from a Christian standpoint. Atheism has no epistemic duties.)

And the relevance of Michael’s distinction is even less clear in relation to revealed truth, where one can’t drive a wedge between might and right.

“Private judgment, when correctly formulated (correcting the confusion about accuracy and authority), is not the idea that an individual must interpret divine teaching. It is the doctrine that denies there is any intrinsically authoritative doctrinal decision that the Church can make.”

Agreed. At most, the church’s doctrinal decisions have extrinsic authority. Such decisions are authoritative to the degree that they are right and true–according to the canons of revealed truth.

“Thus, there is no authoritative, much less infallible, interpretation of the Bible.”

Yes, but why do we need these lofty adjectives? Why does a true interpretation not suffice?

“And as such, any Credal formulation or recognition of the biblical canon is a human act with no intrinsic authority. So each interpretation of divine doctrine is therefore revisable in terms of its authority–some argument could in principle overturn the formulation, even if we have overwhelming reason to accept it as true.”

I don’t see how the second sentence follows from the first. As long as a credal formulation or recognition of the canon is correct, then why would it be revisable?

“Why? Because only infallible authority can make a doctrine conscience-binding in an unqualified way, and make a doctrinal formulation unrevisable in terms of its authority.”

Why should we cast the issue in terms of “authority” rather than truth and knowledge?

“Individual intellectual competency is the ability to correctly understand any data, including divinely authoritative teachings. An intellectually competent individual is still fallible; but that does not prevent a person from accurately recognizing infallible authorities, recognizing their decisions, or correctly interpreting their decisions. Our understanding of divine doctrine is subject to error, and is therefore a revisable understanding; but the doctrine itself is unrevisable.”

If you take divine doctrine as a given, then doctrine is unrevisable. But if the individual is fallible, then how can Michael take divine doctrine as a given? His stipulation is underdetermined by his admitted cognitive limitations.

Put another way, is he claiming that divine doctrine is binding on the conscience, or that divine doctrine is binding on the conscience insofar as the individual knows it to be divine doctrine? But given his fallibilism vis-à-vis the individual, then how can the individual be conscience-bound to believe divine doctrine unless he can know it to be divine doctrine? Are we duty-bound to believe something we don’t know to be true?

Conversely, if the individual can know that without being infallible, then how does that admission distinguish the Orthodox position from the Protestant position regarding the personal appropriation of Scripture?

“With normal human statements, when you correctly identify and interpret them, you aren’t bound to accept them. With divine doctrine, when you see it and understand it you must accept it.”

Michael doesn’t bother to explain what grounds that distinction. But the obvious candidate is truth. We aren’t necessarily bound to accept uninspired statements because uninspired statements are fallible. By contrast, we are necessarily bound to accept inspired statements because inspired statements are infallible.

At the same time, even uninspired statements can be (and often are) true. Don’t we have a standing duty to believe true statements?

“If I know x is divine teaching (or even just have better reason to think it is divine teaching than its alternatives) then I am conscience-bound to accept everything in x.”

How does his parenthetical concession distinguish the Orthodox position from what he finds deficient in the Protestant position?

Catholic cold reading

Reading this comment by Mike Liccione reminds me of a psychic who does cold readings. The psychic appears to have uncanny knowledge of the stranger in the audience, whom he’s never met before.

However, the psychic has a hidden earpiece which is patched into a geeky guy in a room offsite with a supercomputer. The computer has facial recognition technology, along with access to every database on earth.

Unfortunately, the psychic loses the satellite uplink at a crucial point in the cold reading. Suddenly he has to bluff his way through the reading.

It’s clear from Liccione’s comment that the church of Rome has no divine foresight. It is having to make things up after the fact, just like any other fallible, shortsighted, uninspired human institution–its pretensions to divine guidance notwithstanding.

The problem arises when the question is how to discern when the ordinary and universal magisterium (OUM) has taught infallibly.

