Atheism: The Case Against Christ. Chapter 3.

Do the Salem Witch Trials disprove Christianity? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’ll be quite blunt at the start and say the Salem Witch Trials is not anything I’ve really looked into specifically. Of course, that means that when I approach them, I’m going to be agnostic. I do not claim to know what exactly happened there and I would really have to study the historical data. If any readers have any comments and some good sources to recommend, I welcome them.

McCormick begins with what is often said about the NT by Christians. We do have eyewitness accounts. We have the early church was persecuted. We have archaeology verifying many of the claims of the NT of a historical nature. This is all good, but now McCormick switches to the Salem Witch Trials. What happened?

He points out that there you have people claiming to see witchcraft going on. They all came from diverse backgrounds and social strata. They were all passionately convinced. People had a great deal to lose if they were wrong, such as friends and family. McCormick says it seems very unlikely that there would be an ulterior motive for being able to risk putting friends and family on trial.

McCormick says the accounts were investigated and we have hundreds of documents from the time. He claims we have enough documents to fill a truck. What was going on?

McCormick says he is of course not making a case for real witchcraft. It is a hypothesis, but one he doesn’t consider likely. He says it is not the best or most probable one. The point he wants to establish is that the accused were not witches and you and I probably do not believe that.

Now to be fair, I’m skeptical, but I would like to see what was going on then and what the better explanations were. What explanation would best explain the data that we have? Therefore, as I come at this as someone who has not studied the events, I look and see what can explain it. I wonder if McCormick can do that for me or not.

Now of course, McCormick has statements about the Gospel stories being hearsay and anecdotal and such. We will look at that more in later chapters, but naturally, he doesn’t at all bother to interact with 1 Cor. 15. We’ll also find he doesn’t really back his claims about the Gospels and the historical information we have, but I want readers to know that this is going to be discussed in a later chapter.

McCormick thinks with his comparison, there are three things a believer can do. The first is bite the bullet. He might lower his threshold of evidence to accept both claims. Now to clarify, this isn’t my claim yet. My claim is simply that I don’t know and I prefer to not speak on a subject I don’t know about. Of course, I’m skeptical, but I’m not going to approach the data and say “I want to know what happened. Witchcraft is ruled out.” McCormick says we shouldn’t accept real witchcraft though because the best explanation doesn’t involve that.

In this also, McCormick says lots of religions claim exclusivity and they do so on the basis of their historical miracles.

Okay.

Like what?

McCormick gives no examples. For Islam for instance, the only miracle I understand to be certain is the Koran. Buddhism is atheistic classically and miracles would prove nothing. Hinduism meanwhile is pantheistic. Miracles don’t fit. Mormonism could be close, but even this one is supposed to be built on a prior Christian worldview. Even still if I grant just Mormonism, then that’s just one. I can’t help but think of the words of Sheldon Cooper.

McCormick also asks “How does the evangelical Christian, who explicitly denies the doctrines of other Christian denominations, explain the widespread occurrence of miracles in those churches that seem to legitimate their actions?” (Loc. 895)

Like what?

I mean, I know many Pentecostals claim miracles, but I don’t know any who would say “Therefore Pentecostalism is the one true faith and all other denominations are hellbound.” I also don’t think many would say that therefore everything they believe about God is absolutely right. McCormick acts as if a miracle can only happen because God wants to give a big affirmation to a movement. That could be, but it doesn’t necessitate it.

I have no problem accepting miracles in other religions for instance. Perhaps God is giving some common grace to someone. Perhaps there is demonic activity going on with false wonders. I do not know. I’m also fine with that. The main point is I have no problem explaining it.

Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s go to McCormick and say that how does he explain it if there is one bona fide miracle and there is no natural cause whatsoever? McCormick’s worldview is in a bind then. Mine isn’t. Chesterton said years ago that the theist believes in a miracle, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The atheist disbelieves, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them.

McCormick also says that if some other entity is acting, then one of the central pillars of the natural sciences has been undermined. (loc. 910) He asks if my evidence for the resurrection is better than thinking the entire scientific enterprise’s naturalistic worldview is correct.

First off, there are plenty of scientists who do not share a naturalistic worldview. Consider Francis Collins or John Polkinghorne. What McCormick means is “Is my evidence for the resurrection better than the evidence for naturalism held by atheistic scientists.”

The answer is yes. I do not find the naturalistic worldview at all convincing. McCormick has given me no reason to think that it is and seems to have this strange idea that miracles undermine science. Why? We are not told. Science only tells you what happens if there is no outside interference. The fact that an outside agent could interfere does not mean there are no processes that would happen on their own regardless.

