Last Updated on 2022-07-08 by Joop Beris
As an atheist, I can understand that people are perhaps surprised that I don’t believe in a god. After all, the majority of people on this planet is religious to some degree and even here in the secular Netherlands, many people believe there “must be something”.
However, what will never cease to amaze me, is the fact that people do not understand what atheism means. Atheism is consistently misrepresented, mainly by religious people. They try to argue that atheism is somehow just another religion. Is atheism really that hard to understand? Well, apparently it is because today I picked up on a truly awful piece of writing by a Brad Emery, who published an “article” in the Australia edition of The Huffington Post, entitled: “Dear Atheists, I Truly Admire Your Faith“.
I put the word ‘article’ above in quotation marks for a reason. I feel that an article is supposed to have some kind of substance or argument behind it but this particular bit of writing feels much more like a rant. And not a very clever one at that. The title sums up most of the inane ranting that follows because there is the ‘faith’ word. Emery is trying to equate atheism with religion by saying that atheism requires faith or is a faith. By doing so, he’s trying to level the playing field, as if atheism and religion are both similar positions. In reality, they are complete opposites.
Atheism is not a religion
I don’t know how many more times this one needs explaining but let’s do so one more time for the benefit of Mr. Emery and people like him.
The word ‘atheism’ comes from the Greek atheos, consisting of the parts a and theos. The Greek a means without, the word theos means god. Translated into English, that yields “without god” or “godless”. That’s all it means and all it will ever mean.
Atheists therefore are people without a god. Atheists don’t believe in a god, they don’t worship a god and there are no services or divine commandments. The astute reader will note that this sounds remarkably dissimilar to a religion, which typically have these things. Atheism is therefore a position of disbelief. It doesn’t require faith to not believe in anything. In case this is still hard to understand, here’s a picture that sums it up very well.
So, is atheism really that hard to understand?
Predictably, the ‘article’ goes downhill from there. Emery continues to misrepresent atheism, either out of ignorance or to serve his own agenda. Let’s look at some of the things he has to say.
The reality is the ‘beliefs’ of atheists require as much, if not more, faith as people of religion. It’s the refusal to acknowledge this that makes hard-core atheists so aggressive and somewhat unpleasant to listen to.
As I have just demonstrated, atheism is a position of disbelief, which requires no faith at all. Not believing in a god is about as effortless as not believing in leprechauns or the tooth fairy. Explaining this to theists is what costs energy.
First is their assertion that there is no god.
There is actually only a small percentage of atheists who assert that there is no god, a position known as gnostic atheism. Most atheists are actually agnostic about the existence of god. Personally, I feel that the existence of a god is highly dubious but I am open to evidence. Hence, I would fall in the category of agnostic atheists.
True atheists are marked by their opinion of where that primordial atom came from, which is that it simply came into existence of its own will.
Something coming from nothing; the first molecule just ‘popped’ into existence. This mantra of true atheism seems far from the ‘rationalism’ they espouse. In fact, ‘fanciful’ would be a more appropriate word
Actually, atheism has nothing to say about where the “primordial atom” came from. Atheism is not cosmology, atheism is not physics. Atheism is a disbelief in god, period. This means that atheists are free to believe that the entire universe was farted into existence by the celestial dragon one rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Emery is simply raising an argument from incredulity here, nothing more. Just because he can’t believe that Lawrence Krauss might be right, doesn’t mean that what Krauss has to say is fanciful.
…these abhorrent acts of Christendom should not be confused with the person or the teachings of the Jesus we read about in the Bible. One has only to read the ‘sermon on the mount’ in the book of Matthew to see that evil acts done by those who purport to be Christ’s representatives are abhorrent to Him.
Assuming there ever was a Jesus who ever held a sermon on the mount. Neither of these assertions are proven in any way. Just because they appear in your holy text, doesn’t mean they are actually true. Besides, Jesus also has some pretty awful things to say in the Bible. For instance, read Luke 12:47-48 NLT, where Jesus explains how to beat your slaves. Jesus also kills a fig tree for not bearing fruit (Mark 11:13). I’d be mighty careful take any advice from this guy…
Unfortunately, in pointing the bone at Christianity, atheist zealots such as Hitchens and Dawkins conveniently forget or completely ignore the 20th Century. It was during this period that some of the greatest atrocities were committed by regimes deeply rooted in atheism.