It’s not surprising that the theologically untutored have difficulty with that question, because it wasn’t until Vatican II that the Magisterium itself explicitly addressed the matter at all, in Lumen Gentium §25, and it wasn’t until 1995 that any representative of the Roman Magisterium applied V2′s criteria to a particular case: that of women’s ordination. Theologians themselves disagree about the clarity and significance of such a recent development. But it’s not difficult to show how the issue must be resolved.

If the question which doctrines count as OUM-infallible were always a matter to be left to the individual discernment of the faithful, then the question would essentially be left to private opinion. If it were left at that level, the category itself would be effectively empty. For private opinions, even those of individual bishops and popes, are fallible; so if the question which doctrines are OUM-infallible were left to private opinion, then the doctrines themselves would remain a matter of opinion, which they couldn’t be if they are infallibly taught by the OUM as binding on the whole Church. So if there is such a thing as a doctrine that’s OUM-infallible, the Roman Magisterium has to have the last word about how to apply the criteria for identifying it as such.

As I’ve said, so far there’s been only one explicit statement from Rome to that effect. But there are other signs, such as Evangelium Vitae §57 (1995) and Ratzinger’s doctrinal commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998) that the way to apply the relevant criteria is taking shape.

Development of doctrine in general takes time. Development of doctrine about various doctrines’ level of authority has taken still more time. That frustrates a lot of people because not all questions get answered fast enough to please anybody, much less everybody. But perhaps that’s how prudence would have it.


William Lane Craig has a youtube commentary on Hawking's new book. And some of the comments left by viewers are memorable in their own right:


Atheism – The belief that there was nothing and then nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything.


It's the "nothing of the gaps" argument. Nothingdidit.

A Review Of James White's Debate With Robert Price (Part 1)

I recently watched a DVD of James White's debate with Robert Price this past May. (You can order a copy of the debate here.) The topic was "Is The Bible True?", but it focused primarily on the gospels and secondarily on the writings of Paul, with an occasional reference to some other portion of scripture.

James White did well, and I won't repeat all of the many good points he made during the course of the debate. I'll repeat some of his points and make some of my own.

In his opening remarks, Price constructs a series of straw men to burn down. If the historical transmission of Jesus' teachings was reliable by normal historical standards, then why do Christians appeal to Divine protection of that transmission process in order to argue for its reliability? Were Jesus' disciples some sort of ancient equivalent to Snopes, tracking down and refuting false accounts that were circulating about Jesus? Doesn't Acts 6:1-4 suggest that they already had their hands full with other things? If Jesus couldn't stop people from saying things He didn't want them to say (e.g., Mark 1:44-45), why think that Jesus' disciples were able to prevent people from spreading false accounts about Jesus? Price suggests it's unlikely that "all early Christians" were "always careful" in what they reported about Jesus.

He uses similar argumentation later in the debate. He appeals to pagan influence among Jews in some pre-Christian literature and in some later sources, including some that postdate Christianity by hundreds of years. He says that there may have been an early standardizing of the New Testament text, much as later occurred with Islam. Since the text was standardized, we don't have manuscript evidence for some of the textual corruptions Price suggests. Christians collectively changed the text.

What Price is doing, again and again, is demanding too much of his opponent and too little of himself. A historical argument for the truthfulness of Christianity doesn't require that "all early Christians" were "always careful". It just requires that enough of them were sufficiently careful enough of the time. It's not as though the existence of some carelessness, some false accounts about Jesus, etc. inherently falsifies Christianity or inherently makes Price's theories probable. If some Christian scribes were dishonest or careless in transmitting the New Testament text, for example, we still have other scribes who weren't. Some people didn't do what Jesus asked them to do (e.g., Mark 1:44-45), but others did. The original Christians didn't need to be an ancient equivalent to Snopes in order to generally preserve some accurate historical information about Jesus. The acceptance of pagan religious concepts by some Jews in some contexts doesn't tell us what a Jew is likely to have believed in the context of early Christianity. Etc.

