Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Commentary on the Richard Carrier vs. David Marshall Debate

Earlier this year Christian apologist David Marshall debated Richard Carrier over the question, "Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?" After watching the debate I and most other commentators thought that it was about as decisive of a win as Carrier could have gotten, and Marshall has been continuously ridiculed about this debate ever since. For quite some time I considered the idea of giving a blow by blow account of why Marshall's arguments failed in the debate, having refuted the entirety of one of his books as well as a few other essays and blog posts, but eventually I scrapped the idea.

I recently came across a blog post by the infamous J.R. Fraser, David Marshall's sidekick on the forums, who was one of the most vile and dishonest individuals I've ever come across while debating on online fora. In a post dating from March 26, 2013, titled David Marshall v. Richard Carrier debate Fraser does his best (and that's not saying much) to defend Carrier's scathing arguments and rebuttal's to Marshall's arguments during the debate. The only argument covered in this post is Carrier's initial opening statement dealing with the Problem of Evil. You may want to watch the above video before reading on.

What follows will be the entirety of Fraser's post in blockquotes with my responses following immediately after.

Richard Carrier offers an argument against the reasonableness of the Christian faith based on a form of the problem of evil. Carrier argues that Jesus failed to inform people about things like germs, parasites, and proper sanitation and thus it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus is God as Christianity claims. The basic form of the argument can be summarized this way: “if Jesus had been God, he would have done X, Y, and Z; Jesus did not do X, Y, and Z; therefore Jesus was not God.” The fatal flaw in this argument is in justifying the first premise, but that issue can be set aside for the moment. Let’s start by looking at Carrier’s specific examples of what Jesus “should have done.”

Carrier argues that in order to prevent centuries of unnecessary deaths, Jesus should have taught people about germ theory, parasites, and proper sanitation. First, there is a considerable amount of naivety in such a statement. Even modern missionaries who travel to tribal cultures in today’s world can require years to communicate basic concepts of modern medicine to people from non-Western cultures, and that's only after said missionaries have had extensive training in cultural anthropology. While it’s easy to assume that things like modern medicine and science are culturally neutral and value-free, anthropologists know that this is not the case. So the idea that Jesus should have given lectures on germ theory strikes me as misguided. It would not have been understood. On the other hand it might have been a great strategy for him if he wanted to be followed and remembered by nobody.

I must object to Fraser's argument here, since it doesn't even begin to answer the argument Carrier was making. Fraser argues that Jesus could not have given his disciples and other peoples the necessary information about sanitation because it can take “years to communicate basic concepts of modern medicine to people from non-Western cultures, and that's only after said missionaries have had extensive training in cultural anthropology. While it’s easy to assume that things like modern medicine and science are culturally neutral and value-free, anthropologists know that this is not the case. So the idea that Jesus should have given lectures on germ theory strikes me as misguided.”

What's so horribly wrong-headed about this argument? It is the fact that if Jesus is supposed to be god then Jesus should have all of the knowledge god has, which is about everything. Therefore, it stands to reason that, armed with this knowledge, it would have been a simple thing for Jesus to inform others about the benefits of doing something as simple as washing one's hands after certain activities, or simple methods of sanitation. This argument does not at all require any “modern” knowledge since god is supposed to know everything, after all. If god is supposed to be omniscient, gracious and all loving, then certainly such a god would happily provide his creations with this necessary information. God allegedly gave his creations laws and codes of conduct, why not information to help them avoid disease by something as simple as sanitation? Or even simpler, as Carrier opines, simply eliminating said germs and parasites.

Fraser might argue that this argument is illogical because Carrier and I don't really know what god would do. However, this cuts both ways, since Fraser cannot say with any certainty what his god might do. I do think Carrier's argument is more powerful because Christians supposedly know what kind of being god and Jesus are. I just cited a few of the attributes, and given these few alone, there is no reason why a loving god who knows everything would not want to share his knowledge with his creations.

Finally, I will nitpick something he said. Fraser wrote, “Carrier argues that Jesus failed to inform people about things like germs, parasites, and proper sanitation and thus it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus is God as Christianity claims.” [emphasis mine] Carrier never said this, nor even implied it. Quoting from Carrier's opening speech, this was Carrier's argument summed up: “Notably, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or god impart any correct knowledge or information about the world, that wasn't already known to men at the time. Thus apparently, Jesus and his god were as ignorant as every other first century human.” Later he says, “Jesus and his god didn't do anything god-like. Just as their knowledge was ignorantly human, so was their ability.” This argument is one of his justifications for his larger point: “The Christian religion is simply not believable in the face of this evidence. Neither Jesus or Christianity as a whole has exhibited any special source of information about the world. Nothing distinctive of actual divine communication. They didn't know about germs, they didn't know about parasites. Christians have no more evidence of having a pipeline to a kind and all-knowing god than any other religion in history has, and that's the principle point, here. The fact that it took Christians 1800 years -- do the math on that, 1800 years -- to figure out that germs and parasites even existed, and it might be a good idea to kill them before they kill our kids -- proves that Christianity is a man-made religion, and not something received from any real god.”

