February 2009
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Dan Barker and Jesus

Last night, I attended another talk with Dan Barker, at Saddleback College; this time about the historical person of Jesus Christ, hosted by the free thinkers club. Again, this is a brief transcription covering all the major points of his talk.

  • Compliments the club for being an activist group.
  • Mentions that he loves to travel to such groups all over the country. They are part of a movement, but one with no followers. It’s composed of free-thinking, skeptical, individuals.
  • The growth of these groups is a sign that the country is becoming more secular. The country is growing up, changing. The 20-somethings age group is the most secular demographic. 25% areligious.
  • Plugs the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
  • Anecdote about how the christians in some grade/middle schools are a minority. Classmates whisper about the religious in disbelief that anyone would waste time by going to church.
  • Plugs book, Godless. It’s an updated version of his previous book, and tells his conversion story.
  • Here to talk about Jesus: History or Myth.
  • Has a whole chapter about this in his book.
  • When he was a preacher he loved and knew Jesus, felt he was real. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus.
  • After he became atheist, and started studying Jesus, he realized how powerful that relationship is, and how fraudulent.
  • C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity came up with a famous tri-lemma. Jesus is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord.
  • What do these options have in common? Assumes that the story is true, that the text is accurate. So we can add another L: Legend. If Jesus is a legend or literary embellishment, then it’s irrelevant to ask Liar, Lunatic, Lord.
  • There’s also a fifth option: Myth.
  • Skeptics don’t actually agree on whether Jesus actually existed or not. But Barker’s position leans towards myth.
  • There may have been a similar person, Jesusha. There are also stories of others Messiahs during that time. (Egyptian, etc..)
  • Even Christian scholars think that the story in the New Testament is legendary. They have a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the New Testament.
  • Example of such a figure would be William Tell. There may have been such a person, but that doesn’t support the legendary figure. There are also other modern examples of legendary growth. And it happens fast, within days. (Healers make the news in India and Mexico for example).
  • There’s also a group that thinks Jesus as a person didn’t exist. The position of the Mythicists.
  • But It could actually be both.
  • Reasons to doubt the historical Jesus: There is no historical confirmation outside of biblical literature.
  • If the story is true, he would have been born 1-4 AD, and died around 30AD. Mathew, Mark, Luke and John pick up writing about him at 70AD to 90AD. So were talking about a 2nd or 3rd generation of believers. [I argued this point with my apartment mate afterwards, it is possible that these guys were alive and walked around with Jesus; but I’d say, actuarially, they’d have to have both younger than Jesus, and have lived twice as old as the average age at that time. I think it’s pretty improbable, nevertheless it remains possible.]
  • We have no first hand accounts. Jesus never wrote anything.
  • Paul’s epistles are the earliest account. written around 50-55 AD.
  • We notice that Paul has a very curious silence about historical Jesus. He never mentions a single deed or miracle, never quotes Jesus. Most of the time he refers to this christ-like figure. He never claimed to have met Jesus. (anyway, he was blind after being knocked off his horse.) Talks about Jesus as part of spiritual experience. Though he does mention the formula of the Last Supper, and Resurrection; but these are a formulaic account.
  • Among other writers (outside the Bible), nobody has stories about Jesus. But there are accounts of other messiahs.
  • Christian apologists have a long list of witnesses. But the entire list is second-hand at best. It is possible for a religion to get off the ground without a historical Jesus (Mormonism got off without a real angel Moroni.)
  • There were early sects of christians that worshiped Christ as a God, but not as a person.
  • The writing of Josephus: He wrote a huge book, and right in the middle of a list of calamities, there’s a small paragraph. He writes:

    Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day. (Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3)

    But everyone thinks this paragraph has been inserted. There’s no quote of it until after 4th century. The language is later than the rest of the book, and since Josephus was an orthodox Jew, would never have written this without further elaboration. In another section (Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1) There’s also a reference to James, the brother of Jesus, which is also probably a tampering.