During White's first cross examination, Price refers to studies in which eyewitnesses can't remember "anything". He uses the example of a study in which a clown unexpectedly enters a classroom. Apparently, the students in that classroom disagreed with each other in what they reported about what had happened. But does it therefore follow that they didn't remember anything? Did one student think the incident happened in 1980, while the other thought it happened in 1994? Did one think it happened in Mexico, while another thought it happened in France? Did one think that a dog entered the classroom, whereas another thought a motorcycle rode through? Or did they agree for the most part while disagreeing on some details? Is one unexpected clown visit to a group of modern students in one room comparable to behavior by Jesus that He often repeated, involving issues of high significance, with thousands of witnesses in an oral culture? A surprise visit from a clown is hardly comparable, and Price even misrepresents his clown example as far as it goes. Why does Price trust the memories of the people who conducted the study and his own memory regarding what he read about it?

One way to appreciate the erroneous nature of Price's argumentation is to apply it to other contexts. Would we dismiss what Josephus or Tacitus reports on the basis of the existence of some false information in their day, what people remember when a clown unexpectedly enters a classroom, etc.? Sometimes skeptics will attempt to be more consistent if you press them about applying their standards consistently. But, in my experience, their initial approach is to be highly inconsistent. When they're so inconsistent, what does that suggest about their standards and what they actually believe about the subjects involved? If they keep trusting human testimony on issue after issue and in context after context, but then become far more skeptical of human testimony when the topic of Christianity comes up, what does that contrast suggest?

As White mentions during the debate, the textual corruptions suggested by Price should have shown up in our textual record if they had occurred. Appealing to the possibility that the corruptions occurred without being reflected in the textual record (and without being mentioned elsewhere) doesn't overturn the probability of the general principle White is appealing to.

As White mentions, Price's speculation about an early Christian standardization of the text, similar to what occurred in Islam, has a series of problems. The Islamic effort left traces in the historical record. Price's proposed scenario didn't. And the Islamic effort, though somewhat successful, wasn't entirely successful. Yet, Price wants us to believe that the early Christians (an often persecuted minority in the earliest centuries, without Islam's later cultural status) were able to entirely eliminate all of the relevant traces of Price's alleged textual corruptions, like the supposed alteration of 1 Corinthians 15. The appeal to Islam works against Price's theory instead of supporting it. We would expect such a Christian effort to standardize the text to leave many traces in the historical record. We don't find those traces. And think of just how many people would have to be involved in such a process and how difficult it would be to carry it out in Christianity's early context. The fact that Price and those who follow him in his argument suggest such a scenario reflects poorly on them. It suggests a major misjudgment of the nature of the claim they're making and the status of the evidence.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Are miracles implausible?

Is there a heavy presumption against the miraculous which an abundance of evidence must overcome to justify belief in a miracle? That’s what the atheist assures us.

But what does that claim involve? According to one objection, “anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

This objection defines a miracle as a breach in the uniformity of nature. By the same token, it defines a miracle as an unpredictable event. If the uniformity of nature can break down at any point, then anything can happen at any time. So goes the argument.

To flesh this out a bit, what distinguishes a miracle from a natural event is that you can’t extrapolate from past conditions to the occurrence of a miracle. For it lacks causal continuity. It doesn’t belong to the chain of events.

One potential objection to this definition is that it doesn’t cover coincidental miracles. Miracles of timing. These may involve natural factors, but the timing is opportune in a way that suggests personal prevision and provision. Natural events were coordinated to yield this unexpected, but fortuitous outcome.

Yet there’s a sense in which a miraculous coincidence is both predictable and unpredictable. In principle, it would be possible to anticipate that outcome if you knew the prior conditions.

On the other hand, what makes it a miracle is not merely the event itself, but the conjunction of that event with a human need. We couldn’t anticipate being in the situation where we need that particular event, and we couldn’t anticipate that event occurring just when we need it.

Be that as it may, is there a presumption against believing that some events are unpredictable? That you can’t extrapolate some events from past conditions?

That would only be implausible if you subscribe to a closed system. So the presumption is only as good as the metaphysical claim which underwrites it. And the past doesn’t create any such presumption, for the very question at issue is whether all future events are inferable from past events. Put another way, whether any particular event is antecedently inferable from past conditions.

