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An Atheist’s possibilities?

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 :D ). 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.



  1. rob wrote:

    Very well said. I will consider resurrection as a possibility when you give a shred of evidence that indicates it may have happened. Ok, I guess the biblical account might be a “shred”…..someone told someone else who told someone else that they saw it happen, and that person, many many years later, wrote it down. That is about as weak as evidence can get, but to be fair, it is technically a form of evidence.

    The one thing I might disagree with a bit in the article is whether a religion without practical value can continue to exist. Unless the religion causes those who believe in it to have a significantly reduced survival rate, I don’t see natural selection eliminating it for that reason. The religion itself can survive, even if it is harmful to those believing it, just as a virus can survive even if it is harmful in all ways to its host.

    Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Before this reply gets any longer I’m going to post it and hope you stop back by rob.

    I can see, and appreciate, the meme-virus metaphor, but I’m thinking that it isn’t necessarily the best in regards to how religion has functioned. I’m not outright rejecting the religion as meme-virus concept, just trying to consider alternatives which may offer a more complete explanation. The key for what I’m thinking of is that the selective benefit isn’t necessarily at the individual level, but it would be for the group level.

    I’ve lost track of where I heard the theory (my guess is either Kevin Kelly’s Technium blog or Scott Adam’s Dilbert blog), but somebody has posited that humans have, especially in the digital age, moved into an almost hive like function, such that while we’re all individual organisms we’re also part of a larger humanity organism (which could be broken down into either smaller city-state groups or as inclusive as the sum of humanity). Unlike other hive organisms (bees, ants, etc) each of the individual organisms is much more autonomous obviously (this screams of Ender’s Game).

    In this context the religious benefits could be measured differently than they otherwise would. If a religion promotes behavior that increases numbers (“no-contraceptives for you, the Pope says so!”, and “go ye unto all nations”), and in-group interaction (“beware the gentiles!”) it has helped create a scenario in which a group gets larger, which then can promote more specialization within the group (makes more sense to have some guys hunting, some guys farming, and some guys making tools than everybody doing everything… if you’ve got the numbers and the resources, and eventually with all that breeding and proselytizing you’ll have the numbers) which then promotes more leisure time which in turn promotes discovery, invention, and art. If the religion also promotes a “sacrifice yourself for your neighbor” philosophy then you’ve got a concept which benefits the group as a whole when it comes to conflicts with other groups. By benefiting the group as a whole you’re de-facto offering some benefit to the individual members of the group, even if some of those members pay the price to give the benefits to everybody else (I’m thinking in terms of schooling fish now, some get eaten, but your chance of getting eaten are less as part of the group than they are on your own).

    While the religion may be parasitic in nature and offer few benefits to the individual (though I think the comfort received by knowing you’re “saved” would have to count as a benefit, the requisite guilt and other detracting factors would have to be weighed against any benefits), I think it’s more likely that the more malleable religions (see note) serve some sort of symbiotic relationship at the group level, and while they introduce problems they lower the risk to each individual.

    To that end I think there’s probably an argument to be made about the democratic nation-state in the last couple hundred years having started to replace that group selective function more and more. The religion isn’t the only way of giving the group those benefits, but as it was a result of a naturally spawned behavior in humanity (the behavior being “find an explanation for what happened”) and it worked for many thousands of years, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is parasitic/virus-like just that it was the best adaptive function available at the time. While it may not be the best adaptive function now, part of the reason it has held on is likely because there needs to be a valid, group selective, behavior to replace it. I think there needs to be something more cohesive as a philosophy that replaces those religious functions without becoming a religion if religion is going to be replaced.

    Religion has been a “good enough” adaptive behavior for so long that there will need to be a much more compelling alternative for religion to give way. The other part of the equation is that due to it having been around for so long, religion has built in means of meeting our social creature needs, and until the alternatives to religion do a good enough job at serving that function (right now I think too many of the atheist communities are based on, and led by, people who are self described individualists and until the atheist community can start to include the people who don’t think of themselves in that “I’m an individual” way they won’t gain as much traction as they could). For most of the population, the basic religious explanation is (with or without truth) good enough to get them through their day, let them forget about other things, and focus on their jobs, friends, and family.

    Note: I’m thinking of a malleable religion in terms of Christianity (or at least variants of Christianity) which has changed views on various subject over the years (from slavery, to contraception, to burning witches), though I know that some variants on Islam and Buddhism also allow for some movement on certain subjects. The key factor is likely that a religion doesn’t promote activities which decrease numbers and attractiveness of the religion (human sacrifice on any sort of escalating scale doesn’t seem to work for very long).

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

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