Emery asserts that the atrocities of the 20th century, committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao are somehow the fault of these people being atheists, without demonstrating how this could be true. For an excellent refutation of this point, please see the blog of Michael Sherlock.
Besides, even if Stalin or Hitler had committed atrocities in the name of atheism, this in no way exonerates or absolves Christianity from the atrocities committed in its name. Emery is a committing a tu quoque fallacy here by saying that atheism is just as bad a religion which does nothing to prove that Hitchens and Dawkins are wrong about religion being a force for evil.
Possibly the hardest to swallow is the atheist use of the victim card, which runs along the lines of “I don’t have a problem if you’re religious, but don’t offend me by judging me for not being religious or by telling me what you believe”.
I am unaware of atheists saying these words but even if someone did say that to you, what is your problem in simply honouring that request? Does it cause you an inconvenience to not speak about the things you believe in?
I have no problems with people being religious. I don’t care what you believe in the privacy of your own home. However, if you are going to manifest your irrational beliefs in public, you should not be surprised if someone challenges those beliefs. If your particular religion is used to withhold rights or pass legislation, you deserve to be challenged. If you are going to insist that your particular brand of faith should be taught in schools, you need to be opposed. This is what most atheists do feel strongly about. That’s not playing the victim card, that’s standing up for freedom.
Personally, I have no problem with atheists, though it would be nice if they stopped pretending they are uniquely persecuted and acknowledge that their religion requires as much faith and has been as much abused by some of its disciples as any other religion on earth.
Mr. Emery, I am an atheist and I do not feel uniquely persecuted today, which I consider to be an improvement over several hundred years ago when people like me were burned at the stake by people of faith. What I will not acknowledge is that atheism is a religion because that quite simply is a false statement. Atheism is not a belief, it is a conclusion. I wish that people like you would finally understand and acknowledge that.
[…] suspects such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others. I’ve explored this list of sources in a discussion with Brad Emery here. In short, the passage in Josephus is widely regarded as a later addition to the text, Tacitus […]
Another thought on the Luke Josephus (who copied who). I’ve checked out academic Steve Mason’s argument to which I assume you’re referring that Luke was ‘borrowing’ from Josephus and therefore couldn’t have written until after 100AD.
The problem is, if this were true, that Luke writes the entire book of Acts without a single mention of the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. That would be like us writing a history book and ignoring 9/11!
The fall of Jerusalem was a major prophecy of Jesus – one that leads to his trial and crucifixion. Luke would’ve written it down.
Luke even concludes Acts with Paul still being alive. Paul was eventually martyred during Nero’s persecution (67AD).
Now guess who’s living in Jerusalem circa 67AD? Who knows a thing or two about Jewish messianic prophecies? Was born in Jerusalem? And no doubt grew up hearing about Jesus? Josephus.
So let’s be real: Luke’s written along time before 75AD and 94AD.
Great that we can have this dialogue. As you have done, I’ll respond to specific statements within your response:
“Why you insist a dis-belief is still a belief is something I find hard to understand.”
Your stated position is that you don’t believe there is a god. You have looked at the evidence, come to a conclusion and taken a position. Whether you like it or not, that is a ‘belief’. My point here is that atheists try to dodge around this key point, claiming ‘I’m not playing your game’ etc. The reality is, by its very nature, a conclusion based on evidence is a belief and since you cannot 100% with mathematical precision prove there is no god, your conclusion requires faith.
“Atheism alone doesn’t lead to violence, tyranny or genocide….”
This is the tired atheist defence…. ‘there is no connection between atheism and the acts of violence of the 20th Century.’
Dawkins uses this regularly in his debates – to quote him “What a person does not believe in cannot harm anyone can it?”
Well, yes it can when not believing in one thing entails a corresponding set of beliefs in something else that has the potential to inspire harm. I.e. Karl Marx “The abolition of religion as the illusionary happiness of the people is required for their real happiness” clearly influenced Comrade Nikita Krushchev who claimed he would show the world the ‘last remaining Russian Christian’.
Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Marilynne Robinson answered Dawkins (and your) defence that there is no link between atheism and violence:
“It is a peculiarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against religion – in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China. In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.”
As for quoting good ol’ Sam Harris, this was his comment during The Four Horsemen event at which he appeared with Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchens
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Yes, there is a link between atheism and violence.
“The reason I don’t want to discuss how to read or interpret this particular quote (re Jesus and slaves)….”
With respect, that’s a cop-out. You deliberately slagged off the person of Jesus as not being someone to follow by misleadingly claiming he ‘teaches you how to beat your slaves’ and now you refuse to defend your writing or acknowledge it was a bit of a ill-aimed cheap shot.
“Your general argument about the lack of secondary historical evidence of the actual existence of Jesus Christ.”
Thanks for acknowledging Tacitus writings accurately mention Christ and his execution by Pilate.
Yes, there is conjecture over the writings of Josephus and even most respected Christian theologians like John Dickson acknowledge that there was some tom-foolery with the manuscripts. That being acknowledged, there is still general consensus that Josephus mention of Jesus were part of his original writings.
There are however, Professors from secular institutions who can outline this better than I.
Firstly, self-confessed agnostic, Ed Sanders of Duke University a leading historian on the study of Jesus:
“There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing he did during his public activity…”
Christopher Tuckett, University of Oxford, author of the Cambridge University textbook on the historical Jesus:
“All this does at least render highly implausible any far-fetched theories that even Jesus’ very existence was a Christian invention. The fact that Jesus existed, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (for whatever reason) and that he had a band of followers who continued to support his cause, seems to be part of the bedrock of historical tradition. If nothing else, the non-Christian evidence can provide us with certainty on that score.”
Leading German New Testament historian, Gerd Thiessen stated this:
“The mentions of Jesus in ancient historians allay doubt about his historicity. The notices about Jesus in Jewish and pagan writers… especially those in Josephus, the letter of Sarapion and Tacitus – indicate that in antiquity the historicity of Jesus was taken for granted… All three know of the execution of Jesus, but in different ways: Tacitus puts the responsibility on Pontius Pilate, Mara bar Sarapion on the Jewish people and the Testimonium Flavianum (probably) on co-operation between the Jewish aristocracy and the Roman governor. The execution was offensive for any worship of Jesus. As a ‘scandal’ it cannot have been invented.”
The idea also brings into sharp relief the question of ‘why keep the conspiracy going?’. In the centuries before the rise and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, (thankfully challenged during the reformation), Christians watched their homes burned and more often than not were slaughtered along with their families.
Most conspiracies have a purpose i.e. to provide the conspirators with some form of compensation or advantage – power, money etc.
If Jesus was indeed a Christian conspiracy, his followers did an amazing job of keeping up the pretence during centuries of privation and slaughter from 30AD to 325AD when Constantine embraced it as the religion of Rome.
“It saddens me when Christians know so little about their Holy book….. add to that deliberate forgeries and copying mistakes, the New Testament is an utterly unreliable document.”
Nice back-hander. It saddens me when atheists ignore the fact that the majority of reputable historians and archaeologists acknowledge that the New Testament is the best attested document from the ancient world.
For example, you rightly point out that the oldest copy of any New Testament text is from around 125AD and is a fragment of John’s gospel. That’s the famous John Rylands Fragment which was copied during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.
Considering Jesus was executed in 30 AD, that’s a gap of about 95 years. So whatever it was copied from would have been very close to the original.
The next ancient secular work with the most documentary support is Homers Illiad with 643 manuscript copies, the earliest dating from the 2nd Century. That’s 1000 years between original and copy.
You mentioned only one of the old texts which I don’t think gives a fair representation of the sheer number of ancient copies of the New Testament.
There are 5,664 partial or complete manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek language that have been catalogued; and over 9,000 in early translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and others. Added to this there are 38,289 quotations from the New Testament by the early church fathers, who wrote between the second and fourth centuries AD.
In terms of copying mistakes and ‘forgeries’ no two manuscripts contain exactly the same errors. Therefore, by comparing all these manuscripts with each other, it is possible to reconstruct the original text to a point where majority expert opinion agrees that what we currently have is accurate to the original text with only 2 percent in question.