Undoubtedly many events are the end-result of past conditions. But that’s not something you can know in advance. That’s only something you can know after the fact. Which is also true of miracles. Subsequent validation or falsification.

Of course, there’s a sense in which miracles are predictable. But not because we can infer a miracle from past conditions. Rather, a miracle is predicable in case God predicts a miracle, or promises a miracle. Predicable because the agent who ultimately performs the miracle has advance knowledge of his future actions. (“Future” in relation to us, if not to himself.) He knows what he will do.

Roger Penrose reviews The Grand Design

From Roger Penrose.

When an argument from silence becomes utterly meaningless

From Craig Blomberg.

The Dual Authorship of Scripture

One of my opponents claimed in the debate on 9-2-2010 that since the "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius presents a consistent message and style throughout thus proving singular authorship yet because the Bible differs from "Testament to Testament", this shows that it can't possibly be the work of a singular author, namely, God.

First, not only does this show how ignorant our critic is of the traditional orthodox view of inspiration and authorship (i.e., dual authorship), but this also demonstrates that our critic's standards for inspiration are higher than God's! Dual authorship teaches that both God and man are responsible for producing the original writings of the Bible. 2 Peter 1:19-21 sums it up quite well,
So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Second, the reason why the Scripture uses different stylistic elements, different language, and reflects different cultural understandings and time periods is because "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." Those "men" were the product of a variety of cultures, times, and languages and they were the God-ordained secondary cause, or the earthly means that God used to produce Scripture. Thus, a human influence on Scripture is expected and appreciated.

Third, Notice that v. 21 tells us that "no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will" meaning, that the first cause of Scripture doesn't originate from man's will but from God's mind. As noted above, the secondary cause is man; i.e., God carries the man along with his individual talents, abilities, and characteristics to put a pen to the page to write God's word; nevertheless, the end product is the God-breathed text. Dr. Robert Reymond explains this quite well when commenting on 2 Peter 1:20-21,
In this remarkable statement Peter first asserts two negatives about the production of prophecy: first, that no prophecy of Scripture originated in ("arose, came from," ginetai) the prophet's estimate of the current state of affairs or or in his prognosis about the future, that is, no prophecy of Scripture emerged from his own understanding, and second, that no prophecy of Scripture was motivated by man's will, that is, no prophecy of Scripture came from mere human impulse. By these negatives Peter totally excludes the human element as the ultimate originating cause of Scripture. [Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed., (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 38.]
Fourth, here's a few Scriptural examples:
So Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Then Moses commanded them, saying, "At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. 12 "Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. (Deut. 31:9-12 NAU)
Moses wrote God's law, but they weren't to fear Moses, they were to fear God if they failed to heed what Moses wrote down. This show that the authority for the writing didn't rest with Moses, but with God. Thus, God inspired Moses, Moses wrote what God wanted him to using Moses' own writing style and characteristics, but God gets the credit and the authority. This is what 2 Peter 1:21 is talking about.

God also commanded Isaiah,
And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. (Isa 30:8 ESV)
God told Jeremiah,
"Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book. (Jer 30:2 NAU)
Fifth, in the New Testament, Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance the teachings which Jesus Himself had spoken to them (John 14:26; cf. 16:12-13). These teachings could be expressed in different ways by the different gospel writers in such a way that the exact words Jesus spoke were not necessarily repeated verbatim in every context (esp. since He more than likely preached in Aramaic and the gospels were written in Greek), but that the essential content of Christ's teachings are transmitted without error in the original texts. Thus, there's room for the human writer to use his style, gifts, and characteristics while the Holy Spirit carries him along to put on the page what God wants on the page without making the human author an automaton. As Grudem is quick to note,
Once again it must be noted that these word are still considered to be God's own words, even though they are written down mostly by human beings and always in human language. Still, they are absolutely authoritative and absolutely true: to disobey them or disbelieve them is a serious sin and brings judgment from God (1 Cor. 14:37; Jer. 36:29-31). [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 50.
In conclusion, we don't expect a consistent style throughout since the Bible doesn't expect it. However, contrary to the claims of our critic, we do see a consistent overall message throughout; at least those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can see it.

