Thursday, December 22, 2016

Is Trump Like Moses?

            It’s been kind of weird, seeing Christian reactions to the election of Donald Trump. Of course, the big headline grabber has been how Evangelicals turned out for him in big numbers. And I’ve seen several Evangelical leaders (e.g. Franklin Graham) encourage their followers to think of Trump like Moses or David from the Bible, in that he is a flawed leader who will nonetheless lead God’s people to greatness. Separately, John Hagee told his followers that God would punish them if they didn’t vote for Trump.
            Now let’s be fair; Trump may be a pathological liar, possessed of the empathic capacity of a starving velociraptor, openly using his new office to generate income for his businesses and who’s perfectly willing to stoke xenophobic hatred and pander to the basest instincts of a deeply bigoted, fearful, and angry voter base… but he’s never actually committed genocide. So it’s not really fair to put him in Moses’ or David’s league. Although, who knows? Maybe all he’s lacking is the political power to ascend (descend?) to those heights (depths?).
            But that’s not really the point of this post. You see, on top of all of that, I’ve seen other Christian articles (such as this one) claiming exactly the opposite: that the Christian god didn’t want his people to vote for Trump, and that saying God caused the election outcome serves only to drive people away from Christianity. The article I just linked goes so far as to claim that “Crediting Donald Trump’s win to God is the best conceivable argument for someone rejecting faith.”
            Which brings us, at long last, to the point of this post: how would anyone know which view is right (or even if either is)?
            See, here’s the thing: both sides of the argument are talking about the opinion of the same God. One side can tell you that the God of the Bible, who created the universe and sent his son Jesus to die for your sins, wanted Donald Trump to be President of the United States of America. The other side can tell you that the God of the Bible, who created the universe and sent his son Jesus to die for your sins, would never want Donald Trump to be President of the United States of America. I have no doubt that representatives of both sides sincerely believe their view. They each read the same Bible, they each pray to the god they believe is represented by the stories it contains, and yet each come to exactly opposite conclusions about what that God wants about a pretty substantial topic.
            How do you tell who’s right?
            Sure, you could listen to their arguments. Each will cite Bible verses, and the strength of their personal faith, and the results of their prayers for guidance. Ultimately, the only one of those you can verify for yourself is the Bible verses. And sure, you’ll find in there declarations of a God who espouses love and acceptance to support the “God wouldn’t endorse Trump,” camp. But you’ll also find declarations of a God of religious intolerance and draconian law to support the “God would endorse Trump,” camp.
            You’ll also find a God who is perfectly comfortable declaring a general rule, and then issuing directly contradictory orders in specific situations. After all, “thou shalt not kill,” and “thou shalt not steal,” occur in the same story where God orders the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites and steal their property. So there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest that even if you understand the general rule properly, it’s not possible that God ordered a specific violation of it. Even if, for example, one camp could demonstrate conclusively that the God of the Bible wouldn’t want someone like Trump to rule a nation in general, there’s no way to demonstrate that he didn’t want Trump specifically to rule this specific nation in this specific circumstance.
            At the end of it all, whatever arguments either side presents, the only thing you will have will be arguments. The one thing you will not have is a definitive statement from your god saying, expressed clearly enough to be understood by everyone regardless of their political or religious beliefs, to the effect of “I do/do not endorse Donald Trump.”
            Now that’s a pretty weird problem to have, don’t you think?
            And you know who doesn’t have that problem? Everyone.
            Every person who actually exists can clearly express their position on that question in such a way that everyone else knows the answer. Ask me if I endorse Trump? No, I don’t. No matter what your beliefs are, you can read this and come away knowing that I don’t support Trump. Send anyone else you like to read this, and they’ll come away knowing the exact same thing. Doesn’t matter if they are liberal, conservative, Evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, pagan, or atheist, anyone and everyone who reads this can tell that I do not endorse Trump. I can record it in audio or video form, write it down and sign it in front of you or in front of witnesses you trust, or on video. I can tell you personally. If I sat down in a room filled with a dozen people from vastly different backgrounds who all entered the room with different preconceptions of whether I would endorse Trump, every single one of them would leave the room knowing that I don’t.
            If there were a group of people out there sincerely dedicating themselves to doing everything I wanted them to do, and those people actually spoke with me, I could tell them clearly enough that not a single one of them would have voted for Trump.
            No god can do that. Or, at least, none seems willing to. Why?

