On Jacob Spinney's "5 Crucial Questions"

Although Jacob Spinney is little known, his answer to a Christian tract has been promoted as Skeptical publicist anbd magician James Randi as a daring and devastating critic of Christianity. Therefore it is worthwhile to have a response ready.

Spinney's subject is the work of one Tom Short, an evangelist (I have never heard of him before now) and a book of his titled "5 Crucial Questions about Christianity" (which I have also never heard of before). Spinney takes issue with Short's assessment that Christianity is "a thinking person's religion,". After creating a response to Short, and having Short ignore requests for a response, Spinney published it online on his own, and that leads us here.

Short apparently notes an example of someone who became an atheist because the church could not answer their questions. Spinney says this was his own reason for becoming an atheist (all he got were fidistic answers like "God is real because the Bible says so"), along with what he says are "false answers". If nothing else this should alert our church's leaders that refusing to address these issues isn't going to be sufficient any more. Any church leader not prepared to answer questions (or at least, have someone on hand whom they can refer to) needs to either educate themselves or find another profession.

Spinney criticizes Short for an analogy of "faith in God" comparing such to knowing firefighters will catch you in a net you see below. Spinney calls this a "false analogy" and prefers the idea that it is better to say that all you see is smoke.

We're not much into theistic proofs here; obviously this is how an atheist or agnostic would view the matter. Biblically speaking, however, Spinney is in error to call "faith" something based on no evidence at all. Short is actually correct that is is closer to trust, and Spinney unwittingly clarifies further when he writes, "Trust is based on past experience."

So it is with properly defined Biblical faith. Thus it is that Short actually does define faith correctly, and it remains that what Spinney needs to do is drop this criticism and simply explain to his readers why the evidence does not support theism and/or why it is inadequate to support Christianity.

And so indeed he tries. Short employs several analogies noting that not "seeing" God is not an argument, since no one sees wind, atoms, etc. Spinney finds this flawed as an analogy; he knows of no credible atheists who have ever used this sort of argument (I have to inform him that the average person isn't running into credible atheists in the first place), and responds that things like wind and atoms are open to detection by "scientific tools."

I don't think Short would disagree -- and I think he would also respond that he argues that there are equitable "tools" for "detecting" the truth of theism (particularly, logical arguments). In the end Spinney does agree that not being able to sense God with tools is no proof against God existing.

Next up, the Design Argument. The science of this is beyond our scope; Spinney draws upon Richard Dawkins, and nothing else, other than a retort that the Design argument is flawed, in that we see life replicating itself even now, and snowflakes organizing, and lightning striking in "complex shapes".

This has been the retort of many years now, and it fails in the same way: Each of these is elements within a system already set up (nor are they as complex as living things, come to that). We leave the rest of Dawkins' claims -- of alleged flaws in design in nature, and so on -- and

Spinney's further comments on evolution and naturalism, to others with more expertise to resolve. (Though I do think Spinney makes too much of Short's use of the word "evolution" as a shorthand way of referring to the whole body of naturalistic presuppositions about the origin of life and so on.)

Short makes some appeal to the religious beliefs of cultures worldwide in a Supreme Being as some sort of proof of God's existence. Spinney prefers to see this as a product of mankind's superstitious ignorance (though he puts it in more polite terms) in need of scientific enlightenment. I say it's best to skip this argument and just get to theistic proofs. Whether appeals to other cultures or to God as a created "defense mechanism" in our brain, such arguments merely beg the question and explain the evidence in terms comfortable to the theorizer.

Spinney makes much of Short's simplified definition of atheism. I very much doubt Short was intending to deny that atheists have more clarified categories ("weak" and "strong" atheism) any more than an atheist may refer to "Christians" en bloc without any concern for differences between Lutherans and Catholics.

And so we now get to our area of expertise, and that is the Biblical text itself. Short apparently begins with a "people influenced by the Bible" argument. Not much of comment here, though I have some reservations about the inclusion of some of the names on Spinney's list of "agnostic/atheistic/deistic" people, and if we want to make "great people" lists, then the numbers will overwhelm Spinney readily. It's simply best to make no issue of this in such simple terms.

Spinney wants to make an issue of slavery in the Bible. He finds it sufficient to pull quotes about slavery from the text. When and if he chooses to look at the issue more closely, we recommend this material. It's more than a matter of standing aghast.

And though they had nothing to do with slavery, Spinney offers some of the usual "atrocity" quotes. We recommend some material here before he speaks further about "women's civil rights" being trampled in the Bible.

And for Romans 13, have a look here.