But even supposing that this knowledge could have been accepted and understood by those first century Jews (which is simply not realistic), so what? Would these apostles of good hygiene have then been responsible to take that message to the Romans, and would the Romans have been expected to adopt it themselves? Perhaps in Carrier’s mind, if God had wanted to come to earth as a human being he would have done so as something other than an ancient Jew. Perhaps God should have made himself into a time-travelling 21st-century Westerner, because that’s what Richard Carrier would do. This appears to be the honest force of Carrier’s words.

Fraser provides no reasons why Carrier's scenario is “not realistic.” He has not provided any reasons why, given the attributes I cited, a loving god would not want to provide the knowledge to save countless thousands from death. Fraser's digression, asking whether or not Jesus' disciples would have taught the Romans, completely misses the point. And it seems obvious that Fraser is still unable to grasp the argument Carrier was making. There would be no need of time travel since god is all knowing. He already has the knowledge. Therefore, Fraser's argument is pointless.

Thus the premise that if Jesus had been God that he should have done X, Y, and Z has the dubious foundation that it simply starts from Carrier’s own assumptions about what God should do – and of course one of those assumptions is that teaching about things like repentance, sin, faith, reconciliation to God, and life after death don’t matter because – well, presumably because Carrier doesn’t think those things are real or rational. If Carrier DID think those things were real, he would probably have a correspondingly higher view of how important they are – and perhaps a different evaluation with regard to whether or not Jesus did what he should have done. If Jesus’ mission was to prevent as many premature deaths as possible, then perhaps Carrier is right, and Jesus should have taught about germs (even given the likelihood that such a teaching could never have been effective in the cultural context). If, however, his mission was something else (such as inaugurating the kingdom of God), then it’s possible that Carrier is totally off base. Rather than being a strong argument against the reasonableness of Christianity, Carrier’s argument turns out to be simple question-begging.

Richard Carrier did not state explicitly the attributes of god to give his argument its foundation, which I believe is justifiably implied, since I think Carrier's argument is just another derivation of the argument of evil, which takes into account god's allegedly loving nature. Given this foundation, this argument is anything but “question-begging.” Due to Fraser's lack of reasonable criteria or reasoning why he doesn't believe god would provide such information, I think he could be accused of question-begging.

Fraser's argument is irrational and goes against the very attributes his god is supposed to have: omniscient, gracious and all loving, among others. So, according to Fraser, his god and Jesus would rather preach their beliefs and try to convert people, rather than save childrens' lives.

There are other problems with Carrier’s argumentation which are more nitpicky. Carrier alleges that Jesus said “nothing we put into us can harm us,” and implies that this is simply wrong because of course germs can make us sick. My best guess is that Carrier is doing a botch paraphrase of Mark 7:15-23 or the parallel passage in Matthew 15:11-20. However, Jesus does not say that nothing we put into us can harm us, he says that no food can make anyone “unclean,” meaning in the Old Testament ceremonial sense.

This is a bit of a surprising gaffe by Carrier – any lay person who has attentively read the Old Testament will have noticed that there are a lot of foods which are “clean” and others which are “unclean” for the Jews. This is known as kosher. Jesus was certainly not saying that nothing we eat can harm us, he was saying that food does not defile a person spiritually. This is a significant theological point but it has nothing to do with what Carrier seems to think it does, namely physical health.

Carrier also says that according to Jesus not even poison can hurt us (although the verse actually only applies to believers), but this verse is found in the long ending of Mark which almost all scholars agree is not authentic. Carrier should know that full well.

I will deal with Fraser's first two paragraphs. Had Fraser more closely listened to Carrier's opening statement he would have known that Carrier specifically mentioned how Jesus is claimed to have said in the Gospel of Mark that “nothing we put into us can harm us.” He then cites the passage in Mark 16:18 where Jesus tells his disciples that “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.”

Fraser is simply being disingenuous because it's obvious that Carrier is discussing sanitation, but Fraser argues that the passages are not referring to this specifically. I'm sure Carrier is well aware of this. However, his point is that many others during the time washed their cups and other utensils (Mark 7:4), but Jesus tells his disciples not to do this. Yes, it was for religious reasons, but if Jesus is god and god is all knowing, then surely stopping the spread of disease is more important than mere religious ritual. If not, that is just immoral. That is Carrier's point.

Finally, so what if the endings in Mark are known to be unauthentic? Unauthentic or not, it was basic Jewish practice not to wash their hands and utensils, but had Jesus or god told their followers that this can lead do disease, he would have saved many lives. Even if the passage was added much later it would still not change these facts. These rituals existed despite this passage.

Carrier charges Jesus with incorrectly teaching people to eat without washing their hands in spite of the unhygienic nature of such advice. Clearly, argues Carrier, Jesus could not have been God and have made such a statement. Again Carrier’s argument flops because of his evident lack of understanding of rabbinic Judaism. The neglect of hand washing which the Jews who charged Jesus with(actually the charge was against Jesus’ disciples) was not simple hand washing for hygiene. It was the ritual hand washing that they believed good Jews were supposed to practice before, during, and after meals. Without the ritual hand washing, they believed the disciples were ceremonially unclean.

