Friday, July 31, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: My Favourite Atheist

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Pat Condell*
Tom: My favourite atheist is a cranky Irish comedian named Pat Condell. He’s fearlessly pro-Israel, anti-Islam … and, sadly, more than a little ignorant about what the gospels actually say.

Here’s a sample of what he thinks about Jesus, for instance:

“I don’t reject Jesus, I reject religion … the early church capitalized on [supernatural nonsense about Jesus] and exploited it enthusiastically because they needed Jesus to be a god so that they could use him to generate fear — which, of course, is the only level they know how to operate on — and also so that they could claim supernatural authority through him, which is the best kind of authority to have when you’re bluffing. As a mere man, Jesus was almost useless to them. All he could offer were words of compassion and wisdom, and what earthly good would they be to the men who run the church?”

For Pat and many other folk, as long as Jesus is just a wise and compassionate human being, he has no problem. It’s “religion” — as he refers to Christianity — that gets him all hot under the collar.

Immanuel Can, what do you think of that?

Where Does Information about Jesus Come From?

Immanuel Can: Well, my first question would be this: how is Pat Condell (who clearly insists he does not take the idea of the reliability of Scripture as a serious possibility) able to know anything at all about Jesus Christ? 

I don’t mean to sound unkind — it’s a real question. In what sense does he make the claim to not “reject Jesus”? Who is this “Jesus” of whom he is speaking, and from what source has he gleaned his information? What record does he trust on the subject? If he doesn’t “reject” Him, then Mr. Condell must have a specific “Jesus” in mind, no?

Or is he simply saying that there IS no “Jesus”, so he doesn’t reject him in the way that people don’t reject the Easter Bunny?

Tom: No, he doesn’t appear to be saying that. That’s what I found curious about his screeds on religion. It would be more intellectually consistent to say, “I reject the whole package: Jesus, Yahweh, Saint Paul, the Catholic Church, etc.” But, rather oddly, he seems to acknowledge a historical Jesus (or he could not reference his “compassion and wisdom”). It’s as if he wants to preserve the Lord’s moral teaching (and Condell is clearly a man who believes in morality) while rejecting anything Jesus said about God and faith.

You do find Jesus in historical records outside of Scripture — there’s Josephus and Tacitus, and, I would add, classical historian Michael Grant**, among others, has said that in recent years “no serious scholar” has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus — but such secular sources tell you nothing at all about his “compassion and wisdom”.

Mr. Condell has to get that from Scripture.

IC: Well, if he does, then he’s going to be hard-pressed to explain why he feels justified to be positive about the elements of the Scriptural portrayal of Christ that he likes and negative or dismissive about those he doesn’t like. He mentions the Sermon on the Mount as if he thinks it’s authentic, but denies statements like “I and My Father are one”, and he’s completely skeptical about any miracles at all.

If he’s a rational person (which I think he hopes he is) then he would have to have reasons, and know what they are, for making such selective judgments. 

Dismissing the Miraculous

I suspect he dismisses the miraculous on the mistaken assumption that something in the existence of observable scientific regularities (or “laws”) disproves anything miraculous could even happen. If so, he’s fallen prey to a basic error in thinking, the Uniformitarian Fallacy.

Tom: Absolutely. Science can tell you by testing or observation what regularly goes on in the world. It cannot possibly tell you whether or not there is a supernatural being, or how those scientific regularities you refer to would be affected if such a being chose to intervene in the world. Those are questions uniformitarianism (and science generally) are unequipped to address.

The Motivation of the Apostles vs. the Catholic Church

But I’d like to explore what he says about the early church needing Jesus to be a god in order to “generate fear”. He’s clearly not using the term “early church” in the sense we would normally use it: about Christians in the book of Acts or those addressed by the epistles of the New Testament.

IC: Wow. Well, here he clearly is speaking without knowledge. I have met lots of people who have read the gospels, and not one of them has told me that his natural reaction to Jesus Christ was “fear”. And me, I was first struck by the moral greatness of Jesus, not terrified by Him. The Scriptural portrayal just does not run that way at all. So he’s not referring to the Biblical account.

I also don’t know a single Christian who tries to make use of Christ that way. The central fact of the Incarnation is the approachability of God — His love and grace to humanity. After all, was this not the first message of the angels in Luke, to fearful shepherds: “Fear not … to you is born a Savior”. That “you” is emphatic: “God is bringing joy to you” is their announcement. This theme is dominant all the way through Scripture. “Fear”? No: it’s cast out by perfect love. And for Christians, the gospel means “good news”, not “fearful news”. We’re commanded to model and proclaim “the favourable year of the Lord”.