Your reference that the first four books of the bible are ‘anonymous’ and that we don’t know who wrote them is pretty far-fetch, but it’s the first time I’ve heard that one, so hearing something new is always good.
Again, the weight of evidence is what provides us with the convincing assertion that the gospels were written by exactly who the Bible attributes them to.
Also the idea that Luke an eyewitness to Jesus, would lift anything from a writer who hated Christians and their leader is again far-fetched. Moreover, the idea that Tacitus was writing about ‘some other’ Messianic figure, lost to history, who lived and breathed at the same time and was also executed by Pontius Pilate is also a huge stretch.
And again, your obvious leaning toward the idea that there really wasn’t a Jesus of the Bible, still leaves the question unanswered – why maintain the charade if it only brought 200 years of persecution to early Christians and many more since.
I’ll finish this section with a comment from Sir Frederick Kenyon who was Director of the British Museum and a leading authority on ancient manuscripts.
He puts paid to your idea that the New Testament is ‘utterly unreliable’.
“The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”
“Just because you get published doesn’t mean you write anything of quality.”
You’re right. Dawkins continues to prove that. I still think there’s something to be said for having the guts to submit a piece to public scrutiny and have it assessed by those with a slightly different view, such as your good self.
Yes, I agree. Actual dialogues are always welcome. First, let me say that I’m sorry for being delayed with my reply. I’ve been pretty swamped in other areas of my life so blogging has to take something of a back seat, unfortunately.
Let me address the points you’ve raised in your reply.
Right, I don’t believe there is a god. It’s not a conclusion I came to overnight and the process is described here on the blog, if you’re interested. I suppose you could call that position a belief. However, two sentences on, you say that my conclusion requires faith. It would be helpful if we were using the same definitions of the words “belief” and “faith” because to me, they are not interchangeable. To me, belief means a firmly held opinion, something in which one has confidence. Faith to me, is a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion. By religion I mean the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Using these definitions, it is not correct to say that my belief requires faith, precisely because I do not believe in the doctrines of a religion. Atheism is simply not a religion, as I explain here: https://www.beris.nl/blog/2016/08/16/is-atheism-a-religion/. So it seems to me that you are using a definition of faith that’s so wide that pretty much every idea would require faith.
Except that is not what I said. I said: “Believing in a god or not believing in a god alone, does not cause someone to commit atrocities”. I’m well aware that Stalin and Mao for instance were atheists. So there is a connection. However, correlation doesn’t equal causation. There are good atheists and bad atheists just as there are good theists and bad theists.
Looks like we’re in agreement then because that is exactly my point: what is needed for a person to derail is more than just atheism: it’s a belief (or set thereof) in something else that has the potential to inspire harm. Modern authoritarianism unfortunately has the tendency to not only exert control over its subjects physically but also mentally, dictating what they should feel and think. Marilynne Robinson says much the same: the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society. Marx felt rather strongly about religion being a stumbling block on the road to a worker’s paradise. To achieve the worker’s paradise, religion had to go because it was used as a tool to oppress the masses. So it’s not a disbelief in god that was behind the extirpation of religion, it was communism in this case.
You may feel that way but I think that’s because you are convinced there was a Jesus and I am not, so I feel that mincing words about what an alleged Jesus may have said and how it should be interpreted, simply isn’t going to be a constructive effort. It also isn’t the main point of my article.
About your quotes from various respected scholars…
I admit that the theory that Jesus was an entirely mythical person is not widely supported among scholars. That being said, any honest scholar will also admit that the evidence to support the existence of Jesus is remarkable in its paucity. I’ve already touched upon the Gospels being unreliable, there’s the fact that Paul’s letters (the ones that are genuine) have no details about Jesus’ life and teaching and the fact that people who should have noticed Jesus apparently didn’t. That leaves us with only Josephus and Tacitus being historically closest to the alleged death of Jesus, who mention anything about Jesus at all. The passages in Josephus are controversial and the passage in Tacitus may also be read as Tacitus mentioning what Christians believe, not facts which he considered historical. Serapion is a really odd choice that apologists often seem to refer to. Mara Bar-Serapion is pretty much known for only one letter, which was most likely written somewhere in the second or even third century. It’s an odd choice because the letter doesn’t mention Jesus, it doesn’t mention a Christ and it doesn’t mention Christians. The letter simply refers to a wise king of the Jews who was murdered. The letter is otherwise full of events that never happened (like the state Samos being buried with sand).