In fact, miracles rely on a natural order being a given. After all, if there is no natural order, then how could you recognize a miracle? If there is no natural order, you drop a rock and it falls. The next time it floats through the sky. The next time it shoots like a rocket through your neighbor’s window. (Interestingly, the rock dropping idea comes from Hume who did decide to argue against miracles. Wonder why he wanted it both ways.) It is only if rocks consistently fall can you recognize a miracle if one does not. It is only if dead people stay dead and virgins don’t give birth that you can recognize a miracle if a dead person returns to life and if a virgin gives birth. (And of course, I do affirm the virgin birth.)

This is simple thinking. It’s a wonder McCormick doesn’t see this, but in these statements he has just revealed his hand and said he would not believe in miracles because his own worldview will not allow it. Well it’s nice to know who’s coming to the evidence with their presuppositions ready.

The second response McCormick says can be taken is to deny the analogy. He says this is doomed to fail because it will end in ad hoc rationalization and special pleading. (Loc. 918) Well it’s good to know that the conclusion has already been reached even before hearing the case.

I think some differences are the NT world was an honor-shame context instead of a guilt-innocence context. It was agonistic instead of individualistic. It was a movement that lasted hundreds of years under persecution instead of one that died out in about a year (According to the time given by McCormick.) It went against prior accepted beliefs whereas the Witch Trials I gather were built on a prior worldview.

But for McCormick, these are just ad hoc and special pleading instead of, you know, real historical facts.

He also says there are many other claims that are false like the Hindu milk drinking miracle, but you can do this with a tablespoon in your own house. Some surfaces just naturally take in the milk. As for Lourdes, I would refer him to Keener’s work. I’m not about to say that all such claims are false.

Still, the real howler comes when he says “The original accounts of Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are filled with supernatural claims, and the circumstances surrounding their advents resemble Christianity in too many relevant respects.” (Loc. 934)

Really?

Okay. What are the supernatural claims that are in the original accounts of Islam? Muhammad is said to have done no miracles save providing the Koran. The miracles come in the biographies that come 100+ years later. These are not the original sources.

Buddhism and Hinduism? We have original sources for these? I would love to get to see the original account of Buddhism and Hinduism. Does McCormick have them? Does he have some evidence that their origins were comparable to Christianity’s or does he just want me to take it on faith?

The closest you might have is Mormonism, but even then that is shrouded in mystery. We do have evidence of Smith being a con man. We have multiple accounts of the beginning and no clear details on what happened. The original Book of Mormon that you can find has a number of grammatical and such errors that are changed in later manuscripts deliberately.

I take it McCormick really hasn’t looked at the evidence of these religions too much. He’s just accepted claims on faith. A shame. A good researcher would do otherwise.

He also says that Salem shows we don’t need to have a fully articulated naturalistic explanation to believe there is one. (Loc. 956) Good to know. We have a position of faith. McCormick doesn’t have an explanation for why all these people would see XYZ and be willing to put their loved ones on trial but, well, we know there HAS to be one! There has to be and we know this because naturalism is true. We know naturalism is true because these events don’t happen. They don’t happen because naturalism is true. Again, we are ultimately arguing in a circle.

Now a good researcher would want to know what that explanation is. Is there one? I don’t know without studying it myself, but when it comes to Jesus, I invite McCormick to give his better explanation. Until he can give one, I am justified in my conviction that Jesus rose from the dead.

A third way McCormick says we can respond is to say evidence doesn’t matter. Now this way apparently works fine for him, but it doesn’t work for me. I say the evidence does matter and it does need to be explained. Unfortunately, McCormick has left out the fourth way to respond.

That way is to look at all the data and ask questions a researcher would ask and then seek to provide an explanation. As I’ve said, I haven’t looked so I don’t have one. Unfortunately, McCormick doesn’t give me one either. All he ends up saying is “There has to be a natural explanation and likewise, there has to be one with Jesus.” That’s just question-begging. It would have been good for McCormick to do the hard research and read all scholarship he could find on this. Unfortunately, no such exercise took place.

Let’s hope he doesn’t make the same mistake with the resurrection.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Part One can be found here.

Part Two can be found here.

Part four can be found here.

Part five can be found here.

Part six can be found here.

Part seven can be found here.

Part eight can be found here.

Part nine can be found here.

Part ten can be found here.

Part eleven can be found here.

Part twelve can be found here.

Part thirteen can be found here.

McCormick’s Gaffe

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