Category Archives: religion

On requiring a “loyalty oath” of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center

The latest insult in the ongoing Murfreesboro mosque controversy is the demand by Lou Ann Zelenik and cohorts that Imam Bahloul sign a pledge essentially forswearing terror, “infidel-killing,” contravention of American laws, and the like—forswearing, that is, the parts of Islam that supposedly call for that sort of thing.

The first thing to know about all of this is that Lou Ann, etc. don’t actually want it signed; at least, they couldn’t want it for the reasons they say they do.

They wouldn’t believe the Imam’s pledge anyhow. Demanding it only makes sense if Lou Ann, etc. is unprepared to accept it in the first place. Think about it: If they were sincerely prepared to accept a promise to forswear terror or terror-support, such a pledge would be neither necessary nor sufficient. You might take the word of someone who tells you they aren’t a murderer (or a murder-supporter), if, for whatever oddball reason, they brought up the subject out of the cold blue. But if you already assume they might be guilty—and if you need a pledge, you do—then surely a paltry verbal assurance won’t be enough to make you feel secure: “Oh, you’re not going to chop off my head, you say? Shit, I really thought you might. OK, works for me!” Of course a guilty person has motive to claim innocence; a suspect’s own assurances are worthless for evidentiary purposes. Add to this that the anti-mosque contingent are absolutely convinced that Muslims will invoke taqiyya to lie to “infidels” to mask their true, sinister intentions.

So whatever the reason Lou Ann, et al, are making this demand, it isn’t because it would make them feel more secure about the Imam’s and his community’s intentions. So the motivation must be something else.

For reasons having nothing to do with “supporting terror,” the Center has good reason not to sign: It is insulting to impose “loyalty oaths” on one sector of the community and not others, especially when they come from open antagonists of that sector. (Zelenik was the first to allude to the new Center as a “training camp,” language which has stuck. At times, the construction is just openly referred to as “a mosque and training camp.”) This would be like the Klan demanding that black people pledge to bathe regularly and not steal in order to gain full entry into the community–after having widely accused the black community of failing to do both. Signing would just endorse that insult, and would imply that the connection (blacks-theft; Muslims-terror, etc.) has some prima facie plausibility—again, while giving their critics zero reason to back off.

But this refusal will be used by the anti-mosque crowd as more evidence that these crazy Islamists are ravening to take over. That’s probably what’s behind this. When they do this, keep the following in mind: Is it reasonable that the Imam, etc. would be OK with supporting terrorism, etc. but not with telling a lie (i.e., signing the pledge without meaning it, just to get the critics off their backs)? If they were really endorsing a nasty version of Shariah law, complete with injunctions to kill the infidels that request the pledge, why wouldn’t they just say they weren’t?

[p.s. The first “plank” of the pledge states: “Redda Law, the Shariah Law that allows the killing of Muslims who leave Islam, must be banned in Islamic teachings and in Shariah legal doctrine.” So wouldn’t the anti-mosque crowd have considered the possibility that the ICM would not wish to sign out of fear that it would bring a fatwa on itself for apostasy? I mean, they talk as though this happens here all the time.]

Too easy: Yet more proof the Murfreesboro mosque protest is about bigotry and not security

If you missed the last few posts (see here and here), those protesting the new mosque/Islamic center in Murfreesboro, TN “officially” say they are merely opposed to the legal process used to vet the plan. However, when you look at their rally signs, and the comments made in the commission meeting, there is nothing but anti-Islam sentiments.

Kevin Fisher, the main guy pushing against the mosque proposal, wrote a shitty letter to the Tennessean outlining his case. Among the very few specific “concerns” he lists, he is upset that “there is [no] ref­er­ence to 9/11 on its his­tory sec­tion of its web­site.” (“It” being the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, the group trying to build the new facility.)

He didn’t elaborate on this point, which is odd, as this could mean a few different things. But I’ll make some educated guesses.

First, the reality is that virtually no church with a history section is going to mention 9/11, nor the great majority of other human events that have ever occurred. For theirs is not “History” but rather “a history”—a selective account tailored for a less-than-general purpose. (I hear Muslims don’t list 9/11 on their medical “histories” either.)

The purpose of the Center website could be anything. Maybe it aims to educate new Muslims on events they may not know about yet. (Surely they’ve heard of 9/11.) Or one of a million other things having nothing to do with 9/11.

However, I am almost certain Fisher is not looking for a “history” of any kind. He is looking for a denunciation of 9/11. He wants the Center to state that they don’t support the terror, didn’t have ties to the bombers, etc. If not this, explicitly, he wants some mention of the event because it would show that the Center is not “avoiding the subject,” ashamed to acknowledge it.

But think about how weird this request is: If the Center is truly innocent of supporting 9/11, why should it have any greater obligation to denounce it than anyone else who is innocent of that act? Again, Fisher doesn’t demand this disclaimer of other websites, church or otherwise; he himself has writings online that don’t mention 9/11. How is an innocent Muslim different from an innocent anyone-else?

