Review of Chapter 2 of The End of Christianity

In chapter 2 of The End of Christianity, Richard Carrier argues that the rise and growth of Christianity did not follow the path we would expect it to have followed if it had the backing of God. In other words, the evidence disconfirms the truth of Christianity (p. 53). This chapter is a summary of his book Not the Impossible Faith. That book is a rebuttal of J. P. Holding’s The Impossible Faith, which apparently argues that the rise of Christianity can only (or can best?) be explained because it is true. I have not read either of those books so do not assume that I am defending Holding’s thesis. I am interested in whether Carrier’s argument refutes Christianity, not whether his argument is better than Holding’s. Carrier’s chapter begins with eight major points that suggest Christianity’s growth was ordinary, not extraordinary.

Carrier’s first point is that Christianity grew, prior to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, at a rate of less than four percent per year, a rate comparable to other evangelistic religions. This natural growth rate leads Carrier to conclude that Christianity’s growth was caused by natural, not supernatural, means (p. 54). Let us first note that Christians believe God can work through secondary means (what we may call natural means). Therefore, this point does not disprove Christianity. The atheist may counter by saying that if we can explain the growth of Christianity without recourse to the supernatural then we have no need to posit the supernatural. I would agree with this statement to an extent, but I think there are some caveats that need to be made. First, certain conversions allegedly occurred because of a supernatural intervention of some kind (e.g., various miracles in Acts). Conversions of this type are not addressed by Carrier and therefore, even if the overall growth rate of Christianity was natural, it does not entail that each individual conversion can be explained as a natural event. Second, Christians readily admit that most conversions are the result of natural encounters. The true crux of the issue is whether Jesus’ ministry is best explained in natural or supernatural terms. Carrier does not address that directly in this chapter.

Carrier’s second point is that the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were capable of worshiping humiliated gods, such as the castrated Attis, and, therefore, the fact that Jesus was crucified did not prevent people from converting to Christianity by natural means (pp. 55-57). I agree that it did not make conversion impossible but it was an obstacle that hindered some people from converting (“For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 NET). Carrier also notes that some Jews, especially in light of Daniel 9:26 (p. 56 n. 9), expected the Messiah to be unjustly executed. If my interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27 is correct, Jesus’ crucifixion was a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. This means Carrier inadvertently gives us a reason to believe that the God of the Bible does exist.

Carrier’s third point is quite similar to his second point: Jesus’ humble origins were not a hindrance to people converting to Christianity (p. 57).

His fourth point is that Judaism was somewhat popular among Gentiles and Christianity was even more attractive than Judaism because it did not require Gentiles to be circumcised or to obey laws that distinguished Jews from Gentiles (p. 57-58). He claims that this “guaranteed” that Christianity would succeed. While it may have made Christianity more attractive than Judaism to some Gentile God-fearers I think Carrier exaggerates greatly.

Carrier’s fifth point is that dying-and-rising gods (e.g., Adonis, Asclepius, Inanna, Osiris, Romulus, Zalmoxis) were popular. He claims that Justin Martyr admits as much in Apology 1.21 (p. 59-60). The problem is that Justin Martyr appears to be saying that the Christian belief that Jesus ascended to heaven is not much different than pagan beliefs about gods who ascended to heaven (apotheosis). He is not saying that Jesus’ life was exactly paralleled by the pagan gods. For example, Justin Martyr writes: “Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven.” Note that there is no resurrection. The term “dying-and-rising god” is used loosely. The Christian is interested in whether Jesus rose from the dead not whether his rising from the dead would be popular among the Roman Empire.

Carrier’s sixth point is Christianity’s connection to Judaism and its moral teachings made it acceptable to ancient pagans (pp. 60-62).

Carrier’s seventh point is that converts to Christianity did not check the facts for themselves but relied on hearsay and subjective inner feelings. Moreover, all the miracles allegedly performed can be explained without recourse to the supernatural  (pp. 62-63). These claims are demonstrably false. Luke 1:1-4 implies a reliance on eyewitness accounts. John 21:24 states that the fourth Gospel was based on the testimony of the beloved disciple. In Galatians 2:2, Paul notes that he went to Jerusalem to make sure he was not preaching in vain. In Acts 9:36-43, Peter raises the dead Tabitha back to life. These examples suffice to show that Christians did show an interest in ascertaining the truth and did take note of impressive miracles (presumably bringing yourself back to life from the dead is not a psychosomatic healing).

