Does anti-supernaturalism imply anti-Christian hostility?

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by Neil Godfrey

Of course not. This is the common — non-rational — response of some Christians when I protest that I have no time for entertaining any possibility (even theoretical) of the miraculous in historical studies.

Being committed to naturalist explanations does not mean that one is “anti-Christian” in the sense of harbouring some sort of anti-social bias or hostile agenda against Christianity.

As a naturalist and atheist Christianity or any other religious belief simply never enters my consciousness as a framework for interpretation when I am exploring historical questions. That is not hostility against Christianity. That is not some sort of crusading vendetta to attack Christianity. Christianity or any other religion simply never rises above the horizon of consideration, pro or con.

Yes I certainly do argue against faith and religion with selected audiences who are receptive to or interested in my arguments. I admire Charles Darwin for the respect he showed for the feelings of his devout wife. I have people close to me who are deeply attached to religious faith and I have no desire whatever to hurt them if I can help it.

Besides, I am more interested in exploring historical questions of Christian origins and I would like to try to avoid as much as possible giving anyone reason to reject my arguments on the grounds that they emanate from some sort of hostile anti-Christian bias. As it is there are people who do attack my views for that very reason. But they have no evidential basis to make those claims. Such claims are gratuitous and bogus mind-reading.

Scholars with a Christian bias or a supernatural belief in Jesus being alive today belong in seminaries the same way mullahs belong in madāris. What concord hath Christ or Allah with the Rational Mind?

Anti-supernaturalism versus anti-rationalism in biblical studies

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I am expressing the impressions of an outsider, a layman, who has read more than an average layperson has read of biblical scholarly literature. One paradox that struck me very early on in my reading was something I would never dream of finding in any other reputable scholarly discipline.

There are biblical scholars who write entirely from a secular, rationalist, naturalist viewpoint. They appear to restrict their discussions to colleagues of a like-minded predisposition.

There are biblical scholars who include in their scholarly output expressions that lend some level of credence to the miraculous and divine intervention. That may take the form of anything from arguing outright for a miraculous event (as N. T. Wright does) to accepting the theoretical possibility or remote mathematical probability (e.g. Ehrman) of a miraculous event. The less mathematically or logically gifted among these simply say that they will allow for an “unknown” or “unexplained/inexplicable” event.

Then there are scholars who express no such sentiment themselves but nonetheless engage in serious scholarly discussion with those who do.

In what other discipline do either the second or third category of scholars exist? If they are known to exist, I would be interested to know also the scholarly impact such scholars have in their field.

Is not arguing for the mere possibility of the miraculous (even if at reduced probability ratios) in any serious post Enlightenment, rationalist area of study deserving of immediate censure? In other fields what room is there for a scholar whose hypotheses are stretched to include the possibility of the supernatural?

Why let the threat of “You have an anti-supernaturalistic bias” worry anyone? Of course it’s good to have an anti-supernaturalistic bias. That’s the bias that got us out of the Dark Ages or superstition and ignorance!

How can any serious rationalist flirt with probabilities (theoretical or mathematical) of miracles? The probability of a resurrection may be set at so many billion to one. Why? Why play the supernaturalists’ game? There is no more probability of a resurrection than there is of Hubble finding a teacup and saucer orbiting Saturn or of my mentally ill friend being possessed by a demon. Doctors may give a patient certain odds of recovery. They don’t (I hope) give odds that a client may have a supernatural cause of a disease.

There are certain things that sit outside the realm of probability. Probability only makes sense within the laws and experience of what is probable. Probability is ascertained by extrapolations from facts of experience. That excludes outright the probability that there really exists a pixie under a toadstool in your back yard.

But this nonsense is encouraged by scholars who accept the works of colleagues who peddle such pseudo-scholarly gobbledygook. Here is a pertinent few words from Niels Peter Lemche that I like. I have bolded some of the text. Fuller quotations and a link to their source can be found here.

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship – irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

Can anyone truly be so naive as to think that a scholar who believes Jesus is alive today or who is prepared to accept the possibility of miracles in his or her heart (though poorly “hiding” behind statements like “something unknown” happened to explain the Easter experience) has the same ultimate goals as a secularist or naturalist “critical scholar”? Is the former ever seriously likely to question their fundamental assumptions or hypotheses if it means jettisoning completely all attachments to the supernatural?