Copin’ with Copan
The Defense of Zacharias that Fails
Some time ago I roasted Ravi Zacharias’ book A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism in a review posted here on the Secular Web. Paul Copan, a graduate student pursuing a degree from Marquette University, has attacked my review, and, for good measure, has also taken a few shots at my book What is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. It turns out that Mr. Copan commits many of the errors of his mentor Zacharias, and a few of his own too. Despite the fact that Copan’s rebuttal is directed specifically at my book review, it may be instructive to take a look at some of his claims since much of what he says is typical of fundamentalist apologetics. Many of his errors are repeated by many a xian.
TOPIC: DON’T EXPECT ARGUMENTS FROM XIANS? HEY, I DIDN’T SAY THAT!
Copan begins by claiming that I was much too aggressive in my condemnation of Zacharias’ A Shattered Visage. Copan says, “I was shocked at his vitriol and unwarranted sarcasm.” This is odd, since, as Jeffery Jay Lowder notes in a review of one of Zacharias’ other books, Zacharias uses an “inflammatory and patronizing tone.” In fact, Lowder mentions, with regard to Zacharias’ book Can Man Live Without God?, “Although Zacharias recognizes the need for cordiality…the amount of insults and name-calling in the book…is truly appalling.” Unlike Zacharias, however, I do not substitute emotion for argument. I support all of my claims about the quality of Zacharias’ writing. I showed in my review that Zacharias commits many elementary mistakes in his analysis of Nietzsche, Kant, and evolution. The exasperating tangle of error, mere assertion, and absurdity that constitute his book is inadequately denounced even with the observation that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. The tone of my review was well-deserved, if ever a book deserved it, so Copan ought to concentrate on showing that my objections to A Shattered Visage were unwarranted. But he fails to show this.
For example, one criticism I made of Zacharias was that, in addition to his errors in history, logic, biblical analysis, and science, and to his misrepresentation of atheism, he has a penchant for making numerous mere assertions intended for his readers to swallow without any supporting arguments whatsoever. On page 48 of A Shattered Visage Zacharias states that the atheist is “forced to accept the Whig theory of history, which asserts that the most advanced moment in time represents the time of highest development.” Of course this is false, but Zacharias neither supports this claim nor does he develop the point. (In fact, I would disagree with such a view of history, since I’d never assert that the xian Dark Ages of Europe were times of higher development than the height of Greek civilization.) On page 98 Zacharias affirms the claim, purportedly taken from the poetry of Tennyson, that “man’s destiny is bound up with his origin.” Again he makes no effort to support this claim. There do not seem to be any rational grounds for believing that the claim is true. On page 134 Zacharias states that “love is creation’s first law, and if love has preceded life, then for life to succeed, it must live within the boundaries of this love.” It’s not clear what this drivel even means, and Zacharias does nothing to explain or defend it. His book is peppered with scores of these mere assertions, and I took him to task for loading up his book with plenty of conclusions and no arguments at all (except for a couple of arguments in the appendix, which he readily admits are sketchy). Does Copan defend most of these mere assertions? No. There are just too many of them. However, he does attempt to justify one class of mere assertions as mere assertions. He states:
Zacharias was writing to a predominantly Christian audience, and so he did not see the need to justify claims regarding certain biblical and theological matters. So it seems odd that Krueger would demand a full explanation for these points.
I find it interesting that Copan defends Zacharias’ lack of arguments for his position by insisting that this is superfluous in the case of xian readers. Had I claimed that when writing for xians you don’t need to give arguments, Copan would have considered that more of the “tone” that he detests. Note, then, that it is Copan who says this, not me. Xian apologists can crank out book after book with relative ease since they can omit arguments and concentrate solely on affirming the biases with which they begin.
But is it true, as Copan suggests, that with regard to biblical and theological matters xians already know what the reasons are, and thus justification is superfluous? Surely not. A case in point is my criticism of Zacharias’ explanation of sin, a favorite theological matter. As I point out in my review, Zacharias takes great pains to point out that we must have a proper understanding of sin in order to understand morality. Zacharias states (numbers refer to page numbers in his book):
Until we understand what the Bible means by sin, our moral definitions will never find solutions (141).
The problem is not the absence of education or culture, it is the presence of sin (142).
…people constantly fail to understand what sin is (142).
Yet after all of this talk of gaining a proper understanding of sin, here is as close as Zacharias gets to providing something toward a definition:
Those who recognize the nature of sin understand that what renders someone a sinner is not the scale of human wickedness but the very nature and character of God. It is God’s purity that we stand before, not a fluctuating moral code that varies from one society to another. When sin is understood, a moral discussion can begin– for each one of us stands accountable before God. An accountability that high makes the moral law of any land secondary to the moral law of God. Honesty and virtue are embraced because our motivation is to honor God and not merely to appear right before others. (143)
Thus, as I stated in my review, “Zacharias seems to be trying to say that sin is the difference between our moral status and that of God. Apparently, our sin lies in the fact that we don’t match the moral purity of God.” Yet this is just a guess at what Zacharias may have meant, since for all his insistence on how important it is to understand the concept, he gives a terribly vague definition, if it can even be called that. But because many xians would disagree with what seems to be Zacharias’ interpretation of the concept of sin, obviously it is not true that argumentation or exposition is not needed. Other xians define sin as a violation of god’s law, as intentional disobedience to divine will, and so on, and in the bible the word “sin” can mean a number of things. For example, in the Oxford Companion to the Bible we find, in the article “Sin,” that one Hebrew word translated as “sin” from the Old Testament can be used to express a violation of god’s law, another word also used for sin is used in the context of rebellion against god or man, and yet another word can mean “an offense, the guilt resulting from it, or the punishment that follows” . In the New Testament, words translated as sin can mean wickedness or impiety, or simply imply a kind of debt to god. I recently received a religious tract in the mail that insists that sin is “self-will” or control over one’s own life. No informed, contemporary theologian would assert that there is unanimity among xians regarding the exposition of the concept of sin, so Copan was mistaken in claiming that xians agree on the interpretations of theological concepts. I had said that Zacharias first stresses the importance of understanding a concept and then fails to clearly define it. The simplest way for Copan to show that this assessment is incorrect is to provide some exposition of Zacharias’ use of this concept. But Copan makes no attempt to clarify what Zacharias left muddled. He simply states that it is not necessary. Alternatively, Copan could try to demonstrate this purported unanimity among xians with regard to theological concepts. He doesn’t do this either. This is not an adequate defense. Arguments are needed if apologists want to defend their positions.
In fact, on the third page of A Shattered Visage Zacharias states: “I have tried to dispel the assumed power of logical arguments for atheism within a framework of argumentation.” So Zacharias states that his approach to apologetics requires at least some arguments. However, he does not demonstrate awareness of atheistic arguments, except the argument from evil, and he says little about that in the course of his book. Furthermore, except for a couple of rough outlines of some arguments in an appendix, which he readily admits are inadequate, Zacharias does not provide arguments for his own position. Zacharias said he would provide a framework of arguments and he didn’t deliver, so Copan’s appeal to accepted theological concepts does little to redeem the lack of arguments, and thus the lack of substance, in Zacharias’ work.
TOPIC: THE FUROR OVER DER FÜHRER. WHO DOESN’T LIKE TO BEAT UP ON THIS GUY?
Zacharias discusses at length his interpretation of Nietzsche’s influence on Hitler. The intent is to show that the atheism of Nietzsche inspired Hitler to commit horrific acts, and this is supposed to show that atheism is a terrible worldview. But Nietzsche is not a spokesperson for atheists simply by being an atheist, so Zacharias’ attacks on him are futile. Zacharias also neglects to mention that Nietzsche disagreed with many of the views Hitler endorsed. Nietzsche would have despised Hitler’s German nationalism, socialism, anti-Semitism, and his support of religion. It should be obvious, then, what Nietzsche would have thought of an anti-Semitic National Socialist party that is openly religious. Nietzsche’s rejection of the main facets of Hitler’s worldview shows that Nietzsche’s philosophy does not support Nazism. Zacharias’ assessment of a Nietzsche-Hitler relationship misrepresents the facts. In addition, he does not make a case to show that someone who is an atheist must agree with Nietzsche or Hitler. So does Copan back off of this position on behalf of Zacharias? Yes he does. And then he doesn’t.
How does that work? Copan states:
In light of these two remarks, Krueger is obviously right in that attacking a person’s philosophy “is not relevant to whether god exists” — no more so than Jimmy Swaggart’s or Jim Bakker’s disproves God’s existence.
So I’m right to point out that the issue is not relevant, according to Copan. But–hey, let’s look at it anyway! It just sounds so good to rail against Hitler and pretend you’re addressing atheism that Copan can’t resist the temptation. He says, “However, the matter is one of consistency here,” and forges ahead to spend two pages on an issue he has just admitted is irrelevant. After all, Zacharias spent two entire chapters distorting Nietzsche’s view and unsuccessfully trying to establish a connection between Nietzsche, atheism, and Hitler, so Copan couldn’t just drop the ball on this. That would make Zacharias look bad. It’s interesting, though, that even Copan agrees that Zacharias was addressing an irrelevant topic. In fact, he insists on it. He says:
Of course, Nietzsche’s influence on Hitler does not concern anti-Semitism or German nationalism per se, and Zacharias is well aware of Nietzsche’s opposition to both of them.
If Zacharias was aware of this when he wrote his book, he certainly did a fine job of making himself appear ignorant. In fact he spills a great deal of ink insisting that Hitler was just continuing what Nietzsche had begun. He gave no hint at all that Nietzsche opposed concepts at the core of Nazism. Yet if Zacharias was aware of this, why did he hide it? Obviously he knew it would weaken his case, just as he hid, or was unaware of the fact, that atheists such as Sartre opposed Nazism and actively fought against it. But Copan goes even further in his agreement with me:
For instance, Nietzsche not only attacked anti-Semitism, but he broke ties with composer Richard Wagner because of the anti-Semitism of the latter. Since Nietzsche himself wasn’t anti-Semitic, he therefore could not directly influence later anti-Semitism or German nationalism. So in some ways Nietzsche was diametrically opposed to certain Nazi values. (For instance, besides anti-Semitism or German nationalism, Nietzsche never maintained that the Superman [Übermensch] was racial or inheritable. Admittedly, there has been a misreading by some scholars on points such as these.)
Misreading? Misrepresentation, actually. But clearly Copan acknowledges that Zacharias was wrong about any accurate philosophical adoption of the views of Nietzsche by Hitler. But then what is Copan defending here?
Copan says that there is a logical link between the views of Nietzsche and Hitler. Zacharias pretended to be laying out the logical implications of atheism, and he claimed that Hitler took Nietzsche’s logic and “drove the atheistic world view to its legitimate conclusion” (pg. 59). However, as I pointed out in my review, all Zacharias does in order to try to show a logical relationship between atheism and Nazism is to assert that Nietzsche’s views influenced Hitler. This does not show any logical relationship between the two, since not all influence proceeds along the lines of logic. Copan, perhaps realizing that Zacharias’ strong claims regarding Nietzsche’s influence on Hitler are indefensible, states: “Even if no historical connection exists between Nietzsche and Hitler, there is clearly a logical one.” Well, what is this purported logical connection that Zacharias and Copan seem to see? Copan states that this connection is the death-of-god and the Superman ideology. Copan says:
But the influence at issue is the death-of-God and the Superman ideology proclaimed by Nietzsche, which was certainly picked up by Hitler. For instance, Nietzschean phrases such as “lords of the earth,” “herd instinct,” and “the will to force” appear in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. … Of course, to make Nietzsche the cause of Hitler’s actions would be unfair. Events and incidents related to the Holocaust (e.g., creating concentration camps, Kristallnacht, the invasion of Poland, medical experiments) did not deterministically occur. Each was a willed and intended event. But to say that the death-of-God philosophy of Nietzsche had an influence upon Hitler’s thinking would not be an overreaching point.
Not overreaching, just misleading. Simply pointing out that Hitler used some of Nietzsche’s phrases while at the same time conceding that Nietzsche was “diametrically opposed” to values that lay at the heart of Nazism establishes at best a very weak connection between Nietzsche and Nazism. Copan himself admits that Hitler and others misunderstood Nietzsche, so if they used his terms, they undoubtedly used them with a different meaning. If that’s all there is to the purported logical connection between atheism and Nazism, atheists don’t have to worry about this spurious claim anymore. Zacharias misrepresented Nietzsche’s influence on Hitler, Copan all but acknowledges this, and yet he still tries to make this charge stick. It doesn’t.
