110. Christian Atheist, Dr. Robert Price, Champions Fairness In Argument Against Bible Accounts

Interview with Dr. Robert Price reveals why biblical scholar, and former Baptist minister, turned  away from Christianity.

With battle lines in the culture war over science and religion firmly entrenched some Biblical scholars are still hashing out the Bible facts with logic, reason and historical scholarship.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for and interview with noted biblical scholar and Christian-doubter Dr. Robert Price. Dr. Price is a noted theologian and writer who well known for his debates with Christian apologists (those who defend the faith on intellectual grounds).

While Price doesn’t take a stand on the possibility that miracles and paranormal events like those described in the Bible can happen, he’s firmly against the position most Christian theologians take, “they argue again and again that if miracles are possible theoretically, then legends are impossible, which doesn’t follow… there approach is that if we can say miracles might have happened then there should be no problem in accepting all the ones the Bible mentions and none of the ones in any other scriptures. Wait a minute. What you’re really saying is you just want us to believe what the Bible says, period. You’re not really suggesting any new method of inquiry.”

While Price is skeptical of traditional Christian theology he remains opens good arguments, “fairness in argument and getting all the evidence together and trying to address it, that was crucial to me because even as a college sophomore, junior, Apologist, I was reading all this inter-Varsity stuff and such. I wanted to witness and I did witness to people about my faith and tried to defend it. But I felt like I have to be honest about this. I’m only going to present it if I find it convincing. And to do that I’m going to have to put my faith on the side for the moment… then when I was getting into my master’s program at Gordon-Conwell Seminary I realized this has been misrepresented. These arguments are just bad.”

Dr. Robert Price

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Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris. On today’s show I have an interview with Dr. Robert Price, who despite having two Ph.D.s in Biblical Studies, describes himself as a Christian Atheist.

Now, I actually did this interview with Bob many months ago, but I just really, really liked it so much that I was holding on to it because I thought I’d do something else with it-actually launch another website that I want to get into, but that’s kind of another story. Skeptiko is still my main focus.

So here is a very interesting interview with a guy who I greatly admire for, as that opening clip said, his “fairness in argument”; someone who’s willing to go against not only the trends of society in general which is still pretty much dominated by Christianity in the West, but also willing to go against his training. So imagine going through two Ph.D. programs, going through seminary, being an evangelical Christian and then through your studies, through knowledge, through reason, and then coming to realize that what you’re learning doesn’t really stack up, and having the courage to change course and take a very unpopular position.

Now, I’m not an atheist and as you’ll hear in this dialogue, Bob and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but my respect for his openness and his fairness in argument makes him one of my very favorite guests on Skeptiko. It’s a rather long dialogue because I was just enjoying it so much I didn’t want to let him get off the phone. So I hope you can stick around for the whole thing. There are a lot of good nuggets in there. Here’s my interview with Dr. Robert Price:

Alex Tsakiris: …one is materialism as a fundamental assumption that is both within mainstream science and is really at the core of the Christian Apologist thing.

Dr. Robert Price: Yes, though I think there’s a basic misstep in it, in that they argue again and again that if miracles are possible theoretically, then legends are impossible, which doesn’t follow. They never quite put it that way but their approach is aha! If we can say miracles might have happened then there should be no problem in accepting all the ones the Bible mentions and none of the ones in any other scriptures. Wait a minute. What you’re really saying is you just want us to believe what the Bible says, period. You’re not really suggesting any new method of inquiry.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think you do a really good job, in your books and the couple of lectures that I’ve heard, of making a case against what I was just describing, the Apologist position, which is to say you know, it’s really hard to believe that these stories could have really changed that much from the first-hand accounts to when they’re actually written down. And you said, “Well, that’s really not true. There are plenty of historical examples where stories do change.”

And then you go into that it’s hard to believe that such a powerful and huge encompassing religion would grow out of pure myth. And you go, “Well, you know, it happens all the time. That’s not even a mystery.”

