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Atheism and the Case Against Christ

by Matthew McCormick

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Book Review: Matthew McCormick’s Atheism and the Case Against Christ (Prometheus Press: 2012)

By Peter Boghossian

Philosophy Department

Portland State University

About 77% of Americans—more than 200 million people—believe that Jesus miraculously came back from the dead.  About 40% of Americans are young Earth creationists who believe the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old.  Another 50% believe that the bible is the inspired word of God.  Matt McCormick, a philosophy professor at California State University, Sacramento, has taken on the ambitious task of undermining and explaining these pervasive Christian beliefs.

 

McCormick makes a series of innovative empirical and philosophical arguments against Christianity, and by extension, other religions that find their origins in ancient history.   He engages in a sort of paleo-epistemology—contemporary research about human rationality in behavioral economics, empirical psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy give us insight into the beliefs, mistakes, delusions, and religiosity of early Christians.  The resulting picture is grim.  The accounts we have of the resurrection are unreliable because of superstitiousness, ignorance, and suggestibility.  Moreover, contemporary research about the reliability of people's beliefs in the supernatural, miracles, and the paranormal belies the origins of Christianity.

 

After some introductory remarks about skepticism, religious belief, and American religious culture (Chapter 1) and an overview of the history of the Jesus story (Chapter 2), McCormick clarifies a mix of philosophical fallacies, psychological foibles, cognitive glitches, and social and institutional analyses as applied to the history of the evidence we have about Jesus.  One of McCormick’s particularly effective arguments shows that accepting the sketchy historical evidence for the resurrection would also commit us to the absurd result of real witchcraft at Salem (Chapter 3). 

 

McCormick then argues that our information about Jesus has passed through a series of human filters:  alleged witnesses, repeaters who spread the story, Gospel authors who wrote it, and canonizers who culled the bible we have now from the thousands of documents that emerged in the early centuries (Chapters 4-7).  At every stage, McCormick argues that there are a number of substantial doubts, the cumulative effects of which should utterly undermine our confidence in biblical narratives—and he goes on to frame these in terms of the Salem Witch Trial problem, the Lourdes problem, failed prayers, mistaken paranormal beliefs, ignorance, receptiveness to supernatural claims, confirmation bias, bereavement hallucinations, co-opted memories, false memories, embellished memories, source amnesia, social conformity, the Asche effect, groupthink, the I.Q. problem, the Flynn Effect, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the Invisible Gorilla Problem, anti-introspectionism research, the Money Bag problem, the Canonization problem, the counter-evidence problem, and the disconfirmation problem.  Many of these analyses are novel and useful, and in some cases the relevant contemporary research has not been previously applied with such direct or skeptical effect to the foundations of Christianity. 

 

As Dawkins, Dennett, and others have pointed out, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, exploits a number of organic features of the human cognitive system.  McCormick has done a great deal of work filling in the details with contemporary research that explains how religions that survive and prosper utilize a suite of claims, epistemic policies, fallacies, and belief structures that capitalize on psychological needs, errors in reasoning, cognitive blind spots and loopholes.  (Analogously, just as the blind spot in our field of vision where the optic nerve goes through the retina is hidden from us by our own visual systems, so too the error in faith-based thinking can be hidden from sight.) 

 

Additional philosophically based chapters deal with broader questions about miracles and God (Chapters 8-10).  McCormick argues that miracles, particularly the sorts that are most often appealed to justify the dominant human religious traditions, don’t make sense as acts of God.  That is, there is no reason to think the almighty creator of the universe would exercise his will through insignificant acts buried in ancient history.  It would be perverse of God to bury the miracles that are alleged to form the foundations of the Abrahamic traditions amidst so many mistakes, frauds, and deceptions.

 

McCormick also devotes a chapter to faith, or the “F” word, as he writes (Chapter 11).  Appealing to faith as a justification for religious beliefs implicates the believer in insurmountable and embarrassing epistemological and metaphysical problems.  For example, faith in one god opens the floodgates to countless others.  Faith thus rescues belief at too great a cost:  once we allow it, nothing can stop the slide into cognitive aberration and a metaphysic bloated by a proliferation of contradictory entities.  Psychologically and perhaps even emotionally, faith gives free reign to our impulses toward misguided supernaturalism.

 

Not even the less literal Christians who don’t believe in an actual resurrection are safe from McCormick’s attack (Chapter 12).  Sympathetic churchgoers who don’t take the stories literally are guilty of bad cognitive practice, active self-misdirection, misrepresentation, and, ironically, bad faith.