Copan commits many other errors in his treatment of the Nietzsche-Hitler issue, but since he himself admits that the matter is irrelevant, I won’t take up much more space on it. Let me just make a few more points, since Copan’s mistakes are not rare among apologists. First, Copan criticizes me for stating that Hitler was a theist. He states:
Krueger goes on to assert that Hitler was a theist: “In many of his speeches, Hitler asserted that he was acting in accordance with god’s will.” But this type of political pandering is certainly not unusual. One can probably safely say that many politicians have glibly invoked the name of God to gain broader support from religious constituents.
|Here Copan is saying that so many Germans were religious believers that Hitler, if not religious himself, at least had to pretend to be a believer in order to gain support. So his claim is that many, if not most, Germans were theists, and they were courted into the Nazi party in part by theistic talk. If the xian message won converts, it would seem that most Nazis were probably xians too. (See accompanying photo.) After all, would appeal to divine mandate win more theists or atheists to the cause? Copan holds that at least one Nazi, Hitler, was not religious. But doesn’t this suggest the opposite of what Copan and Zacharias assert? If what Nazis believe regarding religion is supposed to serve as evidence, it would seem that it is evidence that xianity leads to Nazism. For all Copan knows, all Nazis but one (supposedly Hitler) were xian. So much for the purported evidence that Nazism results from atheism. And even if one Nazi was an atheist, this does not show any logical relationship between Nazism and atheism. How do Zacharias and Copan explain the thousands of Nazis who were devout xians? Hitler did not invent the Nazi worldview. (And neither did Nietzsche, for that matter.) Most Nazis already believed the basic tenets of National Socialism even before Hitler became a political force. Anti-Semites and nationalists abounded in Germany long before Hitler was even born. If the existence of one atheist Nazi shows some relationship between atheism and Nazism, imagine how much more of a relationship is demonstrated by the tens of thousands, if not millions, of xian Nazis. Xians typically deny that such people, Nazis, are really xians, but there is plenty of biblical support for such conduct. Hitler claimed to believe in the xian god and acted accordingly. He committed genocide in the grand tradition of Moses, Joshua, Saul, David and so on. Since the god of the bible ordered genocide, I challenge xian apologists, including Copan and Zacharias, to show conclusively that Hitler was not fulfilling god’s will. It is unlikely that they will attempt to do so.||
WWII Belt Buckle Worn by Nazi Soldiers
The inscription reads, “Gott Mit Uns,” which is German for “God with us.” Note the swastika displayed under the religious slogan.
Another issue that needs to be mentioned is whether Hitler was an atheist. If he was not an atheist, this would seem to settle the “Nietzsche-Hitler” issue in favor of the atheist. Copan writes:
Hitler was no theist. We saw above that he despised Christianity. He also despised Judaism. Hitler reportedly claimed that conscience was a Jewish invention and had to be abolished… That’s Christianity and Judaism down — we’re quickly running out of theistic options.
Quickly running out? Since there have been tens of thousands of gods worshiped in human history, we can’t run out of them quickly when we simply eliminate one or two. (Or three, depending on how one interprets claims about the trinity.) Remember that Copan concedes that Hitler professed to be doing the work of god. (Perhaps Hitler had read Jeremiah 48:10: “Cursed is he who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! Cursed is he who keeps his sword from bloodshed!”) Even if Hitler was not a xian, he could still have been a theist. Or a deist. Copan produces no evidence that Hitler was not a theist other than mere assertion that he was not. In fact, Copan cites a scholar who asserts that Hitler wanted to establish a pagan world. Although the word “pagan” is sometimes used in the broad sense to mean any nonxian, it does not necessarily denote an atheist. Does Copan have any evidence that Hitler was an atheistic pagan? No. Even the claim that he was a pagan is a mere assertion. So what is the evidence regarding Hitler’s religious views? I’ve already mentioned that Hitler stated that he was doing the will of god. Copan admits this. However, Hitler also crusaded against godlessness. The December 1998 issue of Freethought Today reproduced an article from the February 23, 1933 Lansing State Journal. The headline reads: “Hitler Aims Blow at ‘Godless’ Move.” The article states:
A campaign against the “godless movement” and an appeal for Catholic support were launched Wednesday by Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s forces… A campaign against the “godless’ movement” was announced by Bernard Rust, nazi commissioner for education and culture in Prussia, in an address Tuesday night… An appeal to Catholic nazis was printed Wednesday in Hitler’s Voelkischer Beobachter, assailing the Catholic centrist and populist parties… Nazis invaded a centrist campaign meeting at Trier but were repulsed after a stiff fight…
That doesn’t look like atheism at work. Where is the death-of-god influence that Copan claims was part of Hitler’s worldview? Nowhere to be seen. Yet part of Copan’s case is that the death-of-god view of Nietzsche’s influenced Hitler.
If we want to know what Hitler thought about religion, it would make sense to look at his magnum opus. What did he say in Mein Kampf?
Therefore, I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator: By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.
Hitler sure sounds like a religious man. Hitler referred to the German defeat in WW1 as “a deserved punishment by eternal retribution,”, and attributed the cause to German moral decay brought on by various factors, including Marxist materialism and the fact that the France “again based instruction in her schools primarily on humanistic principles…and not to eternally ideal values.”
Hitler often links his conception of the Jewish worldview to materialism and Marxism. We know what he thought of Jews; he obviously hated materialism and Marxism. He labels a group the “Marxist mortal enemies of all religion;” indeed, more than once he refers to Marx as “the Jew Karl Marx”  who proposed Marxist world domination “in the service of his race.” Hitler believed that Jews were “always a people with definite racial qualities and never a religion…the Jew cannot possess a religious institution.” For Hitler, Jews were wordly and irreligious, and he wrote of his conception of the typical Jew:
His life is really only of this world, and his spirit is as alien to true Christianity, for instance, as his nature was two thousand years ago to the Sublime Founder of the new doctrine…But for this [opposing the Jews], of course, Christ was crucified, while our present party Christianity disgraces itself begging for Jewish votes in the elections and later tries to conduct political wirepulling with atheistic Jewish parties, and this against their own nation.
Note the phrase “atheistic Jewish parties.” For Hitler, atheism, materialism, and Marxism were tools of his enemy–the Jews. Those are not views Hitler would embrace. Hitler describes what a Jewish state would be like, a state where “religion is ridiculed” and in which the takeover is complete when the enemy “deprives the people of their natural spiritual leaders, he makes them ripe for the slave’s destiny of permanent subjugation.” Hitler also thought that Jewish materialism would destroy or degrade cultures, and wrote:
The undermining of the existence of human culture by destroying its supporters [the Aryans, for Hitler] appears, in a folkish view of life, as the most execrable crime. He who dares to lay hand upon the highest image of the Lord sins against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and helps in the expulsion from Paradise.
So Hitler characterized his enemy as opposed to everything he stood for.
To fight against this perceived enemy one must use its conceptual opposite, spirituality, which Hitler often links with his Nazi movement in Mein Kampf. For example, he sometimes refers to “the holy mission of our movement” and similar phrases. Hitler said of his ideal citizen:
He who is folkishly oriented has the most sacred duty, each within his own denomination, to see to it that God’s will is not simply talked about outwardly, but that God’s will is also fulfilled and God’s labor not ravished. Because God’s will once gave men their form, their being, and their faculties. Who destroys His work thereby declares war on the creation of the Lord, the divine will.
Hitler’s enemies, as he characterizes them, are clearly Jewish, Marxist, and materialist. And thus atheist. The roots of Hitler’s rejection of atheism run deep, very deep, since for him all of the above concepts are at work together against his stated goals and his ideal society.
Note what Hitler said on signing the Nazi-Vatican Concordat, April 26, 1933:
Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith…
In a speech at Koblenz, August 26, 1934, Hitler said:
National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary it stands on the ground of a real Christianity….For their interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of to-day, in our fight against a Bolshevist culture, against atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for a consciousness of a community in our national life… These are not anti-Christian, these are Christian principles! 
And on October 24, 1933 in a speech in Berlin:
We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.
Without question, Hitler and the Nazis were opposed to atheism, and this is clear based on both their statements and their actions.
The “Religion” article in The Oxford Companion to World War II tells us that early on in his career Hitler sponsored something called ‘practical Christianity,’ and that
German Christians emerged who claimed to be able to sythesize the best of National Socialism [Nazism] and the best of Christianity. Many Christians seemed to be able to reconcile themselves to at least certain aspects of anti-Semitic legislation. Those who could not… often ended up in concentration camps… Many anguished Christians serving in the Wehrmacht began to feel a little more comfortable about supporting a war that now included the overthrow of godless communism. 
Although there are examples of xians who dissented from the Nazi perspective, many more did not. Nazism was opposed to godlessness, and this is evidence that it did not require atheism as one of its features.
So here’s what evidence we have. There is a certain worldview, Nazism. Its leader, Hitler, professes on many occasions to be religious, and he often states that he’s doing the will of god. The majority of his followers are openly religious. There is no evidence anywhere that this leader ever professed to anyone that he is an atheist. He and his followers actively campaign against atheism, even to the point of physical force, and this leader allies himself with religious organizations and churches. This is the evidence. So where does atheism fit in? I challenge Copan and Zacharias to produce a single shred of evidence that Hitler was an atheist. They can’t, I’m sure. And you can be sure, too. After all, if there was any such evidence, they would have trotted it out long ago to throw in the faces of atheists. They have never produced such evidence. This suggests that it is likely that there is none. (Copan’s mention that Hitler was photographed near a bust of Nietzsche, as if this shows that he was therefore an atheist, is absurd.) If, despite the solid evidence to the contrary, Copan, Zacharias, and their ilk want to show that Hitler was an atheist, they’ll have to do a lot more than simply provide mere assertions and quote the mere assertions of others. Unfortunately, that’s all they provide. That’s all they can provide. Could their case be any weaker? Hardly.
Interestingly, all my friends who’ve bothered to check out the hate-mongering pages on the Internet that promote Nazism and other forms of white racial superiority report that every one of them appeals to divine mandate in some form or another, usually by quoting the bible. This should be no surprise. After all, the god depicted in the bible openly advocates genocide (1 Samuel 15:2-3, Joshua 10:40, Deut. 2:31-34, and scores of other passages), racism (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30, and elsewhere), and the oppression of women (pretty much any verse in which women are mentioned), as did Hitler. If you want to look for logical relationships between worldviews and Nazism, xianity is the logical place to start. (Remember, young Hitler wanted to be a priest.) But enough on that topic. Zacharias and Copan have no case at all with regard to the philosophical influence of atheism on Nazism. Period.
TOPIC: VIRGIN TERRITORY WITH FUNDAMENTALISTS: REPUTABLE BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP.
Some of Copan’s other comments involve my supposed misunderstanding of the bible, especially regarding the story of the virgin birth of Jesus. Copan says:
Krueger is, unfortunately, quite uninformed about historical [?] issues surrounding the life of Jesus. For instance, he engages in an argument from silence when he says, “The earliest known [Christian] writings, the letters of Paul and the gospel of Mark, say nothing of it [i.e., the virgin birth]. It is a later development in the Jesus legend as early [Christians] attempt to convert the Romans and the Greeks.” Krueger assumes that because Paul and Mark did not mention the virgin birth, it must not have taken place.
No, I do not assume it. Copan thinks that I’m arguing that we must agree to the following: “If X is not mentioned in certain parts of the bible, then we can know that X did not happen,” where X can be any proposition, such as “Jesus was born of a virgin.” But that’s not my position. Instead, I’m just in agreement with the standard point of departure for contemporary biblical criticism.
Contemporary New Testament scholars recognize that the virgin birth is a late addition to the Jesus legend, especially because the purported event is supposed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy–but there is no such prophecy. I mention in my book What is Atheism? A Short Introduction that Isaiah 7:14 is often taken to prophesy the virgin birth of Jesus: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” However, scholars are well aware that the term translated here as “virgin,” the Hebrew word almah, is best translated as “young woman,” who may or may not be a virgin. The Hebrew word bethulah means “virgin,” but that is not the word used in the Isaiah verse. Some modern bibles, such as the Revised Standard Version, use the correct translation of this passage and do not use the word “virgin.” Further, anyone who takes the trouble to read the verse in context will see that the event in question was not a prophecy about some event in the distant future. It was intended to be a sign to King Ahaz of Judah, the king who asked Isaiah for help. The birth of the son was supposed to be a sign to the king that an attack by a hostile alliance, which included Israel, would be unsuccessful against Judah. Isaiah also admits, in 8:3-4, that the prophet “went unto the prophetess” just to make sure that she was pregnant. The verses in 7:15-16 make it clear that the sign was supposed to be of events in Isaiah’s day, since these state that the sign would show that the alliance would fail before the child was old enough to know good from evil. Clearly, none of this has any relation to Jesus or xianity. As a prophecy about Jesus, it isn’t one. It is about events hundreds of years before Jesus. The bible tells me so.
