Those of us who enjoy reading biblical criticism on the Internet are often frustrated about the polarization of views. This very usually means argument descends into ad hominem attacks and rather pointless questioning of credentials. The problem appears to be that there are two camps that cannot comprehend the other's position. Both are guilty of having closed minds.
In the blue corner is the evangelical scholar. He (because they are nearly always men) takes, as their starting point, the inerrancy of the bible. To compare it to science, a subject I have pretensions of knowing about, it is like insisting that Newton's Laws always apply. No amount of evidence of quantum mechanics or special relativity will serve to convince otherwise. Because the evangelical must assert that everything that looks odd is actually literally true he is hamstrung. All that he says will be a rationalization and not an explanation. Even if he happens to be right, it will be by good fortune and not from rational enquiry. Also, by insisting on inerrancy he puts all his eggs into one basket. I do not think this is wise.
In the red corner is the sceptic. He is every bit as guilty of prejudice as the evangelical because he disbelieves in anything supernatural. This means that the bible cannot be remotely accurate about anything because the supernatural is what it is all about. If the Gospels are a priori unreliable because they contain miracle stories the case for historical accuracy is already over. The sceptic, too, is reduced to rationalizing about how these documents came to be if they are manifestly untrue. Thus the he puts forward some odd theories about Jesus never existing or being a pagan construct. He can do this because he believes he has cart blanche to think up what he likes – the Gospels are untrue so the field is vacant.
It is worth noting that the worldview of the biblical critic colours everything they look at. Neither can be objective about any facet of biblical study. Take the dates the New Testament documents were composed. You can count on the evangelical to suggest early dates (sometimes absorbingly so) and the sceptic to point to later ones. I have seen the Acts of the Apostles dated mid second century by those keen to suggest Jesus never existed (this is necessary to detach Paul from the other Apostles). Likewise I have seen theories that the entire New Testament canon was written before 70 AD. Part of the reason for the wide range of possible dates is that analyzing the available papyrus scraps is very hard. In fact, many of the samples have not been fully examined at all. Carston Peter Thiede recently redated some fragments of Matthew's gospel lurking in Magdalen College library. Not many papyrologists believe him but it does demonstrate the need for research and imagination in a notoriously reactionary field.
With a gap between the sceptic and evangelical participants that is so huge it is hardly surprising that the debate never makes much progress. I sometimes wonder why either side bothers because they can hardly be doing it purely to entertain me.
Most of the people you meet on the Internet looking into the religious debate are decent, honest individuals with sincerely held views that they wish to explore and discuss. Some are not. Two of the most vocal groups are those who I call militant atheists and recovered fundies. Please note that these are a minority but an exceedingly vocal one.
The former has a belief that is so strong they can hardly contain it within themselves. The belief is instinctive and known a priori. No amount of argument or anything else will convince them they might be in error. The belief is 'There is no God'. Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is old news. After all, Nietzsche announced the demise of the deity more than a century ago. Not so, according to the militant atheist. He is still battling his way through a world clouded by superstition and foolishness. He brandishes his sword of reason but even armed with this mighty weapon he is unable to convince the unbelievers. How can this be? Surely anyone who doesn't recognize the truth must be stupid? The atheists insist that their faith is the unique repository of two great virtues - reason and rationality. To reject them is to reject the very things that mark us out from other animals. I have been called irrational so many times I just don't notice any more. Indeed, it seems like the supreme irony that militant atheism has managed to acquire the mentality of a religion.
But like any religion, militant atheism needs a Patriarch. And it has one. Have a look at the reviews of Carl Sagan's books Cosmos and Demon Haunted World. I am particularly touched by the declaration that, in Sagan, God now has a brother. I have read both these books and can only say that anyone who reads them three times badly needs some more reading matter. It is in the first line of Cosmos you will find the atheist materialist's creed "The universe is all there ever was or ever will be." Notable militant atheist Steven Carr dedicates his site to the great man. Sagan can now officially qualify as a great dead leader because he is indeed dead. But there must be living apostles to continue to spread the word. The Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, Richard Dawkins himself, doesn't often deign to enter the fray but occasionally communicates through various esteemed organs like the Free Inquiry. Other scientists like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger preach the faith to all who will listen.
To find a more angry and hurt creature than the recovered fundie one would have to look for defeated senatorial candidates. These are people who used to be fundamentalist Christians and are now, apparently, free. Free from what, exactly, can be quite hard to establish. Free from superstition, free from fear or maybe that same freedom that we all enjoy once we grow up. They are free to make their own choices. And they have chosen a deep and abiding hatred for Christianity. Their first problem is that not all Christians appear to be nearly as blinkered and bigoted as they were before their recovery. Not all Christians insist that evolution is trash, homosexuals should be shot and the earth is under ten thousand years old. The recovered fundie views this as a bit of a betrayal. They were looking forward to rubbishing all their old heart felt views only to find that no one else seems to actually hold them. The recovered fundie finds he's just thrown the baby out with the bath water. No wonder he's pissed off. Recovered fundies also have their apostle in the form of Dan Barker. He spent 19 years as an evangelical preacher when he claims he was expected to reject his intellect and use his skills in oratory to inspire blind faith. He now appears to do much the same thing as an atheist. He even writes songs about it.