Spinney cites stats about atheists being a small part of the prison population. I'll correct that as one who formerly worked in my state's prison system as a librarian: Most inmates who sign on to "Christian" are not. Prison inmates profess faiths for many reasons other than true belief: It permits special visits. It often allows certain privileges, including breaks from normal work schedules, or the ability to "stand out" in a crowd of people who dress and live the same every day. When filling out forms, most don't know they can leave the question of religion blank. And perhaps the most important: The religious buildings have AIR CONDITIONING. Actually, most "theist" inmates are for all intents and purposes deists in orientation.

I don't know of what point it is to answer the claim that the US' laws were rooted in Biblical morality by noting that we have no laws coordinating with certain Biblical proscriptions. The argument is more complex than that, having to do with the philosophical underpinnings Christianity provided. Whether it is a good argument or not I do not know, but I know enough to know that Spinney's declarative assertions are no more an adequate assessment than were (as far as can be seen) Short's summary statements.

Without documentation, Spinney claims the "church would have you burned at the stake if you believed that the earth wasn't flat, or that the earth wasn't the center of the universe, or that the sun wasn't the center of the universe. In fact, if you so much as backed up a position that was remotely different from that of the churches, you'd be accused of heresy!"

That's rather overplayed ("remotely different"?)....we would like some specifics, please. (A reader recommends this article as a counter to the idea that the church believed the earth was flat.)

Spinney briefly offers the view that the authorship of the Gospels was decided by "righteous guesses" (he says this is a quote of Irenaeus, but Irenaeus said no such thing). We suggest that he figure out how authorship of ancient works is decided, and do some comparison work as we have here.

Allusion is also made to literary dependence hypotheses we address here.

Spinney also makes his stand for belief that the writers of the Bible were, as a whole, deluded people who really believed the truth of what they were writing. Matters of detail on how this came to be are so far restricted to generalities and his own experience as a magician, with an astounding claim by Spinney that he is "able to easily duplicate pretty much all of the miracles that Jesus supposedly did (walk on water, turn water into wine, appear to be dead and then resurrect myself, levitate) all by means that would have been possible to do back then."

We'd love to hear some details, but I suspect it is rather overplayed, since Spinney makes the statement that, for example: "Considering that the followers were utterly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, all Jesus needed to do was walk across a puddle and they'd be convinced that he walked on water."

So they were convinced he was Messiah first? And from this grew walking on water in the turbulent Sea of Galilee? There is certainly imagination at work here -- only it appears to be from atheists, who need to create spectacular scenarios like these to explain the matter.

We suggest more research for Spinney here. "Highly exaggerated" accounts to this scale aren't believable.

Next up: Biblical prophecy. I am sure it will come as no surprise that Spinney lacks the information about Jewish exegetical methods found here, but in fairness, it appears Short does as well. Popular apologetics makes out Biblical prophecy to be National Enquirer stuff; in fact, the NT use of the OT was performed in light of what Jesus did, and was meant to assure readers that Jesus was not incompatible, in what he did, with the OT.

Short speaks of prophecies fulfilled in detail. Spinney objects, dramatically, that they sure were not the details he thinks would be impressive, such as precise dates (not that he provides any analysis showing that certain things are indeed "inevitable," given enough time) and then rather oddly objects, "what's to stop the readers from helping out in making the prophecy come true," which only makes his demand for dates remarkably inconsistent.

Short appeals to archaeological verification; Spinney retorts that even liars and the deluded could easily locate their tales in a real place, which serves up the question Skeptics never answer, which is: If this is so, and such are not signs of accuracy and care by a writer, what keeps us from arbitrarily dumping ALL history, as even deconstructionists will do? Spinney also refers the reader to The Bible Unearthed; see our comments here.

No Skeptical case would be complete without argument by outrage. Spinney does not provide specific cites, but if he wants a trial of his social world of the Bible knowledge, he can start here. If he wants to prove that the Bible teaches a flat and square earth he can rebut this.

A large section devoted to the genealogies of Jesus. Spinney suggests that we just read the text in "plain English" and make up our minds. We say it is better to do some contextual study, and then some more.

Then, a list of "numerical errors" in the Bible; you will find each of them covered on this site. Spinney may wish to familiarize himself with a certain critical principle of textual criticism.

Next up, a critique of Biblical morality. Spinney pledges allegiance to the "Principle of Life Ownership" as a much better alternative; since moral theory is beyond our scope, we'll leave it to Spinney to explain why anyone should adhere to this "Principle of Life Ownership" in his world at all (as opposed to say, a "Principle of I Own Your Life Too Because I Have a Big Gun").