            In one of the links above, the author claims that “Crediting Donald Trump’s win to God is the best conceivable argument for someone rejecting faith.” I disagree. I think the fact that he can sincerely believe that his god does not endorse Trump, while another Christian can sincerely believe that the same god does endorse Trump, makes a much better argument.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What’s Wrong with the Hamilton Cast Statement?

            As I’m sure many of you have heard, Mike Pence attended a performance of the musical Hamilton, after which the cast read a statement to him asking for the administration of which he is a part to govern on behalf of all races, religions, and orientations. Naturally, there has been an uproar from the right, and from the president-elect himself, over the indignity of poor Mike Pence for having been subjected to such an appeal. I happen to disagree with that position – I wholeheartedly support the right, even the duty, of the cast to use their platform to make an appeal to our nation’s elected representatives. If Mr. Pence thinks he is entitled to go to any public place and be free from appeals on his policies, then he signed up for the wrong job.
            I do, however, have a teensy problem with the appeal itself, the wording of which I have quoted here.
“Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”

            I don’t disagree with that sentiment at all. I do, however, feel that it fails to capture the nature of Pence’s position on the rights of the LGBTQ and non-Christian communities. And I should qualify this by saying that everything I’m about to write is based on the assumption that Mike Pence truly believes his professed religion, and doesn’t merely say the things he does because he believes it’s what he needs to tell his base in order to get and keep their support. But even if he doesn’t personally believe it, much of his base does.
            You see, when you ask Mike Pence to govern on behalf of the rights of people of all orientations and creeds, you may think you’re asking him to defend things like marriage equality, separation of church and state, religious tolerance, and anti-discrimination policies. But that’s not what he hears. In Mike Pence’s world, rights are things granted by his version of the Abrahamic god. And since that god does not say that people have the right to gay marriage, to identify with a gender other than their genitalia seem to indicate, or to worship other gods (or even a different understanding of his god, or no god at all), Mike Pence does not believe those rights exist. When he supports legislation curtailing those things, and even actively persecuting LGBTQ people and (for example) Muslims, he actually believes that he is still defending their rights. Those things simply aren’t a matter of rights to him.
            The problem with Mike Pence is not that he hates LGBTQ people or non-Christians. The problem with Mike Pence is that his god does. In Pence-world, you don’t have a right to be gay, or trans, or bi, or pan, or poly, or Muslim, or atheist, or Hindu, or Buddhist. Furthermore, if society says you legally do have those rights, that makes it likely that more people will act on those orientations, and those people will go to hell and suffer for all eternity. To that mindset, actively persecuting LGBTQ people and/or non-Christians is an act of tough love, because it lessens the likelihood of them going to hell. Pence doesn’t believe he is denying you a right; he believes he is potentially saving you from the wrath of an infinitely powerful being that will pour out infinite torment on you otherwise.

            So that, in my opinion, is the problem with the Hamilton cast statement. It fails to take into account the world view of the fundamentalist Christianity that Pence espouses, and therefore ends up failing to ask for what it intends to be asking for. Whether it’s a genuine failure to understand that mindset, or out of an excess of politeness in showing respect for Pence's religious convictions, I believe that the statement simply missed its mark.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Why Do Liberals Keep Saying The Election Was About Bigotry?

            In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, I have seen a number of his supporters protesting the accusation that their choice to support him was about bigotry. “We’re not racists!” they say. “We’re not homophobes, xenophobes, anti-Semites, or religious bigots! This was about corruption, and an economy that has abandoned us to despair!” So… why does the left still say that you’re racists, for example?
            Well, for one thing, the folks on the left aren’t the only ones who thinks you voted in favor of racism. So do these guys:

            You recognize them, right? Do you deny that those guys are racist as fuck? Do you deny that their support for Trump has been vocal, visible, and courted by the Trump campaign?
            Or what about the guys who did this?

            Do you think they don’t believe you voted for anti-Semitism? How about the folks who did this?