I contend Fisher demands this disclaimer because he believes that simply being Muslim means that the site indeed “has something to do with 9/11”—that it is someway or another implicated in terror, etc.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying Fisher finds the Muslims guilty. By analogy: Many readers have found themselves in a restaurant sitting with someone who is rude to the server. We are not guilty of this behavior, but we usually feel some responsibility to apologize on its behalf—as if saying nothing would be to condone it. At least, we have more responsibility than someone at another table, or who had the same table last week, or a grocery clerk in Holland.

At best, Fisher is acting like a server who wants this apology and hasn’t gotten it. His request only makes sense on the assumption that the Center Muslims are at least responsible in a way that other Americans are not.

Let me put this another way. Demanding the statement only makes sense if Fisher is unprepared to accept such a statement in the first place. Think about it: If Fisher were sincerely prepared to accept the Center’s plea of “innocence,” such a plea would be neither necessary nor sufficient. You might take the word of someone who tells you they aren’t a murderer (or a murder-supporter), if, for whatever oddball reason, they brought up the subject. But if you already assume they might be guilty, surely a paltry verbal assurance won’t be enough to make you feel secure: “Oh, you’re not going to chop off my head, you say? Shit, I really thought you might. OK, works for me!” Of course a guilty person will claim innocence; a suspect’s own assurances are worthless for evidentiary purposes.

* * *

This gives further lie to Fisher’s and the other protester’s claims that they are disinterestedly “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes, e.g. “We don’t hate anyone for their religion, we just want to vet them before the mosque gets the go-ahead.” Not so. Fisher’s expectation of a 9/11 disclaimer is insane unless he has already made up his mind that they are “bad guys.” Again, since there is nothing about this group that tells Fisher they are “bad guys” except for the fact that they are Muslim—this is plain and simple religious bigotry.

Solidarity site on the Murfreesboro mosque protest

I’ve been writing about the Islamophobic protest against the planned mosque/Islamic center in my old hometown. This tells more about the counter-protest, whose rally actually dwarfed the original (concurrent) protest. It shows the role of World Outreach Church, where the organizers and most of the opposition appear to come from, something I’ve not known enough to talk about.

Be sure to read the comments at the end–lots of good info there too. Word to my comrade Jase Short.

Link here.

Murfreesboro Mosque redux: More proof this is about bigotry and not security

Those protesting the mosque plan like to claim they are merely “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes—given the reality of Muslim terror, the war, etc.: “We don’t hate anyone, we just want some answers first; we aren’t saying the mosque can’t be built, we just don’t like that the legal process to determine this was shunted.’

In my last post, I argued that the generally negative tenor of the protest contradicted this claim. Let me add to my earlier examples.

Consider the presence of Israeli flags at the rally. First, Israelis and Muslims probably shouldn’t be viewed as natural “sides,” whereby in supporting one, you automatically go against the other; for there is a third option in the interests of both. But that isn’t the point. The point is that the protester who waves this flag clearly intends it to antagonize neighboring Muslims.

I don’t have a problem with “negative tenor” in principle. I’m not calling for “civility” in political action; that is a tactical, not a moral question. I’m all for antagonizing “the enemy.”

But that’s the problem: Antagonizing local Muslims only makes sense if they are the enemy, when the whole point of “investigating” was to determine that very question. Waving the Israeli flag means the “investigation” is complete in the minds of the wavers.

In fairness, fearing all Muslims isn’t enough to make you a bigot—if all Muslims are in fact dangerous. In that case, your “prejudice” just happens to be an astute observation. (The same logic applies in the saying, “it ain’t really braggin’ if you got it.”)

Obviously, it is empirically false that all Muslims are dangerous. But we don’t even need to prove that because the protesters don’t deny it—at least, not openly. They will each acknowledge that there are, or could be, some peaceful Muslims in the world. They just don’t like the “bad ones.”

But here’s where they slip up. As soon as you admit the possibility that a Muslim, some Muslim, could be un-dangerous, the question emerges: What makes these Muslims dangerous? What specifically are they doing that those “good ones” aren’t?

The protesters can’t answer this question because there isn’t an answer. The Murfreesboro congregants haven’t done anything to warrant being taunted with Israeli flags, etc., besides be Muslim. Logically, any other Muslim in their position “would do”—would warrant the same level of antagonism. The antagonism precedes and is detached from a determination of “danger.”

So the protesters’ claim to “respect all faiths” is bullshit. This is about opposing Islam because it is Islam. This is religious persecution, by definition. Either (a) the protesters are lying about not believing all Muslims are “bad,” or (b) they are prepared to mistreat a Muslim whether they think them to be “bad” or not. There are no other options.

On the Murfreesboro Mosque Protest

I spent 15 years of my recent adult life in Murfreesboro, TN, lately the subject of national media attention. Recently, a local Muslim congregation received permission from the county planning commission to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque on their own property. Some mostly white, Christian residents have protested the plan on the ugliest possible grounds. They filled a commission meeting to complain and held a march/rally in the town square.