  • Even the apologists that admit such, are admitting that Christianity has a history of tampering.
  • Another reason to doubt: The actual claims are contradictory: The Birth of Jesus, and the Nativity Scene (and Bill O’Reilly’s War on Christmas). Many claim this is a historical event (to support its display in public sphere). But Matthew writes that “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,” (Mat 2:1) But we know, from independent sources that King Herod died in 4 B.C. Then, Luke tells a different story, Jesus is born during a Census in Syria. “This was the first registration taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2) But Syria wasn’t part of Roman Empire until 6 A.D. So, either Jesus was born 9 years premature, or a few years late. At the very least, there’s an uncertainty/inconsistency
  • There is also a discrepancy in Jesus’ genealogy. Some authors trace it back to Adam, but with only 42 generations.
  • Matthew is the most sloppy, has exactly 3 sections of 14 persons. It was probably done this way for numerical aesthetics, and it contradicts the Old Testament (he left out some names).
  • Christian apologists dodge: The argue that Luke presents a genealogy through the father, while Matthew traces through the mother. But the two lists contain common names! So they contradict each other.
  • We can also see that the story of Jesus can be explained in natural terms, without his ever having had existed.
  • We don’t see anything unique, many heroes were born of a virgin. Augustus Caesar ascended into heaven at Death. There are also many parallels with other figures: ex, Mithra, Raglan’s Hero pattern
  • Early christians such as Justin Martyr argued:

    And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified. and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. (First Apology, chapter 21 “Analogies to the history of Christ”)

    When trying to convert others. So, even back then the mythological similarities were known. Thus, modern claims that is something especially different between Christianity and Paganism, are baseless.

  • So if these guys couldn’t say that anything was different, and yet they were much closer to the events. How can we moderns be blamed for coming to the same conclusions?
  • The naturalistic explanations don’t actually have to be proved. Only demonstrating plausibility is enough. There’s no reason to jump to Supernaturalism. We know that Humans are fallible, that we are eager to accept fancy, myths, legends, exaggerations, etc… We don’t know that snakes can talk, or that people can ascend into heaven, or be resurrected, or walk on water, etc.. So if we go with probability, it’s much more likely that the story was fabricated than that the laws of Nature/Physics were violated.
  • To Christians the Jesus of the New Testament is Jesus. Yet we can demonstrate this figure to be legendary. Picture Jesus’ life and the mark points on the timeline where the writers (Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.) record their tales. Look at the mystical element of the story, the miracles. We find that the earlier accounts have fewer extraordinary events. The miracles don’t appear until later writers record the account. You can actually track the legendary growth through history. Because of this, it’s irresponsible to treat the book as flat, as accounts written at the same time. But that’s how most christians view it.
  • Dan’s position is that Jesus is myth. But you can’t really prove that Jesus (the person) never actually existed. Similar argument to proving the non-existence of Leprechauns. But the probability of a historical Jesus is low.
  • Since there’s no outside confirmation, and Paul is silent about witnessing Jesus, and there are internal contradictions of the account, and there are natural explanations, and history must assume continuity over time (in accordance with natural/physical law), It is safe to conclude, with high confidence, that Jesus of the New Testament did not exist and is myth or legend.

After the talk there was a Q+A:

