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The Portable Atheist: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mark Twain

Christopher Hitchens’s book The Portable Atheist is a collection of “essential” writings for unbelievers.  I’m currrently posting some of my miscellaneous thoughts about the various works in the book as I read them.

According to Hitchens, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a victim of the theocracy that once ruled Oxford and Cambridge universities.  He wasn’t allowed to teach there because he did not profess faith in God.  Hitchens sees this as a great tragedy, but after reading Shelley’s pamphlet “A Refutation of Deism,” I’m hardly moved to agree.  Yes, Shelley had a great mind, but he focused it to the wrong ends.  He came to simple, startling, and incorrect conclusions about the nature of God.

First, the pamphlet argues from the point of view of an eternal universe.  This is because, according to Shelley, it is simpler to conclude that the universe is the Uncaused Cause than to reach outside the universe for that Cause.  The flaw here is that modern science has unanimously concluded that the universe is not eternal–it had a beginning sometime in the finite past.  The universe, because it came into being, must have a cause.  Even Shelley concedes that point, and that it is one of the main reasons that he begins his argument with the assumption that the universe is self-existent and eternal.

Since that is not the case, the rest of the argument–founded upon a faulty premise–is incorrect.

However, it remains for me to point out one of the double standards of atheism, and that is the application of Occam’s Razor to the divine.  The atheist applies Occam’s Razor to the universe, saying that the Big Bang is the Uncaused Cause–the First Mover that set the universe into motion.

The theist, however, has a much better argument here.  The theist begins from the divine as the Uncaused Cause because all that begins must first have a cause.  The universe began, and so therefore must have a cause.  A cause cannot itself be a part of the effect–think of the Laws of Inertia here.  Therefore, the Uncaused Cause is supernatural–outside the order of the universe.

Here is where the atheist retorts, “What created the Creator?”  Using this retort is a vicious double standard.  The atheist allows Occam’s Razor to be applied to the Big Bang, stating that is the Uncaused Cause.  But he doesn’t allow the theist the same leeway to apply Occam’s Razor to the divine Creator.  The divine creator, the atheist reasons, must Himself have a Creator, who also had a Creator, who also had a Creator, and so on backwards into infinity.

This is reasonable to the atheist.  He doesn’t see the hole in his logic, however.  He is using Occam’s Razor to make the Big Bang the First Cause.  He refuses to give the theist the same ability to simplify to one deity, in effect requiring a multitude of deities when he only requires one Big Bang.

I also read Mark Twain’s essay, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice.”  More of the same old refuted notions–buffet style religion (the idea that we can pick and choose the laws that we follow), slavery, and witch hunts.  I agree that religion is many times a very bad thing, but I only wish that atheists would at least represent our side without resorting to argument by outrage as they so often do.  These notions are refuted in Lee Camp’s excellent book, Mere Discipleship.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on February 6, 2008, in Apologetics, Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The difference between stating there’s a creator being and that there was a big bang is that there is actual observable evidence of the Big Bang occurring – from background radiation, movement of galaxies, nature of light, etc.

    However, theists make the mistake of trying to introduce a mechanism (god/creator being) for which there is no evidence for. You may as well theorise that the universe we known it is contained completely in a drop of rain in a much more massive universe. Which is absurd because there is no evidence for such a supposition.

  2. However, theists make the mistake of trying to introduce a mechanism (god/creator being) for which there is no evidence for.

    This is where you and I differ. Even if there is nothing else, you still have to account for Jesus–and not with a ridiculous answer like “He never existed.” Jesus made certain claims that leave a person with only three possible options: either He is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord of us all.

    Jesus affirmed a Creator deity. In fact, He claimed that He was One with that deity (Jn 10:30). Did Jesus lie? Was He crazy? Or maybe, just maybe, He’s RIGHT.

    I, and millions of people throughout history, have literally bet their lives that He’s right. And many of us have experienced lives changed so much for the better because of taking that bet (2 Cor 5:17).

    I’d have to say that that is pretty good evidence.

  3. The chances that the Jesus figure existed? Moderate to good. Chances that he was some sort of divine being? There’s simply no evidence for it.
    And no, don’t even try using the bible as evidence – it is most certainly a flawed document. From the historical inaccuracies, contradictions, translation flaws and gospel/book picking and choosing throughout the centuries … well, it’s quite far away from reliable.
    Far more likely that the Jesus figure existed, he wandered around like the small army of prophets that did at the time and his tales were vastly exaggerated. Then the people of the time and their immediate descendants pinched a bunch of stories/deeds/miracles from Mithra(s) and attributed them to Jesus to make him look good.

    Also, personal experience in the context you’re using it in is also not suitable evidence. It’s only as credible as someone saying the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Xenu or Thor changed their lives.

  4. The chances that the Jesus figure existed? Moderate to good. Chances that he was some sort of divine being? There’s simply no evidence for it.
    And no, don’t even try using the bible as evidence – it is most certainly a flawed document. From the historical inaccuracies, contradictions, translation flaws and gospel/book picking and choosing throughout the centuries … well, it’s quite far away from reliable.

    Well, the Bible is the best evidence that we have as it contains the best and most detailed stories of Jesus. The problems that you’re throwing out, however, are simply not there. You are asserting them without providing any evidence. There are far more historical accuracies with the Bible, and each time an apparent inaccuracy has surfaced, the Bible has eventually been vindicated. Think of the walls at Jericho that fell outward rather than inward. Luke is considered a first-rate historian, more accurate than any secular historian.

    The Bible never contradicts itself. Every apparent contradiction has been dealt with satisfactorily. Research it.

    As for the canon, the four-fold gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) has been accepted since the beginning of Christianity. The rest of the canon was in stone by the middle of the second century. Sorry, but it wasn’t as hotly debated as you skeptics like to make it sound.

    Far more likely that the Jesus figure existed, he wandered around like the small army of prophets that did at the time and his tales were vastly exaggerated. Then the people of the time and their immediate descendants pinched a bunch of stories/deeds/miracles from Mithra(s) and attributed them to Jesus to make him look good.

    The small army that is a footnote in history, while Jesus Christ becomes the focal point of history? That small army of prophets?

    Did you read the link I provided? It refutes the Mithra connection.

    Also, personal experience in the context you’re using it in is also not suitable evidence. It’s only as credible as someone saying the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Xenu or Thor changed their lives.

    No one I know has ever claimed that any of the examples you mention changed their lives. But many more people have been willing to die a martyr’s death proclaiming the profound change that accepting Christ has had on them. How many people do you know that have died for Thor?

  5. The historical inaccuracies are many. Shall we start with some of the bigger ones? The Global Flood … never happened. Physically impossible for it to have happened and there is no evidence for it happening.

    The Exodus from Egypt. Again, there is no evidence for it. It would have left Egypt in economic and social ruin but there are no records of such, not even from nearby nations that were enemies of Egypt from which many writings have been found and archived.

    What about Esther? There is no record of a queen by that name at all anywhere.

    Moving on to the New Testament. No record of any sort of large scale census at the time ordered by the Roman Empire. The idea that such a census was carried out is silly anyhow, especially the part about people having to return to the towns of their ancestors.

    The Bible never contradicts itself. Every apparent contradiction has been dealt with satisfactorily. Research it.

    No, they really haven’t. From the contradictory timelines given in Genesis to the huge differences in the Jesus stories in the gospels – none have been able to be explained away without using human subjective perspectives/corrections/suppositions.
    And the moment you do that, you wipe out any sort of historical accuracy you might otherwise claim.

    The small army that is a footnote in history, while Jesus Christ becomes the focal point of history? That small army of prophets?

    Indeed. The world is always full of self labelled prophets. Even some of the worst murderers in modern times have called themselves such but they’ve not gone down in history. Why? Go figure. But then some of the smallest people in life go on to be hugely recognised in death. Visual artists are a prime example of this.

    No one I know has ever claimed that any of the examples you mention changed their lives.

    Obviously that would be because your society consists mostly of people that share your beliefs. Go back to ancient greece, norway or rome and you’ll see and hear people dying for their gods, sacrificing to their gods and saying their gods changed their lives.

    As for your claim your link refutes the Mithras theory, it does not even mention Mithras.
    Now have you ever considered the legend of Mithras is so extraordinarily similar to that of Jesus? Even down to the same miracles, birth date, etc?

  6. Citing the Bible as evidence because it contains stories of Jesus ..is forgetting that stories are not evidence of the truth of the stories. The Bible is a compendium of conflicting stories and if you would like to understand where it came from and who wrote it and how it was shaped, I suggest you might want to read the biblical scholarship and evidence presented for that. Nursery rhymes are not true because they are found in old books.

  7. A few books I would recommend include Who Wrote the New Testament by Burton Mack, and Misquoting Jesus, the story behind who changed the bible and why by Bart Ehrman. These are biblical scholars. There are many more.

  8. Wow, Wendy, I can’t believe that you would assume I’ve never picked up either of those books. I’ve read part of Ehrman’s book already, which I can’t say that I’m impressed with it. Most of what he presents I already know, and I’m just an amateur at this.

    As for Mack, he is so closely related to the Jesus Seminar that I wouldn’t offer him much credibility as far as the conclusions that he draws. The early Christians treated all of their documents with much reverence; I doubt very much that they would have allowed all copies of this so-called document Q to be lost without a trace. They would have preserved it. Since Mack is a strong proponent of the Q document, I again can’t lend him much credibility.

    Luke Timothy Johnson has the same credentials as Burton Mack. He believes that the Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus of history. N.T. Wright also believes in the gospels as history. What makes your two scholars more credible than my two?

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