I’ve often heard from atheists that “claims made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. And while it’s become an annoying refrain in the religious/secular conversation, there is a certain logic to it.
But here’s the thing: atheism, by definition, cannot have evidence. Atheism is a positive claim about the non-existence of God (or gods). And there cannot be positive evidence that proves the non-existence of a spiritual being.
John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity wrote an excellent piece for Easter, offering some helpful dialogue pointers for atheists. He gives useful tips on the rich intellectual tradition of Christianity:
“My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents … popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, ‘Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!'”
…and offers a vital comment on the status of Young-Earth Creationism within the broader Christian Church:
“Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.”
Read the whole piece on ABC’s website.
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth Redman present on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Redman used her experience as a journalist to highlight the conventions which are used in reporting historical events, and also discussed ways in which conventions have changed since Biblical times. An essay based on her talk is available here:
Reporting the Truth
I found her discussion of ancient biographical techniques to be particularly helpful. She discussed four conventions that were popular in Roman times:
The Gospels are written in the genre of Greco-Roman biography . When compared to cases in other surviving biographies where the same writer tells the same story differently in different accounts, a set of deliberate compositional devices become evident … These compositional devices include:
– Compression, where an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they actually occurred in
– Transferral, where one person did or said something, but the author attributes the words or deeds to the person who caused them to do or say it
– Spotlighting, where an author focuses on one person in a scene but doesn’t mention others who were also involved
– Displacement, where an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and transplants it in another.
These conventions help explain the differences between the four accounts of the resurrection. For example, the writers offer different lists of women who visited the empty tomb. Luke lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and “the others”, while John only mentions Mary Magdalene. This appears to be an example of the spotlighting device – multiple women went to Jesus’ empty tomb to anoint his body with spices, but John only highlights Mary, knowingly. The angels receive similar treatment. Matthew mentions one angel, Mark shows a young man in a white robe, Luke lists two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning and John has two angels. This spotlighting of one angel in two of the gospels doesn’t prevent there from being another angel alongside him.
Redman also gave some great perspective on how audience expectations, the importance of witnesses, and the cultural norm of oral tradition would have shaped the narrative structure. It’s a great read, and I recommend you check out the original article.