Textual Criticism Done Dan Brown Style

In our recent debate with the UNCG Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics, one of our opponents made this grandiose claim,
The Torah, the gospels, the Psalms of the Bible have never reached us. . . . What we have today is a copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy of something that was an account by someone who wasn't an eyewitness to the events.
Now that's a mackerel of a claim. Let's tackle them one at a time:
"The Torah, the gospels, the Psalms of the Bible have never reached us."
This is a bare-naked assertion. No evidence was offered to substantiate this claim. It was simply asserted without any hard evidence whatsoever.
. . . What we have today is a copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy . . .
No. The fact that our opponent would say such shows his ignorance of a basic knowledge of textual criticism, especially NT textual criticism. What we have today are Bibles that are directly translated from the original language texts (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) of the OT/NT. The current editions of the NA27/UBS4th Greek text and the BHS-W4 are representative of the work of textual critics based upon thousands of copies of said texts in the original language. This does not equate to Bible translations that are the result of mere "copies, of copies, of copies" and "a mistranslation of a copy"; as if the copying process that took place in the ancient Scriptoriums consisted of the 5th grader telephone game. When speaking to the reliability of the text of the NT, the popular modern representative of this view is Dr. Bart Ehrman. Ehrman said in Misquoting Jesus,
In particular . . . I began seeing the New Testament as as very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minted "born-again" Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don't have the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost. Moreover, I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them. [Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 211.]
Take note of Ehrman's critical presupposition, for it's the same one that our opponents assumed the night of 9-2-2010: textual variation precludes inspiration. To define our terms, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace defines a textual variant as ". . . any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text." [] With that definition in mind, let's move on to more of Ehrman's comments.

In answering the question of a reporter to the Washington Post as to whether the Bible has been changed over 2,000+ years of copying and recopying, Ehrman answers, "Yes, significantly." The idea is that the massive number of alterations in the copies make it near impossible to have any confidence for reconstructing the original autographs. Of course, without the original readings, what good is an inspired text? Without inspired Scripture, there is no orthodox Christianity, but only a mix of widely diverse ideas about Jesus expressed in a body of conflicting texts that have come down to us over time through a "copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy . . .".

Is this skepticism justified? Not at all. The majority report of NT textual critics today is that the NT is hands-down the best preserved document from antiquity. Even Ehrman's Ph.D mentor, Bruce Metzger, who was perhaps the greatest NT textual critic of the 20th century had full confidence that the NT text that we possess today is substantially the same as the NT documents that circulated amongst first century Christians.
So, how do NT textual scholars have confidence that what we have now is what they had then? It revolves around three factors (1) How many copies? (2) How old are the copies? (3) What is the nature of the differences between them [i.e., the variant readings].

1. How Many Copies?

Presently, there are in existence over 5,700 copies of the Greek NT. If the gap of time between the oldest copy and the time of the original is wide, then the original is harder to reconstruct. However, if there are many copies and the oldest ones are closer in time to the original copy, the scholar can be more certain that he has essentially achieved the original wording of the autographs. To get a comparison, consider non-biblical ancient texts. These are the secular writings historians rely on to get all their data from antiquity. In general, historians have no problem believing that these secular documents have been restored with a high level of confidence based on available manuscript evidence. So what is the evidence of these secular documents? Consider the following:
  • Josephus' The Jewish War (1st cent. A.D.) - only 9 complete manuscripts survive, all dating no earlier than the 5th century.
  • Tacitus' Annals (1st cent. A.D.) - only two manuscripts survive dating from the Middle Ages. This is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world for NT times.
  • Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.) - survives in eight copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
  • Ceasar's Gallic Wars (1st cent. B.C.) - survives in ten copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
  • Herodotus' History (440 B.C.) - survives in eight copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
  • Homer's Illiad (@800 B.C.) - 647 existing copies survive with earliest copy dated 800 years after original.
Most ancient documents such as those listed above are based upon only a handful of existing ancient manuscripts with some having a time gap between the original and the first extant copy anywhere from 800-1000+ years. Yet scholars are confident that they have reconstructed the originals with a high degree of accuracy, and in fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on these types of documents. If you can't trust them, you can't know anything about ancient history! If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity [Full credit is given to for the following charts].

