Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Not Skeptical of Alexander the Great

Some time ago, I pointed out the Christian Blind Spot, which is an inability of many Christians to see glaring flaws in their own logical arguments for God, despite the fact that they would have no trouble at all identifying the very same flaws in another argument that applies to something other than God.  This is not an issue of Christians lacking intelligence or acumen in logical argumentation.  It's simply a lack of objectivity when it comes to matters that concern their religious beliefs.  They tend to have a huge blind spot when it comes to seeing the problems with their own arguments.  And this blind spot exists for more than just logical argumentation.  It is equally debilitating in their examination of evidence (or lack thereof) for their religious beliefs.  I have yet to encounter any Christian who is willing to admit that evidence to support his beliefs about the life of Jesus is anything less than rock solid.  Yet they can be oh so skeptical of other things in the historical record that enjoy far more substantial evidential support.

Of course, Christians don't buy the idea that they have this blind spot.  They insist that skeptics refuse to accept the rock-solid evidence that is so obvious to them.  Skeptics are the ones with the blind spot, they say.  We often hear them make counter-arguments similar to this one from Gary Habermas:
Habermas said in his speech that one time at a conference years ago he was debating an atheist, whom he didn't name, who claimed that the Gospels are "lousy sources" because they were written too long after Jesus' death.  "This guy, he got me so ticked," Habermas admitted.  He noted that he asked the atheist "do you think we know a lot about Alexander the Great?" speaking of the ancient Greek king.  While the atheist said yes, he admitted that he did not know when the first major source on Alexander was written.  Habermas told him that it came just short of 300 years after his death in 320 B.C.  Summarizing the thinking of atheists, he positioned: "John (as a source of truth) — prejudiced, this source — excellent." - Stoyan Zaimov
In citing Habermas' argument, Victor Reppert plaintively echoes the question Why are there Jesus skeptics but not Alexander the Great skeptics?  And similar arguments can be found throughout the Christiasn apologist community.  It can be summarized this way:
1. Evidence for the narrative of the gospels (G) exists.
2. Evidence for some other historical narrative (H) exists.
3. Evidence for H is no better than evidence for G.
4. Skeptics accept H, but they don't accept G.
5. Therefore, skeptics are not sufficiently objective in their rejection of G.
The huge, glaring flaw in this argument lies in statement 3.  Because when it comes to Alexander the Great, there is far more and far better evidence for the historical accounts of his life than for that of Jesus.  But look at the trick Habermas is playing in his treatment of the evidence.  First, he limits the evidence under consideration to only biographical accounts.  Then he falsely claims that the surviving biographies from ancient times are the first sources.  And on top of that, he pretends that proximity to the time of the events is the only measure of quality for these accounts.  But no historian would be persuaded by Habermas' little tricks.

Let's take a broader view of the available evidence, which consists of far more than biographical accounts (if one could even say that the gospels are biographies).  Alexander left an enormous legacy - not the least of which is the Greek Empire, which was subsequently divided into four kingdoms.  And there are cities all across the empire that are said to be founded by Alexander.  And while it may not be the case that he actually built all those cities, it is undeniable that many of them are named for him.  He created coinage bearing his name and image, that survives to this day.  The fact is that Alexander left behind a wealth of evidence, and had a huge impact on on the world and the course of events that followed.

The same cannot be said of Jesus.  There are no physical artifacts of his existence (although there are many fakes, such as the Shroud of Turin and enough pieces of the cross to make a whole forest).  The reason for all this faked evidence is the fact that there is a paucity of real evidence.  And if Christianity itself can be called a legacy, it appears to be attributable more to Paul than to Jesus.  Although many apologists would protest loudly about the very idea of mythicism, the evidence of his life is so scarce that there is no real basis in fact to establish with a degree of certainty much greater than 50/50 that the historical character Jesus ever even lived.

And what about those biographical accounts?  Christians rely almost exclusively on the gospels for their knowledge of the life and works of Jesus.  But the truth is that the gospels are not biographies.  They are not eye-witness accounts, and their provenance is unknown.  We don't know who wrote them, or what sources they used.  They contain legendary accounts of events that are not regarded as being historically accurate by most scholars (including those who believe that a historical Jesus actually lived).  And those accounts appear to be progressively more embellished when the gospels are placed of order of the time of their creation.  They disagree with one another on key details, such as their accounts of the birth of Jesus, making it impossible to determine when Jesus was born.  They lack any significant independent corroboration from extra-biblical sources.  And what kind of biography would skip over the whole lifetime of its subject between the birth and the events in the final few years before his death?  But of course, the most damning thing about the gospel stories is their miraculous claims - something for which there is no corroboration whatsoever, much less any kind of scientific explanation of how these things could have occurred at all.

Contrast that with the historiography of Alexander.  We know when he was born and when he died.  We know beyond any serious dispute many of the details of his life.  We have several proper biographies of Alexander from ancient times, whose provenance is well known.  We know who wrote them, and we know what sources they used (including independent sources going back to the time of Alaxander).  And although the primary sources for those biographies no longer survive, there are other contemporary references to Alexander that are not considered to be fakes or interpolations, such as the Decree of Philippi and various other documents that provide records of actual events involving Alexander.  Furthermore, while there may be some legendary elements in the stories of Alexander's life (similar to claims of George Washington saying "I cannot tell a lie"), the basics are not in dispute from a historical perspective, precisely because of the wealth of corroborating information from a variety of sources, and from what is generally known about the history of the time.  And beyond that, there is no reason to dispute the events of Alexander's life based on scientific reality.

The bottom line is that Victor's complaint is easily answered.  The more information we have about something, and the better the quality of that information (as established by multiple independent sources), the less reason there is to be skeptical about it.  Nor is there reason to doubt those stories based solely on the claims they make.  Nobody is saying that Alexander performed miracles.  But if you expect me to believe the gospels, and particularly the claims of miraculous events, I'm going to need lots more evidence.  As for Christians, they can believe it if they want, but I'd say they are suffering from an enormous blind spot obscuring their view of reality.

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