And then further that there would be such martyrdom and that these people would martyr their lives and all that. And you go, “Well, again, historically…”

So what I want to draw people’s attention to, and you did a really nice job of it, too, is the methodology that you go through and the methodology that you’re facing. So on the other side is this, it couldn’t possibly be true, therefore, accept our version of it.

And I love the way you started out in our discussion here and you said, “You know what? We’re never really going to know the truth. The best we can do is kind of inch towards the truth by the best methods that we have. Archaeology, other writings, and that.”

So leaving all that aside, you’ve kind of laid that groundwork great. The other point on the Biblical part, and then I want to get into the really interesting part to me which is the underlying ontology, but we’ll get to that in a second. What about just some really hard-hitting facts that refute the inerrant Bible kind of thing?

One of the things that I picked up, and I don’t know if you want to comment on this, but you know, the story of John 8:7, “let he who is without sin,” right? Now my understanding of that is that that, one of the most famous accounts of an actual event in Jesus’ life doesn’t show up for hundreds of years. In fact, in the Greeks, as they’re commenting on the original again, it never shows up for a thousand years.

Dr. Robert Price: Well, it’s not quite that late, but it’s not the original text of John. It pops up a couple of different places in John and in Luke in the early centuries, so it’s not quite that long a wait. And it’s still debatable as to whether you want to say it’s canonical or not. You could view it as-I mean, that’s a whole kettle of fish unto itself. But you could say well, it’s as if it’s like let’s say the fourth epistle of John or something. Just stick it in somewhere else if you want.

But it was in the Bible when it was canonized, which is probably true. But that’s another can of worms, right? Does that mean every textual corruption is canonical? Some people in effect say yeah. That’s horrible enough, but not really the problem with inerrancy. In fact, to their credit, the Fundamentalists have often been in the forefront of textual criticism to try to weed stuff like that out, even if they liked it. Tischendorf and Tregelles and some of these guys were Fundamentalists. Westcott and Horde were very conservative Anglicans, I believe, but they said, “Look, if we believe this is the Word of God, we want to make sure we’ve got the real thing here.” And they did heroic labor to try to weed out this stuff.

But then what have you got left? And is that inerrant? And you have just endless numbers of contradictions, both historically and theologically that Fundamentalists and so-called Literalists just shrug off as if they don’t matter. Or say that, “Well, did Jesus heal the blind man on the way into Jericho as one Gospel says, or on the way out?” Oh well, there were two blind men, one on each side. Or there was one blind guy but there were two cities of Jericho, the ancient ruin and the new model. And he did heal them on the way out and on the way in to the other-get out of here.

And then there are just all kinds of nonsense-did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry as in John, or at the end as in the other three? Well, he did it twice-no, that can’t be because he didn’t get away with doing it once in any Gospel in which it happens.

And it goes on and on and on. The freakish, bizarre hypotheses that are created to try to squeeze in all the details. You just wind up with a caricature of a Bible in which Peter denies Jesus six or eight or nine times to harmonize all the contradictions, etc., etc.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks for going over that. I think the inerrancy of the Bible is clearly something that when you hear that you immediately kind of shut down and go, “Is this conversation really going to go anywhere if someone throws that out?”

Dr. Robert Price: And this is why Fundamentalists themselves start going somewhere else. You find that a great number of Fundamentalists that get into this eventually say, “Look, I’ve been had. This is not the way to go.” And they may stick in it as I did and as Erman did as Biblical students, or they may just say to hell with it.

But if this is just doomed to-you really have to sacrifice your faculties to-it’s like being a 8:17 Scientologist where it sounds like a good way of correcting your character and your attention and then you get into it and pay your bucks and then you find out oh, so now I’m supposed to believe in Zamu the Space Tyrant? Oh my God.