Author Date
Earliest Copy Approximate Time Span between original & copy Number of Copies Accuracy of Copies
Lucretius died 55 or 53 B.C.
1100 yrs 2 ----
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 yrs 7 ----
Plato 427-347 B.C. 900 A.D. 1200 yrs 7 ----
Demosthenes 4th Cent. B.C. 1100 A.D. 800 yrs 8 ----
Herodotus 480-425 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 yrs 8 ----
Suetonius 75-160 A.D. 950 A.D. 800 yrs 8 ----
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 yrs 8 ----
Euripides 480-406 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1300 yrs 9 ----
Aristophanes 450-385 B.C. 900 A.D. 1200 10 ----
Caesar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1000 10 ----
Livy 59 BC-AD 17 ---- ??? 20 ----
Tacitus circa 100 A.D. 1100 A.D. 1000 yrs 20 ----
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1400 49 ----
Sophocles 496-406 B.C. 1000 A.D. 1400 yrs 193 ----
Homer (Iliad) 8-900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643 95%
1st Cent. A.D. (50-95 A.D. 2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. 130 A.D. f.)
less than 100 years 5700 99.5%

2. How Old are the Copies?

As you can see from the chart above, there are thousands more New Testament Greek manuscripts than any other ancient writing.
Out of these NT manuscripts, some of them are represented by early fragments, uncial codices (mss. bound in book form in capital Greek letters), and what are known as miniscules (lowercase Greek letters in cursive style). Out of the 2,795 miniscules dating from the 9th to 15th centuries, there are 34 complete New Testaments. The Uncial manuscripts containing nearly the entire complete New Testaments and half the Old Testament are contained in Codex Sinaiticus (@ 340 A.D.) and then Codex Vaticanus (@ 325-350 A.D.). Codex Alexandrinus contains the entire Old Testament and nearly the entire New Testament and dates from @ 450 A.D.

Our oldest evidence comes from the papyri fragments. The Chester-Beatty papyrii is dated to @ 250 A.D. and is commonly known as P46. The Bodmer II Papyrii collection (P66) dates from @ 200 A.D. It's discovery was announced in 1956 and it contains most all of the first 14 chapters of John's gospel and most of the last seven chapters. However, the most amazing fragmentary evidence is found in what is known as P52, also called the John Rylands Papyri. It is a 3 inch square portion of John 18:31-33 that was discovered in Egypt. It represents the earliest known copy of any portion of the NT and has been dated between 115-138 A.D., though some scholars have dated it earlier. This shows that the gospel of John was being circulated in Egypt within 40 years from the original autograph! Most papyri are fragmentary, and only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire NT text. Nevertheless,
as Dr. Dan Wallace has so aptly stated, "We have an embarrassment of riches." When the textual evidence for the NT is compared to other works of antiquity, we have nothing to be concerned about.

Contents Date
Original Written
Time Span
(John Rylands
John 18:31-33,37-38 circa
96 A.D.
29 yrs John Rylands Library, Manchester, England
(Chester Beatty Papyrus)
Rom. 5:17-6:3,5-14; 8:15-25, 27-35; 10:1-11,22,24-33,35; 16:1-23, 25-27; Heb.; 1 & 2 Cor., Eph., Gal., Phil., Col.; 1 Thess. 1:1,9-10; 2:1-3; 5:5-9, 23-28 50's-70's circa
150 yrs
Chester Beatty Museum, Dublin & Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan library
(Bodmer Papyrus)
John 1:1-6:11,35-14:26; fragment of 14:29-21:9


130 yrs
Cologne, Geneva
P67 Matt. 3:9,15; 5:20-22, 25-28
130 yrs
Barcelona, Fundacion San Lucas Evangelista, P. Barc.1

We also have the ancient commentaries of the church fathers, known as "patristic quotations", which would reproduce nearly the entire NT even if we burned all of our existing manuscripts. This is because they quoted the NT over one million times in their writings! Outside of our Greek manuscripts, we also have ancient versions of the Bible that have been translated into Syriac, Coptic, Latin, and then later into Armenian and Georgian. These manuscript translations sometimes come in great quantities, with Latin copies measuring up to 10,000 copies! These old versions were used by Christian missionaries to spread the gospel into the non-Greek speaking nations and modern scholars use the extant copies of them to do research on the underlying Greek manuscripts that they were translated from.