The simple fact alone that there are people like Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Thomas Thompson, David Fitzgerald and Richard Carrier, who can rather successfully argue that Jesus is entirely mythical, proves that I am correct in saying that the historicity of Jesus is not a proven fact. A consensus among scholars doesn’t make something a fact. It is disputable. I’m not saying that this is my view per se, I’m just saying it is an alternate hypothesis.
If you wish to lean more about the many errors, inconsistencies, forgeries and other deliberate alternations (and omissions) of the texts we now regard as the New Testament, I urge you to check out the work of Bart Ehrman and Jacob Slavenburg. That the Gospels were originally anonymous texts is such common knowledge that even Wikipedia gets that right.
There simply wasn’t a systematic, widespread persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, quite simply because the Christians were a very small sect which was of little consequence to the rulers in Rome. Those persecutions there were, were local and sporadic in nature. Many of the persecution stories originate with Eusebius, a man who is deemed unreliable by scholars.
You can’t prove how “well preserved” the New Testament is by saying how few copies of the Iliad exist. The reliability of a classic of Greek literature has nothing to do with how close the New Testament follows the originals. Furthermore, there’s no reason to suspect that the writings of Homer were altered substantially, while we do know for a fact that there have been centuries of tampering with the New Testament. Besides, even if the Iliad was altered substantially, it would matter little to us since there are no people trying to live their lives according to the teachings or Agamemnon, there is no Hector worship and there are no booklets asking “What would Achilles do?”.
I’m sorry, this is a wild exaggeration coming from people like Metzger and Strobel. They include in their manuscript count documents which are far younger than the oldest complete Bibles (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), some are as young as the 9th century CE. They are copies of copies of copies…etc. There is unfortunately not a single copy of the earliest periods of Christianity, the period that we are actually most interested in. There are some 720 root texts for the New Testament and these are mostly medieval. Many of these are also not complete books. Of those 720 texts, only about 14 are from before 200 CE and most of these are, like P52, just scraps with barely a few complete words. Please see the work of Earl Doherty for the source of this manuscript count.
Justin Martyr appears to be the first Christian who clearly quotes from a Gospel and this isn’t until the 150’s CE. Often his quotes don’t match anything we find in our versions of the Gospels. There is also evidence to suggest that the writings of early Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Dionysius have had their works tampered with.
The Gospels aren’t eyewitness accounts, unfortunately. We don’t know who wrote the text of Luke. There were a number of other Messianic figures that we know of in first century Judea. There was a Simon of Peraea, someone named Athronges, Menahem ben Judah, and even Vespasian (yes, the Roman emperor). Ironically, all these are mentioned in some detail in the writings of Josephus. So the idea that Tacitus was writing about some other Messianic figure is not that far fetched at all although I admit it would be a big coincidence if Pilate executed two Messiahs.
I never said I am of the opinion that there never was a Jesus, all I said was that it isn’t an established fact that there was. My point is that with the available source material, we can’t know and will never know if there was an actual Jesus (or perhaps several people rolled up into one) unless more source material is forthcoming. We can’t know what Jesus did and what he preached (if anything). As I have said above, there were no 200 years of persecution of early Christians. There were sporadic incidents, mostly local. The idea that Christians were massively and uniquely persecuted is a later fabrication.
I’m not going to discuss early Christianity or the reliability of the Gospels further than this. If you want to know more about why I am sceptical about the Bible as a reliable source of information, I urge you to turn to something other than apologists and read the works of critical scholars like Earl Doherty, Bart Ehrman and Jacob Slavenburg.
The reason I wrote in response to your article in Huffington Post was your mistaken characterization of atheism and your claims that atheism leads people to do bad things, like become megalomaniacal dictators bent on conquering the world. Since you seem to have quantified that statement somewhat in your comment I quoted above, I hope we can reach the conclusion that atheism alone is not the catalyst behind people doing evil things.