Alex Tsakiris: Here’s the part that really interests me, because that’s really pretty easy to sweep away. I want to give people a background and I want to give people an understanding of how you approach it. One thing we didn’t touch on and maybe we should go back and talk about it because you just alluded to it, is your path and your journey. Actually, why don’t you do that right now for folks who are unfamiliar with your work? Talk a little bit about how you came to this position that you currently have.

Dr. Robert Price: Well, fairness in argument and getting all the evidence together and trying to address it, that was crucial to me because even as a college sophomore, junior, Apologist, I was reading all this inter-Varsity stuff and such. I wanted to witness and I did witness to people about my faith and tried to defend it.

But I felt like I have to be honest about this. If I’m going to present this argument I read in F. F. Bruce or John W. Montgomery, I’m only going to present it if I find it convincing. And to do that I’m going to have to put my faith on the side for the moment and say, “Would this convince me if I didn’t want to believe it already?” Sometimes I’d say, “Well, yeah,” and sometimes I’d say, “No” as I found out more about it.

And this is when I was getting into my master’s program at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. More and more I realized jeeze, this has been misrepresented. These arguments are just bad. And I began to look at Christianity in a whole different way because I never became hostile to it, really. I kind of wanted to be able to stick with it in some way and so I finally-finally as if this is the last thing I’ll ever think, who knows? But I wind up thinking that it really is pretty much of an aesthetic experience that seeks to open up the ego and imaginatively create a high mountaintop perspective from which to examine yourself.

I like what Jung said, that you didn’t have to argue about whether there was a God out there somewhere. He knew well enough that there’s a God deep down inside as part of the furniture of the mind. And I could say, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.”

Alex Tsakiris: Which is a point I think you made just beautifully in one dialogue that I saw and that’s why do you need the Bible? Why do you need the historical accuracy of it? And it brought me back to remind me of a book I read a long time ago that really deeply touched me and it was by the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote a book called Living Buddha, Living Christ, and he made the same parallel.

He said, “Look, Buddhists do the same thing. We have folks that sit around and argue about which Bodhi tree did Buddha sit under? And what was the exact color of his robe? And they’ll just go on and on about this.” And he said, “You know, if we understand Buddha consciousness, then we understand that it was always forever and everywhere.”

And this exact same thing can be said about Christ consciousness. If you believe and have faith and believe that Christ consciousness is real, then why do you care about the Bible, right? Isn’t there a kind of inherent contradiction in there in the kind of basic, fundamental idea behind Christianity?

Dr. Robert Price: Yeah, I like the thing with the parable of the raft and Buddhism. The raft gets you across the stream but since it does, do you have gratitude to it, strap it onto your back like a tortoise shell and walk around with it? No, you chop it up and use it for firewood or something. The raft’s use is over.

And if scripture does what it’s supposed to do to enlighten you, well then that’s it. You don’t need to remain fixed on it. It may be a little over-confident to imagine at any point that you don’t need its guidance anymore–whatever scripture you’re talking about–but still, the point is it’s utilitarian. It didn’t say that it’s an end in itself. Tillich would say it makes it an idol and that is what happens in the kind of weaker brother version of either Christianity or Buddhism.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s come back to this parallel that you drew before which is really, really interesting to me. That’s materialism. So as we’ve looked at on the show and talked to-really, if you go through the list, we’ve really tried to stay with the best researchers, people who have published in peer-reviewed journals even if their ideas are controversial.

But what’s being revealed about the nature of consciousness, and again, we don’t know in the same way that you said we don’t know about the Bible. The whole thing about science is we never know anything; we never prove anything. We just edge closer towards it. But if we look at the trend line in where we think human consciousness is going, it’s going away from this materialistic idea of mind equals brain, everything is inside of us, the universe, to a much more kind of connected consciousness surviving our death, outside of time in a way that we don’t understand.

And what I think is interesting to me is how materialists are very, very-in the scientific realm-very uncomfortable in going there. They’re holding onto their own scaffolding as best they can and then they see little bits of research pop up here and there that says wow, maybe your scaffolding doesn’t work in this case and that case. And they just hold on to it really tight.

