Thursday, June 7, 2012

Apostle Paul vs. Atheist Richard Dawkins

Paul Sees Jesus: Scholarly Consensus

Over 95% of scholars accept that Saul of Tarsus, who previously persecuted Christians, had a sudden and dramatic conversion to Christianity. (1) He went on to become the world's most influential missionary and suffered repeated persecutions as a result, ultimately ending with his execution in Rome.

However, scholars don't think that he just converted. They think that he converted because he believed that he saw a glorious Jesus after his death.

Richard Dawkins Sees Jesus

Paul's conversion does not warrant belief in the miraculous. It is his explanation for his conversion which does. An example will illustrate this point. If leading atheist Richard Dawkins converted to Christianity tomorrow, we would be surprised. However, we would not consider it to be miraculous. However, imagine if he said he converted because he saw a glorious appearing of Jesus which knocked him off his feet on the way to work, and caused blindness? Suppose he became the world's most influential missionary as a result, and ultimately got executed for his religion? 

In that situation, we would not be able to doubt the sincerity of Dawkin's experience, because he would have proved it by his life and his suffering for the new religion. So lying would be out of the question. Furthermore, religious people sometimes claim to have visions of angels or Jesus. However, Richard Dawkins is neither prone to these nor open to having such an experience. So a "sane" religious vision is not going to work as an explanation. 

Furthermore, psychological problems would also fail to account for his experience. First, we have already seen that he would not have any proneness to a hallucination of Jesus. In addition, even if he did hallucinate Jesus, it would have to be such a powerful experience that it actually caused him to convert, instead of causing him to seek psychiatric help because of hallucinating Jesus! Other naturalistic explanations, such as sun stroke or epileptic seizures, would not convince Dawkins that he saw Jesus. After all, I'm sure there are plenty of atheists who have had sun stroke or epileptic seizures and do not think they have seen Jesus as a result! 

In addition, Richard Dawkins is more skeptical than all of us. He is even much more skeptical than the average atheist. So whatever proof we think we need of Jesus, Richard probably wants a lot more. 

In the case of Dawkins, all alternate explanations fail. He would not have any motive to lie. He is not in the right frame of mind to have a religious epiphany of that nature. In addition, psychological causes either would not happen (because he is not in the right mindset), or they would not be intense enough to convince him it was actually Jesus as opposed to a pyschiatric problem.

So if that happened, we would be forced to say that Richard Dawkins really saw Jesus. Not as a hallucination. But for real.

Paul vs. Richard Dawkins

This is the situation we have with the apostle Paul. He actively tried to get Christians in legal trouble and gave approval to the death of at least one leading Christian. The evidence we have shows he was on his way to throw Christians in jail. So Paul is more hostile to Christianity than Richard Dawkins. So he is even less prone to a sane religious experience than Paul is. Furthermore, he is also less prone to a hallucination, let alone being convinced by one. He is also not in the mindset to have a warm religious experience of Jesus and convert as a result. 

He has no motive to lie. He worked for his own financial support as a missionary. (1 Thessalonians) He had no female interests. (1 Cor. 7) The only power he had was in the new group of Christians, and even that was challenged at times. (2 Corinthians) He would have faced excommunication from his own people for his beliefs. He was regularly beat and attempts made on his life. (2 Cor./Acts)

Some alternative theories that have been proposed, such as sun stroke or epileptic seizure, would not be enough to convince Paul, since many atheists suffer from these maladies as well. (2) (Notice, these explanations implicitly concede the physical effects of his experience.)

Furthermore, some of the sources say that he was blinded by the experience, and his traveling companions were aware of it as well. The problem is that visions don't blind people, since they are basically religious dreams in a waking state. Only very bright objects cause blindness. (The risen Jesus, according to traditional Christian theology, obtained an incredibly glorious and bright appearance upon arrival to heaven). So the physical effects and the presence of others rule out subjective explanations. 

So it seems that if we reject Paul's experience, then we would be forced to reject Dawkins as well. Dawkins  doesn't try to get Christians in jail, whereas Paul did. Dawkins has more prestige and money to gain by converting to Christianity than Paul did, since Christianity has an established base now. 

Joseph Smith and Mohammed

Some may protest and bring up Joseph Smith and Mohammed as examples of people who changed religion due to a vision of some sort. Both of them claimed to have seen a message from the angel Gabriel and started a religion because of it.

However, there are many very crucial differences. First, we have already seen that Paul's testimony is even stronger than that of Richard Dawkins if he were to see Jesus. Richard Dawkins is definitely a stronger witness than Joseph Smith and Mohammed (since he is skeptical). So, if Paul is a stronger witness than Dawkins, a fortori Paul is a stronger witness than Joseph Smith and Mohammed.

But it doesn't stop there. Both Mohammed and Joseph Smith were disillusioned with their own religious beliefs or the religious beliefs in their region. (3 &4) Mohammed regularly meditated. (3) So their openness to an alternate religious vision is vastly stronger than Paul's. Furthermore, we cannot even be certain that they didn't lie. Mohammed got power through conquering the world for Islam. (3) Smith may have had female motivations and incited Mormon groups to military conflicts with non-Mormons. (4) It's not even clear that Smith died for Mormonism. (4) Finally, they lack physical evidence of the experience (such as blindness like Paul had).

On the contrary, Paul worked for his own monetary support as a missionary. He was celibate, so he had no female motivations. Paul faced the rejection of his own people. Paul traveled far and wide as a missionary, was beaten multiple times, faced trials, and was ultimately executed for his religion. Paul previously hated Christianity and persecuted it's followers. Paul was not at all open to religious experiences of a new religion, as Paul would have been. Furthermore, Paul experienced physical effects as the result of the appearance of Jesus and claimed it was a resurrected man he saw in heaven, making it a very objective experience. Whereas for Mohammed and Smith, there is no evidence it was anything more than subjective. Finally, Paul definitely suffered for Christianity, since the resurrection is mentioned in every speech in Acts that gained converts, in every "Gospel" it is the main focus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and in every location Paul defines the gospel. 

Paul's experience, all by itself, is more evidence for Christianity than any other religion has to offer. (Not to mention the eyewitness testimony of the other disciples.)

Seeing Jesus for Yourself Is Less Evidence than Paul Seeing Jesus

But that's not the most radical conclusion. If we reject Paul's experience, we would be forced to reject our own experience if we saw Jesus. Paul is much more skeptical of Christianity than any of us would be.

Many skeptics find it unfair that Jesus doesn't appear to them personally. I don't think its unfair. If the average atheist got to see Jesus this would still be less evidence than what we already have with Paul's experience. 

If we don't trust Paul when he says he saw Jesus, why would we ever trust ourselves if we saw Jesus?

2) Mentions sun stroke and epileptic seizures.

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