Just read this – glad you took the time to outline your beliefs.
And you obviously place a lot of faith in those beliefs.
With respect, I think your argument that you have reached a ‘conclusion’ but that this does not constitute a ‘belief’ is really shaky. It actually makes very little sense. ‘I have concluded that a+b = x ….. but I don’t believe it’ would be a ridiculous proposition. I would argue that what you have concluded, you must also believe.
More to the point, it seems strange that you have come to a ‘conclusion’ and still regard yourself as an agnostic. Seems like you’re trying to walk both sides of the street on that one.
I do agree that most people who call themselves ‘atheists’ are actually agnatheists. However, Kraus, Dawkins, Hitchens etc do not fall into the category and my preface was that I was discussing those who follow their logic to the letter.
Your misrepresentation of my arguments regarding Christianity versus Atheism when it comes to acts of violence are palpable. My arguments were, firstly, that the acts of Christendom in the 12th Century were incongruous with Jesus and his teaching and therefore not representative of Christianity. Secondly, my direct response to Dawkins charge was not that there were no acts of horror undertaken by those claiming to be Christian (and by their actions so proving they weren’t actually Christian), but that a simple analysis of the 20th Century shows that those who followed the belief that ‘there is no god’ wiped out infinitely more people than ‘religious zealots’ during the same period. I was not trying to ‘exonerate’ the acts of Christendom. I was highlighting that in the last hundred years, the evidence for Dawkins assertion that religion is the pre-eminent cause of conflict around the world just doesn’t stack up.
Your misrepresentation of Jesus parable in Luke was typical and awkward. If you read the chapter and even the verse in context, you would see that Jesus was in no way ‘…teaching you how to beat your slaves’, as you put it. With respect, that’s actually a pretty juvenile reading of the text.
Jesus was using a cultural example to which those to whom he was speaking could relate. The men he was talking to at that place and time, lived in a world where captured enemies of Rome were made slaves, and where those with great debt could sell themselves into indentured servitude until their debt was paid. And yes, in those days the reality was that servants and slaves who disobeyed their masters did not have their pay docked or leave cancelled – they were beaten. Not a justification. It’s just what happened.
So you see Jesus wasn’t advocating the practice, he was using a cultural reality as an allegory. In this case, he was saying ‘at the time when I come again, make sure you’re ready (i.e. a believer), because if you’re not, it’ll be bad for you personally, really bad – yes he’s talking about going to heaven or hell. The only aspect of this allegory that Theologians often discuss is his reference to those whose non-belief stems from ignorance and the consequences being somewhat lighter – it’s a peripheral discussion for another time.
As to this one… ‘Assuming there was a Jesus…. neither of these assertions have been proved in any way.’ I’m happy help you with that one since you say you’re ‘open to evidence’.
Considering there wer no go-pros or tape recorders the first century AD, we have to rely on evidence and make a judgement call. Historians have done this for every figure from Julius Caesar to Marco Polo.
If the Bible were the only ancient texts that referenced Jesus or the rise of Christianity then perhaps the evidence of the New Testament alone might seem a lot less relied upon. However, there are multiple mentions of Jesus, the movement he started and his crucifixion, including the Roman politician and author Tacitus and the Jewish scholar Josephus (who was not writing favourable things about JC). In fact, there is more secondary evidence for the existence of Jesus than any other ancient figure, such as ol’ Julius Caesar himself. Funny the existence of that particular figure is rarely questioned.
Next take the accounts of Jesus from Gospels… Luke for example. Luke was a doctor and a historian – from his opening words he tells his original recipient, a Roman official, that he has decided to write an investigative piece on Jesus. “It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus…”
He then goes on to place the events in a chronological context i.e. he doesn’t his account with ‘once upon a time, in a land far away’, but with a date and time.
He is giving authenticity to his account – ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus[a] that the whole empire[b] should be registered. 2 This first registration took place while[c] Quirinius was governing Syria.’ Other ancient texts and archaeological finds have corroborated that both these characters existed and held the positions as proscribed by Luke.
In fact the eminent historian and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey who spent 20 years researching the areas Luke was writing about in his gospel, has stated that of the thirty two countries, fifty four cities and nine islands Luke mentions in his gospel, he was mistaken about ZERO.