Surprised? Nevertheless, this is the standard exegesis of the world’s top New Testament scholars. For example, the above analysis, in its main content, is identical to that given in The Oxford Companion to the Bible: “Isaiah’s intent in discussing this child [in Isaiah 7] is clearly to set a time frame for the destruction of Israel. There is nothing miraculous about the mother or the conception process.” The Oxford Companion also states: “The birth stories in Matthew and Luke are relatively late.”
In The Unauthorized Version, Oxford historian and bible scholar Robin Lane Fox says this about the Isaiah 7 virgin birth “prophecy”: “it did not concern Jesus nor did it concern a virgin.”. Fox also states that “among all these proof-texts and old prophecies, the clamour of fundamentalists and the talk of new keys to the Old Testament, it is hard to hear the Hebrew prophets on their own terms. What, in fact, had they predicted about Jesus Christ or Christianity? The answer is extremely simple: they had predicted nothing.”
Günther Bornkamm, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at the Rupert Charles University of Heidelberg, wrote the following in the article about Jesus for the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The widely differing genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 also belong in the context of the doctrine of Davidic descent of the Messiah (Christ). They are the only New Testament evidences for genealogical reflection about Jesus’ messiahship. The two texts, however, cannot be harmonized. They show that originally a unified tradition about Jesus’ ancestors did not exist and that attempts to portray his messiahship genealogically were first undertaken in Jewish Christian circles with the use of the Septuagint (Greek translation) text of the Old Testament. Both texts have to be eliminated as historical sources. They are nevertheless important for the devolopment of Christology (doctrines on the nature of Christ), because they reveal the difficulty of reconciling the genealogical proof of Jesus’ Davidic descent with the relatively late idea of his virgin birth.
The idea of the virgin birth is relatively late in the development of the story of Jesus.
Paula Fredriksen’s book From Jesus to Christ, which spawned a PBS series of the same name in 1998, gives the analysis of the Hebrew words which I used above and states, “Matthew chooses innummerable passages and verses that in their original context had nothing to do with a messiah, and by applying them to Jesus makes them seem to.”
In his book Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, Bishop John Shelby Spong explains some of the contradictory and hopelessly irreconcilable differences between the birth stories found in Matthew and Luke, and he then states:
Two narrators of the same historic moment might create variations in detail, but they would never produce diametrically different and even contradictory versions of the events surrounding the same birth. The minimum conclusion is that both versions cannot be historically accurate. The maximum conclusion is that neither version is historic. This latter conclusion is the overwhelming consensus of Biblical scholars today. Indeed, it is an almost uncontested conclusion, and to that conclusion I subscribe.
Take note. Spong is a controversial figure among traditional xians because, among other things, he’s letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak, with regard to contemporary biblical scholarship and has attempted to reconcile scholarship with xianity. Regardless of whatever else one may think of Spong’s conclusions, however, one must at least grant that he accurately reports the prevailing scholarly view of the virgin birth prophecy. We saw from my other quotations that standard reference works agree with my analysis. The weight of scholarly opinion, then, is undeniably on my side. Spong also notes that in relating the virgin birth prophecy Matthew deviated from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. Spong says:
He [the author of Matthew] deviated from the Septuagint in two interesting places: Matthew said the virgin “will be with child” (hexei) when the Septuagint said the virgin “will conceive” (lepsetai). Matthew said “they” (third person plural) will call his name Immanuel, while the Septuagint said “you” (second person singular) will call his name Immanuel. Both Matthew and the Septuagint differ from the Hebrew text, which said “a young woman is with child and she [third person singular] will call his name Immanuel.”
So the author of Matthew (whoever it was-of course you already know that the gospels are anonymous) either altered the verse in question to manufacture a prophecy or just had a bad translation. Spong concludes:
It would be nonsensical to think that the birth of a child seven hundred years later could somehow given hope to King Ahaz in that particular moment of crisis. Whatever else the Isaiah text meant, it had literally nothing to do with Jesus.
Again, this is the standard point of departure for scholarly analysis of the virgin birth “prophecy”: it was not a prophecy at all. The overwhelming consensus of scholars, as Spong put it, agrees with me. Thus, I did not just assume my conclusion or make an argument from silence. I have good reasons for asserting what I did, that Paul did not know about the virgin birth, and all reputable bible scholars support my position, and this position is based on textual evidence.
Let me point out that I am not begging the question about who is a reputable scholar by defining it as one who agrees with me. By “reputable” here I just mean a scholar who is trained in biblical languages, who publishes in peer-reviewed journals, and who uses recognized methods of textual analysis that can be used on other religious texts. Many a fundamentalist xian apologist who defends bible passages with the “it says so,” “it could have been,” and the “no eyewitness says otherwise” approach, or a similar strategy, would cringe at the suggestion that we use the same methods to check the accuracy of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad-gita. Why? Such biased methods would “prove” all those books true! Reputable scholars use methods of textual analysis that are as unbiased as possible. And, as Spong notes regarding the virgin birth, “I know of no reputable biblical scholar in the world today who takes these birth narratives literally.” It is a logical fallacy to substitute an appeal to authority for argument, especially when the “authority” is an expert in some field other than the one in question (i.e. “That famous dentist says that Einstein was wrong, so it must be true!”). However, it is no fallacy to appeal to authority when the source is an authority in that field and that person uses arguments and evidence. To support my position that the virgin birth story of Jesus is not historical I appeal to an analysis of the virgin birth story which is supported by argument and the consensus of biblical scholars, who see the argument as convincing. Note also that I am not simply making an appeal to a majority. It is a fallacy to appeal to majority view because most people are not experts (i.e. “Most people think that Tierra del Fuego is north of Lima, so it must be true!”). Thus I appeal, not to a mere majority, but to the majority of reputable scholars.
But let’s not dismiss Mr. Copan’s view so readily. What is Copan’s evidence that Paul knew about the virgin birth, that it was an early part of the Christ myth? What can he offer in support of his view? To my amazement, Copan states:
But the Christian would maintain that these writers did not mention it [the virgin birth] precisely because this belief was taken for granted.
He should not use “the Christian” as if he represents what most xians would say. No informed, intelligent xians would maintain Copan’s position, but what a delightful argument! What happens if we assume that Copan is right? They didn’t mention the virgin birth, so we know it was taken for granted. Interesting. By the way, did you know that Jesus was gay? Oh, yes! What’s that, you say, dear reader? You didn’t read a word of it in the bible? I guess that’s because it was taken for granted. And did you know that Jesus was a failed ballet dancer? No? That’s because this was taken for granted. And that time that Jesus was beat up for not paying a debt? Taken for granted. And then there was that time Jesus lost all his money gambling…
Well, obviously you can see by my little fun here that Copan’s argument is invalid. By his reasoning, since none of the latter events are mentioned in the bible, they must have been common knowledge at the time. So, using his line of argument, we can derive conclusions that he would claim are false, and this shows that his argument is invalid. I find it amazing that Copan would first criticize me for purportedly stating that we can’t assert that someone didn’t know something because it is not mentioned in a certain part of the bible (a position I did not advocate, as I point out above), and then later in the same discussion insist that we can assert that someone did know something because it is not mentioned in a certain part of the bible. His position is an argument from silence. Of course, he does not present any argument whatsoever regarding why we should treat his own argument from silence differently than arguments from silence that he does not like. So he first says that the “argument from silence” approach is nonsense, and then he uses it! Such flip-flops are not uncommon in xian apologetics. But remember what Mr. Krueger always says: a silent argument is not a sound argument.
So the overwhelming consensus of bible scholars agrees with me, and they have substantial biblical analysis and argumentation to back up this interpretation. What does Copan have? An argument from silence. In other words, nothing. Why didn’t Copan address the prevailing scholarly view? His silence on this matter is telling, and I don’t mean by an argument from silence. His apparent ignorance of the best scholarship on the issue suggests either that he does not know of it or that he is ill-prepared to confront it. Either way the tenability of his position suffers.
Just to finish up on this topic, let’s note that Copan uses another typical apologetic ploy:
Krueger argues himself into a corner when he claims that the virgin birth idea was an attempt to win converts among the Romans and the Greeks. How then does he explain away the fact that the early Christians proclaimed a bodily resurrection, which was anathema to the Greek mindset (cp. Acts 17:30-32)? What evangelistic worth would this have for people who wanted to be released from the body? It seems that Krueger cannot have it both ways. The simpler and less ad hoc explanation is that both the virgin birth and bodily resurrection are part of the original tradition surrounding the historical Jesus.
So why would I claim that the early xians used the virgin birth to win converts when they also claimed the bodily resurrection, which would drive them away?
What Copan doesn’t seem to know is that the virgin birth was favorably compared to Greek and Roman myths to win converts. In a debate with the apologist Norman Geisler, Farrell Till makes this point in the following way:
Justin Martyr was a second-century so- called church father, and he wrote two apologies in which he tried to convince the pagans of his generation that it was logical to believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, born of a virgin, and [that] all the things that were being preached about him were believable. In his first apology, Volume I, chapter 22, page 69, in the Reeves edition. … In writing directly to the emperor of his generation, Justin Martyr said this:
“By declaring the logos, the first begotten of God, our master Jesus Christ to be born of a virgin, without any human mixture, we (Christians) say no more in this than what you (pagans) say of those whom you style the sons of Jove.”
Now do you understand what he is saying? He is saying to them, “Well, why do you think that it is so fantastic that we say that Jesus was born of a virgin when you yourself say that there are many sons of Jove?” [Jove] being a primary god that the pagans of that generation believed in. “For you need not be told what a parcel of sons the writers most in vogue among you assigned to Jove.” In other words, I don’t need to tell you how many there are that your writers claim were the actual sons of Jove.
“As to the son of God called Jesus, should we allow him to be nothing more than man, yet the title of the son of God is very justifiable. Upon the account of his wisdom, considering that you (pagans) have your Mercury in worship under the title of the word a messenger of God. As to his, (that is Jesus Christ’s) being born of a virgin, you have your Perseus to balance that.”
Now it’s true that Justin Martyr was talking about the virgin birth of Jesus, but he could have said this same thing about the miracles that Jesus allegedly performed. He could have said the same thing about his crucifixion, and he certainly could have said the same thing about his resurrection.
So xians trying to defend xianity in the early days of this superstition compared the virgin birth story of Jesus to the similar stories of pagan religions. Even if xians do not want to do the same today, it was done back then, when those xians had a better understanding of the pagan virgin birth stories and the public perception of them. At least some early xians wanted to insist that the birth narratives are similar and use that to their advantage to convert the pagans. Claiming god as the father of a famous person was a status-boosting trick done with reputable ancients from Plato to Caesar Augustus, and since the evidence suggests that the virgin birth was a later addition to the Jesus story, it is not difficult to see the motive here. Not that this was the only motive, of course. So I claimed that xians used the virgin birth, the original god-father saga, to win converts because there is evidence that some of them did so.
And what of Copan’s claim that if the early xians simply wanted to convert the pagans, they would not have come up with the horrible idea of a physical resurrection? How do I explain that? That’s easy. Two points must be made in this regard. First, Copan seems to be asserting on the one hand that, given the option, early xians would have refrained from asserting something that those they are trying to convert would have found abhorrent. But the very fact that so many people did adopt that view suggests that it was not so abhorred. That so many Romans adopted the view of the physical resurrection shows that it is false that people would not have made a claim about a physical resurrection (given the option) because it would not have been adopted. It was adopted. Thus, while some found the doctrine of a physical resurrection repulsive, others clearly did not.
The second point is that many early xians did not believe in a physical resurrection. Not all xians pushed the idea. Yale professor Jaroslav van Pelikan states in The Encyclopedia Britannica: “The differences among the Gospels, and between the gospels and Paul, suggest that from the outset a variety of traditions existed regarding the details of the Resurrection.” Günther Bornkamm, also in the Britannica, writes:
The forms and ideas in which this faith [in the risen Jesus] found expression were various. According to the oldest view, Jesus’ Resurrection meant his exaltation to divine lordship and was not necessarily connected with the tradition of the finding of the empty tomb, as the Gospels variously relate it.
The oldest view did not have an empty tomb? That would be the view expressed by Paul, who did not hold that Jesus’ resurrection was physical. That’s right. The earliest known xian writer did not believe that Jesus came back in the flesh.
In 1 Corinthians 15:42-50 Paul writes:
So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body… I declare to you brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (NIV)
The majority of reputable New Testament scholars agree that these verses from Paul are inconsistent with the view that Paul believed that Jesus was raised with a physical body. In Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, Bishop Shelby Spong writes:
For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearances of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul. For Paul the body of Jesus who died was perishable, weak, physical. The Jesus who was raised was clothed by the raising God with a body fit for God’s kingdom. It was imperishable, glorified, and spiritual.
Paula Fredriksen writes of Paul’s view:
But the dead will not be raised with physical bodies, nor could the living faithful join Christ in the air if they still had theirs. No: the raised body will not be fleshy, but spiritual, as Christ’s was at his resurrection.