Actually, I expect the main emotion of the recovered fundie is extreme embarrassment. "You believed what!?!" they imagine all their new found militant atheist friends saying before falling about laughing. But quite why the recovered fundie feels specially qualified to discuss matters of belief escapes me given there past record of changing their minds about absolutely everything.
You will often hear about the historical Jesus as opposed to the Christ of faith. Of course, most Christians believe that there is no real difference between the two. However, you come across phrases like "most modern scholars now believe..." rather a lot and it is worth looking at who these learned people really are.
Those who keep note of these things will tell you that we are presently living through the third quest for the historical Jesus. The first was begun in 1906 by Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer himself went on to write about Bach and win the Nobel Peace Prize so was widely felt to be an all round good egg. His interpretation was to strip out the divine elements and see what's left. He decided the Jesus was expecting the end of the world to come at any minute.
Next came the work of Rudolf Bultmann and the founding of form criticism. Bultmann claimed there is very little historical Jesus behind the gospel accounts. Instead, they are myths which came to be from the build up of oral tradition that only reached its final form many years after the events supposedly described. In short, Bultmann and his follows were very sceptical that we could know anything very much about Jesus.
The New Quest began with J.M Robinson and his "A New Quest for the Historical Jesus". He went some way to rejecting form criticism but still admitted that Jesus himself remained very remote. The Gospels were now seen as the evangelists' interpretations of real events.
The Third Quest is less well defined. EP Sanders is one of the leading figures. He examines Jesus as a first century Jew and thinks that he never intended that his message should leak out into the gentile world. There is also a new generation of sceptics who have got together and called themselves the Jesus Seminar. They are ably led by Robert Funk and (after voting on the matter!) decided that Jesus didn't say much of what he is made to say in the Gospels. The Seminar has created a bit of a stir although at root their work is just an attempt to gather all revisionists under one roof. Unsurprisingly, debunking the Seminar's ideas has become a popular spectator sport in Christian circles.
Today the leading revisionists are Funk, GE Wells, Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan. If you see any of these being quoted then you know you are dealing with a sceptic (although by faith, the last is a devout Catholic). Likewise, among the leading conservative you find scholars FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Gary Habermas. All three hold that the gospels are historically accurate and reliable. The middle ground is held by the likes of Graham Stanton, the late Raymond Brown and John P Meier.
In short, scholars are divided over the question of the historical Jesus. It is said that any survey on the subject will tell you much more about the author than it will about Jesus. It is usual for people to be in one camp or another. Once you know which camp they are in you can usually predict whom they have read. The phrase 'most scholars believe...' is meaningless and it is false to say that modern scholars are more inclined to be sceptical than they were fifty years ago. If anything, the reverse is true.
I would like, if I may, to call a couple of expert witnesses in the person of Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox. These two gentlemen are agnostic classical historians and it is to them we should turn when looking for the historical facts. The evangelical will gain little comfort from them but they take a much more conservative view of the Gospels than most liberal theologians do. Michael Grant has written biographies of Herod the Great, Saint Paul and Jesus from the standpoint of a secular historian. They are all worth reading although they do not have the radical handle of Funk and friends. This means they have not had the same exposure as more revisionist works.
Robin Lane Fox is the friend of a friend. I have never met him but hope one day to tell this 'god fearing atheist' that his work is one of the corner stones of my Christian faith. In The Unauthorized Version he tears apart the historical reliability of the Old Testament but finds that the New Testament is much closer to events than commonly believed. His conclusion that John's Gospel really is based on an eyewitness account staggered me when I first read it. If he's right, and I think he is, then most of the arguments against the Gospels being unreliable as history go straight out the window.
I thought I would supply a list of the different kinds of people you can come across. It is wrong to put anyone in a box but I'm going to do it anyway. This list is hardly exhaustive and I may add to it from time to time.
These are Christianity's shock troops. They will march in anywhere and do battle with the heathens. Anyone who admits to being a Christian will find they are assumed to be one of these until they can prove otherwise. You will then be accused of not being a Christian at all. I rather like some evangelicals. Their certainty and insistence on uncompromised principles can be admirable. Unfortunately they are also prone to extreme intolerance at times. On the other hand, Fundamentalists are loathed by the more militant secularists and you will find most anti-Christian polemic is aimed at them - although the writers themselves rarely differentiate between one kind of Christianity and another. An evangelical is someone who believes that the Bible contains everything needed for salvation (the doctrine of Sola Scriptura). Many, especially in the US, go further and state the Bible is literally true and these are the people called called Fundamentalists - taken from the their twelve founding tracts published in 1910 and called The Fundemantals. This gives an irresistible target to militant atheists and there are as many sites devoted to biblical errors as there are to biblical inerrancy.