Former Director of the British Museum and authority on ancient manuscripts, Sir Frederic Kenyon, once stated that there is no more accurate ancient text that the New Testament. One of the reasons is because the very first copies we have were made from the original accounts and letters while many of those whom the accounts were about were still living i.e. the disciples, were actually still alive. Any falsities would not survive long.
In fact, we have so many ancient copies of the New Testament, experts in ancient texts have been able to check, cross reference and authenticate the book in such detail that for the entire book, it is believed that only 2% is in question. Again, these discrepancies are listed as being linguistic nuances that have no bearing on the meaning.
I hope this snapshot of the swag of evidence that exists about the existence and accounts of Jesus helps you reach a ‘conclusion’ on this matter too.
I do apologise that I only found your response to my blog now and that it has taken me so long to reply.
As for my work being ‘a truly awful piece of writing’, well, I will endeavour to hone my skills. Perhaps you should submit some of your writing to the editors of an international news service and expose it to public scrutiny. Just a thought.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my article and write a response to it. I appreciate the feedback. Believe it or not, it means something to me that you’ve taken the time to reply. Let me take some time and reply to what you wrote.
I’d rather not discuss semantics. It looks to me that you are either deliberately or accidentally confusing the colloquial use of the word “belief” with the meaning of the word “belief” when referring specifically to religious beliefs. When someone says “I believe I’ve left the lights on”, this is belief in the colloquial sense and has no religious connotation. When someone says “I believe Muhammad is the prophet of Allah”, that person is describing his/her religious beliefs.
I have not spoken of my beliefs in this article, either in the religious sense or the colloquial sense. What I’ve tried to explain to you and what prompted the article above in the first place, is that you are misrepresenting atheism. It’s not a system of beliefs, it’s not even a single belief. All it is, is a disbelief in god or gods. That’s really all it means. Why you insist that a disbelief is still a belief is something I find hard to understand.
It’s only strange perhaps if you don’t know the distinction between gnostic atheism and agnostic atheism. People who are gnostic atheists say that they know there is no god. Agnostic atheists say that there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a god but they do not entirely rule out the possibility that there may be one. The conclusion that I have drawn is that at present there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a deity of some kind. That means I am an agnostic atheist. I don’t claim to know there is no god but I think the likelihood of a god existing is about the same as the likelihood of the tooth fairy existing.
Agnostics are actually atheists. If you are of the opinion that you don’t know whether or not a god exists (agnosticism), you don’t strictly believe there is one. Hence an agnostic is also an atheist. In summary, agnostics, agnostic atheists and gnostic atheists are all atheists in the strict sense of the word, since they don’t believe in a god or gods.
I take it you didn’t bother to look up the post by Michael Sherlock I mentioned in the article above? It’s true that throughout history and still today, people are murdered or mistreated in the name of or based on the doctrine of some religion. You simply can’t make such a claim about atheism. Atheism has no doctrine, no rule book which one must follow (or else!) and no governing dogmatic principles. You don’t murder someone in the name of not believing in a god. Believing in a god or not believing in a god alone, does not cause someone to commit atrocities. Additional dogmatic principles come into play before people set off to commit atrocities. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin or Mao actually set themselves up as objects of worship. As Sam Harris puts it: “The problem with fascism and communism is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions”. Atheism alone doesn’t lead to violence, tyranny or genocide any more than religious belief guarantees harmony, peace and tolerance.
For brevity, I have cut short your discussion of this quote. When discussing the Bible with theists, the argument so often comes down to “it’s taken out of context” or “it’s not meant to be taken literally”, etc. The reason I don’t want to discuss how to read or interpret this particular quote is basically because the Bible is not a reliable document and no one can tell you how a certain passage has to be interpreted or understood. That alone should be pretty telling. Discussing this would only derail any meaningful discussion and not get us anywhere.
