Not Even Wrong

I recently saw a rather ignorant and twisted summary of Christianity from an atheist cartoon. It ended with this: “Eventually, the all-knowing man in the sky got fed up with the people doing things he knew they were going to do that would piss him off, so he takes his son and nails him to a cross, and says, ‘See? Now look what you made me do. You should be ashamed of yourselves.’”

Kind of misses what it’s all about. Reminds me of something the physicist Wolfgang Pauli is quoted as saying. Rudolf Peierls writes that “a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, ‘It is not even wrong.’” Generally speaking in science nowadays it is applied to pseudoscience, crackpot theories, and theories that cannot be falsified. I’m twisting it a bit here to mean that a statement or argument is so wrong that it’s hard to track back to where it went off into crazyland.

The atheist cartoon kind of misses the whole point so badly that it’s hard to respond to. That is, one must track back and undo a bunch of odd preconceptions and then insert new ones. It would take a long time to correct all the wrong-headed notions.  Bottom line is, of course that the atheist cartoon rant is an example of what’s called a “straw man” argument.  What’s a straw man argument?  That’s where you say your opponent believes xyz and then proceed to rip xyz apart—while in fact, your opponent believes abc.  It is a common tactic in politics, especially.  Sometimes it is done cynically, with the full knowledge that they’re misrepresenting an opponent’s beliefs.  More commonly it happens by accident, through a failure to comprehend what an opponent actually believes, or by making unwarranted assumptions about an opponent’s motivations and purposes.

In the case of the atheist cartoon I believe it is the result of a failure to understand, rather than cynical and conscious misrepresentation (I follow the dictum, attributed to Napoleon: never ascribe to malice what is more easily explained by stupidity and incompetence).

So, here’s a short version response to the atheist misrepresentation of Christian belief in the cartoon. Christians teach that Jesus’ death was not designed to shame the human race. It was designed to rescue it. Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins and that it was a voluntary act on his part, not forced on him by a vengeful Father. As an analogy to sort of explain it, think in terms of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies, or maybe a fireman who dies saving a family from a burning building.

The details of the crucifixion of Jesus are unpleasant. The Romans adopted this execution method because they believed that it served as a useful warning to others who might think of getting out of line. The Romans saw crucifixion as a useful deterrent to future bad behavior, especially those who might be thinking of rebelling against Roman hegemony. Rebellious sorts were, the Romans believed, likely to think twice before they would take up arms against the Roman state when they saw the highways lined by the writhing bodies of their colleagues.

Jesus was executed by the Romans for the crime of rebellion: they saw him as a threat to civil order, as someone who might attempt to lead a Jewish revolt against Roman control.

Jesus’ disciples also initially saw his death as the end of the line: the smashing of their dreams that Jesus was the Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and re-establish the old Davidic monarchy. It was only the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection three days later that began the process of forcing them to re-evaluate what they thought they knew about the Messiah and what they thought Jesus had actually been all about. The early Christians decided that just as God had rescued the Israelites from physical slavery when Moses led them from Egypt, so now God had rescued them from spiritual slavery when Jesus died and rose again.

The problem with the cartoon summary of Christianity by the atheist is that it misses both the motivation of the actors and the outcome of the story (among other things. For instance, leaving out the significance of the resurrection in Christian thinking is a serious flaw). Just as a flat-earther is woefully ignorant of science, so the author of that atheist cartoon is woefully ignorant of Christianity and the Bible.  Attacking Christian belief is no doubt a fun sport, but the critics should at least attack what Christians actually believe instead of making stuff up.