Young Earth Creationists
Although caricatured as some sort of historical hangover from pre-Darwinian days, the Creationist movement actually dates from the 1960s. In some ways they are like many other pseudo-scientific movements but in others have become something much greater. They now have their own research journals and professional ethics. Some atheist scientists, while pouring scorn on Creationists, actually find them quite useful as an example of people blinded by religion. I think this movement is part of a backlash against science that can be found in other areas too. Concern over genetically modified food, animal rights and anti-nuclear groups are all part of the same trend. Scientists may bewail the return to ignorance but they only have themselves to blame if they fail to take common people with them on their head long dash for the future. Young Earth Creationists believe the world was created in six twenty four hour days after about 10,000 BC. Dinosaurs and other extinct animals were killed in the flood. Note that many evangelicals, while believing that God created the universe, hold that He could have taken 15 billion years as the word yom used for 'day' in Genesis can be an indeterminate period of time. Militant atheists views such a arguments as not playing fair and will usually try and insist that only a literalistic interpretation of Genesis is valid.
I know you know what a Catholic is. Web Catholics are a rather serious bunch as a rule. They have serious web sites full of serious things. The entertaining arguments you find evangelicals having with nearly everyone don't feature here. I find Catholic web sites useful for reference and I looked at a few while researching this site. I am a Catholic but prefer to hang out with evangelicals or sceptics. The oddest thing about Christians on the Internet is that they all seem to attack each other rather a lot. This is especially true of Catholic sites where the apologetics tend to be aimed at Protestants and not new converts. I am rather disturbed by this, as I am sure that the last thing that a seeker wants to find is Christians fighting like rats in a sack.
If someone is ranting against religion on a discussion board they are probably one of these. They seem to have enormous problems with faith and Christianity in particular. Winding them up is one of the favourite past times of Christians of all colours but don't bother arguing with them. Like the most bigoted fundamentalists that they despise they cannot understand how anyone can think differently from the way they do. For them religion is a product of fear or indoctrination.
The sceptic is a far worthier opponent. They tend to see themselves as highly rational and scientifically minded. In general they will be arguing against evangelical Christianity but they can also be tempted into more general discussions. Their lack of belief can very often be instinctive but this does not make them any easier to argue against. Scientific materialism is vulnerable to attacks about morality and it is this line that is most likely to provoke the sceptic. It is important to note that it is not the sceptic's lack of morality that is in question but rather their lack of an explanation for it.
Surfing around the World Wide Web looking for sites on religion and its opponents is an enlightening but rather frustrating experience. There are so many different sites and it is sometimes impossible to find one that isn't hopelessly biased in one direction or another. This is especially true as almost no one admits to being biased in favour of anything but the truth (you hear this rather a lot).
The best way to interact is through discussion boards. These are found at some of the sites and I suggest the following two as being good places to start.
CARM discussion boards: - The Christian Apologetics Research Ministry hosts several boards all of which are moderated and you have to register to use. This is easy to do and you can browse the boards without registering if you wish. The tone broadly pro Christian as the ranting atheists are kept away. However, sceptics are welcomed and good debates can develop. The moderator, Matt Slick, is so conservative he considers me a heretic and refused to link to the site!
Hyperboreans: - This is a very high brow discussion board specialising in philosophy. It is self consciously elitist and heavily moderated to keep conversation at a suitably rarefied level. I'm actually a moderator of the history board here although most of the team are atheists. The elitism means it does not have so much traffic and is a good place for having rather more leisurely discussions with people who don't automatically pigeon hole everyone.
Cygnus' Study Christianity discussion board: - This board is moderated by Cygnus himself, who takes it upon himself to delete any posts that are too abusive. The arguments here tend to be quite robust with the usual array of atheists and evangelicals tearing at each other. However, others make this site an excellent place to see the interaction between Christians and sceptics at first hand. Be warned though, discussion can get very heated and don't be surprised if you find yourself being treated roughly.
The Secular Web discussion boards: - More boards than you can shake a stick at which makes keeping up with everything very difficult. If I post a lot of messages here I frequently forget about some of them! These are popular boards but do attract some boring know all teenagers who have just read The Blind Watchmaker and feel like a genius. That said you can enjoy a very fruitful discusion here with intelligent and reasonable people who fundementally disagree with you. And that, after all, is the whole point of discussion.
When posting a message to a discussion board remember the three golden rules:
© James Hannam 2003.