Recall, too, that the gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, originally had no accounts of postresurrection appearances. The last twelve verses of Mark are known to be later interpolations. This is consistent with an early xian view that Jesus was not raised physically, since he was not initially reported as seen after his resurrection.
So if the earliest xian views on record do not support the claim that Jesus was raised physically, why the later switch to the seemingly horrible belief in the resurrection of a physical, fleshy body? Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels explains one theory of this in her book The Gnostic Gospels:
If the New Testament accounts could support a range of interpretations, why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms of its religious content. But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine has served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, the basis of papal authority to this day.
Further elaboration is found in Pagels’ book, but this should be enough to make my point. While other scholars have other interpretations, it is clear that there are scholarly views that take into account the early xian position that the resurrection was not physical, and also explain why the change to belief in a physical, fleshy resurrection took place.
Thus, the fact that xians adhered to the doctrine of a physical resurrection can be explained by (a) the fact that many pagans believed in Jesus’ physical resurrection shows that it was not fatal to the xian movement and thus not altogether undesirable, (b) not all early xians thought that Jesus was resurrected physically, and (c) there are plausible scholarly explanations for the move from interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection as nonphysical to that of it as physical. Copan is incorrect that “the simpler and less ad hoc explanation is that both the virgin birth and bodily resurrection are part of the original tradition surrounding the historical Jesus” since his position does violence to the Isaiah 7 verses regarding the virgin birth and to Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 text. For these reasons, and others, his interpretation flies in the face of contemporary New Testament scholarship, and it is likely that defenses of his position would make his view more complex than the standard scholarly one, and would probably take the form of a string of ad hoc assertions.
Incidentally, note what Bishop Spong reports about the scholarly opinion of the resurrection accounts:
If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed. For that view of resurrection is not believable, and if that is all there is, then Christianity, which depends upon the truth and authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection, also is not believable. If that were the requirement of belief as a Christian, then I would sadly leave my house of faith. With me in that exodus from the Christian church, however, would be every ranking New Testament scholar in the world–Catholic and Protestant alike: E. C. Hoskyns, C. H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Reginald Fuller, Joseph Fitzmyer, W. E. Albright, Ray-mond Brown, Paul Minear, R. H. Lightfoot, Herman Hendrickx, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Phyllis Trible, Jane Schaberg, D. H. Nineham, Maurice Goguel, and countless others.
But I won’t get into detail on debunking the resurrection here. Consult the relevant articles on the Secular Web for more details. I just thought it would be interesting to mention it while we were on the topic of scholarly opinion.
We may conclude, then, that the most plausible interpretation of the virgin birth prophecy is that it is a later addition to the Jesus myth. This is not an assumption on my part, as Copan would contend, but a conclusion based on the available biblical and scholarly evidence. Copan gives no plausible reason why the prevailing scholarly analysis of the virgin birth account of Jesus is inaccurate. Indeed, he seems unaware of it, and this speaks volumes about his credibility.
TOPIC: LOOKING OUT FOR THE REAL #1: MORALITY, GOD, AND HUMAN DIGNITY
Copan also addreses the issue of morality. He says:
There are also some theological misunderstandings on Krueger’s part. For example, Krueger responds to the premise in Zacharias’ book: “If there is evil, there must be good.” He asks, “It is not the case that good must exist where there is evil. Is there good in hell, then?” Contrary to what Krueger assumes, the theist does not presuppose that “evil must exist so that we can know what good is.” Rather, the theist argues that if evil exists, then there must be some standard of good by which it must be measured. (So bringing up the question of hell completely misses the point.)
Copan is incorrect in his interpretation of Zacharias, however. As the second premise of an argument, Zacharias says “If there is evil, there must be good” on page 176 of his book. Yet this cannot simply be Zacharias’ way of saying that “if evil exists, then there must be some standard of good by which it must be measured,” since Zacharias states the latter in a separate premise. If these were equivalent, he would not need to state it twice, so my criticism of Zacharias still stands.
One of my criticisms of Zacharias’ argument is that he uses loaded terms to force his conclusion. His third premise, for example, is “If there is good and evil, there must be a moral law on which to judge between good and evil,” and he goes on to state that a moral law requires a law giver, and this “points to God.” Obviously, one problem with this approach is that we needn’t characterize morality as based on laws given by someone, since we can also characterize it as other things, such as acting according to intuitive notions of good moral character, where these notions are not laws, or as acting on the evolutionary instinct for survival (having a moral society ensures the survival of the species), and so on. Copan recognizes the shortcomings of Zacharias’ question-begging approach and tries to broaden the claim. He states:
Since the time of Augustine, many Christian theists have maintained that evil is a privation or lack of goodness. Just as blindness presupposes sight, so evil reveals a standard of goodness, of which it falls short… If the atheist thinks that this definition of evil is question-begging, then perhaps we could broaden the definition to the following: evil is a departure from the way things ought to be. But even on such a basic definition, this would still imply a design plan, which would point us in the direction of theism.
So rather than merely claim that morality is a set of laws, we can assert that morality is some sort of plan or standard, and this “points us in the direction of theism.”
Note the glaring problem, though. Both Zacharias and Copan present a case that they seem to recognize, at least on some level, as extraordinarily weak. Each concludes with some vague statement that morality in some way “points” to god, but neither author makes explicit how this is so. But isn’t that the whole issue here? The argument is supposed to show that if morality exists then god must exist, but both Zacharias and Copan drop the ball as soon as they have it. Even if it were the case that morality is a set of laws given by a lawgiver, or a design plan by a designer, this alone does not require a god. All that is needed is someone to give the laws or create the design. Or, if we acknowledge that morality requires that there is a moral system by which one can judge good and evil, all that is needed is for someone to come up with the moral system. Jeremy Bentham created the utilitarian moral system, and we can judge right and wrong acts based on this. (Read John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism for more details.) No god is required. So even if the premises of Zacharias’ and Copan’s arguments were true, their conclusion, that this points to theism, does not follow. The most that Copan can conclude is that morality is based on a system or on a plan, but he has not even begun to establish that only a god can create such a system or plan.
Copan seems to be aware of this, since he states (the brackets are his):
Other philosophers [Kant, Mill, W. D. Ross] have also created moral systems which can judge good and evil without reference to the gods.” Of course! The theist does not deny that atheists/non-theists can live moral lives or construct moral systems… Of course the atheist can give the same reasons as theists as to why rape is wrong: “It violates the victim’s rights” or “It treats a person as a means rather than an end” or “It damages the social fabric.” But these reasons still presuppose human dignity, human rights, moral obligation (oughtness), moral responsibility, and the like. The decisive issue with which the atheist must deal is this: Which worldview best accounts for intrinsic human dignity, moral accountability, and universal human rights — a naturalistic, atheistic one (in which human beings are ultimately no different from mosquitoes or mice) or a theistic one (in which human beings have been made in the image of a good God and have been granted worth and moral responsibility)? If I had to wager on this question alone, I would side with theism. Theism has a lot less explaining to do in this regard than does atheism. A moral world (in which human dignity, moral responsibility, and human rights exist) is natural and to be expected if there is a good God but unnatural, unexpected, and surprising if there is not.
So Copan concedes that there can be moral systems, laws, and so on, without appeal to god. But he insists that morality can only be founded in human dignity and human rights, and his argument seems to be that this foundation can best be provided by, or only provided by, theism.
Folks, this is just another xian hoax. Few myths about xianity are as pervasive as those surrounding the xian concept of morality. What do xians believe about the intrinsic worth of human beings? As with all things, they differ widely, but most xians believe that human beings are intrinsically wretched sinners who deserve eternal damnation. More than half of all xians worldwide (as your Almanac will tell you) are Catholics, and Catholicism promotes the doctrine of original sin. This means that we don’t have to commit bad deeds to deserve damnation, we only need to be born. Note the following pious observation from the tract Hell, A Christian Doctrine:
… little children who have begun to live in their mother’s womb and have there died, or who, having just been born, have passed away from the world without the sacrament of holy baptism … must be punished by the eternal torture of undying fire.
Where is the dignity or intrinsic worth there? And it’s not just Catholics who preach that human nature is intrinsically foul; Protestants do it too, and there’s plenty of scriptural support for the view that human nature is to be detested. John Calvin heartily promoted the doctrine of the total depravity of humankind, the claim that human beings deserve hell fire. (He also added that there is nothing anyone can do to ever not deserve eternal torture.) Imagine that. Insisting on a doctrine named “total depravity.” That should be a good clue about the xian view of human worth. Everyone always deserves hell, say these xians, and this has nothing at all to do with what you’ve done during your life, or even whether you had a life, since the same applies to newborns (or preborns, they say) who die. Calvinists aside, to be a xian in most churches, one must reject any claim about intrinsic, positive human dignity and worth. Quite the contrary; one usually has to affirm the opposite. Remember what so many xians are told in church to recite and believe: that he or she is a worthless sinner. This belief is often a prerequisite for salvation. Anyone who suggests that xianity affirms intrinsic human worth is bucking the standard xian doctrine, found among Catholics and Protestants alike, and Zacharias and Copan give no reason why one should believe that their purportedly xian view of human nature is correct and all other xians are incorrect. Indeed, if Copan is correct that morality presupposes human dignity and worth, then he’s in effect argued that majority of xians cannot have a moral system! (I know many atheists that would argue along the same lines.) Since Copan would probably not want to agree that most xians cannot have a moral system, he needs to reject his claim that morality presupposes a positive view of human dignity and worth.
Furthermore, Copan (and Zacharias) ignore works such as Paul Kurtz’s Exuberance: A Philosophy of Happiness and Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism which explain how atheism, via humanism, can affirm the dignity of human life. Both Copan and Zacharias supply many mere assertions about human dignity and how there wouldn’t be any without god, but because they do not address the nontheistic writings about these matters they obviously speak from ignorance. Their standard line is that if atheism (or naturalism) is true, then human beings are no different from mice or rocks. This is just nonsense. Since when has anyone but a theist decided the worth of a person based on what that person is made of? “Oh, you’re made of matter? Well, so is a rock, so you must be worth the same as a rock!” Where did this ridiculous idea come from? Does anyone seriously believe that because the Mona Lisa is made of a few ounces of paint and some canvas that it’s not worth any more than a few dollars worth of painting supplies? What do you think Copan would say if I offered to trade several of my dollar bills for several of his hundred-dollar bills? After all, they have the same size and quality of paper, and comparable amounts of ink! Why would he balk? Obviously, then, the value of things and people is not found in such a superficial analysis of their chemical composition. No atheists believe that, and no theist has ever shown that atheist are committed to such a view. People and things acquire value in a context.
Human beings have worth, not based on the materials in their construction, but in the context of human society. For many humanists, the worth of a human being can be found in what he or she does to develop of his or her life and the lives of others in the community. Theistic protests that this is not “absolute” in some sense fall flat, for they have never shown that value must be eternal or “absolute” to be legitimate value. By analogy, let us observe that the queen in chess is a powerful and important piece. However, if someone were to state that, apart from chess, the queen is meaningless, this would not show that the queen in chess is not a powerful and important piece. In the context of chess, it is. Why would it matter whether the queen is or is not powerful apart from that game? Who cares about the queen in other contexts? Similarly, xian apologists seem to have the idea that apart from human interaction, apart from the human context, human lives on the atheist view do not have meaning. But so what? Why should the value of human lives matter apart from human existence? What would be the advantage or the point? Is this just to hedge our bets just in case we all became rocks, so we’d know that human life would still matter? We are humans shaping value for our own lives in the context of human existence. That’s the only context in which human life can and should matter. No apologist has ever been able to show otherwise, or even why we would wish it to be otherwise.
As I point out in my book, apologists have never been able to satisfactorily explain how gods give meaning to human life. They just assert that god do this, but how this happens is left unclear. Does god supposedly give life meaning because he is stronger and he tells us what to do? How is that morally relevant? This would merely make us slaves to whoever is the strongest. Slavery does not give meaning to life. Does god give life meaning because he is the creator and can thus give orders? This is a standard fundamentalist claim, but it is irrelevant too. Being the creator of the universe is logically compatible with being evil, so it is possible that a being could be the creator and still order evil acts. According to the bible, the xian god has ordered genocide to take land from others, and this included killing infants. So if a creator-being came down from above and told xians that they should kill infants to take their possessions, would they still feel compelled to obey such commands now? I hope not. All too often, there is no difference between a xian worshiping god and a xian worshiping a demon. Only the name is different. Thus, if one would not obey an evil creator the principle that one should obey any being who is the creator is false. (Incidentally, if the genocidal bible stories are true, and killing babies is required to live a meaningful life–and fortunately it is not–I’d sooner live a life without meaning than a life of such sadism.) Biographies of theists and atheists suggest that there is no evidence that atheists lead lives less meaningful than those of theists, and no theoretical evidence supports the theistic claim to advantage in this regard.
