Campus Life ask a-theist

Why claim one religious authority?

Ask A-theist is a column by Aaron Scheinberg G, an atheist, and Stephanie Lam G, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. This week, Aaron chose the question. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and we’ll tackle them!

Q: “Why are you not a Muslim, or a worshipper of the Hindu or ancient Greek pantheon? Why think that the Bible is more true than the Quran, the Vedas, or the Iliad?”

Stephanie’s answer:

Every religion offers a characterization of God and reality. To the extent that we can, we should test their claims. Different religions and different religious texts have very different answers. God, if he or it existed, might be a person outside creation, like in Islam or Christianity, or God might be an abstract essence that makes up all of the universe, like in Hinduism, but God cannot logically be both. Truth is exclusive in a way that fantasy is not. We can argue about whether fairies need wings to fly, but there is no truth if fairies don’t exist.

Let’s look at one factual claim. Unlike Mohammed or Siddhartha Gautama or even Homer, Jesus Christ claimed not only to be an enlightened teacher, prophet or storyteller, but God himself. From non-Biblical ancient texts outside Christianity, scholars agree that a man named Jesus existed and was killed by crucifixion in the first century CE. We have explicit eyewitness testimony in the four Biblical books that discuss the life of Jesus. In them, we see an extremely unflattering view of his disciples as cowardly, petty, and constantly confused. At the death of their teacher, they scattered. Yet, within two months, we see a transformation in these men as they go out and boldly preach the message of their teacher as the resurrected Lord at great risk. All but one would give their lives for the message. Would someone knowingly give their life for a lie?

It is too simple to dismiss it all as myth. As Pastor Tim Keller notes, anyone looking honestly at history has to ask, “No group of Jews ever worshipped a human being as God. What led them to do it? Jews did not believe in divine men or individual resurrections. What changed their worldview virtually overnight? How do you account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their belief?”

As we evaluate the respective claims of each faith, we cannot solely compare which life philosophies or moralities resonate with us. Either Jesus was God as he claimed or he was not. Either Jesus was crucified, died, and resurrected as Christianity claims, or never died in the first place as Islam claims. We have to look at the evidence and draw our conclusions. Both cannot be simultaneously true.

Aaron’s reply to Stephanie:

I once met a follower of an Indian mystic healer and philanthropist named Sai Baba. The follower described the miracles he personally witnessed and expounded with yearning on the incomparable bliss and love he experienced in Sai Baba’s presence. He and his comrades confidently believed Sai Baba was a god.

Cult members fervently believe they’ve witnessed supernatural events, and their reports are often consistent with each other. The same goes for UFO abductees. Maybe it’s social pressure. Maybe they just really want to believe. Regardless, we typically dismiss their unfounded stories offhand. So why are stories from millennia-old writing more believable?

The four gospels were composed by unknown authors — the names were appended in later copies. The earliest, “Mark,” was written 30–40 years after Jesus’s supposed death. Can an impartial investigator ever call anonymous writing “eyewitness testimony”? Mark, from whom the others borrow, doesn’t even claim to be. He’s likely just recording local oral tradition. We cannot evaluate the motives, biases, methods, or character of unidentified authors writing decades after events, so their claims have zero credibility.

That pastor’s arguments apply to anything. If Jews becoming Christians proves Christianity, surely conversions to Scientology prove Scientology! And martyrdom isn’t unique to Christianity. There are Muslim martyrs, secular martyrs, suicidal cults, etc. Dying for a belief doesn’t make it more true.

It’s presumptuous to confidently dismiss all other religions on these underwhelming grounds. I find the testimony of Sai Baba’s followers at least as compelling. Indeed, if the Bible passes the threshold for reliability, then I have a slam-dunk case that witches once roamed New England.

We can’t honestly distinguish between the various supernatural claims floating around. Acknowledging that fact might make you skeptical, but doesn’t necessarily render your religion meaningless: one can value traditions no matter what their ultimate origin, and if you like the life philosophy outlined in a certain text then by all means study it.

The trouble arises when we lose perspective — when certainty in our favorite unreasoned claim prevents us from rethinking moral opinions shown to be harmful. When we can’t see the damage a religion imparts on outsiders and many of its own members. When politicians manipulate that blind spot. By moving beyond superstition, we can better protect ourselves from those dangers while still appreciating tradition.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Stephanie's response doesn't answer the question. In fact, it doesn't even come close. I'll answer it for her: She's a Christian because her parents are.

Keith Leung about 10 years ago

Because we all do exactly what our parents tell us to do...Thanks for the chippy comment, anonymous poster.

I agree with Aaron that "trouble arises when we lose perspective". This goes both ways though. Unfortunately, Christianity (and other religions) has been twisted and used as justification for not so cool things such as the Crusades or the historic (and ongoing) mistreatment of women. But I don't think that people are just going to stop harming other people in a world without religion. Wouldn't people just find "inspiration" from somewhere else for their greed or malice? Maybe there would be less harm without religion... Perhaps there would be more harm done.

This is a tough question. Aaron does have a point in there about losing perspective. I don't feel that I explore these topics enough myself as a Christian. Being on cruise control can lead us to lose our perspective sometimes.

Aaron about 10 years ago

Hi Keith, thanks for your comment!

I agree - there is no single excuse that people use to justify greed and malice, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't critically examine individual ones. And specifically with religion, there's no reason we should accept it as an all-or-nothing deal. If it has both harmful aspects and some benefits, we should look for other ways to provide those benefits - not use them as an excuse to hold on to the backwards parts.

Regarding the mistreatment of women: of course many men would still try to mistreat women without religion. I don't think religion drives that. What it DOES indisputably do is indoctrinate a framework in which women more willingly ACCEPT a subservient role. Religion provides people with a sense of what their role in life should be, and also implies that things are the way they are for a good reason. Surely women would feel more empowered to challenge the misogynistic power structures reinforced by religion if they didn't think an almighty god was insisting their "place" is to be submissive to men and that's the way things "should" be.

And regarding the first commenter; yeah, sure, they were snarky, but it's usually true, right? Religions are called "faith traditions" for a reason - they are meant to be passed down, and it becomes part of your identity from an early age, long before you can make a rational evaluation of it. People identify with their religion the same way they identify with family or nation. It's incredibly difficult to rationally evaluate evidence for a claim if you feel its truth is part of your identity.

If readers are interested in the origin of the bible, here's a fascinating summary: