Christians weaponizing scholars’ quotes: Sherwin-White, Russell, and VilenkinOverview:

Christians citing experts badly: this time, it’s a historian, a philosopher, and a cosmologist (3 of 3).

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let’s take back some atheists’ quotes that have been misinterpreted by Christian apologists. In this final segment, we look at a historian, a philosopher, and a cosmologist (part 1 here).

7. A. N. Sherwin-White, historian

The gospels were written roughly 40 to 60 years after the events they supposedly describe. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has cited Sherwin-White to argue that legendary additions to oral history happen slowly enough that the gospels are still reliable despite that long gap. This is Craig:

According to Sherwin-White, the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be “unbelievable.” More generations would be needed. (Source)

Lots of problems here.

  • Misquote: Sherwin-White never said “unbelievable” in this context. But it sounds so much better when Craig says it, so (in a curious bit of evolutionary survival of the fittest), his quote is always cited by subsequent apologists rather than Sherwin-White’s original.
  • Wrong interpretation: Craig interprets the passage to say that myth never prevails over historic truth within two generations. What Sherwin-White actually claims is that myth doesn’t always prevail over historic truth.
  • Overselling: Sherwin-White was not proposing a law that governs legendary accretion and offered no algorithm that would winnow out the legendary chaff from a historical account.
  • Delicate balance: Craig is defending the extraordinary claims of the supernatural, and he needs extraordinary evidence. He wants legendary development to be slow to argue for the gospels’ accuracy, but it must be quick so that the many second-century noncanonical gospels couldn’t arguably be historically reliable as well.

More here: Oral Tradition and the Game of Telephone: A. N. Sherwin-White’s Famous Quote

8. Bertrand Russell, philosopher

Russell wrestled with religion and how we should see the world in “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903). The paragraph that Christian apologists always quote begins with a ponderous 134-word sentence in which he gives us some existential tough love. Not only will we all die, he reminds us, but all that we strive for and care about will be dust eventually. The sentence ends with the warning, “No philosophy which rejects [these facts] can hope to stand.” And then, the bombshell:

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.

Christians have interpreted this to mean that the atheist outlook is despair. That atheists should be suicidal, with their worldview to blame.

That’s not what it means. If I say, “I despair of winning this game,” I’ve fully accepted the fact that I won’t win. The matter is hopeless, but only in that I have fully accepted the facts and hold no hope that they will be overturned. It doesn’t mean that I’m sobbing with grief.

“Unyielding despair” means that you must accept Russell’s list without caveat. You should despair of finding a loophole like a god who has created an afterlife for you. Russell is saying we can’t look away from the facts: we’re just animals that happened to evolve on one ordinary, insignificant dust speck in a universe that has trillions of such dust specks. We’re not immortal, we’re not even special, and Mankind is just temporary.

It’s a discouraging, even depressing existential fact that we’re going to die and our achievements will eventually be forgotten, but that’s life. Few of us let it get in the way of making the most of our limited time on earth. Russell’s point is that we can’t sidestep this but must face it. If we hold out that we are special, we will be held back—that was what he meant by “no philosophy which rejects [these facts] can hope to stand.”

And even if you think atheism is depressing, this does nothing to say that atheism is wrong. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson offers some lighthearted clarity: “If you are depressed after being exposed to the cosmic perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego.”

Conclusion: Russell makes a reasonable point that only seems like an attack on atheism.

[William Lane Craig] wants legendary development to be slow to argue for the gospels’ accuracy, but not so slow that the many second-century noncanonical gospels could arguably be historically reliable as well.

9. Alexander Vilenkin, cosmologist

Apologist William Lane Craig often cites the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, which concludes (given certain assumptions) that the universe can’t be infinite in duration. Here he quotes Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One:

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning. (Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One [2007], p. 176)

What Craig missed is this on the very next page:

Theologians have often welcomed any evidence for the beginning of the universe, regarding it as evidence for the existence of God…. So what do we make of a proof that the beginning is unavoidable? Is it a proof of the existence of God? This view would be far too simplistic. Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist.

Apparently, taking the first quote out of context made for a stronger story than acknowledging the second quote and addressing the tension between them.

Conclusion: quote taken out of context.

But am I consistent?

Let’s return to the challenge I set for myself in the first article in this series, that I must quote Christians like Francis Collins correctly while avoiding the problems I highlighted in the nine examples that followed.

Christians quoting atheists can be legitimately done. They just need to follow the basic rules of research that one might learn in eight grade: a quote can be used only if it’s accurately quoted, correctly understood, excerpted in its context, and cited accurately.

You’re welcome to hold me to these standards, because you know I will be doing that to the Christian apologists.

Never rely on a priest
to provide objective analysis
of his theological product.
He always has a used car to sell.
— David Madison

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...