Obviously, the parallels are there in religion, too. But the real parallel I want to draw is how materialism is really at the core of the Christian Apologist’s argument. In fact, I’ll go just one step further. I read an autobiography of a Yogi, I don’t know, probably 20 years ago, and I live five miles from the Self Realization Fellowship that he has out here in Encinitas.

But I picked it up the other day because I interviewed a woman who’s into that Fellowship there. What struck me again 20 years later was the miracles. I mean, whether you accept that his account is real and he’s reporting it. Forget that for a minute. Just take the fact that miracles, heck, from day one there’s people appearing in two places, there are all sorts of telepathic communication, there’s all sorts of that stuff.

And again, as you said earlier in our dialogue here, Christian Apologists completely-they say, “We have miracles. Yeah, they’re right here. These two, three, four, five.” But all the other accounts by everyone else we have to discount and say they’re not real. So in that sense they’re a strange kind of materialist. Do you want to comment on that?

Dr. Robert Price: Well, it’s more likely it’s a defense of the canon of Christian scripture and belief. And if you’re a Protestant, we are just as urgent to discount medieval Catholic miracle claims. They suddenly seem to understand it isn’t a question of what could or couldn’t happen but is there reason to believe that it did? But they forget this conveniently when it comes back to the Bible and again, it’s opportunism shifting from one foot to the other as you need to to do your dodges.

Alex Tsakiris: Take near-death experience with which we’ve been kind of kicking around for 20 years. The best research done in cardiac wards, where we know if you die of a heart attack within 10 to 15 seconds there is zero going on in your brain that we can measure in any way. So if we go talk to those people after they’ve had this themselves, “Hey, what happened?” They go, “Okay, you know the tunnel and this unbelievable love and life review,” and all this. You say, “Okay, what happened after that?” “Well, then I was resuscitated and they came in and they did this and this and this.”

And then we compare their story with someone who says, “Hey, nothing happened. It was blank. I was out. I don’t remember anything.” And we go, “What happened during the resuscitation?” They go, “Maybe this, this, this.”

And then we take the two accounts, we say, “Wow, this person not only did they give us all the reports about what happened in terms of the light and the love but everything they said about resuscitation is much more statistically significant, accurate, than the other one.”

I mean, this starts becoming the kind of published in one of the top medical journals in the world, The Lancet. And this starts becoming evidence that in normal situations, if we didn’t have this big taboo against it, the position would be that in some way that we don’t totally understand, can’t explain, consciousness seems to survive bodily death. So we can deal with that. We just don’t want to deal with it. And I guess my point, and the way I really want to go with you is that it sure seems to me like I understand why mainstream science doesn’t want to deal with it. The scaffolding just really starts coming apart.

What’s so surprising to me is that Christians don’t want to deal with it, either. So the Christian Apologists don’t want to deal with it, either, and the reason they don’t want to deal with it is because hey, that was the good news. Your consciousness seems to survive death. It sounds like something like you’ve been talking about God, so maybe you’re ontology is not totally off there. But now here’s the bad news.

Dr. Robert Price: It sounds more like the Tibetan Book of the Dead than the New Testament.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, right. And you Christians, you didn’t jump to the front of the line. As a matter of fact, you were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else, even that guy out in the forest who never read any books and was together with nature. You were all right there in that.

So I think there’s so many parallels there that are interesting in terms of how both of these sides, science and religion, are dealing with the new data as it’s emerging. About the data, I’m just wherever the data leads. I mean, if there’s some other explanation for near-death experience, great, I’ll hear it. But you know what? That research has been out there for 20 years, but it has not been refuted by any study.