Of course the protesters are full of shit and I’m shamed by it. On a high note, some of my comrades have organized “Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom,” which staged a pretty exhilarating counter-protest. (I would say they “won.”)

This post is my response to the episode and to Islamophobia in general.

Kevin is Fishing for a pretext

It seems a Murfreesboro man named Kevin Fisher sparked the drama. He filed a grievance with the state charging that the planning commission failed to properly notify the public that they were considering the plan. His complaint went public and managed to gather steam. He remains the chief organizer and “public face” of the protest.

"Shit for Brains"

Fisher’s on-camera statements have been careful to focus on legal-technical matters—zoning issues, how the construction could negatively impact traffic flows, water tables, home values, etc.

But Fisher is no amateur municipal policy wonk. His letter to the Tennessean [newspaper] briefly notes these logistical concerns before reminding readers of the ongoing War on Terror, which he describes, Sam Huntington-style, as a clash of “ideologies.” Unless this is just a nice historical aside, it appears to be his entire case: ‘We are at war with people who are Muslims; therefore, the new center is a “concern.”’ He never gets any more specific than that. The implication is (can only be) that the mosque—just for being a Muslim entity—may be implicated in some kind of “anti-American” terrorist or otherwise dangerous/illegal activity.

I will argue below that this fear is misplaced. But first:

It is unclear how this security concern is supposed to relate to the “technical” side of Fisher’s complaint. Indeed, he makes zero attempt to relate the two sides in terms of substance. (Unless, that is, disrupting the traffic flow or water pressure is itself the dangerous or illegal activity he suspects the Muslims of plotting.)

I am trying to read his point charitably. I suppose he is attempting a kind of “argument from ignorance”: “We just don’t know what these Muslims may be involved in, so we need to investigate.” By itself, this is pretty weak, since we can never be 100% sure about anyone (therefore, we should investigate everyone). But the point is at least consistent. That is, until you note that none of Fisher’s actual, concrete proposals (also in the letter) have anything to do with crime, terrorism, and the like—they are all about those “technical” issues. Demanding traffic and water studies is an odd response to an abiding, mortal fear—especially since Fisher trusts the “suspects” to conduct the studies upon themselves!

A cover story

Fisher’s whole “schizophrenic” approach only makes sense if the legal concerns are just a cover story—a handy tool for waging what is fundamentally an Islamophobic campaign.

This probably won’t be an “a-ha!” moment for people like my counter-protesting comrades, who already suspect duplicity. But if you read Fisher’s words carefully, he all but admits it: In the letter, he describes the commission meeting (in retrospect) as a chance for people to “address concerns…that had been denied through lack of proper due process.” He adds that zoning, etc. “laws were ignored to stifle public outcry.”

Notice: He doesn’t say that the concerns were over lack of due process; nor that the public outcry was over the ignoring of laws. Rather, the ignoring of due process and the law were bad because they preempted a “concern” and “outcry” existing prior to and having fuck-all to do with those technical matters. (Namely, the fact that the project is run by Muslims, for Muslims.)

I don’t know if Fisher, etc. expect the technical protests to actually stop construction. Maybe the goal is simple harassment. His proposals have yet failed to impress the commission, and are so plainly out of whack with the relevant laws that I wonder if he means them seriously. But the protest alone could induce the mosque leaders to voluntarily back down, as happened a few miles away in Antioch, TN, and in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville.

What is obvious is that Mr. Fisher doesn’t give a shit about water pressure.

[Sidenote: Not long ago, the same commission approved a plan allowing Grace Baptist Church to build across the street from the proposed mosque site; construction has already begun. The circumstances aren’t identical (no two ever are), but most of the logistical issues would apply here as well. Needless to say, neither Fisher nor anyone else has raised a peep over “undue process,” traffic, etc.]

The rank and file protesters: Islamophobia without tears

Whatever Fisher thinks, a leader or organizer cannot be equated with whatever thing he is leading or organizing. It remains that the protest is very clearly, openly, driven by Islamophobia. Virtually every public comment and rally sign has been directed toward the Muslim identity of the congregation. As one newspaper observed: “Questions of whether the public was given adequate notice about the proposed mosque…quickly turned into attacks on the Muslim faith during the public comment portion of today’s Rutherford County Commission meeting.”

The following is a sampling of protester quotes, culled from local and national newspapers. (Note: I didn’t have to cherry-pick anything, as nobody at the meeting spoke in the mosque’s defense.)

“Everybody knows they are trying to kill us…Somebody has to stand and take this country back.”

“Experience has taught us that a segment of Muslims are very hostile to anyone who is not Muslim…Their Quran is very explicit about how they should treat infidels.”

“We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.”

“Islam is a system of justice [i.e., not a religion – ed.] We’ve got people here who remember Sept. 11, 2001. These people are scared.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have a [terrorist] training facility in Rutherford County.”

“We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, and so I don’t necessarily want them in my neighborhood.”

