This is a bit of something I put together in response to a friend’s question regarding what options regarding Jesus’s resurrection were open as explanations for theists, agnostics, and atheists. His position was essentially that atheists can’t allow themselves to consider even the possibility of an “actual resurrection” even if there was significant evidence because of their stance regarding “God”.
It’s rough. It’s certainly using parts of other’s arguments I’ve heard but don’t recall where. I’d love to hear what you think of it.
I don’t think that an atheist must disallow a possibility of the supernatural resurrection, but in the same way one doesn’t assume David Blaine or David Copperfield are actually performing “magic”, one would go from a basis of natural causes and disallow it as anything even vaguely probable. In the same way you would be incredulous if somebody claimed to have spontaneously regrown a limb (or been abducted by aliens), it would take more than even a few people claiming it as truth for you to believe it happened. You would want evidence. You would have to have great, extraordinary, evidence because it is an extra-ordinary claim.
An extraordinary claim (being raised from the dead counts) for which we have no other instance in history with any level of reasonable evidence (and I use “other” not to imply we have any level of reasonable evidence, but to take that instance out of the timeline so we have a baseline of the REST of history to use), would require extra-ordinary evidence for belief. I would wager that you’re unlikely to believe Joseph Smith received any golden plates with the story of Jesus and his visit to the Americas (or the Isrealites in America, I forget the details), and yet there are 13 million people who have found his story compelling enough to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There were even enough people in his day who believed that extra-ordinary claim to propogate the Mormon system of belief in much the way the desciples propogated the Jesus resurrection myth. We have seen time and time again that there is almost no spectacular story that won’t be believed and repeated by people as “truth”. The bottom line is that a story of Jesus resurrection is much more likely to be because there were believers who believed it (truth or not) and shared it with other people willing to believe without any real proof (this was a time of much belief in many things) than because somebody was actually raised from the dead.
In X million (or less than 10K if you swing that way) years of humanity we have no surviving evidence sufficient to convince everybody that anybody, ever, has been raised from the dead. We do have many groups who are willing to believe THEIR guy was raised from the dead, talked to God, did some other impossible thing. As spectacularly improbable as winning the lottery is, I can still point and say “that guy over there won” and know that however miniscule the chance, I conceivably could win (ignoring the mathematical improbability of it and the non-sound investment of even a dollar due the odds factor). What I can’t do is look over at somebody and say “well THAT guy was raised from the dead so I’ve nothing to fear and I can jump off buildings for fun” because we don’t have ANY evidence for somebody being raised from the dead in modern times, and in fact the only claim any really significant number of modern western civilization people give any credence to is for somebody 2000 years ago. If I find an eye-witness account that says “Jethro fed his sheep in the year 12BCE” I have no reason to believe it didn’t happen because that is entirely consistent with what we expect people from that era to have done. However if I find an eye-witness account that says “I saw a mermaid in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 12BCE and she had a nice rack” we would believe the author to have been mistaken because we have seen no evidence for us to believe that there is anything resembling a “mermaid” out there and it was most likely just a Dugong or some other similar animal. Even with multiple eye-witnesses of the mermaid it wouldn’t be compelling enough for us to think The Little Mermaid was a pseudo-documentary.
In any given scenario the supernatural is the least likely possible cause, or it wouldn’t be supernatural. Two thousand, or even two hundred, years ago the collective knowledge of the way things work was so spectacularly limited that while we knew sex had something to do with it, we didn’t even know how babies were made (I believe it was the 1600s when somebody discovered sperm and for quite some time the theory was then that the head of each sperm contained a tiny little person from which we grew). In such a world, where few of the (very obvious to us now) naturalistic explanations have been discovered or understood in any meaningful way, the supernatural seems to be a reasonable means of explanation. In that context the combination of lack of naturalistic knowledge combined with a fervent desire to believe make the likelihood of a physical resurrection so infinitesimal as to make belief in God as the guide to your life because of Jesus’s resurrection to be akin to (but not even as practical as) belief in the lottery as a retirement plan.
This is not to discount the practical wisdom in the Bible (or many other religious texts), and I think one of the primary reasons many of the major world religions have endured is because they do give practical advice and insight on how enterpersonal life works (or can). If they didn’t offer something practical that helped people get through day to day life, they wouldn’t have endured (they would’ve naturally been selected out as viable belief systems ). I think it’s that practical aspect of religions that are the reasons they “work” at all. They have been the cheat sheet to getting through life, because so many of the questions they answer for people (“How should I treat my family?”, “how should I feel about my country?”) it doesn’t matter where the answer comes from as to how practical the advice is. It’s the Santa Clause… if telling you that misbehaving gets you on the naughty list works to get you to behave, it doesn’t so much “matter” (in the context of results) if your motivation is based on a falsehood until that falsehood is revealed… and most religions that stick around have that reveal safely tucked away in the after-life.