Providentialist history arguments have long been part of the arsenal of some apologists. One popular argument of this type defends the conclusion that the Jews are God’s chosen people based on the fact that they have survived the seemingly endless persecution of their people throughout history. (Here’s what I picture the skeptic retorting: that’s like saying Ralph is God’s chosen person because he survived several rounds of chemotherapy. The real question is why God’s chosen guy would get cancer to begin with!)
Another token argument of this type, and the one that shall have our attention, focuses on the allegedly providential way that the church peaceably conquered the Roman Empire inside of three centuries. Just what should we think of those types of arguments, and in particular the “Conquering the Roman Empire” token example? In chapter 2 of The End of Christianity, titled “Christianity’s Success was Not Incredible,” Richard Carrier seeks to lay these types of arguments to waste by dealing a critical blow to the “Roman Empire” argument in particular.
Carrier is actually arguing two claims in his chapter:
Thesis 1: “when we look at the actual facts of that time and place, we find Christianity’s conception and growth were not remarkable at all.” (53)
Thesis 2: “In fact, what happened is quite the contrary of what we should expect if it [Christianity] really did have the backing of a benevolent miracle-working God. This evidence thus actually disconfirms Christianity.” (53)
Let me restate these two claims more succinctly:
Thesis 1: the history of Christianity does not support the claim that it is of supernatural origin.
Thesis 2: the history of Christianity does support the claim that it is not of supernatural origin.
Before we turn to the critical evaluation of Carrier’s two theses I’ll lay out some of the passages in which he defends them.
A Brief look at the Theses
For the Roman Empire argument to work the apologist needs to argue an “Isaiah 53:2” for the church: in short, it had no beauty or majesty to attract Romans to it, nothing in its appearance that they should desire it. The more counter to the grain the church appears, the more unlikely its success and the more we need to invoke divine providential action to explain that success. With that in mind, the apologist has a vested interest in highlighting the litany of obstacles the early church would have faced: apologists have argued that Romans would have considered the gospel of an incarnate, crucified and risen messiah a foolish stumbling block; they charge that Christianity was a beleaguered, persecuted minority that offered no practical advantages in conversion; they point out that despite these setbacks Christianity grew at an inexplicable rate, and so on. The fact that Christianity overcame each of these dissuasive factors strongly suggests that divine action was operative through the events of history and that in turn supports the conclusion that Christianity is true.
Carrier’s method in dealing with these various factors is straightforward: argue that in each of these cases success was not surprising at all: the church was nowhere near as unattractive, nor its success as unlikely, as the apologist would have us believe; the gospel of incarnation, death and resurrection was not that foolish after all; Christians were not the persecuted minority people have thought; there could often be personal benefit to conversion; Christianity spread at a wholly predictable rate due to known natural causes, and so on. And so, step by step, the supposed puzzle of Christianity’s explosive growth dissolves:
“[Christianity] can therefore claim no supernatural success in winning converts. Its rate of development and success was entirely natural. Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance.” (54)
“Christianity’s success was indeed a product of entirely natural sociological causes….” (67)
“This is exactly as we should expect if Christianity’s success was merely a natural phenomenon like that of any other religion.” (68)
“there is nothing about the rise and success of Christianity that is at all unexpected on the hypothesis that it is false. If Christianity is just one more false religion, like Islam or Buddhism or Mithraism or anything else, then the evidence would be exactly like what we have: a movement founded on little verifiable evidence but instead exploiting known natural psychological and sociological processes to leverage its success in the marketplace of ideas, growing at a normal expected rate, and then capitalizing on historical opportunities that would have benefited any other religion in the same position just as much.” (69)
Is this correct? Has Carrier really laid to waste providentialist history apologetics, or at least those arguments which focus on the earliest centuries of Christianity?
A more complex picture
To address that question adequately would be a long and involved process. But it is fair to say that many experts in ancient history would not find the ancient Mediterranean climate nearly as favorable toward Christianity as Carrier would have us believe.