“Our country was founded through the founding fathers [true by definition, duh – ed.]—through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.”

(Note also: If anyone still doubts Fisher’s real concern, his own comment at the meeting simply endorsed the comments that preceded his—in a “Hear that? The people have spoken” kind of way. Of course he agrees with that shit.)

Are these fears reasonable?

If the technical concerns are a lie, at least the lie makes sense. But opposing the mosque because you think Islam is dangerous is plain bizarre. In Murfreesboro, the proof is in the pudding. Nobody is proposing to create a brand-new entity. There is already an Islamic center with a de facto mosque; it has been there for 13 fucking years. It is merely moving locations.

All things being equal, isn’t past behavior the surest indicator of future behavior? We can estimate how the new site would function by looking at the old site. I am not giving away any big secret when I note there have been no terrorist plots, nor other evils of Islamic coloration, emerging from the old location. The congregants have been “good neighbors” all this time.

Granted, the new site will be larger, and if you are already inclined to fear Islam, you will be inclined to oppose its “growth.” However, the expansion follows upon real growth that has already occurred; it isn’t clear it will create it. There aren’t hordes of Muslims not practicing simply because the current facility is overextended. The “bigger” congregation is being served now, only with relative difficulty.

Any such argument against relocation, then, is also an argument for shutting down the original site altogether; for it is just as “Muslim” as the new one. (This is the totalitarian place the protestor logic leads us. And Fisher says its about “let[ting] freedom ring.”)

Arguing against Islamophobia in general

Fear of Muslims should be examined apart from the particular conditions of Murfreesboro, TN.

The popular methodology of Islamophobia has two components: (a) citing naughty things (violence, etc.) done by Muslims, and (b) citing naughty passages from the Quran. I will treat these in turn.


We can agree with Fisher that the folks “we” are warring against are Muslim. The problem is that they are many other things as well—theists, mammals, beings with noses, etc. Must we be suspicious of everybody who has any feature in common with someone we are at war with? If not, why this feature—religion—rather than any other?

Just as not all Christians are Phalangist assassins or clinic-bombing militia types, not all Muslims are terrorists, medieval obscurants, etc. Citing the bad ones, even many bad ones, needn’t speak to the rest of the group. (This is a pretty elementary point, but frankly, I’m speaking to a pretty elementary argument.)


Method (b) is somewhat more powerful because it does look to taint Muslims as a group. It goes: ‘Despite their apparent diversity, all Muslims are beholden to the Quran; the naughty statements it contains (injunctions to kill infidels, etc.) are injunctions that hold for all, even the “good” Murfreesboro-type ones. It is their book; therefore, the naughty parts are theirs also.’

This reasoning commits a fatal error in assuming that a religion is reducible to a holy text. It is more correct to say: Islam is a holy book plus an interpretive scheme—a scheme embodied in traditions, auxiliary beliefs, and yet other texts, each with yet other interpretive schemes. This scheme is used to tell the faithful what the text means.

Actually, this expanded definition is still too narrow: There is no “Islam” to speak of, nor is there an interpretive scheme. There are only particular variants of Islam, each coupled with one of many competing interpretive schemes. (A religion is like a language: There is no “English,” just particular dialects of English.)

It follows that, if you want to establish the “danger” of an Islamic group, you have to do better than cite the book; you must show that it is actually interpreted and acted upon by members in a dangerous way. So far as the Murfreesboro believers are concerned, quoting passages that appear to endorse killing non-Muslims fails—because these worshipers simply do not interpret these passages as licensing them, in the present day, to kill non-believers. And that is that.

* * *

Some Islamophobes will go on: ‘OK, perhaps there are different interpretations. But the only proper, consistent interpretation is the “naughty” one; all Muslims are in fact commanded to wage jihad against the infidels, no matter what each interpreter may think. The Quran is not merely taken by some people to endorse violence; it “really” endorses it.’ This is supposed to deprive mainstream Muslims of the means to differentiate themselves from radicals like al-Quaeda, etc.

We don’t have to debate what the Quran “really” says to see that the logic of this argument is piss. The most it could mean is: “Mainstream Muslims ought, logically speaking, to be violent, but they are not.” The important point remains that they are not. (Since when can we equate what a person does with what he ought to do? I may as well tell the judge that, since I ought to have obeyed the speed limit, I am not liable for the ticket.) Perhaps these Muslims can be accused of poor reading; but we cannot call them dangerous.

* * *

Finally, an outsider can find just as many ostensibly dangerous passages in the Bible. For example, in Luke 19:27, Christ says: “Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

“On its face” (whatever that means), this verse appears to condone murder of “infidels” too. It isn’t much further to say that being “Christlike” means His followers should follow suit. If Muhammad spoke these words, the protesters would be drooling over it.

Christians allege that in context the meaning of this verse is benign. They reserve the right to distance themselves from militia types, etc. by invoking alternate interpretations of the identical text. And they probably have a good point. But it is irrational or worse to deny the same charity to Muslims.