Zacharias spends an entire chapter in his book bemoaning the fact that if there is no god then relationships end at death, how, without god and an afterlife, some people may not get what’s coming to them if they die before being brought to justice, and so on. His argument seems to be no more than wishful thinking. (He doesn’t present any argument, so we have to guess about this.) “If X is undesirable, then X is false,” seems to be the suggestion. Yet even if it is true that life would be worse without an afterlife, we can make the following two points.
First, some religions, such as Jainism, some forms of Hinduism, and some sects of Buddhism, believe in life after death yet do not believe in gods, so gods are not necessary for belief in an afterlife. The two concepts are not logically connected. One can believe in a god without believing in an afterlife, and one can believe in an afterlife without believing in a god, so the whole apologetic approach here is pointless.
The second point, as I explain in my book, is that we should believe that god does or does not exist based on whether god exists or not, not based on whether it is useful or profitable for us to believe so. Suppose for the moment that it is true that money could not have worth unless it is backed by gold, and it would be disastrous if this were so because we have an insufficient amount of gold. Given these circumstances, we should not imagine that we have more gold than we do simply because it is expedient. In the same way, even if it were true that without god we can have no ethics, or that we must have an inferior ethics, or that we cannot recognize human dignity without god, this alone should not compel belief in god. We should believe in god only if there is good evidence that there is such a being, and not otherwise. Fortunately for us, however, it is not true that life is meaningless without god or that we cannot have ethics without god. Life is meaningful, and we can be ethical, and there is no god.
Copan and Zacharias do not explain the obvious problems with human dignity in xianity, and they provide no reason to think that humanistic views of human dignity are without merit. They do not even address or show awareness of relevant humanist positions. Indeed, their assessment of the nontheist position betrays typical ignorance of their opponents. We can conclude, then, that they have yet to begin to make a case against humanism-based human dignity and value. Since that is Copan’s stated foundation for ethics, he has not, then, impugned a humanist foundation for ethics. If anything, he has passed the burden of showing the possibility of a moral system onto the majority of xians!
The attack on humanist ethics via humanist valuation of human beings is unsuccessful.
(See the works cited above for details about the humanist case for human value and ethics, as well as chapters 2 and 3 of my book What is Atheism? A Short Introduction.)
TOPIC: WHAT DID GOD KNOW, AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?
In the Zacharias review I mentioned briefly an argument from chapter 7 of my book, the argument that the contradictory concept of god ensures that this being cannot exist. For example, a person can know certain things through experience, and if god cannot have these experiences then he cannot know these things in the same way. Copan takes issue with this:
… regarding divine omniscience, this can be properly understood as covering all things which it is logically possible to know… Thus there is no need for it to encompass things which cannot possibly be known. Krueger gives the example of a “sadistic mass murderer.” However, while God can know the [sic] about the pleasure derived from a sadistic mass murderer’s “killing his innocent victims” (a “third-person” vantage point), it is logically impossible for anyone to have another’s experience (in a “first person” vantage point). Krueger cannot show how such a state of affairs is coherent or logically possible.
Copan did not understand the argument. I was not arguing that god was not omniscient because he must have the very same experiences as someone else and cannot do so. I was arguing that god cannot be omniscient because he cannot have any of the experiences in a certain class, e.g. sadistic pleasure. If god is all-good, he cannot experience sadistic pleasure (we ignore the god of the bible for now). Thus, a human being could possess an instance of a class of knowledge by experience that god cannot have. But god is supposed to be all-knowing, so this leads to a contradiction. Thus there is no such being.
Another example: it is logically possible for someone to know the experience of being consumed with the desire to have oral sex. Will Copan then insist that god knows from experience what it is like to be consumed by this desire? Surely not. God is supposed to be too good for that. But it is logically possible to know what it is like to have experiences of this class. So god cannot know something that it is logically possible to know. Similarly, god cannot know what it’s like to experience correcting an oversight (he’s supposed to be perfect), what it’s like to be an atheist, and so on. There are scores of other classes of experience that humans can have but god can never know what it is like to have. Copan has misunderstood the argument entirely, so his rebuttal misses its mark. Since it is contradictory to suppose that a being is all-knowing who cannot know whole classes of things humans can know, the concept of such a god is contradictory, so such a being cannot exist.
Copan also takes issue with my suggestion that god’s purported omnipotence contradicts his transcendence. Copan states:
Regarding omnipotence, Krueger makes further faulty assumptions: “if god does not exist in space and time (if god is transcendent), then god cannot move, since movement requires both space and time. If god cannot move, then god cannot pick up a pencil. But god is supposed to be omnipotent. Thus, the concept is contradictory.” At least two things can be said by way critique [sic]. First, if movement is only possible within space and time, then, by Krueger’s definition, the universe itself could not have begun! According to relativity theory, space and time — along with matter and energy — did not exist prior to the Big Bang. As astronomers John D. Barrow and Joseph Silk assert: “Our new picture [of the universe’s origins] is more akin to the traditional metaphysical picture of creation out of nothing, for it predicts a definite beginning to events in time, indeed a definite beginning to time itself.” … But according to Krueger’s line of argument, no movement was even possible apart from space and time. But this is obviously false since the Big Bang occurred.
Copan’s argument has some obvious flaws:
First, Copan attacks the idea that space and time are required for movement, but he gives no explanation about how movement can take place apart from them. Isn’t movement by definition a change within space-time? We say a thing has moved based on whether it was at one place at time T and at another place at time T-prime. What else could it mean to say that a thing has moved? Outside of space and time, the term “movement” has no meaning. Copan’s rebuttal leaves him with an incoherent position. Copan also provides no support for the premise that movement is required for the Big Bang. (He seems to equate a cause with some form of movement.) Until he has argued for this move as well, he is left with a position that is both incoherent and unsupported.
What is the alternative? Many physicists hold that it is possible that the universe did not have a cause. Edward Tryon was one of the first major physicists to go on record positing a universe created from nothing in his 1973 Nature magazine paper “Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” but he used empty space as a given. In 1982 Tufts University’s Alexander Vilenkin got rid of space and time as prerequisites for the creation of the universe and theorized that the universe could have started from absolute nothingness and begun via a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. He defined absolute nothingness mathematically. In 1983 Stephen Hawking and James Hartle published “Wave Function of the Universe” and took yet another route to theorizing an uncaused universe by describing a scenario in which the universe exists eternally and is self-contained. It is not created or destroyed, so it would not require a cause of its creation, since it had none. Other physicists, such as Alan Guth, continue to pursue this rapidly growing field of speculative physics, many adopting the position that the universe first existed at the subatomic level uncaused and grew as described in inflationary models. Although admittedly highly speculative, the list of physicists who theorize that the universe might have come to exist in these ways continues to grow.
Apologists love to scoff at things existing or occurring uncaused, but physicists assert that such things are possible at the subatomic level, and can even be detected and measured by the Lamb shift. That things can begin to exist uncaused is an accepted principle among many top physicists, and it seems to be supported by observation. The same apologists who make fun of uncaused events, however, insist that we should reject such theories and believe their own explanation: that things can begin to exist by the magic powers of a nonphysical being. Thus, faced with the choice of believing an accepted, if somewhat controversial, principle (that sometimes things can exist uncaused) or believing something that has never been shown to hold (that things can begin to exist by the magic powers of a nonphysical being), the choice seems clear. One should adopt the view that has at least some observational evidence in its favor–the view that some things can begin to exist uncaused–and reject the one with no evidence in its favor and which is nothing more than ancient superstition.
Until Copan can show how his view is both coherent and more likely than rival views, his position is a poor choice for those interested in believing the truth.
I will mention in passing, on the topic of god’s contradictory nature, that Copan asserts that when I point out contradictions in the concept of god because of his supposed transcendence, that I am presupposing “the Boethian view of God — who possesses ‘the perfect simultaneous possession of endless life’ — is the correct one.” I disagree that I am committed to only attacking this view of god with these arguments, but in any case Copan states that
[t]his understanding of God is neither necessary nor obvious, as is well-known in current philosophy of religion. For instance, timelessness is a plausible model, in which God is timeless prior to creation but enters into time upon creation without compromising omnipotence or foreknowledge. I could go on, but let this suffice.
Copan’s explanation does not suffice. All too often, theistic metaphysics is just so much mumbo-jumbo and explains nothing. For example, apart from reference to time, the terms “prior” and “enter into” have no meaning. How could something exist apart from time and then enter into time? “Then” implies a later time, but later than what? There is no time to be later than. Words in this theistic context become empty sounds apart from their usual, useful contexts. (And what does omnipotence and foreknowledge have to do with the issue? Copan does not explain.) One could just as well try to make sense of “motionless running” or “spaceless proximity.” Until such incoherent concepts as Copan uses in his retort can be shown to be intelligible, his point may be safely dismissed and we needn’t spend any more time on it. Trading one set of incoherent concepts for another is no defense. The argument that the concept of god is incoherent remains unscathed. The theistic defenses themselves are as incoherent as the mere assertions.
TOPIC: JUST DO IT–THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA.
Copan attempts to defend theistic ethics against the Euthyphro dilemma. For those who are unaware of this problem with theistic ethics, let’s review it briefly. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates meets the title character who claims to know all about piety and what the gods love. After talking with Socrates for a while, though, he seems to see a problem. Socrates wants to know on what grounds Euthyphro can assert that something is holy, or loved by the gods. Is a thing loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? Euthyphro cannot give a satisfactory answer and runs away, late for an appointment. Contemporary ethicists change the vocabulary a bit to emphasize the value of this debate with regard to the claim that god is the source of ethics. Is a command of god called “good” because by definition it is a command of god, or are god’s commands good because they conform to a god-independent standard of goodness? If the latter is true, then there is a standard of ethics apart from god, and god is not the origin of ethics. If the former, then anything god commands is by definition good, so god could command people to kill infants, rape women, and so on, and these actions would be good because they were commanded by god. God could command anything whatever since he would not be constrained by any independent standard of ethics. In addition, on this view it would make no sense to say that god’s commands are good because whatever they are, they are by definition good. And it would also be meaningless to call god “good” because this would mean nothing unless there is a standard of goodness to which one can appeal. So the Euthyphro dilemma shows that theists who claim that god is the source of ethics must accept either that ethics exists independent of god, in which case their original claim is false, or god’s commands are arbitrary. Neither horn of the dilemma is to the theist’s liking.
Oddly, Copan wants to know how atheists avoid the Euthyphro dilemma in their ethical views. It is not clear how atheists could have such a dilemma, since I know of no atheists who posit the foundation of ethics as resulting from the nature or commands of some particular being. Until Copan or some other apologist can show how the Euthyphro dilemma might arise in the context of an atheistic ethics, his challenge is vacuous.
It is unlikely that the atheist will be confronted with a problem such as the Euthyphro dilemma in nontheistic ethics. The dilemma is whether the commands of god are arbitrary or based on an independent standard of goodness. Atheistic ethics often begin by positing that there is a standard of goodness independent of god, so there is no dilemma. The only reason that some theists hesitate to adopt this option is that they have a romantic commitment to making god seem as powerful as possible, and they think that a standard of ethics independent of god would undermine his sovereignty and thus his power. So they are subject to the devastating dilemma. The atheist does not hesitate to assert that ethics is independent of god, so the atheist has no alternative horn of a dilemma.
Furthermore, one of the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma is that of arbitrariness. If god can order anything whatsoever, this conflicts with our intuitive notions of what ethics should be. It is not supposed to be based on a whim, even a divine one. Atheistic ethical systems are not committed to relegating the basis of ethics to the arbitrariness of a given person. Copan has apparently asked elsewhere whether the atheist’s foundation of ethics is subject to the charge of arbitrariness. For example, the hedonistic utilitarian use of pleasure as the principal ingredient in calculating the morality of acts can be questioned. Is the selection of pleasure in this way arbitrary? Upon what can this be based? To be sure, these are important questions that merit complex answers, and I would never deny that ethical systems such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and so on, have at least prima facie problems. What I do claim is that, despite the standard philosophical problems and issues attached to these systems, they are, as understood as independent of theism, not faced with problems as pervasive and severe as the divine command theory of ethics. For example, even if the divine command theory of ethics is true, and ethics is a function of the commands of god, one is faced with the epistemological problem of determining what this being commands independently of the problem of interpreting what the command means. Atheistic ethics are not commonly subject to a comparable epistemic problem.