I’m very open to evidence but I am trying real hard not to get my hopes up…
Oh, and here I thought you were actually going to say something new. The Testimonium Flavianum indeed mentions Jesus’ life and career but it is now commonly accepted as a later Christian forgery of the original..if there ever was an original. The debate now centres on how much of it is a forgery. For the first 300 years of its supposed existence, there’s not a single mention of Jesus being mentioned in the writings of Josephus. For example, the early Christian theologian Origen relied heavily upon the works of Josephus, quoting him often but never once mentions the Testimonium Flavianum. Josephus even quotes from “Antiquities of the Jews” in order to prove the existence of John the Baptist, then mentions that Josephus didn’t believe In Jesus and actually criticizes him for failing to mention Jesus in the book! (Contra Celsum 1.47) The Testimonium Flavianum isn’t quoted anywhere in antiquity until the 4th century CE, when it is mentioned by bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who is generally considered an unreliable source, suspected of forging several documents, including a set of letters between the then ruler of Edessa and Jesus himself.
As for Tacitus, there is one brief mention of a “pernicious superstition” surrounding a figure called “Christus” put to death by Pilate (Annals 15, ch.44). Tacitus, writing in the 2nd century CE, appears to be outlining what Christians at the time believed. He makes no mention of any sources. Furthermore, “Christus” is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”, a Jewish religious title, not a name of a person. Given that we have accounts of several Messiahs, it can’t even be established with certainty that Tacitus is writing about one Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.
I am actually glad you mention Julius Caesar so I can clarify something for you. There are no historians today who doubt the existence of Julius Caesar and they have very good reasons not to:
In short, no…there is not more secondary evidence for the existence of Jesus than any other historical figure, despite the claims of Christian apologists.
It always saddens me to see that Christians know so little about the history of their holy book. The four Gospels are our only source of information about the life of Jesus. Christians the world over believe that these accounts are accurate and written by eye witnesses to the events. There are two serious problems with those beliefs. For one, we don’t know who wrote the Gospels. All four texts are actually anonymous, only receiving their attribution until the late 2nd century CE. “Luke” himself mentions that his story has been “handed down to his generation” (Luke 1:1-2). How could this be if it were the actual apostle writing? Secondly, all four Gospels appear to have been written long after the death of Jesus. To illustrate, people like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, both writing around the turn of the 1st century CE refer to the “Old Testament” as scripture but both appear to have very little knowledge of the Gospels. This is more than 70 years after the facts.
The passage you mention about the “whole empire should be registered” appears to have been lifted from Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” which first appeared towards the end of the 1st century, meaning that “Luke” could not have been written before then. We can tell “Luke” is copying from Josephus and not the other way around because Josephus is more extensive, more accurate and in the correct context. Josephus mentions when and why the census was to be held and also that is was just for Judea, not the entire empire. The fact that “Luke” gets its geography right is evidence that the author knew his geography, nothing more.
We actually don’t have many ancient copies of the New Testament. The oldest known manuscript we have is of the Gospel of John and this hardly deserves the name “manuscript”. It’s known as fragment P52 and can at its earliest be dated to 125 CE, so about a hundred years after Jesus’ death. The problem is…all the text could fit on a single sheet of A6 paper and it contains only one complete word. Hardly a manuscript. For the first 1000 years of Christianity, the majority of manuscripts are actually just scraps and fragments, not complete manuscripts. Even the oldest complete Bibles, the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus date to the year 300 CE or so. More problematically, there are significant differences between these two surviving texts. For instance, in the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest Gospel(Mark) fails to mention the resurrection entirely! There is not a single surviving copy of any New Testament text from the formative period of Christianity.
Add to that the deliberate forgeries and copying mistakes, our current New Testament is an utterly unreliable document.
I hope I have shown you that the “swag of evidence” is actually missing or at best, extremely unreliable.
No problem, better late than never! Like I mentioned above, I appreciate you taking the time to respond.
The rant you managed to get published in the Huffington Post is a truly awful piece of writing not because of your style or grammar. It’s a truly awful piece of writing because you misrepresent your topic (atheism), either accidentally or deliberately in order to whine to your audience. It’s a fact that in many countries, atheists are persecuted and atheism still carries a social stigma. Fortunately, this is getting less the case which is an improvement over a few centuries ago when people like me were burnt at the stake by people like you.
Getting yourself published doesn’t necessarily mean you write anything of quality. Editors of online publications like a bit of controversy because it creates excellent click-bait. Just a thought.