Some “rational” Islamophobes (in the sense of “rational racism”) will say that they are only hedging their bets. They don’t hate anyone, and they aren’t even sure these Muslims are the “bad kind.” They just can’t take that chance.

Let’s test this claim. If a protester is sincerely in this position, we can expect him to behave in a certain way. He would be like a door attendant who has to wand everyone entering the building with a metal detector. The attendant is “investigating” his “suspects”; but this wouldn’t give him a reason to bear animosity toward those he wands. It simply wouldn’t occur to him, right?

But the tenor of the Murfreesboro protest is nothing like this. One marcher was quoted by Channel 5: “Half of [Muslims] will bury a body in their backyard and then drink the water.” Eh? Even if this were true, it has nothing to do with fear of terrorism, much less municipal law. It’s just a mean, egregious, insulting thing to say—nothing we would expect from a marcher merely seeking security. And the majority of the comments and signs are like this.

So: This protest is not the “rational,” disinterested self-defense of the doorperson. It is personal. The protesters aren’t seeking to ensure that their neighbors are the “good Muslims”; they have already presupposed their guilt. This is the only way to explain the persistence of mockery and harassment.

* * *

I direct my final point to the anti-Muslims: Going by numbers provided by our Federal government, the statistical likelihood that your local mosque will prove instrumental in some terrorist activity is far, far less than the chance that your white, nominally Christian neighbor will rob your house or otherwise criminally violate you at some point. So if it is “rational” to bet-hedge the Muslims, it would be all the smarter to protest the guy across the hedge. But you won’t do that—because it’s about something else.

Fuck you with hot sauce.

Homophobic gospel gets back to “nature” (revised)

[I discovered this video on Joshua Stewart’s fb. Thanks, man!]

This song is meant to be humorous, but not merely so. People really do make this kind of argument all the time: “You don’t see animals mating with the same sex.” (Ergo, it would be “unnatural” for us to do so.)

One problem is the premise is wrong; the same broad spectrum of sexuality—going from strict heterosexuality, to all permutations of bisexuality, to strict homosexuality—is found in the animal and human kingdoms alike. Using “nature” as our standard, then, does not tell us which segment of nature to mimic—whether “the farm,” as the song says, or maybe the Congolese forests where the pan-sexual bonobo ape dwells. Simply put, “nature” supplies no unambiguous prescription for human behavior. Anything we pick is arbitrary. (If we go for genetic similarity, the bonobo beats the chicken by a long shot.)

[Update: Homosexuality has been documented in chickens! You can “see two roosters walking hand in hand!” See this book, page 83.]

A more pressing problem is what impersonating animals should have to do with ethical behavior anyhow. Act like chicken, they are telling us? Who came up with this shit? The most the Mystery Men (and other homophobes) give us is is the argument that homosexual sex is “unnatural” because it can’t produce offspring:

Two mares can’t make a stallion/And two bulls can’t make a cow/It takes a male and female for the species to go on/[T]here’ll be no reproduction if the plumbing is all wrong

First, it isn’t clear what the farm analogy illuminates here; they may as well have said, “It takes a male and female human for the species to go on.” But no matter.

I can only repeat: Why is non-reproductive sex “unnatural”? The vast uncountable majority of elective human activities (e.g., baseball, fishing, shopping) are non-reproductive; if we can accept these as “natural,” despite this limitation, why do we balk at sexual behavior that lacks a reproductive component? (And do we oppose all the heterosexual sex that is non-reproductive?–Oral sex? Contraception? If the lead singer’s wife became sterile, would they be wrong to keep sleeping together?)

Even if we assume a moral imperative to ensure the “species to go on,” the world’s millions of homosexuals have yet to threaten population growth; and it is unlikely everyone will become homosexual. (Even if they do, this is unlikely to knock off the species; plenty of homosexuals have biological children, who in turn have children, etc.)

This whole business of using “natural” as a normative term—as in, “natural” behavior is good, and “unnatural” behavior is wrong—is screwy. Humans are every bit as “natural” as animals. (What else could we be—supernatural?) Homosexuality could be dead fucking wrong, but it would be as “natural” as any other orientation. Indeed, there is no conceivable human behavior which isn’t “natural.” It makes as much sense to judge animal behavior by our own as the reverse.

Finally, if we can’t be homosexual because chickens aren’t, then we can’t be monogamous, much less get married, because chickens don’t do that either. (Roosters mate with as many as 20 hens at once.) Much less do they wear clothes, build hospitals, or sing gospel music. On the other hand, there is no vile thing which some animals do not routinely do to others, or to each other. (The term “pecking order” is inspired by the propensity of chickens to bite and stab weaker specimens.) If we get our morals from this realm, we are subject to become rapists, baby-killers, and cannibals.[1]

* * *

If you want religious music in a country vein, try this instead (hats off to Eric Fields for turning me on to this):

* * *


[1] By animals doing “vile things” I mean “things which would be vile if a human did them to another human.” I am not sure it is “vile” when animals do it.