In addition, when a philosopher constructs a system of ethics and it is pointed out that his or her theory results in the conclusion that, say, it is acceptable to kill of a group of innocent children because they did not learn their algebra lessons with ease, this is taken to be a reduction to absurdity. The moral system is hammered out to conform to our the given principles of the system, whether they are our intuitive notions of right and wrong, logic, or other foundations. This prevents the system from arbitrariness. There is some sort of check and balance system. A moral system is constructed using certain principles, but it is checked by the presentation of real or hypothetical examples. It will not be arbitrary that it is immoral to kill babies for pleasure. It will not be arbitrary that rape is immoral. Morality in such systems is determined in relation to human interaction. However, on the divine command theory, the immorality of rape, for example (if it is considered immoral, in contrast to what we sometimes find in the bible, such as Num. 31:7-15, Deut. 21:10-14, Is. 13:16), is liable to two criticisms. First, the immorality of rape can change on the whim of god (rape could be a moral duty tomorrow since god makes the rules and can decide to command this), but if it is ever immoral this is purely arbitrary. God could have decided otherwise that day. A god’s goals are not necessarily our goals. Atheistic ethical systems are often solidly based on principles found in human interaction, and such moral systems will thus be inevitably linked to human concepts and human notions of right and wrong, not accidentally linked to them. On the divine command theory, it could be immoral, and punishable by death, to speak on the telephone during Lent to anyone born on June 10th. There does not have to be any reason for this other than that god has commanded it. Similarly, it could be a moral duty to wipe out the human race solely for the purpose of giving angels real estate to fight over but never use. Another example: god could command everyone to get fat and feed themselves to space aliens who will arrive shortly. God likes them for their cute antennae, and this is reason enough to wipe out humans to make room for the new tenants of Earth. Is this really a sufficient moral reason, then? After all, if god sets the rules of ethics, one is not guaranteed that the rules with have anything to do with the benefit of humans. (Remember that many xians affirm that god drowned the whole planet except for a 600-year-old drunk and a few of his relatives. Instead of establishing schools to teach conduct or even handing out instructions–this was before bibles–god decided to drown millions. Why didn’t he send Jesus then instead of hundreds of years later? It would have saved lives.) The divine command theory takes ethics from the realm of human compassion, interaction, and benefit. This is not so with atheistic ethics, in which theory is often tempered with its use.
Notice, too, that when Copan raises the issue of a Euthyphro dilemma in atheistic ethics, he commits the typical apologetic error of condemning atheistic ethics as if there is a single such view, or a set of views with common features. If he thinks he can show that atheistic ethical systems do have such a problem, he’ll have to show this, and given the variety of such systems and their different approaches to the foundation of morals, it is unlikely that he can demonstrate a dilemma in such views unless he examines each on a case by case basis. Until he has done so, he’ll have to address the Euthyphro dilemma his view faces without looking to the atheists for defenses against it.
And what defense does Copan have? He seems to appeal to a solution found chiefly among fundamentalist apologists, a position sometimes called essentialism. Copan explains briefly:
God is not obligated to act in certain ways (which would imply that there are moral standards external to God which he consults); rather God simply does so in keeping with his own good character. Thus the fact that Krueger does not even offer a more nuanced discussion on the Euthyphro dilemma or mention robust theistic defenses against this famous dilemma appears to betray a straw-man argument.
So god apparently acts according to his own character or nature, and this character is good. Why didn’t I deal with this solution in my book?
I didn’t mention it because it does not address the issue. One could just ask: on what grounds do you call god’s character good? Is it good because by definition it is god’s character, or is it good because it conforms to an independent standard of goodness? If god’s character is good by definition (whatever his character, it’s good), then god could be what we would otherwise call “evil” and still be good by definition. Or, if god’s character is called good because it conforms to an independent standard of goodness, then god is not the origin of ethics after all. That’s the Euthyphro dilemma intact. The “essentialist” position does not avoid the dilemma.
The theist, however, might further insist that morality is part of god’s necessary character. God could not have any character or nature other than the one he has (god has a “necessary” nature, as philosophers say), and the goodness of this nature is the same as the goodness ideal in morality. So the standard of morality is necessarily, not arbitrarily, part of god’s nature. Therefore, god is necessarily the source and the standard of ethics.
This essentialism approach seems to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma at first, but further investigation shows that it does not. The essentialist says that god’s nature is necessarily moral. Let us say that god has moral worldview M. Let us further agree that god has M necessarily; god couldn’t possibly have had any other moral worldview but M. How do we know that god is perfectly moral? How do we know that M is the correct moral worldview? Don’t we have to measure god’s morality with the correct standard in order to find him perfect? If we consider our own idea of morality and measure god with it, then we are the standard of ethics, not god, and the divine command theory fails, even if god is found to be perfect. Our morality would be the standard apart from god. On the other hand, do we measure god by worldview M, find god perfect, and know that M is the right standard because god contains it? That is circular. The arbitrariness of the original Euthyphro dilemma has been traded for circularity, which is just as damaging. God is pefect by his own standard. But so what? Many people can be perfect by their own standards. Even a Hitler. And if M is not the right standard–and another moral worldview, N, is–then god is not perfect, since he adheres to M. In this case god would also not be the standard of ethics again. So either god is not the standard of ethics, or the claim that he is morally perfect is circular and thus meaningless. Even if the charge of arbitrariness is absent, other important features of the Euthyphro dilemma remain: the meaninglessness of propositions such as “god is good” and the alternative that god is not the standard of ethics after all. Essentialism has done little to redeem the divine command theory.
But is arbitrariness really gone? The use of “morality” as part of god’s nature is vague. People differ in their views of morality. So which one does god have? A hundred xians state that god’s nature is necessarily moral, and the morality they attribute to god differs in each case. There is arbitrariness somewhere in the equation; if not in the claim, then in the claimants. So of what moral relevance is the supposed necessity of god’s nature? Since the claim is not based on discovery but definition, why bother to assert necessity when nothing but arbitrariness can be found? An analogy: suppose I have a box that I open, and I invite individuals to peek into it. People peer into the box and see a ball. Despite the method of perceiving or measuring, with or without instruments, some people see the ball as red, others as blue, others see it as pink, green, purple, or any of a thousand other hues. (Some people detect no ball at all.) It is surely a strange ball, or box, but stranger still would be the claim that the ball has its color by necessity. Given the different perceptions of the ball, the claim would seem pointless at best. Similarly, given the different perceptions of god’s moral commands, it seems pointless to insist that he can have no other morals than those he has at present. The promise of a necessary, unchanging ethics solidly founded in god’s necessary nature is, in practice, pure fantasy. If no one can discover what god’s ethics are, why make the mere assertion that they are necessary? The attempt to rid the divine command theory of moral arbitrariness via appeal to essentialism is a failure. The arbitrariness simply shifts from being inherently part of the theory to being invariably part of the practice. And what is the difference?
Aside from practical considerations, there are logical oversights in the proposed solution to the Euthyphro dilemma. First, even if god did have morality as part of his essential nature, this would not mean that he is the source of morality. Suppose that I necessarily have the attribute of being human. This does not imply that I am the origin of humanity. Not every X that has Y necessarily as part of its nature is the origin of attribute Y, so a god who has morality as a necessary part of his nature is not thereby shown to be the source of it.
Furthermore, god’s necessarily moral nature would also not imply that he is the standard of ethics. Again, if I necessarily have the attribute of being human, this does not mean that I am the standard of humanity. Not every X that necessarily has property Y is considered a standard of Y-ness, so showing that god is the standard of ethics requires more than simply asserting that god has a moral nature, even a necessarily moral nature.
Another point bears mention. A standard is that by which something is measured. As pointed out above, determining what god’s moral commands are has been, historically, a dismal failure. Since god, then, does not in fact serve as the measure of ethics, in what sense can he be said to be the standard? No one even knows what his morals are. A standard which no one knows and thus no one uses? Does this make sense? Perhaps the theist might say that god is the standard we should use. But this “should” is a moral term. On what moral grounds can it be maintained that we should use god’s morality as a standard? By using god’s morals? That is circular. By using ours? Then god is not the standard after all! The Euthyphro dilemma is tenacious.
Also, even if one were to grant that there is a god who is moral, by nature, necessity, or otherwise, it would still be logically possible that objective ethics can exist apart from god, and thus without god. Human beings can exist apart from me now, and can do so even if I cease to exist, and this is so even if it is granted that being human is an essential part of my nature. Similarly, even if god necessarily has a moral nature, one could not derive from this the conclusion that objective ethics cannot exist apart from god or even in the absence of god. The essentialism approach does not save the divine command theory. It asserts a certain nature of god and derives unwarranted conclusions from this.
But, protests the theist, god doesn’t just have a necessarily moral nature, god has a necessarily perfect moral nature. So doesn’t this perfection make him the standard? The problem here is that the claim that god’s moral nature is perfect is again subject to the effects of the Euthyphro dilemma. On what grounds is he considered perfect? By our standards or his? If ours, he is not the standard, and if on his, then it is circular. Anyone can state: “The moral nature I have is the standard, and I have it perfectly!” (Recall that even Satan can say this.) So is that person really morally perfect? Not in any meaningful sense. The problem is, despite the essentialist claim of god’s necessary nature, it cannot be shown that statements about god’s moral perfection, without using a god-independent standard of morality, are any more meaningful.
The divine command theory remains untenable. Worse, it is a remnant of the view that whatever the king says is right, and in this case god is the king. It is a holdover from primitive and barbaric times, and society will be better off when ethics is based on compassion, not authority.
TOPIC: YOU CAN’T PUT A GOOD BOOK DOWN.
Copan mentions in passing a few problems he allegedly sees in my book What is Atheism?, and although he admits that his discussions are not intended to cover the topics in any detail his arguments already show serious shortcomings.
ON THE TOPIC OF MIRACLES
Krueger engages in “question-begging” when he defines miracle (following David Hume) as “a violation of the laws of nature.” … (Why wasn’t “interruption” or some such word used rather than the loaded word “violation”?) If it is assumed that the laws of nature can never be violated, then one will never allow for miracles to occur. The irony of this Humean position is that experience is the official basis for arguing against miracles. But this basis should logically leave open the possibility of miracles at some future point (or discovering through investigation that a miracle occurred in the past) rather than militate against them (i.e., the problem of induction, also raised by Hume).
a. I did not define a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.” I defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature because of supernatural influence” (p. 125). Copan must pay attention. This is an important difference because one could concede the former without concessions to theism.
b. Copan gives no reason why I should not use “violation” instead of his preferred “interruption.” What’s the point? I meant “violation” as an interruption. So let’s substitute his word for mine. What is gained? Nothing that anyone can see.
c. I did not assume that violations of the laws of nature cannot occur. I never stated that they could not. I do leave open the possibility that one could witness the laws of nature being violated. What I argued was that from an epistemic (knowledge-related) standpoint, we could never know whether a seeming violation of the laws of nature is due to the influence of the supernatural (i.e. is a bona fide case of a miracle), or instead whether it is due to some unknown law of nature or other source. Copan does not address this issue at all. Instead, he simply accuses me of taking a hardline Humean approach and then gives the standard apologetic protest that this begs the question.
My book addressed the issue of miracles to offset the possibility that someone might try to cite reports of miracles in the bible or similar reports today as evidence that god exists, and I think my arguments showed that such evidence would be difficult to provide to say the least. But I did not rule it out a priori. Copan has misunderstood my argument about miracles and has attacked a straw man. My argument remains intact.
ON DRANGE’S ARGUMENT FROM NONBELIEF:
In my book I mentioned Theodore Drange’s argument from nonbelief, which I think is a good argument against traditional theism. Briefly, the argument is that if there is a god who wants everyone to be saved, and you have to believe certain things in order to be saved, then this god would make sure that everyone held these beliefs. Not everyone does, so there is no such god.
Copan attempts to rebut:
But it would seem that if God exists and humans are free beings, then we could expect that (1) there would be evidence available to those who seek it, but (b) [sic] it could be denied by those seeking to escape certain obligations entailed by belief in God (e.g., rejecting God on the basis of existent evils).
Here Copan already engages in plenty of error. I know of no nonbelievers who hold their beliefs because they are “seeking to escape certain obligations entailed by belief in God.” In particular, one need not agree that “rejecting God on the basis of existent evils” is due to “seeking to escape certain obligations entailed by belief in God.” Every atheist I know is an atheist because he or she wants to believe the truth. Perhaps there are atheists who abandon xianity for other motives, but surely Copan is mistaken in assuming that all atheists have motives besides the truth. Many former theists have abandoned their religious views after much contemplation and “soul-searching” about the problem of evil. Even some members of the clergy have abandoned their calling because of this and similar issues. Many, such as Farrell Till and Dan Barker, have sacrificed careers, ended marriages, lost income, or alienated friends and relatives, and so on, because they sought to follow their conscience and proclaim the truth of atheism instead of the illusion of theism. Many former xians were not only sincere, but in many cases prominent, dedicated, and passionate about their theism. Copan’s ignorance of his opposition is obvious. Many former theists would have loved to stay in the fold but endured personal hardship for the sake of truth. They did not seek to escape obligation entailed by belief in god, but would instead have gladly embraced such obligations had they been based on tenable beliefs. These people discovered that they were not.