  • Can you say something about the plethora of non-canonical gospels. There’s this tale from Peter, which is kinda weird. It involves lion heads, talking cross, etc. There’s also Thomas, Hebrews, Judas, etc. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Constantine had to codify the theology (and destroyed the blasphemous literature afterward). Even the Christians that think God inspired the Cannon, have to admit that there were Christians early on that were in the habit of making up stories and passing them off as truth. Even the catholic church shows tampering with the Latin. The presence of these accounts, and their varied nature, shatters our confidence in Christianity as something other than mythology.
  • What event converted you? The first time received this question he was on the Oprah Winfrey show. It was a gradual process, over 5 years. There was no bitterness, it was the motiviation to know the Truth and speak it, that drove him both to and from Christianity. He holds knowledge of truth above having faith, or feeling good.
  • As an atheist do you have any positive beliefs? Some atheists may have some beliefs. But atheism itself is a denial of God. The nature of belief is to weaken the thing it talks about. It’s a qualifier, that states you don’t have absolute knowledge. Atheists can hold beliefs, but do so with the knowledge that they can be proved wrong with the right evidence.
  • Do you think that many religions in the world are…. Why are people so willing to be religious? In his book he presents two hypothesis, one that describes the origion of religous belief from an Evolutionary perspective. Uses an example with a stick being mistaken as a snake. Those who assume the more cautious way live, while those that assume the other way, died. We also have, a hyperactive agency detector, such a mechanism is good for survival. We read bumps-in-the-night, shadows, etc. as the worst, as monsters, attackers, etc. We also evolved two contradictory features, small pelvis and large brain. As a consequence we have a prolonged mental development. An infant requires at least a year of complete dependance on parental care. We have a built-in obedience. Religion is a kind of retarded development, where we project the father figure into the sky. Combining these two things, it makes sense that we would assume an agency exists, and wish to worship it. But avoiding the naturalistic fallacy, these instincts (violence, xenophobia, etc.) aren’t necessarily good.
  • What happens when your confidence clashes with the confidence of others? This is why we have laws, to prevent outrageous actions of true believers. We can appeal to moral law, and the minimization of harm. Most of us are naturally good, though there is a distribution. Murders, etc, are “inhuman” things to do. We can objectively judge via this harm.
  • Does this give us the moral right to impose force to stop certain practices? In general yes, but we must minimize the force used. The state has a right to take parents away from abusive parents. We’re still figuring this balance out though, esp. when it comes to war. Sometimes, even
    with good intent, we get it wrong.
  • You seem to have a number of uncertainties. Why then call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic. He knows that there is no Christian God of the Bible. Knows about the historical uncertainty of the tale, about how mythology arises, fallibility of humans, etc. This gives him enough of a confidence to assert there is no God (of the Bible, which is what everyone refers to with the term).
  • Observation that one of the factors explaining why religion is so widespread is because governments use them to keep people in line. Yes, especially in our early history. You’d worship your dictator. The posture of prayer is one of servility, knees bent, hands bound together, etc. There is a part of us that wants to please the King, and be protected by him.
  • Before becoming atheist, did you look at other religions? Yes and no. He had to climb out of the hole of Christianity, so that was the primary focus. Briefly he looked at some other religions, and saw the same arguments. Saw the generality of religion. But doesn’t have the time to completely analyze all the religions. Christians know that the Koran isn’t true without having ever read it, likewise most atheists don’t have to read too much into the Bible to reject it.
  • What about gaining expertise? Christians require that atheists know completely the details of the Good Book, and it’s history. They argue “If you could only just read it in it’s original, with the right interpretation.” This is hypocritical, the believers aren’t required similar knowledge to assert its Truth.
  • What about your lawsuits? It’s not that we’re trying to assert atheism into government, but neutrality. Many christians don’t really understand the difference, and confuse neutrality with hostility. Example: money. Many christians say that “In God we Trust” is such a small thing, that it
    doesn’t matter. Response: Then you won’t miss it when it’s gone!
  • How do you define the difference between atheism and agnosticism? Atheists and philosophers aren’t in agreement about this. But, in general, most define atheism as a lack in the belief of God. It doesn’t mean anti- it just means lacking. In this sense every baby is born an atheist. But, there is a set of positive atheists, that believe there is no God. And this meaning is the popular one. Agnosticism is totally different, it deals with knowledge. So he would call himself an Agnostic Atheist.
  • What about a gene that promotes belief? Is it fair that someone must go to hell because he didn’t get the gene? There is truth to what you say about the variation in the human population. But Barker falls into one of the tails of the Bell curve, he can have mystical experiences, talk in tongues, goosebumps, feel the spirit, etc. The religious experience is very real, but it doesn’t
    point to anything outside the brain. And what kind of God would design some people so that they can’t feel his presence, and then punish them for not believing?
  • What about the God Helmet? We’re getting to a point in psychology where these things can be explained mechanistically. I hadn’t heard about the helmet, I want to do it! If you had come to me 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have been convinced. I would feel pity that someone else couldn’t have such a close feeling relationship with Jesus.
  • Can you blame the fundamentalists, if nobody is in charge of their brain? Yes, you can judge their actions. They can think whatever they like, but we must stop the actions that cause harm. A moral person has an obligation to at least denounce it, if not intervene to stop the harm.
  • Can you articulate how people come by their morality? The first point to make is that no christian has the correct side of any social debate. You find christians on both sides (birth control, stem cells, homosexual rights, abortion, etc.). On the other hand, those of us that don’t have rules, but have principals instead, we are all acting to minimize harm. There is also a basic reciprocal altruism that is instinctual.
  • Why would we have a moral character, if it’s not strictly necessary for survival. Most mothers have a fierce protection instinct for their offspring. This is true of all species. You also care about the ones next door, but not to the same extent. The further you go genetically, the less natural is the motive. There is an advantage to protect those of your own species. As social animals, these instincts are particularly strong.
  • Christians don’t have a code of morality, more of a code of obedience. They follow what the precepts are today. If god said to kill your child you would, regardless of the morality. Yeah, but this only applies to the extremists. 90% of catholics disagree with the pope on birth control. Some people would go through with the immoral act (killing atheist Dan Barker) if God told the to do so. This lack of individual thinking is dangerous for society.
  • How do you respond to the crimes (Russia and China) of the crimes committed in the name of Humanistic Atheism? There are some bad atheists, but they didn’t kill because of their atheism. There are also some bad christians. But the way to truth is not to do a body count, if both belief systems have a stack of bodies, they both fall, they are both discredited.
  • What about the friends to whom you wrote a letter about your atheism? This is a good way to tell you true friends. Some people are just good and nice in spite of their belief system. His family was a good loving, close family, and most members eventually came around to his atheism.
  • Thank you for saying what everyone thinks. Isn’t morality culture-based? There is a difference between morality and ethics. Some people subscribe to moral relativism, that an action can be judged differently in different cultures. Most atheists/agnostics would subscribe to ethical relativism, that some action can be judged differently based on the context in which it happened, as it would adhere to moral principals. Most atheists/agnostics would say absolute morality is dangerous, that each action must be evaluated in context. We have principals, not rules, we can judge both each other and other cultures, based on these principals.