Was there a resurrection? (Easter special, a bit late)

The “eyewitness” evidence for the resurrection

Christian apologists such as Josh McDowell are fond of citing the “eyewitness testimony” in favor of the resurrection. This refers primarily to those accounts, given in the four Gospels, attesting to (a) the empty tomb and (b) sightings of an animate, embodied Christ post-crucifixion. First, note that neither of these accounts of are “the resurrection”; rather, they are accounts of events from which a resurrection would have to be inferred.

This in itself is not a problem. However, with the possible exception of Paul (see below), we do not even have “eyewitness testimony” to these events. Rather, we have the testimony of second (or 3rd? 4th? 5th?…) -hand sources as to what somebody else witnessed. Clearly, those apologists are confusing testimony about an eyewitness with eyewitness testimony. While the Gospel writers record that there were eyewitnesses, they are not claiming to be eyewitnesses themselves. Of course, this makes mush of the very idea of “eyewitness testimony”; on McDowell’s definition, the wispiest piece of gossip about something somebody saw could claim the same status.

The best-case scenario is this: Somebody saw something; somebody else reported it; and, following decades of oral transmission, somebody else finally wrote it down. The Gospel accounts should be handled with all the initial skepticism of any other rumor. As any game of “telephone” attests, oral transmission is notoriously error-prone. We have no idea how many times the Gospel stories were told and retold along the way to hard copy. We have no way to “vet” the witnesses to these events, nor all the intermediary reporters, as credible sources; we cannot even identify them, nor say how many they were.

* * *

Of course, some rumors turn out to be true. Certain factors can weigh against our initial skepticism. Some are investigated below.

Variation among the Gospel accounts

If the Gospel accounts were uniform, this would be a mark in favor if authenticity. But they wildly differ from one another. Consider the four versions of the discovery of the empty tomb:

  • Matthew: Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, arrive at the tomb before dawn; an angel descends in their presence, rolls back the stone and sits on it; the women leave “with joy” to tell others, meeting Jesus along the way.
  • Mark: “The two Marys” and Salome arrive at sunrise to find the stone already rolled back; they enter the tomb to find “a young man”; they leave in fear, telling no one; they don’t meet Jesus.
  • Luke: The two Marys, Joanna, and “other women” arrive just after sunrise to find the stone already rolled back; they enter the tomb to find “two men” inside; the women leave to tell others; they don’t meet Jesus.
  • John: Mary Magdalene arrives alone while it is still dark outside; she finds the stone already rolled away; she does not enter the tomb, nor finds “men” or angels; she leaves to tell others, and returns to the site with them; only then does she enter the tomb to find “two angels”; before leaving the site, she meets Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener.[1]

Prima facie doubts about the witnesses

Nor are our witnesses especially credible on the surface. They are not disinterested observers but devotees and close companions of Christ. They believed, and claimed publicly, that Christ would rise again. We would no more simply “take their word” for this outcome in which they were deeply invested than we would of a spouse whose murder-suspect partner was ‘home with me all night.’

This needn’t imply deceit on part of the witnesses. Studies on eyewitness forensics find that perception, memory and reporting can be skewed by one’s values and motivations. There is a cognitive-dissonant tendency to see what one wishes to see, and this only intensified by religious fervor. This could not have been less acute before the advent of philosophical skepticism and modern science.

Can the accounts be independently confirmed?

Under these circumstances, it is important that we match the accounts of Christ’s followers with independent confirmation. This, too, would count against a skeptical view. But this too is lacking.

The only Jewish source that seems to confirm the resurrection is a brief passage in the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. Almost every Biblical scholar believes this to be a fraudulent insert by a medieval Christian transcriber. The passage breaks with the narrative stylisitically and thematically—almost comically so. Suddenly, a staunchly Jewish writer declares that Christ rose from the dead and so must be more than “a man”—and then goes back to being Jewish for the duration of his career. Early Christian thinkers who cited Josephus never drew from this passage; no Christians claimed him as one of their own; no Jews considered him a renegade or apostate. This has to be because they weren’t aware of the passage; it came later.

Other Jewish sources such as the Talmud, though sometimes cited as evidence for the resurrection, merely report existing Christian belief without endorsing it. Indeed, these reports always present the “resurrection” as a product of fraud or misperception.

Finally, some pagan-Roman sources (e.g., Tacitus) do mention Jesus, but for slightly more complicated reasons, these are also dubious. I could make the case, but at any rate these sources mention nothing abort the resurrection nor anything miraculous, so they could not be considered confirmation of the events in question even if authentic.

The special case of Paul

The Apostle Paul mentions other sightings of a risen Christ. He report Jesus appeared to Cephas, “the twelve,” “more than five hundred brethren,” the disciples, and to James. But this record shares all the problems of the Gospel accounts: We do not know from whom Paul received his information, nor how many “links” he stood removed from the original accounts. We have no way to assess the credibility of anyone in the network.

All that aside, Paul is significant for being the only eyewitness to the resurrected Christ to record the experience him/herself. “Last of all,” he continues his list of witnesses, “to one untimely born, he appeared to me.”