Copan also says:
Thus the evidence for God’s existence in, say, nature and conscience would not be a matter of mathematical certainty (since there is more to believing in God than merely agreeing with the evidence; moral, volitional, and even emotional considerations also enter into the discussion).
No one has said that belief in god must be the result of mathematical certainty, so Copan’s claim is beside the point. Why can’t god just present some unequivocal evidence? We have plenty of evidence that Bill Clinton has existed, and as of this writing he continues to exist. That’s head and shoulders above any evidence for god’s existence. Why can’t god at least give solid, if not ironclad, evidence that he exists? For a xian, is it more important to believe that Bill Clinton exists or that god exists? So why can’t god give us at least as much evidence for his existence as we have for that of Bill Clinton?
Note, too, that Copan’s appeal to humans as free beings is irrelevant. The presentation of evidence for god’s existence is compatible with being free. I can convince Copan that red automobiles exist by driving one to his house and showing it to him. This would not compromise his free will, and it would be difficult for him to deny that red automobiles exist. Similarly, god could present solid evidence of his existence without compromising our free will. No such god does this. After all, it is all apologists can do to even show that god could exist (and it is not clear they can even do this!). Surely an omnipotent god could do better in terms of evidence. He could at least give enough evidence to show that his existence is more likely than not. And we would still be free beings. But he does not do this.
Rather, the theist should more modestly appeal to good or plausible reasons for believing in God and that the existence of God makes better sense of certain factors than does his absence.
Of course, it is incumbent upon Copan to show that there is such evidence or that belief in god is the best explanation for certain things. He, and other apologists, have yet to do this, so this objection too is not successful. God could avail himself of all types of demonstrations, and create “certain factors” which could only be explained by his existence. He could cause the stars to move around and spell “Jesus”; he could cause a fish at a local fish market to speak in perfect English, appear on television, and proclaim god’s majesty (a talking ass was no less a miracle, but if a fish is too hard, perhaps a dolphin would do); or he could cause everyone to float in the air simultaneously and hear a divine voice recite the Lord’s Prayer, etc. God does none of this. In fact, biblical characters supposedly got signs and miracles frequently, and they were much more ignorant and gullible than many of today’s folk. They would have been satisfied with fewer miracles of lesser power. It would seem that we merit more demonstrations, not fewer. But god does none at all to clearly show his existence. So we can conclude that he does not exist. Copan does nothing to show that this conclusion is not warranted.
ON THE BIBLE:
Copan states that some of my interpretations are muddled. In the section of my book where I point out contradictory ethical positions of the bible, I showed how Jesus’ endorsement of the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (as he suggests in, e.g. Matt. 15:4, 19:19, Mark 7:10-13, etc.) conflicts with his statement in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple.” The Greek word translated as “hate” here, miseo, is the same word translated as “hate” in John 3:20 (“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”), John 7:7 (“The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”), John 15:18 (“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”), 1 John 3:13, and other passages. The best scholars in the world agree that “hate” is the best translation of this word. But it seems that Copan doesn’t agree. He says:
Jesus’ use of “hating” father and mother is taken by Krueger as a violation of the fifth commandment. But Jesus is clearly using a comparative term (i.e., “love more than”) — an oversight which some exposure to redaction criticism could have helped avoid.
So Jesus meant “love more than” when he said “miseo,” hate? He meant that anyone who loves his parents more than Jesus cannot be his disciple? (Or the other way around? Copan is not clear on this.)
Surely this is absurd. Suppose, for the moment, that I want to tell my children not to love the stranger across the street more than they love me. Would it make sense for me to tell them to hate that stranger? Similarly, if I want to tell them not to love Barney the dinosaur more than they love me, am I accurately conveying my thoughts when I tell them that they should hate Barney? That’s not “using a comparative term.” If that’s what I say, it’s misleading at best, and at worst it’s a lie if I knowingly state something in a misleading way. If Jesus did say this, and he used the term “miseo,” and he meant something else, he is obviously ineffective at communicating his thoughts. Better no god than an inept one. If anyone was muddled, it was Jesus, not Mr. Krueger. In any case, there is no evidence that Jesus meant a comparative term as Copan suggests. The translation is clear and consistent, and Copan offers no rebuttal but an ad hoc mere assertion. Why should we believe his claim about the motives of Jesus thousands of years ago? (Not that any of this ever happened.) The world’s scholars have spoken: the translation is accurate, and fundamentalists must accept either that their god, if he did say this, was either a rotten speaker or that he actually meant what he said–one must hate one’s family. They can take their pick.
Remember, too, that the only reason that people like Copan insist that Jesus did not mean what he said is that they don’t like what he said. Perhaps someone should ask them who they are to judge their own god and twist his words to mean what they please. Atheists often get accused of doing this to the bible, but here we have a clear case of an xian doing it. After Copan’s defense of the divine command theory, it would be interesting to see his justification for rejecting Jesus’ clear statement as immoral.
ON THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE:
I mentioned in my book how the occurrence of many famed events of the Old Testament conflicts with present archaeological evidence. As an example I gave Joshua’s conquest of Ai, which many archaeologists hold is not historical. To rebut, Copan says:
For instance, the location of Ai — even if difficult — may simply be wrongly identified. In fact, archaeologist Bryant Wood offers Khirbet al-Makater as the more plausible site for the biblical Ai. Wood also offers substantial evidence for the historicity of the fall of Jericho, which some critics had maintained never took place. Wood’s research has shown otherwise.
There are several points to be made here.
First, merely showing that a scholar thinks that a site may be incorrectly identified or dated does not show that the rest of the archaeological world is incorrect. Any competent archaeologist would be open to the suggestion that an ancient site might be misidentified, but it is not conclusive evidence to simply note that one of them suggests this. Such dissent does not immediately overturn the standard view, which, for example, is that Jericho fell before the Israelites arrived, contrary to the biblical account. Correctly dating archaeological sites can take years or decades, and it is unwise to declare with certainty that a site, such as Jericho, is of a certain period because a pottery expert such as Wood found flaws in previous research in the area. In cases such as this, the jury is still out, and may be out for some time. Wood’s assertion, for example, calls into question the dates of other sites in the region, and a re-examination of those other sites may be required to test the tenability of his position. This may yet vindicate the standard account that contradicts Wood.
A second point is that even if some biblical accounts are loosely based on historical events, there can be no doubt that the bible is incorrect about other cases. For example, the Exodus, as related in the bible, in which over a million people supposedly wandered around in the desert for forty years living off magic food, has not one shred of evidence in its favor, and the likelihood that this event with so many participants could have occurred and left no trace is unlikely in the extreme. At best, the number of people is greatly exaggerated. But there are clearer cases of biblical error. Daniel 5:30-31 claims that Darius the Median succeeded Belshazzar to the throne of Babylon in 539 B.C.E., and this is clearly false. Copan does not address these events.
Finally, one might wonder exactly what Copan is attempting in his dispute about biblical accuracy. I would not deny that some of the stories in the bible may be based on actual events. It is no matter to me whether the Israelites did or did not commit genocide in such-and-such a region, as the bible indicates (e.g. Deut. 20:16, Josh. 10:40, 1 Sam. 15:2-3, and elsewhere), or whether they really lived in peace with their neighbors. I’m an atheist because I believe that there is no god. If I were to find out that people slaughtered each other mercilessly long ago in some far-off part of the world, this would do nothing to change my position on god. I do not believe that people only slaughter each other if there is a god, so finding out about such massacres does not disprove atheism, even if such events are recorded, albeit in a distorted fashion, in the world’s literature. What apologists such as Copan have to realize is that the reporting of wholesale slaughter and other common acts of those who profess to do god’s will does not make the theistic case any stronger. The atheist is not committed to denying the truth of those claims. There are people who kill in god’s name now, so finding out that this is a long tradition is no revelation.
What needs to be bolstered is the reporting of the supernatural claims. This is where the atheist and the theist part company, and no amount of accuracy about mundane events will strengthen the case for the truth of those claims. And here is what one can explain to any xian apologist who would deny this. Trot out the book of Mormon and ask him or her whether the text of this work was really delivered to Joseph Smith by an angel of god. That’s the Mormons’ claim, after all. Smith said that an angel delivered the text of the Book of Mormon on golden plates that were translated and later taken back up to heaven. Smith even had six eyewitnesses swear to it and sign a statement, and they never recanted. Later Smith claimed to also translate the Book of Abraham with divine assistance. Smith’s life is far better documented than that of any biblical character–even Jesus, whose biography is sketchy at best–so if the documentation of mundane matters supports the supernatural claims imbedded in the accounts, then all traditional xians should become Mormons. Many a fundamentalist apologist would give his (do they let women be apologists?) right arm and leg for even one hundredth as much documentation for the life of Moses or Jesus as we have for Joseph Smith. The same may be said of the life of the Reverend Jim Jones, whose People’s Temple cult members died in a mass suicide in 1978. (Nine hundred and eleven people died). Jim Jones claimed to be god incarnate, and his followers reported that he performed miracles. We know who these people were and who some of the survivors are, which is much more than is known of any of the gospel writers. Every one of the People’s Temple members’ lives, and much of their activities, are recorded with detail, accuracy, and evidence far surpassing that of any event or biography in the bible. Despite this, however, xians do not believe the supernatural claims that are part of the accounts of these persons’ lives. Thus xians as a rule do not believe that the reporting of supernatural events is supported by the reports of nonsupernatural events. So the nonsupernatural stories of the bible may be all found to be true with no effect on the atheist position. All the biblical stories of wars and conquests, rapes and massacres, betrayal and incest, kidnapping and brutal executions, could be based on actual events and theism could still be false. I’m all for biblical archaeology, and all other types of archeology as well, but it is important that xians realize the limitations inherent in such “evidence.”
My point with regard to biblical archaeology was to demonstrate that the bible is unreliable as history, and its claims about gods cannot be considered strong evidence because some of what it says is false. Even if some of the stories in the bible are true, others are clearly not, such as that of Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Joshua’s slaughter aided by the sun stopping in the sky for a day (Josh. 10:12-14), the sun going backwards to let a king know that he would not die from a boil (2 Kings 20:11), and other tall tales–or myths. It is unlikely that Copan will try to defend these stories as history. Indeed, although Zacharias attacked evolution at length in A Shattered Visage, and I pointed out that his arguments, such as the claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, have been solidly refuted many times, Copan’s defense does not bring up the issue of evolution, so I doubt that even he takes all of the bible accounts as history. He did not seem concerned to defend the creation myth.
Copan and other apologists can use archaeology to show the truth of all the nonsupernatural reports they wish, but this will not change the falsehood of the other tales, which show without question that biblical unreliability prevents the bible from serving as good evidence for the existence of a god. Even if a few biblical accounts unsupported by current archaeological evidence are later shown to be historical, it is unlikely that all of them will be, since some of them are so clearly unhistorical, such as Noah’s ark. The latter account is so ludicrous and contradicts so much of what is known about the world through science, that the vindication of this tale by later archaeological evidence is about as likely as the presentation of proof that a cow really did jump over the moon. Any effort to show that the bible is historically accurate may make some progress with regard to certain stories, but it is inevitably doomed to failure.
This is why atheists needn’t worry about biblical archaeology. On the one hand, if a demonstration of complete biblical accuracy is not the goal, the atheist has nothing to worry about from archaeology, since the project is limited in scope and its results are compatible with atheism. On the other hand, if the apologist/archaeologist does have such a broad program in mind, it will end in failure, broken under the weight of the legendary Noah and his ark, Joshua and his unmoving sun, or even Balaam and his talking ass, so the atheist needn’t be concerned. Either way, biblical archaeology is no threat to atheism, and Copan’s defenses of some bible stories is of little concern. The biblical claims relevant to the theism-atheism issue will never be vindicated through archaeology unless all of our present science is incorrect, and that is unlikely. Attempts to show the historicity of some bible stories as part of a larger program to prove the historicity of all the bible claims are exercises in futility. If Copan wants to vindicate bible stories, let him cut to the chase, as they say, and show the historicity of Noah’s ark, Joshua’s sun, or some similar supernatural story. That’s the real issue. Since those are not historical, I argue, other supernatural claims in the bible can also be considered unreliable.
ON THE ISSUE OF FAITH:
Copan disagrees with my understanding of faith. He claims to be supporting the biblical view of faith, but he is careful not to say much about the bible verses I cite as evidence. I claim that faith is strong belief in something for which there is no evidence, and even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Copan asserts that this view is not biblical, but I cite Romans 8:24-25 (“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?”) and Hebrews 11:1, which tells us that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So when you have faith, the bible tells us, it is for something you have not seen, something you merely hope for; i.e. something for which you have no evidence. Against this, Copan says:
Faith is a matter of trust or commitment (which Krueger acknowledges but glosses over). Faith includes a dimension of personal trust which goes beyond the evidence, but not against it, because it is rooted in the character of a good God whom the believer has known.