Dr. Robert Price: I’m not a writer, but what do you think of Susan Blackmore? I believe she got into the study of this, believing in it, and came out saying, “No, there’s really another explanation for it.” I’ve not read her. The only thing I’ve ever really read about this is the original Raymond Moody book, but she is said by many people to have an alternate paradigm to explain the same data. Again, I don’t know what it is. There’s something going on in the brain that isn’t picked up, I suppose. What do you think of that?

Alex Tsakiris: Had her on the show, interviewed her. I mean, just not really strong arguments. You know, one thing that she kind of waded into was the whole treatment of Buddhism. Then we had a Buddhist scholar come on and say, “That is the most ungodly understanding of Buddhism that I’ve ever heard, and I think it does harm.” Blah, blah, blah. That was on the Buddhism part. But her explanation for the near-death experience is just very, very light on the science.

You raise an interesting question about how telepathy might work and maybe Susan Blackmore is kind of apologizing or pleading for “We’ll discover it later,” which I think has another really interesting parallel with your field and that’s…

Dr. Robert Price: When we get to Heaven we’ll find out.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s right. It’s faith-based science. We haven’t figured it out. But you know what? There are no mysteries. Just hang with us. In another 20 years we will know that. Well, that’s not really how it’s supposed to work.

The part that I think is interesting is that as we move away from that paradigm or as we accept the mysteries of consciousness that we don’t understand, how do we move towards-and I’m not saying you’re ready to go there. But I am. And that’s that the underlying ontology of Christianity, you know, maybe they had some things right.

I mean, if you just take the big picture. Let’s say consciousness survives death. Let’s just put that as an assumption. And there’s some kind of experience after it that starts sounding like what we’ve heard about in Heaven. I hate to kind of say that because that kind of immediately throws some people.

Where do we go with that? I don’t know what the real question is there, but what do you think would happen if we move in that direction? How would that movement happen?

Dr. Robert Price: I think what would be sufficient to convince people or what we would think…

Alex Tsakiris: I’m fascinated by the materialism of Christian Apologetics. When you said earlier about the reason you go to church is because you like the stained glass and you like the music but also the shift in consciousness, even if it’s a shift in consciousness from ‘I’m down here’ to ‘Wow, there’s something bigger that I’m a part of.’ Talk about that and talk about what your experiences led you to understand about how that fits into or can possibly fit into the traditional Christian experience.

I just started going back to church six months ago, and it was hard. I could have never gone back to church unless I really came to understand just how messed up it really is. I think there are a lot of church-goers like me out there that are putting a lot of air quotes around 90% of what’s being said, but are also feeling a certain connection. And maybe this relates back to some kind of underpinning of it that might have a realness beyond just an experiential realness but maybe a scientific realness.

Dr. Robert Price: Well, I don’t know how one would get across that divide. All I know is that there is some kind of not even necessarily mysterious wholesome experiential dimension of it where I’m moved to it when the priest says, “Praise O God to whom all hearts are open, from whom no desires are hid. Cleanse the thoughts and inspirations of our hearts so that we may worthily serve thee, magnify thee…” and all that.

I feel like if I were that Psalm “thou hast searched me and known me. See if there be any wicked way in me.” To affirm that and say as if to God, “Yes, open me up, scrutinize me. I know I stand here bare before You. I may be hiding or concealing or not knowing things about myself. I want to be transparent to You.” But I don’t if there’s really anybody listening. But the posture of such communication opens you up and I imagine it would if they were lines in a play. You would begin to feel it. And maybe it’s all psycho-drama.

So I think that you’re right, there is definitely something to it and that most people would have gotten what they get out of church or any other religion even if they had never been told they had to believe all the stuff, what’s happened or that there’s somebody else like them more-or-less on the other end of the line now. I think it’s a ritual that is powerful in its own right.

As Jung would say, you’re clicking on the archetypes by acting them as a ritual and there need be nothing external to the psyche though there are parts of the psyche that are external to our self-aware

consciousness. So I’m hoping to tap into that. But whether there is something that is spiritual that is beyond that or different than that metaphysically, I have no idea and don’t know how you could possibly know.