Carrier’s eighth point is that the persecution of Christians was sporadic and occasional and therefore it is not a miracle that Christianity was not stamped out. He also notes many people are willing to die for their cause but that does not guarantee their cause is true. He makes the strange claim that Christians endured persecution because they believed in Christianity’s socio-moral vision and not because they believed Jesus rose from the dead (pp. 63-67). While it is true that a willingness to die for a cause does not guarantee that the cause is true, it does indicate that the would-be martyr is sincere in his beliefs. If an apostle, a witness to the resurrection, was willing to die for Christianity it is a good reason to believe that he sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead and that the resurrection account was not fabricated. Believing in Christianity’s socio-moral vision can be held in conjunction with a belief that Jesus rose from the dead (and other religious beliefs). Passages such as 1 Peter 1:3-9 demonstrate that enduring persecution was bound up with belief in the resurrection. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 (NET): “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone.”

The author ends the chapter by employing Bayes’ theorem in an attempt to show that the above evidence supports the hypothesis that Christianity is false. In essence, he asks what we would expect to happen if Christianity were true and what we would expect to happen if Christianity were false. He concludes that what happened is more in line with what we would expect if Christianity were false than if it were true (pp. 68-74). I have a number of problems with this section. First, if some of the points made above are not (entirely) true then Carrier’s numbers are incorrect. Putting junk into the equation will result in junk coming out of the equation. Second, it is not clear why we should accept the author’s expectations about what would happen if Christianity were true or false. His ideas of what God would do are based on isolated pieces of Judeo-Christian theology but are not representative of a fleshed-out theology. Third, and most importantly, Christianity hinges on whether Jesus’ ministry is best explained by the existence of the supernatural. Therefore, even if we grant (for the sake of argument) that the growth of Christianity after Jesus’ ascension was entirely natural that does not tell us that Christianity was not founded, in the person of Christ, by God.

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10 thoughts on “Review of Chapter 2 of The End of Christianity

  1. No, I do not plan to review chapter 1. It’s overall importance to debates between atheists and Christians seems minimal, in my opinion.

  2. It shows (as does Richard Carrier’s work) that Christianity is purely natural. But my opinion doesn’t matter since this is your blog. If you choose to ignore chapter 1 that isn’t going to make it go away.

  3. I don’t deny that the spread of Christianity has been through largely natural means (my caveats to the point are in the review above). I suppose I could nitpick chapter 1 but I’m not really sure it’s worth it.

  4. I know Christians cherrypick from the bible but I had no idea they would buy a book against their theology and cherrypick from it also.

  5. Pingback: Index to My Partial Review of The End of Christianity | Biblical Scholarship

  6. David Eller, the author of the chapter in question, here. It is not a surprise to me that the reviewer cannot see the importance of the history and evolution of Christianity. He evinces a very conventional understanding of both Christianity and atheism. Atheism is not just arguing “against” the Christian god; that activity is still, as I have said elsewhere, “speaking Christian.” Rather, we atheists find that there is no reason to take god-claims seriously at all. One of the strongest reasons god-talk “is not worth it” is that there have been so many different and contradictory god-talks out there, not only between theisms but within Christian theism. The fact that Christianity is really “Christianities” and that it shows all of the marks of a typical evolved social system is compelling evidence that it should be given no more respect than any other social system. Christianity is not merely “spread through natural means” (which, by the way, are the only means that exist) but is thoroughly and nothing but a cultural phenomenon. It is a cultural phenomenon that THINKS it is a “real” phenomenon, but many cultural phenomena take this self-important position. The most devastating possible claim against Christianity is that even IT does not agree on its claims. Indeed, I wonder how our Thomist reviewer feels about non-Thomist Christianity. The same way, I imagine, that non-Thomists feel about Thomism. In other words, it is about one dialect of a language arguing with another dialect about which is the “real” language. Religion is, in this sense, hardly worth the atheist’s or rational person’s time.

  7. David Eller:

    One of the strongest reasons god-talk “is not worth it” is that there have been so many different and contradictory god-talks out there, not only between theisms but within Christian theism.

    The problem is that the mere difference in beliefs does not tell us what the truth of the matter is. We agree that two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true, but that tells us nothing about whether God exists or what He is like.

    The fact that Christianity is really “Christianities” and that it shows all of the marks of a typical evolved social system is compelling evidence that it should be given no more respect than any other social system.

    The respect I give to a “social system” is based on how closely that social system conforms to the truth. Thus, if theism is closer to the truth than atheism, it will garner more respect from me.

    Christianity is not merely “spread through natural means” (which, by the way, are the only means that exist) but is thoroughly and nothing but a cultural phenomenon.

    You have not demonstrated this. You assume that since there is a cultural component to Christianity it is entirely a cultural phenomenon.

    Indeed, I wonder how our Thomist reviewer feels about non-Thomist Christianity. The same way, I imagine, that non-Thomists feel about Thomism. In other words, it is about one dialect of a language arguing with another dialect about which is the “real” language.

    First, I am not a full-fledged Thomist (perhaps someday). I merely find many of its ideas compelling. Second, I do not think that non-Thomists are merely speaking a different language from Thomists. There are actual disagreement about facts. The truth is not relative.

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