One problem is that there is nothing in the description to distinguish his experience from an hallucination. There is no indication that anyone else on the road to Damascus shared the experience. Moreover, assuming Paul experienced something, what makes his interpretation of that something correct? How did he know it was Christ he encountered? (The Gospel witnesses at least had the advantage of knowing the man in life.) Maybe the entity claimed to be Christ, but an entity that can make claims can also make false claims.

It is not even clear that Paul experienced an embodied being. (This goes for the others in his list as well.) Paul doesn’t say, but in the book of Acts, Luke reports that Paul experienced a light and voice only. But “resurrection” suggests some kind of bodily existence; thus, even if Paul’s experience was 100% authentic, it is still not clear that it was of a resurrected anything.

In general, nothing in Paul’s account confirms the resurrection story as it is reported in the Gospels. It does not provide independent confirmation of those accounts, so much as it provides an entirely new account requiring its own independent confirmation (with the added wrinkle that its lack of information makes it unclear what would count as confirmation).

Finally, Paul’s credibility is open to question. His own account of his life in Rome differs sharply from Luke’s rendering in Acts. Granted, we don’t know which account (if either) is accurate; but the multiplicity itself makes it hard to accept either author at face value.

Other considerations

Speaking of Paul: Did a historical Christ even exist?

Paul’s failure to mention anything about the empty tomb or the sightings brings up a related but broader issue—one potentially far more damaging to the resurrection claim.

Here we draw upon an argument made famous by “Christ myth” theorist G. A. Wells: Oddly, Paul seems unaware of any details of the life of Christ. He is silent about his birthplace and the entire “Christmas story,” his parents, miracles, trial before Pilate and other elements of the Passion drama, and even his ethical teachings. He mentions the last supper, crucifixion and the resurrection, but in very abstract terms, sanitized of all historical and geographic setting. Paul gives no sense of being a contemporary of Christ’s, or that Christ had died only a few years before. (Paul would have begun preaching about 12 years after Christ’s death.)

Surely this is not a coincidence or stylistic choice. Paul wrote to settle various theological disputes afflicting the early church. You might say he was desperate to lay these to rest. On many topics (e.g., celibacy; whether Gentiles should keep the Jewish law) it would have been to his advantage to quote Christ’s own authoritative words on these matters—yet he never does. (It might be argued, if Christ’s teaching was a matter of record, it is odd that these disputes emerged in the first place.) This suggests he was not aware of Christ’s views on these subjects. Worse, on topics like baptism, ministering to the Gentiles, and paying taxes, Paul’s teaching appears to contradict Christ’s. Despite the Gospels’ claim that Christ performed miracles, Paul suggests that Christ lived an obscure life and was unaware of failed to exercise his own supernatural powers and mission until after he died.

Paul is not the only one with this blind spot. It is shared by the first several post-Pauline epistle writers. The disinterest in Christ’s historicity maintains all the way up to Timothy 1, whose author suddenly introduces biographical elements such as we know from the Gospels. This new style persists through the remaining epistle writers and of course the Gospels themselves (which, contrary to the Biblical ordering, came after Paul). Keep in mind the epistle authors wrote mainly independently of each other; yet the pattern, and shift, is evident.

Wells concludes:

Since, then, the later epistles do give biographical references to Jesus, it cannot be argued that epistle writers generally were disinterested in his biography, and it becomes necessary to explain why only the earlier ones (and not only Paul) give the historical Jesus such short shrift. The change in the manner of referring to him after A.D. 90 becomes intelligible if we accept his early life in the let-century Palestine was invented in the late 1st century. But it remains very puzzling if we take his existence for historical fact.

If Christ did not exist, then, he could not have been resurrected. Short of this “extreme” conclusion: If the Gospel stories entered the Christian tradition as late as A.D. 90, it lends them less credibility than if they had begun soon after the events they describe took place.

The problem of miracles in general

The resurrection’s status as a miracle carries its own problems. For Christians, Christ returned to life by God’s direct intervention. This is usually understood to be a “supernatural” event. First, I’m not sure if any sense can be given to the term “supernatural; if nature is simply all there is, what could be “super-” that? Nor am I sure any sense can be given to “God” as most Christians intend that term. The divine attributes, traditionally understood, logically contradict one another; they could no more inhere in the same being than a “square circle” could exist.[2]

But let us for the sake of argument accept that a miracle is a fortuitous, God-directed violation of natural law.

This definition raises the question of how to tell whether a violation is real or merely apparent. First, as biologists have ably argued against the creationists, the fact that a phenomenon remains unexplained by “natural” causes hardly means that it is unexplainable. The whole history of the modern age is one of filling in those “gaps” in our understanding as new research unfolds; to simply assume that this puzzling event will never benefit from the same grand trend, so it must be supernatural, is presumptuous. A person could “naturally” come back to life, if very rarely, under laws we haven’t discovered, or whose precise working remains unknown. As hard as this may be to accept, it is unclear how a “supernatural” act comes easier to swallow.