Let’s consider a couple examples. As a set up for the first let’s consider Carrier’s own claim: “There is no evidence that a crucified god was an obstacle to converting–for anyone who actually converted.” (56) To begin with, note how carefully qualified this statement is for it only relates to those who did convert, leaving us to wonder how many people did not convert precisely because of Christianity’s crucified God. That number may be much larger than Carrier would have us believe. This brings me to my specific example, the Alexamenos graffito, a famous instance of third-century graffiti from Rome (carved, not spray-painted!) which depicts a crucified man with a donkey’s head. It includes a statement which translates approximately as “Alexamenos worships his god”. The likely explanation is that Alexamenos was a Christian who was being taunted for his belief. It would seem reasonable to conclude that the Christian notion of crucifixion was a real obstacle to Alexamenos’s peers. It would also seem reasonable to conclude that the fact that the Christian notion of a crucified God was a real obstacle to Alexamenos’s peers very likely presented an ongoing struggle for Alexamenos himself. I can think of a few notable contemporary cases where young university students had their faith mocked in philosophy or science class. After being humiliated they learned to keep their faith to themselves and some went on to experience their own crisis of faith. Who knows if Alexamenos managed to survive the taunts of his peers?
For the second (brief) example, we should note that even “Christians” had a hard time accepting the notion of incarnation. Marcion rejected the notion as ridiculous, leading Tertullian to reply with a rather graphic account of the birth of Jesus as an absurdity that he gleefully embraced.
At this point this critical review could quickly get bogged down in various historical claims and opposing interpretations of those claims. But my goal is not to argue the providentialist case over-against Carrier. Rather, I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the providentialist apologists and Carrier: in other words, the history is not as clearly suggestive of divine action as the providentialist apologists have claimed, but neither is the growth of Christianity as unsurprising as Carrier would have us believe.
By the way, this may be the right moment for me to point out that I have never had a great sympathy for providentialist history apologetics for the basic reasons Carrier points to: it is quite easy to provide plausible natural factors for the same phenomena. I discuss this in my article “Do we need God to explain the wild success of the hula hoop?” in which I critiqued a claim that providentialism is the best explanation of mass revival in different parts of the world:
“I think we just need to identify other mass events like fads which are, if anything, even more impressive in terms of their staggeringly rapid and sweepign [sic] growth through mass people groups. Think of Bieber fever, Beetlemania, or the explosive popularity of Wham-O’s hula hoop in 1958. Which futurist, writing in 1957, could have predicted that within a year a plastic tube would become the hottest toy on the market? Such trends and fads are striking, but we certainly are not under any compunction to invoke divine action to explain them. Nor, I suspect, are we more compelled to do so if the product happens to be WWJD? merchandise. Or even the very gospel itself. So while the explosive growth of Christainity [sic] in China (or Korea, or sub-Saharan Africa, or…) may be interpreted by a Christian in providential terms, it hardly offers a defeater for the naturalist who prefers to interpret these events purely in terms of natural causes.”
I may not be overly optimistic concerning the prospects of providentialist history, but does this mean that providentialist arguments like the Roman Empire argument are finished? I’m not so sure about that. I’ll address that issue in two steps.
Is it possible to know God has been providentially operative in history apart from the history itself?
Carrier is assuming that the way we would come to know God has been providentially active in history is by looking at historical effects and inferring God as the most likely cause. That is one possible way. But is it the only way?
Consider the case of Dave the bachelor. Dave has comes back to his apartment after having been away for the weekend. So far as he can see, upon his return the apartment is just as he left it: Sports Illustrated magazines are strewn on the hallway, dirty dishes remain untouched in the sink, and his Frank Mills record collection is spread out on the red velvet couch, right where he left them. Of course a few things are different. A picture that was propped up against the wall has fallen over and a pen that Dave remembers leaving on the counter is now on the kitchen table. But that is nothing too strange. After all, the picture could have been knocked over by a draft. And Dave may be simply misremembering where he left his pen.
In other words, all the evidence is consistent with the fact that nobody was in Dave’s apartment in his absence. Dave does not have enough evidence simply by observing the effects in the apartment that there has been an agent cause (i.e. a person) in the apartment since he left. But does that mean there is no other way Dave could come to believe that a person was in his apartment in his absence? Of course not.
Let’s say that Steve comes up to Dave and says “Dude, I was in your apartment this weekend. I knocked over your picture and I think I left your pen on the kitchen table. Sorry about that, eh.” Obviously that testimony would provide adequate justification for Dave to believe that somebody (namely Steve) was in his apartment in his absence.
Now think about Christian history. Can a Christian know that God was operative in history? (Please note that I didn’t simply say “can justifiably believe” . Instead I said “know”, an epistemic state which encompasses “justifibly believe” in its warm embrace.) This depends on whether God exists. If God does exist, and is in fact providentially active in certain special ways in history, then it would seem that people could come to know God is active through a testimony analogous to Steve’s testimony to Dave.
There are two possible objections to this scenario to consider. The first demands that I explain how God would testify that he was providentially active in history to Dave and that short of such an account this claim must be rejected. But this is not a good response for an epistemic externalist. Externalism is the position that a person need not know how a particular doxastic process works in order to gain knowledge through that doxastic process. For example, a child need not know how she intuits that 7+5=12 is necessarily true in order to know that it is necessarily true. She need not know how sense perception functions to know that she is presently seeing a sunny day. She need not know how God communicates to her to know he has.
The second objection is one presented by Carrier himself. He provides the following defeater for this kind of appeal to a properly basic source of belief:
“Even the ‘feeling’ that Christ now speaks to us or lives in our hearts is not such, because people of completely different religions have exactly the same feelings and experiences, only of their own gods and spirits and forces, so we know the odds of such feelings and experiences being had even by believers in false religions is 100 percent.” (69)
Carrier’s observation has some epistemological import. It just doesn’t have the import he believes it has. In short, Carrier thinks it justifies general skepticism concerning beliefs about God when all it in fact supports is a healthy fallibilism about such belief. Let me explain.
Richard Carrier thus wants us to reason from:
(a) God perception is fallible.
(b) We should adopt a general skepticism about God perception.
However, one can also provide ample evidence for
(c) Sense perception, rational intuition and historical reconstruction are fallible.
And yet surely Carrier does not defend
(d) We should adopt a general skepticism about sense perception, rational intuition and historical reconstruction.
Consider the matter of historical reconstruction in particular. Carrier spends his chapter attempting to provide a superior account of the history of the early church to that which is offered by providentialist history apologists, so he clearly is no skeptic about the possibility of historical reconstruction. But if a person can be a fallibilist in sense perception, rational intuition and historical reconstruction then why not God perception as well? In sum, there is no reason why the person who believes they perceive God cannot perceive him whilst recognizing the fallibility of that perception in the same way that they believe they sense perceive the world (or rationally intuit logically truths, or have knowledge of the past) whilst recognizing the fallibility of that doxastic source.
And so we come back to the following: if God exists then it is possible for a person to come to believe reasonably that God is operative in certain respects in the world, even if the places where the person believes God is operative are also possibly explicable in terms of natural causes alone.
One way to gain providentialist historical knowledge
While a person need not be obliged to present an account of God perception to know things about God in a properly basic way, we need not think that this is some airy fairy process. It could actually be strikingly mundane. Consider this example.
Let’s say that as Dave reads W.H.C. Frend’s The Rise of Christianity he finds himself coming to the belief “God was providentially operative in the growth of the Christian Church throughout the Roman Empire.” In addition, let’s say that God foreknew Dave would come to believe this so God created the precise world (that is the maximal state of affairs) in which Dave would freely read Frend and hold that belief, and God did so because the belief is true and he wanted Dave to come to know that belief. Given those conditions is it possible that Dave could come to know “God is providentially worked through the early history of Christianity” based on Frend’s The Rise of Christianity? Sure, if God could call the universe into existence he can do that too.
But this has big implications for it means that a person could come to know that God was providentially active in certain points in history despite the fact that the historical events in question could be explained solely by way of appeal to natural causes.
Is there still hope for providentialist history arguments?
So Carrier’s first argument does not undermine reasonable belief and perhaps even knowledge that God has been providentially active at certain points in history. But can we push this further? Are providentialist history arguments still viable?