            Do you think those folks don’t think you voted for oppression of LGBTQ people?
            Your own coalition thinks you’re racist. The difference between them and the anti-Trump folks is that they praise you for it. They see your endorsement of President Trump as endorsement of their values, as evidence that what they say out loud is what the majority of Americans really believe, and as permission from American society to act on it.
            And is that fair to you? Does that mean you are a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, or a religious bigot? Fuck, I don’t know. I’m at a loss.
            I get that there are large segments of the country who feel abandoned. I know that many of you feel that Clinton, and really the political establishment in general, are irredeemably corrupt. I get that some of you see no future for you or your children in the economy that system has built. That’s a lot of despair to carry around, and those are weighty issues. And the fact of the matter is, nobody gets the perfect leader who agrees with them on everything. We all have to weigh the pros and the cons, and decide which prices we’re willing to pay to achieve which outcomes. And Trump was the only candidate promising you a radical change from the policies that got you to where you are. There was no “Radical, non-bigotted,” option in the general election. So you had to choose. Take common cause with the white supremacists, the misogynists, the homophobes, the xenophobes, and the religious bigots in a bid to change what you desperately believe needs to be changed. It’s a devil’s bargain, but maybe it really was the only one left to you. You chose to take it that bargain, and I didn’t. But I never felt that level of desperation – who’s to say that I wouldn’t have been voting alongside you if I did?
            But it was a racist bargain. Racist, not in the sense that I believe everyone who made it feels genuine antipathy for those who are different, but in the sense that it will – in fact, already has – increase the exposure to oppression that those people will experience.
             Part of the problem is that I don’t believe Trump can deliver the prosperity he promised you. I don’t believe the he even cares all that much if he does or not, so long as he can look like a winner. So it’s not a bargain I can see as worthwhile. It’s easy for me to see Trump’s election as a vote for bigotry for its own sake, because I don’t believe the benefits that price was supposed to purchase are likely to accrue. I hope I’m wrong about that part. I really do.

            I’m seeing a lot of “I’m not a racist! I’m not a misogynist! I’m not a religious bigot!” I’m seeing a lot of “Ha ha! My side won!” I’m seeing a lot of “You’re irrational for being scared.” I’m not seeing a lot of “I disavow the white supremacists, religious bigots, and homophobes in the Trump coalition.” I’m not seeing a lot of “I promise to stand with you against them if and when those emboldened by my vote come for you.” I’m not seeing a lot of “You’re safe with me.” Please do that. If you genuinely, really voted for Trump as a Hail Mary against a corrupt system rather than in support of the bigotry and hate his campaign nurtured, please do that. You helped put genuine fear into a lot of people – please help to take it away.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Did God Put Trump In Power?

            There are some topics I have shied away from tackling on this blog because they were brought to mind by specific things said or done by friends – friends who have at times commented on my postings, so I know they read at least occasionally. In describing these incidents it would be clear to them that I am directly talking about their beliefs and behavior, and I have not wanted to offend them. But the pressure builds over time and accumulation, and so we have reached a point where I am unwilling to let the latest outrageous statement go uncontested.
            So here we go.
            A friend recently made a claim that, essentially, it’s OK to vote for racist demagogues if you like his other positions, because God gives rulers power anyway. So if a new holocaust happens, it’s just God’s will.
            This is horseshit.
            Now, I understand that there are people who actually believe this is the case. I know it says it in your fairy tale book.
            But it is demonstrably true that elected officials achieve positions of power because of decisions people make. That is what voting is. Even if you think your god visibly anointed rulers in the past, it would be beyond delusional to claim that anything resembling a supernatural intervention to elevate a person to national office has ever occurred in a Western democracy. People seek power, and people give it to them. You see it happen. You can trace the exact mechanisms by which it happens, and you choose to deny it to absolve yourself of the moral responsibility for your choice.
            When you vote for someone who gives every indication that he will use it to persecute people, you are responsible when he does. Not your god. Not fate. You.
            When you tell your friends who are members of the group whom the leader you chose has promised to persecute, your friends who are legitimately scared he will follow through on those promises, that it’s just God’s will if that happens, you aren’t saying to them “I’m a faithful servant of my god.” You are saying to them “I care more about these other issues than I do about what happens to you, but I sure as hell don’t have the fortitude to accept moral responsibility for that decision.”
            Everybody in a democracy bears moral responsibility for the actions of the governments they elect. Especially when they are the actions those leaders promised to commit while campaigning. You do not get to pretend you are not responsible for the parts of the platform you didn’t like by pawning it off on your god. You chose the issues you wanted to prioritize, you decided that achieving them was worth the price of accepting the parts you didn’t, and you, DEMONSTRABLY YOU, chose to empower the leader who would carry it out. You take the bad with the good, and you accept your own culpability in doing it.

