09 September 2009

Christianity: Does the Jesus doctrine withstand scrutiny?

The Objectivist
The Oddity of Christianity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 8, 2009

In the contest between religion and atheism and between religions, one reason to reject a particular religion is if it contains a doctrine that does not make sense or is not supported by evidence. Christianity contains just such a doctrine.

Consider the Christian view of Jesus. Christians view that Jesus as both divine and human. On the Christian view, Jesus was born to a virgin, Mary. Because of his death and resurrection, human beings can achieve salvation and enjoy eternal life in heaven. Jesus also performed a number of miracles including turning water into wine, feeding a crowd of five thousand using only fives loaves of bread and two fish, walking on water, resurrecting a man (Lazarus) who had been dead for four days, giving sight to a blind man, etc. Note these claims differ from the historical claims about him, for example, he was a Galilean Jew who preached to a small band of followers and was killed by Romans.

Some of these doctrines make no sense. The notion that God is both fully divine (god-like) and fully human (and hence not god-like) entails that he both has and lacks a property. This is impossible. By analogy, a shape cannot be both square and not square at the same time.

This problem gets compounded in those who believe in the Trinity. This doctrine holds that God the father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three different persons who are unified in a single substance. A person cannot be composed of three component persons because there would be too many subjects of consciousness or lives. This is why, for example, a living cow cannot be composed of three smaller cows. Nor can the three persons be mere features of a greater person. Persons are objects; they are not features or attributes of other things. By analogy, a person might have certain parts (for example, a left arm and a right leg), but these are not features of him (as are, for example, his enjoyment of dirty jokes or skill at poker).

The notion that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus atoned for the Mankind’s sin also makes no sense. This is because it does not satisfy the demands of justice for one person to suffer for what someone else did. Consider a case where a vicious thug, Al, batters and then kills a woman, Betty. When it comes time to incarcerate or execute him, Al’s mother volunteers to be incarcerated or killed on his behalf. Justice is not in any way satisfied if this is done to her. The same is true if you think that Al owes Betty or her family a debt of honor.

On a side note, the same problem arises with the idea of original sin. The idea is that particular human beings are somehow blameworthy or deserve bad things because of what Adam and, perhaps also, Eve did. This has similar problems to atonement via another’s sacrifice. The problems multiply if you combine the doctrines of atonement and original sin, as do some Christians.

There is little to no evidence for the claim that Jesus’s mother was a virgin when she conceived him. On a side note, many Christians hold that Jesus has siblings, so Mary did reproduce with her husband on other occasions. There is also little to no evidence of Jesus’s miracles. We lack the testimony of a number of independent and impartial observers of these events. Nor do we have any other sort of evidence for them. In the roughly 2,000 years since Jesus’s time, there have been no new messiahs for whom there is better evidence of their divinity.

One objection to the concerns about contradiction and evidentiary support is that people should be allowed to believe what they want. This is true and no one is suggesting that people who have false, contradictory, or unsupported beliefs should have a Louisville Slugger taken to their head. The issue is not whether people should be made to renounce their beliefs, it is whether their beliefs are rational.

A second objection is that religious beliefs make people happier. Specifically, they help people in times of great suffering (for example, consider the role of religion in soothing grieving widows) and lead to great altruism (for example, consider Mother Theresa). This is true, but it is not clear these benefits outweigh religion’s costs. By allowing in contradictory and unsupported beliefs, religion undermines clear thinking. It also contributes to an incredible amount of religious and inter-ethnic violence. This likely involves the death of hundreds of thousands. Even if religion does have net benefits, and this is not obvious, we are still trading off truth for happiness. This might be worthwhile, but in any case it is worth acknowledging.

A third objection to this is to assert that belief in these aspects of Jesus rest on faith and hence need not be coherent or supported by evidence. However, we are not impressed by unsupported belief in other areas. Consider a scenario in which you are drinking at a bar and a fellow bar patron tells you that he believes that the Aryan man should reign should reign supreme over the other races. When you ask him why, he says that he doesn’t have an argument or other evidence for this view, he just believes it on faith (that is, in the absence of adequate evidence). You would think him irrational. Your view should not change if we substitute beliefs about Jesus for beliefs about Aryan supremacy. The structure of his beliefs in the two cases is the same.

In addition, if our beliefs about Jesus are contradictory, then it is hard to say what is wrong with holding other contradictory beliefs, particularly in the context of religion. However, religious people have little tolerance for other contradictions in religion. For example, if you believe that God is all-good, this is often thought to rule out the notion that God is also a cruel mean-spirited child-molester. Similarly, if God is all-knowing, this presumably rules out the notion that he doesn’t know his multiplication tables.

If our beliefs about Jesus are not supported by evidence, then we should be willing to tolerate other beliefs not supported by evidence. However, in other areas of our life, we have little use for beliefs not supported by evidence. For example, a scientist who consistently drew scientific conclusions unsupported by evidence would be drummed out of his field. A judge would be unimpressed by a prosecutor who sought to convict and punish a defendant when he lacked evidence that made it likely that the defendant did the crime.

None of this would matter except that religion, including Christianity, plays an enormous role in shaping our world. In the United States, religious reasoning is used to justify wealth redistribution, slow down medical research, block abortion-clinics, condemn gay sexuality, oppose evolution, and criminalize a wide range of activities in which a person harms no one but himself (for example, pornography, gambling, and drugs). Internationally, religion contributes to countless acts of violence and destruction. Examples include the torrent of violence in Sudan and ever-present repression in the Middle East. To the extent that that contradictory or evidence-free reasoning leads to such injustice, death, and destruction, it matters and is damaging.


The Objectivist said...

Note this might allow for comparisons between religion. For example, if the story of Muhammad is less likely and less coherent than the story of Jesus, then it is an intellectually worse religion.

Anders said...

You have some good points in your post!

I recommend you the page bloganders.blogspot.com. In my blog (left menu) link to an article that proves the existence of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

All the best, Anders Branderud