10 comments to Dan Barker and Jesus

  • Alex

    Christians are a minority? lol.

  • Sarah Dunn

    Wow. I can’t speak to Mr. Barker’s data about the historicity of Jesus. In any case, I’m not going to give up my relationship with Jesus because there’s no birth certificate. But just because science can explain how something works, or at least begin to uncover aspects of how it happens, that does not explain why it’s there or what is happening spiritually (assuming there is a spiritual component, which I do). Just because we can understand it now doesn’t mean God can’t be working there anymore. The older I get, the more sure I become that humanity’s best guess is not the whole story. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is the written history of God trying to explain the incomprehensible immensity of who He is to humans who are both dust and eternity wrapped up in bodies that grow and learn and make choices. Jesus is both real and legendary, God and man together. And because of Jesus, God is changing me into something beautiful beyond my imagination. Can Barker do that?

  • Sarah Dunn

    I hope its ok that I wrote so much. Sorry if I came on a little strong. I just couldn’t read all this stuff he says about God and Jesus (two things that are important to me) without putting in my own two cents. Besides, it’s good to hear different sides of an argument. That’s what free thinking is all about, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your notes.

  • Oh, I don’t mind the long comments at all. I actually thought that because Barker had lived for 19 years as an authentic Christian preacher, that his comments about the personal relationship with Jesus were insightful. The feelings just prove that humans have that kind of feeling, that is only feeling that something exists doesn’t meet the scientific standard for proof. But, I do completely acknowledge that the feelings themselves are real.

    As an agnostic atheist, I believe that God does not exist, but know that I can’t prove it. But the idea of God certainly has power. But any positive idea can have the power to “change you into something beautiful beyond your imagination.” So Barker only recommends reading and thinking critically for oneself.

  • I also talked a bit with a Lawyer, a week after the event. (She was giving her own talk about Newdow’s “under God” Pledge of Allegiance case) As a member of the audience at Barker’s event, she observed that he still had a touch of the black-and-white view of the world, she thought that it was a bit sad for him to be missing out on more nuanced patterns of thought.

  • Sarah Dunn

    So, do you think there’s anything out there bigger than us? You know, any sort of “grand intelligence” that started this whole universe thing? Or are we it.
    If ANY positive idea can have the power to make us beautiful, why does Barker object so strongly to my choosing this positive idea (Christianity) and not his positive ideas? Does he? Or is he ok with whatever I choose as long as I’ve thought critically for myself.

  • I can’t really speak for Dan, so I’ll have to answer everything from my perspective.