            You may think “…but God’s will…” absolves you, but the rest of us don’t. No god picked our President. The American people did.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself?

            Sometimes a theist will say to an atheist something along the lines of “If you think life is so pointless, you should just kill yourself.” Some of this, I think, is just trolling and nastiness; essentially getting angry and telling us to kill ourselves as a juvenile response to whatever argument is happening at the time. But some, I get the impression, is a genuine inability to understand why atheists in general don’t want to kill themselves. Some people really don’t understand how we can see any value in living, absent a god.
            And I gotta admit, I reflect that attitude right back. I don’t understand why anyone who genuinely believes that they’re going to an eternal paradise after they die would want to continue living. Maybe someone who’s reading this will help me out on that.
            But to get back to my perspective on the original question: if atheists think life is so pointless, then why don’t we just kill ourselves?
            Well, first of all, we don’t actually think life is pointless. I’ve discussed this in a bit of detail here, but it’s worth reiterating a bit. In general, atheists don’t think life is pointless or meaningless, just that any meaning we derive from it isn’t something imposed by some outside entity. Many of us don’t see that kind of meaning as being terribly desirable or even sensible.
            But even if life were pointless… what would be the point in killing ourselves? I mean, if life is pointless, is death any less pointless?
            I have no reason to think death is something I should desire. I mean, first of all, most of the processes of actually dying seem like they’d be pretty damn unpleasant. Plus, there’s a lot of stuff I still want to experience that dying will definitely take off the table. And even though I go through periods of being depressed, there’s still stuff I look forward to doing or experiencing. Even when things seem to be going pretty shitty, there’s still stuff I look forward to doing or experiencing. Hell, sometimes just getting to my next pizza is more than enough reason to go on living a few more days. I mean, I like pizza. Come to think of it, I kinda want one now. But I don’t have one. Guess I’ll have to refrain from killing myself at least until I get pizza.
            Trivial, right? Living for pizza? And what happens once I have one? Won’t I have lost my reason to live? Clearly not, because there’s always something else to look forward to. Really, that’s all it takes to want to keep on living: feeling like there’s something else to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be anything of world-shattering importance. It just needs to be important enough to us to want to experience it. That’s all.
            And what does death have to offer in place of those experiences? As far as I can tell, nothing. Literally. I mean, I don’t really have much reason to think I’ll exist at all after I die. Death will be literally the end of all experiences for me. It’s a weird thing to try to contemplate, this idea of not existing anymore. Obviously, I wouldn’t be suffering – the end of all experience means all experience, whether good, bad or indifferent. I simply won’t be. I suppose it’s not something to be afraid of, but it’s not really something to look forward to either.
            Of course, I could be wrong. There could be some form of afterlife, for all I know. I haven’t really heard of one that I’d want to go to. I suppose, if there was some kind of eternal afterlife where there actually was an infinity of new experiences to look forward to, that might be desirable. But no religion seems to be offering that as an option, and (more importantly), none have convinced me that the versions they’re offering actually exist.
            So, if I were to kill myself, at best I can look forward to nonexistence, and from there it descends into progressively less desirable forms of post-life existence (yes, that includes versions of heaven). While I can imagine having such a painful life that the idea of not existing starts to seem preferable, that’s just not the place I’m at. This life is all I know I can have. And, gosh darn it, I still want to go on living.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Are You an Atheist?