While Bart Ehrman says that we can't trust our modern Bibles because we can't know what the original manuscripts said, most other scholars consider the plethora of evidence for the NT manuscript tradition a virtue and not a vice. Massive numbers of variants only come from massive numbers of manuscripts. The condition causing the problem is the very condition providing the solution. The earlier the manuscripts are, and the more we have for comparison, the more accurately we can determine what the original text said. As Dr. Daniel Wallace is wont to say, we have 110% of the text of the NT, not 90%! [] This brings us to our third question.

3. What is the nature of the differences between them? [i.e., the variant readings]

Note again that Dan Wallace defines a textual variant as "any difference from a standard text" with the standard text being understood as the original writing of any document. A textual variant would present itself as spelling changes, word order changes, omission of words, addition of letters/words/phrases, or a complete rewrite of the text. Again, any change in the text would constitute a textual variant. These differences can be divided up into two basic categories (a) insignificant, and (b) significant.

a. An insignificant variant has absolutely no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original text. The meaning remains the same, regardless of which reading in the manuscripts is the original one. Of the 400,000 textual variants, 50% are spelling errors, 49% are inconsequential, and only 1% are meaningful and viable. There are a few theologically significant variants, such as 1 John 5:7-8 as it appears in the KJV/NKJV translations (i.e., the comma Johanneum). Regarding this famous variant, current evidence shows that this variant first appeared in a 16th century Greek manuscript now known as Codex 61. The Comma is almost universally acknowledged by NT textual critics as a corruption of the original text of 1st John. Nevertheless, many generations of Christians were able to exegete the Scriptures in defense of the Trinity by appealing to many NT passages that are well attested in the Greek manuscript tradition. Thus, the fact that this passage is spurious and wasn't in the original autograph of 1st John poses no doctrinal concern whatsoever for those who want to defend historic Trinitarian orthodoxy. There are variants like the Comma that only appear in one manuscript, but they are easily corrected because they stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the manuscripts. In his "Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?", Wallace sums up the variants like this:

1. Spelling differences or nonsense readings (i.e., skipped lines).
2. Insignificant word order differences (i.e., "Jesus Christ" vs. "Christ Jesus") and synonyms.
3. Theologically meaningful, though non-viable variants (i.e., The Comma Johanneum).
4. Variants that are both meaningful and viable.

Significant variants

Wallace says this about the significant variants,
But when one looks at the actual details of the textual problems, the vast majority are so trivial as to not even be translatable, while the meaningful and viable variants constitute only about 1% of the text. And even for this category, most scholars would say that 1% is being awfully generous as to our uncertainties! (The majority of NT scholars would say that what is uncertain is a small fraction of 1% of the text.) [Italics mine for emphasis - DSS]
This means that more than 396,000 of the variants in the Greek manuscript tradition have no bearing whatsoever on our ability to reconstruct the autograph.

Even with the remaining textual differences that remain, the vast majority of them are so theologically insignificant that none of them affects Christian orthodoxy. Even Bart Ehrman admits as much when he says,
Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure, and simple - slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another. Misquoting Jesus, 55.
Only those remaining differences listed in Wallace's fourth category above (variants that are meaningful and viable), require serious textual critical work. These differences don't affect doctrine at all, but are instances where there are two or more possible readings where the textual evidence is fairly equal either way. For instance, text critics are divided on whether the original reading for John 1:18 was "the only God" or "the only Son" since the textual evidence is somewhat divided. However, neither affects doctrine since both are true and text critics use the accepted canons of text critical research in such instances to determine what the original reading was. Here’s what Ehrman says in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus on p. 252,

Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions - he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not - we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement - maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. [bold and italics mine for emphasis - DSS]

Out of the 400,000 variants, virtually all of them are completely inconsequential to the task of reconstructing the original text. Of the remaining differences, nearly all of them give way to the original reading by applying the accepted canons of NT textual criticism.