In order to address this question we need to have a nuanced conception of what apologetics arguments are and what they purport to establish. Christian apologists and their detractors have often had a rather simplistic view of what constitutes a good argument as being one that is valid with plausible (preferably sound) premises. But that is clearly inadequate. After all, you could have a sound argument which nobody can understand and thus which serves to persuade nobody of the truth of Christianity. What good is that kind of argument? Let’s put it this way: it is about as useful as a Bugatti Veyron which is confined to navigating the streets of Calcutta. If that twin-turbocharged 1001 bhp engine is forever confined to dodging cows and rickshaws at 25 mph, you might as well be driving a Tata.
The same goes for an argument that never gets a chance to let its propositions work their magic on a comprehending audience. But there are some arguments which, while being as modest as the Tata, are nonetheless ideally suited to increasing personal justification in believing a certain proposition just like the Tata is ideally suited to getting a person from point A to point B in Calcutta.
In order to explain what I mean consider for the moment an exchange between Alex and Dave:
Alex: “The IPCC selectively chose its data to support the thesis of human-induced climate change.”
Dave: “How do you know?”
Alex: “That’s according to esteemed CSU meteorologist Roger A. Pielke.”
In this modest exchange Alex is providing an apologetic for the claim that the IPCC selectively chose its data. His argument isn’t a very powerful one. It is kind of like the Tata, puttering along in the traffic choked streets of Calcutta. The Tata is not a great car but it accomplishes its goal. And if your goal is to increase your justification in believing that the IPCC selectively chose its data to support human-induced climate change, then a simple Tata-esque appeal to legitimate authority might be just the trick.
Note that I said legitimate authority. Obviously one cannot appeal to any old authority. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is probably not a sufficient authority to increase your justification for the proposition in question. (However, celebrity chef Ina Garten might since in her previous life she was a White House nuclear policy analyst!) Since Pielke is an esteemed meteorologist his opinion would provide a solid boost to the justification for the claim that the IPCC selectively chose its data. This is not a Veyron argument, but it gets you going like a Tata. Thus it is a modestly successful apologetic for the thesis in question.
Here’s another argument of that type:
Alex: “The early history of Christianity doesn’t support providentialist divine intervention.”
Dave: “How do you know?”
Alex: “That’s according to esteemed historian Richard Carrier.”
Again, this argument is a successful apologetic not in a Veyron kind of way but certainly in a Tataesque manner. It provides a modest increase in the justification for the anti-providentialist hypothesis.
Dave: “The early history of Christianity supports providentialist divine intervention.”
Alex: “How do you know?”
Dave: “That’s according to esteemed historian Paul Maier.”
Another modest apologetic but now for the thesis of historic providentialism. While theological and atheological apologists often focus on the paradigm shifting arguments, much of the contribution for our assent to or withholding of assent to certain propositions is done by comparatively modest arguments such as legitimate appeals to authority.
So it seems to me that there is much much more to be said for historic providentialist arguments than Carrier’s rather triumphalistic chapter would suggest. And keep in mind this is coming from a guy who doesn’t even like these kinds of arguments.
Evaluating Thesis 2
But wait, isn’t there a defeater to the claim that a Christian can know God is operative in Christian history? Carrier thinks so because he thinks the evidence all supports the claim that Christianity is false.
“when we seriously consider what evidence we would likely have if Christianity really were true, we find the evidence that we actually have looks nothing like that.” (70)
Point by point Carrier claims that the actual history of the church is nothing like what we would expect if Christianity were in fact true. I will deal with this claim very briefly. To begin with this section reads like an atheist Richard Swinburne. You see, Richard Swinburne is rather famous for developing elaborate arguments based on Richard Swinburne’s intuitions of what God would be like if he exists (obviously he’d be triune) and how he would act (obviously he’d provide a special revelation, an atonement, a resurrection, et cetera). The other Richard reasons in a similar manner: obviously God would leave no ambiguity about his existence, et cetera. Since Christianity doesn’t measure up to Carrier’s intuitions, that signals for him the death knell.
Once again, Carrier way overplays his hand. To begin with, there are many arguments that address the problem of divine hiddenness which underlies many of Carrier’s intuitions. And Carrier doesn’t even consider the degree to which the fact that Christianity has long been the largest religion on earth might increase its background credibility (and by extension, providentialist accounts of its history).
In short, this final part of the chapter came across like a loud roll of thunder: while it sounds intimidating it in fact poses no threat since the lightning that generated it already missed its mark.