I've already anticipated and responded to this disingenuous argument. I wrote: Carrier's point is that many others during the time washed their cups and other utensils (Mark 7:4), but Jesus tells his disciples not to do this. Yes, it was for religious reasons, not hygienic, but if Jesus is god and god is all knowing, then surely Jesus and god are well aware of how to stop the spread of disease. When they saw their disciples not washing their hands, surely this thought must have crossed their minds, but they said nothing. It appears that mere religious ritual is more important than saving countless lives. If so, that is just immoral.

A bit of background is necessary here. The rabbinic system of ritual hand washing is not found in the Torah, but was later developed by the Jews. Thus Jesus responds to the challenge by challenging them: why do they break the commands of God because of traditions made by men? Jesus’ response to the question of hand washing was that food doesn’t defile a person spiritually, rather it is evil desires which motivate evil actions which defile a person. The entire discussion of hand washing (which is found in only one passage in Mark and Matthew) has to do with ceremonial cleanness and the theological discussion about the status of the Torah, a discussion which continued into the early church. Again, it’s an important theological point, but it has nothing to do with the use that Carrier wants to make of it. The idea of washing your hands for simple hygiene is not even in view. Carrier is misreading a theological discussion as a medical one.

I've already responded to this above.

Carrier’s entire argument also fails in principle. The argument is based on the premise that if a good human being would do X if it was in his or her power, then God should also do X. However, unlike human beings, God sees “the end from the beginning.” He is not so limited in his perspective as to see only the immediate effects of some action or inaction. We can make an analogy from parenthood. Very often as a parent I have to make a decision, sometimes painfully, to not do what my children would like me to do or to make them do what they do not want to do. Because I fail to do what they would do if they were in my position, from their perspective it would appear that I have fallen short of their moral standard. Often when this happens they announce, “No fair!” However, as a (hopefully) wise parent, I am able to make judgments about what is best which they are not yet able to make.

This argument is just plain ridiculous. Fraser actually argues that “God sees 'the end from the beginning'. He is not so limited in his perspective as to see only the immediate effects of some action or inaction.” In fact, it is precisely because god is able to see so far into the future that he would have known about the lives Jesus could have saved had he or Jesus mentioned these facts about the germ theory of disease and simple concepts of sanitation. Essentially, Fraser has utilized an entirely immoral argument, because he's just admitted that god and Jesus condemned millions to death and that this was the most “wise” decision. I beg to differ, and I think anyone with a properly working moral compass can also clearly see this.

The analogy to God is imperfect, because God’s wisdom is not merely significantly different in degree from ours in the way that mine is from that of my children. My children will grow up and in a few short years reach the level of understanding of an adult and perhaps one day become parents themselves. God’s wisdom, however, will always be above us, so it is not certain that anyone knows what God should do in any given situation. It’s even conceivable that they might be way off, possibly coming to a conclusion which is the opposite of the truth as God sees it.

Thus the basic form of the argument as it stands is not effective for the simple reason that it begins with the very dubious premise that Richard Carrier knows exactly what Jesus should have done if he had been divine. It’s a variation on any number of skeptical arguments from evil – if there is a God, he should have done X, or he should have prevented Y from happening. The basic justification for the premise is that any good human being would have done X or prevented Y if it was in his or her power, so God should do the same, most often accompanied by an emotional appeal which Carrier also makes heavy use of. It seems to me that it is rather more likely that if God exists (which I am convinced that he does), that he would do things which nobody would expect. A God who only did what humans expected or thought he should do would be no god at all.

Once again, had god or Jesus known of these scientific advances they could have prevented millions of deaths. I'm playing devil's advocate here, but surely Jesus and god are well aware that murder is a sin, according to god's own laws? The sixth commandment is “Thou shalt not kill,” but through their inaction they have violated their own laws. Given this fact, clearly both god and Jesus are aware that killing is wrong (it's right there in the ten commandments!) and surely all sane human beings are aware that killing is wrong, so we can easily surmise that god and Jesus would not want to willingly put innocent people to death. Given these facts, Fraser's argument that we cannot know what god or Jesus would have done is not supported by the facts, so long as they adhered to their own principles and laws that they laid down.

Obviously, they did not follow their own commandments and this is easily seen throughout the bible in both the cases of god and even Jesus. This leaves only three possibilities: either the Christian god and Jesus are immoral, or they did not and do not exist. The final option would be – and this was Carrier's entire point – that this is strong evidence that Jesus and all other persons from that time period had only the knowledge from that time period, and had no connection to any divine source of information, and further casting doubt upon other supernatural claims of Christianity. Therefore, the Christian faith is unreasonable because it is incoherent and doesn't even follow from its own premises.

Like every argument I've seen from J.R. Fraser, this post was all too easy to refute. He failed to state any logical premises from which he drew his conclusions, and he seemed to misunderstand some of Carrier's arguments. Fraser might fancy himself as some knowledgeable Christian apologist, but the fact of the matter is that his arguments are just as factually flawed and irrational as every other Christian apologist out there.

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