So what does this mean? Answer: The New Testament is over 99% textually pure. As noted NT scholar Craig Evans said in a June 20, 2010 radio discussion on The White Horse Inn, out of the 20,000 lines of the NT, only 40 lines are in serious doubt. This equals about 400 words and none of them affects orthodoxy.

The final part of the atheist claim was that the Bible was copied from,

"something that was an account by someone who wasn't an eyewitness to the events."
This is just a flat out lie. The apostles John, James, and Peter were all eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Christ (2 Peter 1:16ff). Not to mention that Jude was the half-brother of Jesus whose epistle bears his name. All of these men lived and preached the gospel throughout most of the first generation of Christians and if any doctrinal alteration occurred, they quickly quelled it as is evident in the NT epistles. Also, as Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace point out in chapter 2 of Reinventing Jesus, oral tradition supported by significant memory devices utilized to pass on important information by ancient collectivist societies in the first century would have prevented mythical accretions from developing in the oral traditions of first generation Christianity. This fact combined with the fact that there were many eyewitnesses still alive throughout most of that first generation ensured that important information was passed on accurately via oral tradition before the truth about Jesus was committed to paper and ink.

Being Careful What You Wish For: Historical Skepticism Cuts Both Ways

In conclusion, if skeptics dismiss the NT as an unreliable historical document, then to be consistent they should dismiss the reliability of the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and any other author that wrote before the invention of the printing press and perhaps even the modern photocopier. However, if skeptics accept their writings, but dismiss the NT writings as spurious, then they are revealing that their disdain for the NT has nothing to do with a paucity of ancient historical evidence as documented above, but instead it has to do with antisupernatural bias that adamantly insists that God could not have miraculously entered into history and revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

ADDENDUM: The following additional and excellent information was added in the combox of this article after it was posted on 9-6-10 by Jason Engwer:

Several other points:
  • We can also judge the reliability of Christian scribes by how they preserved other documents, not just the New Testament. As the Josephan scholar Steve Mason notes, "in general, Christian copyists were quite conservative in transmitting texts" (Josephus And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], p. 232).
  • Not only are patristic quotations of the New Testament relevant, but so are patristic (and other) descriptions. If a skeptic wants to raise textual issues to cast doubt on Jesus' resurrection, for example, then it's significant if a patristic source describes a New Testament document as making reference to the resurrection, even if he doesn't quote the document.
  • It was common for documents in antiquity to exist in two or more copies before being sent out to circulate more widely. Authors often kept a copy of their document before sending out another copy (Stanley Porter, in Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008], pp. 189-190, 195, n. 106 on p. 195). Thus, an author didn't entirely give up control of the transmission of his text to other people. He kept a copy himself and could restart the copying process anytime he wanted with his own edition of the original.
  • Authors often took steps to ensure the preservation of their text and to monitor the status of the text's circulation. Thus, ancient authors often commented on subjects like what titles were being applied to their works in libraries, how some people were interpreting their work inaccurately, how some people were altering their text, etc. Their concern over the text didn't end once the first copy was sent out.
  • Documents were read publicly (1 Thessalonians 5:27). Thus, even those who were illiterate could become witnesses to the original text by means of hearing it read publicly. That increases the number of witnesses involved.
  • Ancient non-Christian sources corroborated the reliability of the New Testament text.
  • Many of the objections non-Christians raise against Christianity in modern times depend on the textual accuracy of ancient extra-Biblical sources. For example, when a critic appeals to an alleged contradiction between Luke and Josephus, suggesting that we have a reliable text for Josephus, he's accepting the Josephan text on the basis of less evidence than we have for the New Testament text.