Tonight I attended a screening of the film Test of Faith, followed by a panel discussion. The event was part of the Reason for Faith festival, a response to the Global Atheist Convention backed by various Christian groups.
After the panel discussion, the audience had an opportunity to ask a question of the panellists. I asked a question which ended up being the most discussed question of the night! My question was responded to, and then I was asked to clarify, then it was discussed again, and finally Jack Scanlan responded to my question again in his closing remarks.
I listen to debates and panel discussions like this regularly, and it is easy to critique the views being expressed from the comfort of my computer, but it is more difficult with a microphone in a room full of people! I keenly await the recording to find out how articulate I was and whether it came out nearly as well as I wanted it to.
My question was asking for Scanlan's thoughts on looking at evidence through a broader lens, and specifically his thoughts on looking at the Resurrection argument accurately, as a Christian might understand it. That was what I was trying to get across. Scanlan is a molecular biology student, and was talking about the Resurrection. He cast the debate as a question of the reliability of historical documents vs the findings of science. His view, if I accurately heard it, was that biology has proven that people do not rise from the dead, and so you would need an unreasonable faith in historical documents to overcome this. On face value this view might appear compelling, but it misses the essence of the Christian claim. What biology tells us is that people don't rise from the dead via natural causes. But here's the issue: Christians aren't making the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead via natural causes. Christians claim that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. So I asked for his thoughts on this.
At first Scanlan fumbled through a response and concluded by saying that he would hope all evidence could be examined neutrally, without having our response impacted by prior beliefs. But this is clearly problematic, primarily because the world just doesn't work like that! Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. If you hear that someone you know has been arrested for a theft, you would be completely surprised....if said person was a well adjusted member of society. If, on the other hand, this person had a violent upbringing, an abusive father, and had a prior record of theft, then you wouldn't be very surprised at hearing about another crime, would you? So the point is this. Background evidence counts. As I wrote about previously, if God exists then miracles are possible. But if, like Graham Oppy, you believe that natural causes are all that exist, then miracles like a resurrection are inconceivably unlikely to you. So it's not as simple as looking at historical evidence on it's own. If you're determining the probability of what happened, you need to look at the big picture and cast your net a little wider. Or at the very least, you need to acknowledge the existence of your own presuppositions and their bearing on your response to the evidence. Scanlan had shown no respect or awareness of this vital issue, hence my question to him.
After clarifying my question (how effectively I'm not sure!) Dr Bruce Yabsley commented about the uniformity of nature. Modern science, going back to Newton, shows that nature is uniform, he said. This puts the sting in the tail of the argument that Resurrections simply do not happen. And this is a fair point. But unfortunatly Dr Yabsley didn't follow up those comments by acknowledging that the resurrection cannot be expected to conform to those regular patterns. If a resurrection did happen, then it happened once and at the command of a God who controls the universe and all the physical laws within it. It is not an event that we should expect would be repeated. The test tubes and telescopes may tell us that in every case ever recorded, Science shows that X, Y or Z happens this way or that way. That's all good and well. But if there is a lawgiver behind those laws then there is no reason why things cannot happen differently on one occasion. So again, the prior philosophical question of whether there is a God will have a direct bearing on how we interpret the historical evidence and the interaction of science with that historical evidence.
In his closing comment, Scanlan said that if there was good evidence for the Resurrection, he'd more easily believe that aliens did it than God. In one sense this response merely supported my argument about the need to understand your own presuppositions! Aliens, if they exist, are presumably natural entities rather than immaterial, supernatural beings, and, if you believe that life on other planets is probable (as Scanlan may or may not), then you might be inclined to believe this. For me, this idea is discounted by the fact that Jesus didn't ever mention "aliens". There is a historical context in which Jesus lived and into which he spoke, such that if there was good evidence, you would need to interpret the good evidence within that context. In short, there is historical evidence that Jesus was a Jew who claimed divinity as the Messiah appointed by God. Thus, if there was good evidence for a resurrection, you'd consider that God might have done it, rather than posulate an entity who has no prior connection with the context or the historical evidence whatsoever.