 

            Employing a similar analysis, McCormick makes arguments against the resurrection that are particularly noteworthy. He details internal problems of consistency for the Christian who believes Christ rose from the dead—by the believer’s own epistemic standards that lead her to doubt stories of witchcraft in Salem, alien abductions, and other paranormal reports, she should reject the resurrection.  McCormick writes,  “By reasonable measures of quantity and quality, the evidence we have for witchcraft at Salem is vastly better than the evidence for the magical return from the dead by Jesus." (p. 60)  Why should one reject the former and accept the latter?  McCormick argues that the Jesus myth slips through with the application of a double standard; believers are failing to apply the principles of doubt that serve them so well in the rest of their lives. 

 

Atheism and the Case Against Christ then turns the analyses of the Christian resurrection into a naturalized theory of religion that builds a case for wide, positive atheism—we should believe in no gods at all (Chapter 13).  Centuries of concerted efforts to find our gods have failed.  Countless attempts to justify one form of supernaturalism or another have come up empty handed.  The failures themselves tell us something:  we should provisionally draw the conclusion that there are no such entities.  We should reject claims about the reality of gods for the same reason patent offices no longer accept patent applications for perpetual motion machines.  At some point, we can reasonably close the door on the inquiry. 

To summarize, McCormick argues that the evidence about Jesus as it has been relayed to us over the centuries is not of sufficient quantity and quality to justify belief in the resurrection.  If the historical evidence does justify the resurrection, then a fortiori the historical evidence justifies our believing in real magic at the Salem Witch trials.  Miracles don’t make sense as the actions of the all-powerful creator of the universe.  Through faith, the believer cannot reasonably deny supernatural claims of other religions.  Consequently, the arguments against Christianity provide us with a model of critical analysis that yield a broader justification for atheism. 

Atheism and the Case Against Christ has some flaws.  McCormick’s Salem Witch Trials argument presses the conclusion that if we lower our standards of historical evidence to the point that Jesus’ resurrection is reasonable, then an even better case can be made for real magic at Salem.  Among other similarities, numerous eyewitnesses in both cases testified to the supernatural events.  The crucial dis-analogy he fails to mention is that within a few years of the Salem Witch trials, many of the witnesses recanted their testimonies or apologized for their involvement in the deadly farce.  Thus crucial doubt was cast on the trials for the historical record.  No comparable recantings appear to exist for the resurrection of Jesus.  One might argue, pace McCormick, that there is a principled dis-analogy between the cases that justify accepting the resurrection while rejecting the Salem Witch trials. 

We can anticipate an answer on McCormick’s behalf, however.  The problem with any attempt to split Jerusalem from Salem is that we have so little surviving information about Jesus.  What little that was written came decades later, and much of what was written and circulated in the early years about Jesus was deliberately excluded, destroyed, declared heretical, or otherwise lost during canonization.  If there had been crucial counter evidence to the resurrection, the chances are very good it would not have survived the centuries. 

McCormick’s broader argument for positive atheism is unusual.  The typical approach for philosophers pursuing his thesis has been to systematically address the failures of all of the best versions of the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments, as well as other miscellaneous arguments, and only then move to a positive argument for atheism.  (See Mackie, Martin, Everitt, and Sobel, for examples.)  McCormick offers no similar thorough search of the literature.  Instead, he concludes that the general consensus is that none of the arguments work, and it would appear that none are forthcoming.  It is time to move on.

The puzzle that McCormick doesn’t address adequately is determining a principled and reasonable boundary between agnostic and positive atheist conclusions in cases like this.  In the face of the failures of so many attempts to rationally justify belief in God, why is it not more prudent to be agnostic?  The failure of an argument for God’s existence is not an argument for no god any more than a failure of an attempt to find the cure for cancer justifies concluding that there is none.  What McCormick owes us is a more thorough and careful explanation of why with the matter of our gods, we have crossed the boundary from merely suspending judgment to concluding that there are none.   (This would be easy enough to do, and could be accomplished in only two or three pages).

On the whole, however, Atheism and the Case Against Christ is a most welcome addition to the skeptical literature on Christianity and to arguments for atheism.  There are a number of novel applications of recent research and ideas to seasoned topics.  Moreover, some of the philosophical arguments have not appeared elsewhere.  The combination of philosophical, psychological, and neuro-biological approaches in a critique of religious believing is suggestive of a new hybridized and naturalized analysis. 

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book.  McCormick’s writing is accessible.  He also explicates complicated philosophical concepts and arguments without excessive jargon.  And the tedious systematic survey of the literature that is the foundation of works on philosophical atheism like the ones mentioned above is happily absent.  The many vivid examples and rhetorically effective illustrations, along with a lack of pretentiousness in the style, make this an engaging and important read. 

 

Dawkins, Richard, 2008.  The God Delusion.  London:  Bantam Books. 

Dennett, Daniel, 2007.  Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  New York:  Penguin Books. 

Everitt, Nicholas, 2004. The Non-Existence of God. London: Routledge. 

Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Sobel, Jordan Howard, 2004. Logic and Theism, Arguments for and Against Beliefs in God. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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