So how does Mr. Condell get the idea that Christians are aiming at creating “fear”? I can only think he’s drawing on some experiential impression or received idea he has. It isn’t the Bible, for sure, nor is it the Christians I know.

Tom: Quite so. You could make the case that once Nicene Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380AD under Theodocius, fear became an essential element of the package and was employed that way down through the centuries by Roman Catholicism in things like the Inquisition, indulgences and so on. Fear has been a veritable cash machine for Romanism throughout the centuries; Condell’s not wrong about that. That may be the “church” of which he speaks.

But Condell refers to the “early church”, which I take to be the church of the New Testament. The early church, as you say, brought a message to the world of which fear was no part. The apostles didn’t kill for what they believed; they died for it, one after the other.

IC: True. His “fear” argument seems to be just a guess, and of course it’s a wrong one. But if he had specified something like the conduct of certain factions of (illegitimately) politicized Christendom, I could maybe grant him his point.

The next claim he makes is that there could be a motive on the disciples’ part for making up supernatural stuff so as to give them authority — that too seems implausible if, as we know historically, they neither took authority nor even used the Biblical narratives to argue for their own authority. On the contrary, they died for their beliefs, and it was not until three centuries later, after Constantine, that there was any “authority” to be gotten at all. That’s an awfully incompetent grab for “authority”, if that had actually been what they wanted.

But how about his argument that supernatural authority is “the best kind to have when you’re bluffing”? Any thoughts?

Tom: The obvious: they weren’t bluffing. If they were devout believers in the OT, as they clearly seem to be, they would have been full of reverent fear of Yahweh. Suggesting to not just one such devout Jew but to eleven of them that they promote a human being they all knew to be dead as an equal to Yahweh, and to promote such a concept worldwide — it’s implausible on a level I can’t even describe. I mean, even the Lord’s betrayer went out and hanged himself from guilt: how could the eleven survivors possibly have conspired like Condell suggests? Such a conspiracy could not succeed, nor could it stand without some historical record of at least one fearful recanting on the way to execution, most probably from Peter who had already denied the Lord once.

I repeat: a fraudster will not die for a fake religion. They had to believe in what they were doing. Martyrdom was common for the early church — would you like to be fed to lions? The only plausible way to account for their tenacity is that they believed what they were saying, even if people like Pat Condell might still argue that they were horribly deceived.

IC: Good historical argument. Might I add that even from a logical perspective, there’s a serious problem with Mr. Condell’s argument as well? For if the fact of something being “supernatural” is, all by itself, sufficient to warrant his calling it a “bluff”, then he would be allowing no possibility that anything at all could ever be genuinely supernatural.

Now, he’s free to say that if he wants, of course. But again, as a rational man, he owes it to himself (to say nothing of us) to have evidence or binding reasons to show that nothing is ever genuinely supernatural.

So we might ask him this: “Under what conditions, Pat, would you accept a supernatural action of God as genuine?” If there are none, then is he being even open to evidence, or is he hopelessly prejudiced against the possibility for some reason?

Modern Church Authority

Tom: One more little thing I’d like to ask before we wrap it up: Condell talks about the “men who run the church”. If all he’d ever dealt with were Catholics and Anglicans and their leviathan hierarchical systems in place for centuries, I wouldn’t even bother to comment on his use of that phrase, but in other videos he demonstrates that he’s had a fair bit of communication with evangelicals.

So how can he not recognize that, outside of the old guard (admittedly a significant chunk of Christendom), there ARE no “men who run the church”? There are in certain circles pastors who have significant influence in (but not complete sway over) individual, local churches. But these groups of fifty, sixty or even several hundred isolated believers are surely not what he has in mind.

Protestantism, at least, is way too denominationally (and even intra-denominationally) divided to bow to any monolithic authority. Evangelical protestants simply do not have these mysterious “men” who speak for us, do we?

IC: No, we don’t have them — and if we ever do, there’s something terribly wrong. We’re about the personal commitment to follow Christ, not the collective commitment to follow men.

At the end of the day, Mr. Condell misunderstands us, and I admit he is certainly no friend of the faith. He even comes across as angry and confrontational. But I find myself liking something about him. He seems somehow sincere and firm in a way I find myself wishing more people were.

Tom: I did say he’s my favourite atheist, didn’t I? I love it that he takes these things so seriously. That’s rare today. We live in the day of distracted dilettantes.

But it’s not only about sincerity, or Pat Condell would be just fine. I will say for him that he seems to find the character of Jesus Christ laudable in a context in which he manifestly despises everything else associated with religion.

If I were to meet him, I’d point him to the book of John. One serious, attentive read of that gospel, and he’d see very quickly that reducing the Son of God to a “compassionate and wise” man is an absolute impossibility.
  *  See disclaimer here.
**  Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Macmillan, 1977, p. 200 

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