First to be hit is the Golden Rule. Regrettably Spinney offer a "what if you wanted someone to kill you, don't you have the right to kill them" argument, (see here) which could be just as well used to twist the "Platinum Rule" he prefers: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. So what if your "other" is a sadomasochist, or someone who wants a murder for hire done? What if the person says that they think you should feel free to kill obnoxious people, and you happen to find them obnoxious? In the hands of the creative, any moral rule can be turned into a license, especially the creative person with an axe to grind.

And then, to the Ten Commandments. Spinney compares these to the Principle of Life Ownership; this reads as a pass for the first 4 commandments, all of which are religious in orientation. For 5, honoring parents, Spinney disagrees and supposes that parents have to deserve honor.

Let's just say that in 70% of the world and 99.9% of it in history, Spinney would be misguided with such a comment, for "honor and shame" societies are those that have been predominant, and it is their way that honor is already integral and that it is dishonor that has to be earned.

Spinney also needs to learn about ancient law codes being didactic; in this light, there is no ground to say that parents are honored "no matter how much your parents molest or beat you" -- and before Spinney gets too bothered on corporal punishment in the Bible, he needs to contextualize those directives as well.)

The 6th commandment is not understood aright; see here. If Spinney wants to know about the Amalekites he can check this out; it's more than just "desert hoodlums" in a ragtag band at work; think Star Trek's Borg. Spinney also needs to know about the ancient world's collectivist psychology -- his "real problem" with a "moral compass" is that his North Magnetic Pole has shifted from what the majority of the world thinks and believes.

Where the law of adultery is concerned, Spinney disagrees and creates "hypothetical situations that this Commandment simply wouldn't work with" such as being forced to marry someone you hate. I did not know that forced you to have sex with someone else, but at any rate, Spinney should know again that ancient law codes were meant to be didactic, so that judges could make allowances at discretion. He also lays down a side comment on polygamy, a subject he'll need to study further before making more remarks. Law 8 against theft and 9 against false witness is similarly criticized for being absolute in a way that it isn't (though a person who needs to steal to survive, we need to ask: why aren't they working to survive like anyone else?).

Law 10 against coveting is pronounced "ridiculous" because coveting "is the main reason for why people go to work every day!" It's not the reason I go to work, but perhaps Spinney thinks merely wanting is the same as coveting. It isn't; the law is against wanting what your neighbor has, so that he does not have it.

Now to sinfulness. Spinney does not "believe that we are inherently sinful" or that "we are inherently good," just that we "are inherently human." Whatever that means. So is it good or bad to be inherently human? That's evading the question. Spinney also doesn't like original sin, and in fact, as classically formulated, neither do we.

To Jesus now, and amazingly Spinney says he has been considering the Christ myth as an option, which says little other than that he has not learned to be critical of his sources yet.

After dropping a few odd ideas ("Perhaps [Jesus] was Satan himself deceiving us all into believing in him, rather than the true God."), Spinney claims that "the authenticity of these writings [those of historians in question] are debatable among Christian scholars" -- no, it is not in the least debated among them, and no scholar of history today claims the passages are interpolations. We recommend this series.

After a long section on Biblical prophecy (see the link above for all that is needed as a solution to Spinney's "that's taken out of context" points -- with as well such errors as "Ps. 22 says 'lion'" making appearances), we have an endorsement of pagan copycat ideas.

Spinney will need to learn that no one claims doing miracles was unique; that's a given, since it is an obvious problem for hero figures (real or not) to solve. On the other hand we have an endorsement of the "water to wine stolen from Dionysus" idea (see here -- it's too late) and supporting notes from Acharya S and Kersey Graves (both of whose work is so poor that Skeptics of the Secular Web have warned against relying on them).

The story of Buddha feeding 500 men is not noted in any work on Buddha I have seen, but if it does exist, is undoubtedly post-Christian-mission in Asia; Porphyry writes hundreds of years after Christ, but when it gets down to it, no one claims that miracles of Jesus are "original" anyway. On the other hand it is a stretch to compare "salvation" offered by Osiris to that offered by Jesus (What did Osiris save and how?), and the names Spinney lists with "virgin births" are no such thing at all (check the names here, especially Krishna for whom on all accounts the claims taken from Graves are either false, or reflect beliefs that seriously postdate Christian missionary activity among Hindus).

Maybe Spinney will make for a more challenging opponent at a later date, but right now, it's time for him to do some research and realize that he'll need to take more than the "Short" route if he wants to become a serious opponent.

-JPH