    I am quite certain (it would take extraordinary evidence to convince me otherwise) that there is no “grand master plan” to the universe. As far as intelligent life goes, we are it so far. (I’m sure there is other intelligent life out there, but space travel is difficult, so it’s possible we might not ever see any of it before we die off) Because we are so alone in the universe, it is vitally important that we figure certain things out, lest we do ourselves in. Because each of us lives so short, it’s imperative that we do as much good as we can while we are here. Morality doesn’t require a Supreme Enforcer, we can, have, and (following enlightenment principles) will continue, to figure things out as we grow.

  • It’s true that any positive idea has the power to improve us. But some ideas are better at that than others. I personally hold to the ideals of the Enlightenment (but not to all of that era’s conclusions). Free Speech, Free Thought, Free Inquiry, Skepticism, Equal Rights, Universal Ethics, etc… I think these principals are better than those espoused by any religion.

    In particular, given a certain view, Christianity can be viewed as a death cult. It’s focused on the human sacrifice of a single individual, the cross is a symbol of that sacrifice. It holds that all men are created as immoral sinners. There’s also mindset, that you should do whatever God (or his spokesman) says without question, even if you otherwise think such actions are immoral. There’s also Armageddon and the End Times, which encourages lack of long-term planning. I consider alot of this to be dangerous. There’s more at http://www.cogitolingua.net/blog/index.php/2009/01/22/stump-the-professor/

  • Hey, this reminds me of the discussion group meetings of the old days, so I’ll pipe up and contribute too.

    Sarah, I agree that humanity’s best guess (i.e., science) is not the whole story, at least as it stands right now. I also think some people get a little too cocky when talking about the state of science and the ability of humans to reach greater understanding and control their fate. Science and human reason have their limits. But I think humanity’s other guesses (religions and other attempts at gaining access to super- or extra-human knowledge and experience) are not very good. For example, too much credence is given to anecdotal evidence, logical fallacies proliferate, and unjustified interpretations are made of genuine emotional experiences and psychological states.

    But, on to my analogy:

    The belief in the Christian god and Jesus is like the belief in Santa Claus in many ways. Santa Claus can really inspire you when you are vulnerable to the myth. You can get very excited about his love and gifts and be frightened by the potential for withholding of gifts or bestowing of coal or orther more nasty fates. Santa Claus has the ability to change the behavior of little children for the better. And yet, it is better for children to grow up and realize the benefit of being good for their own sake (not just for “goodness’s sake” whatever that means) than to retain this belief.

    Most of the feelings and morality that existed when you believe in Santa Claus are still there after you stop believing in him. (Some of the “magical” feelings are apparently gone and the influence of Santa’s omniscient presence goes away, but love, fear, inspiration, guilt, wonder, mystery, etc. are all still there. Of course, ridding yourself of one irrationality does not get rid of all irrationality.)

    The same can be said for gods and Jesus. Atheists or nontheists can retain the positive outlook and emotions they had as a theist, but they (usually, or in most cases I witness) become more reliant on their own rationality for making decisions and develop their personal philosophy and morality to a greater and more consistent level. Your purpose becomes whatever you deem it to be, and your choice can be as fulfilling as a god-loving evangelist’s.

    For those who continue to believe in Santa, gods, or Jesus into adulthood, I will mostly not bring up the topic. However, I deem it to be my responsibility to the rest of humanity to try to show people, when they are receptive, that there is no need for their faith and they will be better off without it. It is really a personal, emotional, and intellectual journey to come to that conclusion and I really can’t initiate that process of my own volition, but I can add another straw to the camel’s back.

  • I would just like to remind the panel, that atheists are typically not out on a crusade to convert people. Though, like anyone, we do appreciate those that hold beliefs similar to our own. Do we hold a moral objection to religion and religious ideas? yes. But, that objection is qualified by the harm we see the religion causing. Most Christians are moderate, and the belief structure is not overly harmful to themselves, nor is it particularly threatening to non-believers. But, as with Santa Claus, we will always encourage people to give up belief without evidence, though we aren’t on a mission to do so.

    The Christian belief system is somewhat different though. If you really do believe that non-theists will burn for eternity in Hell, then you have a moral obligation to save such poor souls. You really are out on a mission of conversion, it’s your Christian duty. Most moderates don’t follow this duty with the urgency that they should; which is quite fortunate for the rest of us.

    So atheists don’t have to be in-your-face assertive, but Christians really should.

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