Second, the exercise of deceit, fraud and (again) sincere misconception can account “naturally” for the appearance of a violation where none has occurred.

The question is not whether a miracle could ever happen, or be known to happen. It is whether it is more reasonable to attribute stories of an empty tomb and “risen man” to a suspension of the laws of nature rather than to the sorts of causes by which we explain the great many other strange and unusual events we experience. At any rate, the evidence in favor of a miraculous cause would have to be exceedingly strong to overcome the statistical presumption of natural causality; and, as we have seen, this evidence is, rather, particularly weak and tenuous. The question is, then, whether it is more reasonable to leap to supernaturalism on the basis of very old, conflicting rumors of completely unknown origins.

Two more Christian arguments

There are two counter-arguments which jointly attack the idea that the resurrection could be a product of fraud or delusion:

(a) Why would the disciples agree to “die for a lie”?

As a young Christian, I heard stories of early believers hunted, crucified, and fed to lions, refusing to renounce their faith to save themselves. At times, this was used as evidence for the resurrection: If Christ had failed to rise again, it would have led his followers to abandon their belief in him. Even if they faked his resurrection or otherwise lied about it (to avoid embarrassment, perhaps) they would not be willing to sacrifice their very lives for the ruse.

First, I really don’t know the degree to which these Christians would have been able to get out of trouble by simply renouncing their beliefs. Maybe some of these martyrs didn’t have a choice in it. Perhaps their “thought crimes” were so bad that renouncing them failed to saved them. But let us assume (some of) the Christians in question had the power to avoid that end, and didn’t exercise it.

Still, the argument fails in assuming that any “lie” would have to have been perpetuated by the same group that “died for it.” This doesn’t follow. The disciples could have been the victims of the lie rather than its source. Granted, as we have noted, they had a strong motive to show that Christ had risen. But others may have had motives of their own to perpetrate a hoax—to discredit their rivals as rubes and dupes, just for kicks, or for any other reason you like. The point is that people do this sort of thing all the time.

Worse, there is no evidence that the originators of the stories in question—those ”eyewitnesses,” if you like—actually died, willing or not, for their faith. We know that some early Christians were martyred—but these are not the early Christians we have been discussing! If any martyrs who were not eyewitnesses “died for a lie,” it was one which they didn’t know was a lie. That is, they were willing to die for a sincere religious belief. Surely that is not impossible to swallow; the phenomenon is well documented. Plenty of Christians who never claimed to witness anything miraculous also chose to die for their faith.

(b) There is no such thing as a “collective hallucination”

The empty tomb and risen Christ are supposed to have been witnessed by groups rather than individuals. Some argue that a delusion such as a hallucination is not a “collective” or “contagious” phenomenon. It is not like a movie which many can watch at once; the reel is “in the head,” accessible only to its owner. Sharing the same delusion would be like sharing the same dream. Therefore, whatever experience these groups shared was not an hallucination but an objective, external, “real” event.

The psychology behind this objection is not quite correct. Like other psychological phenomena, hallucinations can emerge when a triggering event occurs under the right set of initial conditions. And there is simply no reason why one person’s hallucination (or his behavior while having one) could not itself trigger a second hallucination in a second person (and so on).

Indeed, the “mass hysteria” is well documented in the psychiatric literature and often takes a religious coloration. One sufferer manifests words or other behaviors which indicate to witnesses what the delusion is ‘of.’ This acts as a trigger for others who are present under the same initial conditions. This almost certainly happened during the Salem, Mass., witch scares: In a strong climate of stress and fear over demons and their earthly servants, one witness might imagine she smelled sulphur in a house, a sign of the devil’s presence; and her declaring, “There is the smell of sulfur so strong here! It is Beelzebub!,” while screaming and writhing on the floor, etc., triggered others around her to have a similar experience.

Christian detractors may be falling prey to an ambiguity in the phrase “the same.” These sufferers are not quite enduring “the same” delusion, so much as two different ones of the same type and relating to one another in a kind of causal cascade. In this way, when my wife tells me of some injustice she has just suffered at work, her story drives me to share her anger—that is, it triggers “the same” anger in me. Nobody would doubt this experience just because anger has a “subjective” and individualized quality.

* * *

Note these counter-arguments are not exhaustive. They treat fraud and delusion but not other hypotheses—for example, that the resurrection stories could be the product of “noise” picked up from decades of oral transmission, or a sincere misconception short of psychosis. Each of these is equally or more probable than a supernatural explanation. Thus, even if the counter-arguments were correct, they would not prove a resurrection occurred.

[I am going to post a follow-up hopefully soon. This is what I have for now.]


[1] The four versions of the sightings of the “risen Christ” are no more coherent. If anyone wants, I’ll break those down too.

[2] For instance, God is said to have perfect foreknowledge of the future, as well as freedom of action. But these traits conflict: If God knows he is going to do x in the future, he is not free to do y; if he were still free to do y, his belief that he will do x would be false.