This is mere assertion, but what faith can include does not speak against the definition I provided. Although Copan does cite bible verses, he does not make a case. For example, Copan states:
Krueger selectively cites passages like John 20:29 (although Thomas should have believed that Jesus rose from the dead without seeing him on the basis of the testimony of the other disciples)
Here I had simply observed that Jesus said “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed,” which I condemned as an endorsement of gullibility. Stating that Thomas should have done something does not address my definition or my point. (Apparently, if this did happen, Thomas knew his friends too well to believe them.) So far Copan has no case, but he continues:
Krueger conveniently avoids other passages which closely connect evidence with belief (e.g., John 2:23: “many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing”; John 10:38: “though you do not believe Me, believe the works [that I do] that you may know and understand . . . “; John 20:31: “these [signs/miracles] have been written that you may believe“; the book of Acts is full of such evidence- or reason-belief connections.). Thus Krueger, unfortunately, only contributes to the false stereotype that biblical faith has nothing to do with evidence.
How odd that Copan thinks he’s addressing the issue by showing that belief can be connected to evidence. I would certainly never dispute that. In fact, I’d insist that belief should be based on evidence. The issue is not whether belief is connected with evidence, but whether faith is connected with evidence. I suggest that the bible shows that faith is one kind of belief, the kind not based on evidence. There are other kinds of belief that are based on evidence. I produce bible verses that support my interpretation of faith as the sort not based on evidence. Copan disagrees, but can produce no verses to link faith with evidence. My position is not only unscathed but unaddressed.
The discussion of faith in my book was intended to condemn the advocacy of faith as explained by many members of the clergy, who use the term faith in the way that I define it, as belief not based on evidence, and perhaps even contrary to evidence. Not even Copan would dispute that this use of the term “faith” is not rare. I argued against such a method of adopting beliefs, and against this point Copan says nothing.
ON THE MEANS OF SALVATION
The final issue we see Copan grapple with is that of what we must do to be saved. I had mentioned this topic briefly in my book in one of the sections dealing with bible contradictions. I noted that some verses say that we are saved by faith: “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ… not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” Gal. 2:16; and Romans 3:20: “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Other verses insist that we are saved, not by faith, but by works, such as James 2:17, 2:20, and 2:24 (“faith by itself, if it not accompanied by action, is dead”; “faith without deeds is useless,” and “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”). Romans 2:13 tells us “not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” Matthew 7:21 says: “Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven [i.e. not everyone who has faith in Jesus]; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The contradiction seems clear. New Testament scholars know that the authors of the New Testament had conflicting theologies, so it is not surprising that there would be some confusion about what gets us saved.
To defend the bible, Copan says:
Are we justified by faith (Romans 3:20, 28) or by works (James 2:17, 24)? That all depends on what is meant by justify, faith, and works! Context helps us determine how words are used (e.g., think of the many uses of the word run that we have in our language), and a careful study of the end of James 2 and Paul’s writings shows no contradiction precisely because these three critical words have different meanings and are addressing audiences who have different concerns.
Perhaps. These are the assertions. What is the evidence that these words were used with different meanings? Copan again:
The problem is legalism in Romans (and also Galatians) but nominalism in James 2…To summarize, let me contrast the relevant passages and words in Paul and James: faith in Romans 3 means commitment to God and vibrant trust in him; works refers to a legalistic attempt to earn God’s favor; and justify means to declare one righteous. At the end of James 2, faith is a merely intellectual belief about God (which demons can have); works refers to deeds of love…and justify means to prove right or recognize existing goodness.”
The authors of the New Testament don’t contradict each other, says Copan, since they used the same words with different meanings. However, the problem here is that the assertion that the author “really” meant so-and-so is a subjective judgment and liable to the charge of being ad hoc. Although the New Testament authors may have meant what Copan and others claim, there is no clear evidence that they did. That’s one problem.
More specifically, Copan does not address the clear contradiction between passages such as Galatians 2:16 “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” and Romans 2:13: “the doers of the law shall be justified.” The latter verse makes no direct reference to faith at all. Contrary to what Copan suggests, the problem is not just fitting together the three concepts of “justify,” “faith,” and “works,” but in the direct contradiction between passages that clearly use the same term in the same way, such as “the law.” Surely the authors of Romans and Galatians meant the same thing by that. Copan even admits that the two bible books in question, Galatians and Romans, have the same legalistic view. A contradiction is definitely still there.
Another relevant point is that I had used the faith versus works problem as an example of a biblical contradiction. I mentioned others, and many more are available on the Secular Web. Biblical inerrancy is, in academic circles, a dead issue. The bible contains mistakes, so if Copan has a larger project in mind, that of arguing for biblical inerrancy, he can find other contradictions and errors that are not so easily dismissed, even among conservative bible scholars. Even if Copan were to somehow successfully defend this point, my broader point that the bible contains errors is secure.
However, if Copan is simply attacking my assertion that the bible is not clear about what one must do to be saved, he has his work cut out for him to explain other passages on this subject. The works-versus-faith problem is just the beginning. We find in verses such as Mark 16:16: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” [Emphasis added] In another gospel Jesus says, in John 3:5: “…except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” [Emphasis added]. “…this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…” (1 Peter 3:21 [Emphasis added]). So it would seem that to be saved one must believe and be baptized. Works are not mentioned, but baptism seems to be a necessary condition for salvation. Paul wrote: “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Here salvation requires some form of public proclamation in addition to one’s belief. (And the orifice to be used for confession is specified, apparently to avoid confusion.) Yet Acts 16:30-31 tells us: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved…” So works, baptism, and public confession are superfluous? We’re back to just faith again? Jesus himself seems to agree in John 6:47: “…He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.” But then he disagrees too when he elsewhere tells someone what he must do to be gain eternal life: “…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mat. 19:17). Of course, one can keep the commandments and not believe in Jesus, as many Jews did before and since, so the biblical requirements for salvation are as uncertain as ever. Especially since in this case Jesus, when asked which commandments needed to be obeyed for salvation, gave five standard ones and one from some other part of the Old Testament, so not all ten were required. Interestingly, the commandment to have no other gods before YHWH was not needed for eternal life, according to Jesus. Let us not forget, too, that the New Testament tells us that women a much more difficult time attaining salvation than male xians. At 1 Tim. 2:15 we find that “women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” [emphasis added]. So women must not only have faith, they must conduct themselves well, with love and holiness and bear a child in order to be saved. Faith alone is clearly insufficient for salvation, since it is included as one of several requirements, but childbirth is made explicit as a necessary condition for a woman to be saved.
Given the supposed importance of salvation, one cannot help but conclude that any god who makes the requirements for salvation so vague is just irresponsible. And surely not omnibenevolent, since if he was loving he’d make the requirements simple and consistent. And make himself believable, too. In any case, it is clear the the requirements for salvation are more of a problem than Copan lets on.
Let me close with a summary of a few main points.
1. I criticized Zacharias for not supporting his claims with arguments. Copan’s defense of this is inadequate. He states that there is agreement on the main lines of xian theology, but this is false. It also does not address Zacharias’ lack of arguments in other areas.
2. Zacharias’ use of Hitler as an example of the consequences of atheism remains unsupported, and Copan’s curious approach of agreeing with the criticism while defending Zacharias’ claims fails. If anything, the evidence suggests that Hitler was a theist. Copan has the same amount of evidence as Zacharias linking Hitler and atheism: none.
3. Copan’s assertion that my criticism of Zacharias was inadequate in part because of my ignorance of the bible backfires. My position on, for example, the virgin birth is solidly supported by contemporary biblical scholarship.
4. Copan defends Zacharias’ sketchy argumentation for theism as the only basis for morality by broadening his claim and asserting that morality is based on human dignity and that theism can best provide this foundation. I point out that most forms of theism deny human dignity, and thus would exclude the possibility of ethics. In addition, both Zacharias and Copan exhibit an appalling lack of awareness of atheistic writings on human dignity.
5. My criticism of the concept of god as incoherent because the different attributes of god conflict is not damaged by Copan’s comments. He misunderstood the argument, and his exposition of the coherence of god’s attributes is itself incoherent.
6. Copan’s response to the Euthyphro dilemma suffers from both logical deficiencies and practical inadequacies. Since the dilemma is a solid demonstration of the failings of the divine command theory, this view that god is the foundation of ethics remains questionable at best.
7. Copan’s shotgun attack on miscellaneous sections of my book–my critique of the use of miracle claims as support for theism; the argument from nonbelief; my assertion that the bible is contradictory, including its position on what is required for salvation and the nature of faith; the paucity of archaeological evidence for biblical events; and so on–fails. He either misunderstands the arguments in question, provides evidence irrelevant to the issue, or simply provides inadequate support for his position. Sometimes his position itself is unclear, as in his attack on my assertion that the bible contradicts itself with regard to whether we are saved by faith or by works. (Is he defending biblical inerrancy or simply disagreeing with this contradiction? Either way, his critique is inadequate.)
I have not found any of Copan’s arguments to be convincing. My attack on Zacharias is as effective as ever, if not more so with the additional material in this essay, and Copan has not given any persuasive evidence that I must retract any of it.
 Paul Copan, “Addressing Those Colossal Misunderstandings: A Response to Doug Krueger” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_copan/visage.html>, 1999).
 Jeffery Jay Lowder, “An Emotional Tirade Against Atheism” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/zacharias.html>, 1999), spotted July 19, 1999.
 See John Patrick Michael Murphy, “The Religion of Hitler” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/john_murphy/religionofhitler.html>, 1998), spotted June 22, 1999 for an article with more details about Hitler and religious belief.
 For an excellent summary of the differences between Nietzsche and Nazi philosophy, see Alan Taylor, “Nietzsche the Nazi” (<URL:http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/fritz/nietzschenazi.html>, n.d.), spotted June 22, 1999.
Furthermore, the unadorned and modest narratives surrounding the virginal conception are radically different from the Greco-Roman myths of “virgin births.” … For example, on the night of Alexander’s conception, his mother was protected by a python to keep her husband, Philip, away from her. In general, these legends recount the copulation of gods with mortals in a crude anthropomorphic manner — which is quite unlike the Gospel narratives.
Crude? What is not crude about this Jesus/god using magic to impregnate his own mother out of wedlock–a woman who was about to become another man’s wife? It certainly sounds crude. Thomas Paine, one of our founding fathers, was appalled by the myth. In The Age of Reason Paine notes:
The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene. It gives an account of a young woman engaged to be married, and while under this engagement she is, to speak plain language, debauched by a ghost, under the impious pretense (Luke, chap. I., ver. 35), that “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Notwithstanding which, Joseph afterward marries her, cohabits with her as his wife, and in his turn rivals the ghost. This is putting the story into intelligible language, and when told in this manner, there is not a priest but must be ashamed to own it.
Later, Paine adds: “What is it the Bible teaches us?–rapine, cruelty, and murder. What is it the Testament teaches us?–to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.”
To those accustomed to hearing stories of magic births, the story of Jesus’ birth is just another one of the same kind. According to one account, the mother of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, got pregnant by seeing a falling star. Is that crude? And what, in any case, is crude about two people having sex? Copan suggests that it is distasteful when an anthropomorphic god impregnates a woman, but he seems to think that ghost sex is sublime. Xians who disparage sex betray a bias against pleasure and the human body that ill serves them in certain cases, as when they try to suggest that some magic births are crude. At least some of the physical gods who got women pregnant in Greek and Roman myths loved their women. People fell in love and had sex. I suppose to a fundamentalist xian this would seem crude. (Recall how adamantly St. Paul discouraged sex.) At least these pagan gods sometimes got married, which is more than the bible god did with Mary. In any case, I am reminded of a passage from Bishop Spong: “Is there any possibility that the narratives of our Lord’s birth are historical? Of course not. Even to raise that question is to betray an ignorance about birth narratives. Origin tales are commentaries on adult meaning.” Spong is well aware, however, that fundamentalists have no qualms about betraying their ignorance about birth narratives and many other things. There are plenty of magic birth stories, not all of them crude, and every one of them with just as much evidence as the magic birth of Jesus–none.
See Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), pp. 146-147, 181; and Spong, p. 59.
 Farrell Till, “Mr. Farrell Till’s First Speech” The Geisler-Till Debate (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/farrell_till/geisler-till/till1.html>, 1994), spotted June 22, 1999.
 See Edward Tryon, “Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” Nature vol. 246, pp. 396-397 (1973); Alexander Vilenkin, “Creation of Universes from Nothing,” Physics Letters, vol. 117B, pp. 25-28 (1982); James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, “Wave Function of the Universe,” Physical Review D, vol. 28, pp. 2960-2975 (1983); and Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997), especially chapter 17.
 See Theodore M. Drange, “The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html>, 1996), spotted June 22, 1999.