            You may not realize this, but there’s a lot of dispute about how many atheists are out there. I mean, sure, there are polls (such as this one by the Pew Forum) about the topic, but it may surprise you to know that there are a lot of differences of opinion over how to interpret them.
            In a sense, it comes down to definitions.
            Sure, look at the poll data, and it says very clearly “Atheists: 3.1%.” That should be it, right? Atheists are 3.1% of the population. But is that actually true? Because polls like this don’t tell us what we are, they ask us how we describe ourselves. And that is going to run into some problems with what you understand the definitions to be. If your understanding of what an atheist is matches your self-description, then you might identify yourself as an atheist (if your comfortable accepting the pejorative baggage that comes with that label). So it’s very likely that the 3.1% number under-reports people who actually are atheists… for certain definitions.
            The definition gets fought over all the time, though. The one I use is “someone who does not believe that a god (or gods) exists.” And since I don’t claim to know a god doesn’t exist, but I don’t believe one does, that definition fits me. This is different, by the way, from the definition “someone who believes that gods do not exist.” That definition doesn’t really fit me. And while those are the two that get argued over the most, they aren’t the only ones. Some people (usually theists trying to define atheism into absurdity) define it as “someone who claims to know that no gods exist.” I know atheists who claim the label, not because they have any particular position on whether gods exist, but because they don’t believe gods should be worshipped, irrespective of whether they exist or not. It’s not a popular definition, but is it invalid?
            But let’s look at my definition, and relate it to the other categories presented in the poll. Because it has implications.
            For example: where do agnostics really fall? According to the poll, they make up 4% of the population. But, again, definitions matter. What does someone mean when they say they’re agnostic? Do they mean they don’t know if a god exists? Well, that’s kind of a different question from whether you believe a god exists. I fit that definition of agnostic. By those definitions, I am both agnostic and an atheist – they are not mutually exclusive categories. So does that mean I get to claim that extra 4% of the population as being atheists (as some atheists are wont to do)? Hardly. Because some agnostics will say they don’t (or even can’t) know that a god exists, but they believe one does. Or they might use the definition of atheist that is the claim that gods definitely don’t exist, in which case it’s obvious why they might not identify as an atheist.
            And what about the fairly large (15.8%) group that identifies as “nothing in particular?” If they don’t believe anything in particular about gods, are they actually atheists as well? Under my definition, maybe. Perhaps they don’t believe a god exists, but don’t want to use the atheist label or don’t define it the way I do. Or maybe they do believe a god (or gods) exists, but have no particular beliefs about what that god is like or what (if anything) we ought to do in response to it.
            What about Buddhists? There are forms of Buddhism that don’t feature any gods at all – are those people atheists? Some will say yes, some will say no.
            Or we could venture further afield into the people who identified as members of particular religions that unambiguously center around gods. Might there be some atheists among them? I know of more than a few people who would identify as Jewish for cultural, philosophical, and ethnic reasons, but who don’t actually believe the Jewish god really exists. The same is true among Christians, and among Muslims, and for many (if not all) of the other religions listed in this poll. Are those people atheists, too? What percentage? Who knows? When we’re talking about demographics, do we get to claim any of those people?
            It gets to be kind of a mess. Depending on how you define it, you could have anywhere form under 3% of the population to over half being atheists. But language can be like that. When definitions are unclear (and on controversial topics, unfortunately, people frequently go to great lengths to keep them that way), people don’t hear what you mean; they hear what they would have meant if they had said the same words. So the purpose of this article, for the most part, is to try and clear up any remaining confusion about how I’m using some of these terms. When, in the title of this post, I asked “are you an atheist?” what I was really asking was “are you someone who does not believe a god (or gods) actually exist?”

            And I don’t necessarily expect you to answer me, one way or the other. I don't expect you to identify as anything other than what you already do. It’s just something to think about, and maybe worth answering to yourself.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Is Hell a Reason to Believe?

            In a recent, very brief, online discussion with a Christian, I asked them to give me a reason I should believe in their religion. They responded that the “only real reason to believe” was eternal damnation; that if I didn’t believe, I would spend eternity in hell, and that I did believe, I would spend it in heaven. When I responded that I didn’t have a reason to believe in heaven or hell either, they ended the discussion and apparently blocked me. So, while I didn’t have an opportunity to pursue that conversation any further, I’ll go ahead and lay out my thoughts on the matter here.

            As far as I’m concerned, what she presented as “the only reason to believe” isn’t even a reason at all. Firstly, it’s nothing more than a threat: do this, or you’ll be punished. But secondly, the nature of the threat is such that the only way to take it seriously is if you already believe anyway.

            Let me see if I can make an illustration. Suppose I were to tell you that Frodo Baggins saved us all from eternal enslavement by destroying the One Ring. Furthermore, I tell you that if you don’t believe me, the dark wizard Sauron would cart you off to Mordor to torture you for the rest of your life. Would you find that a compelling argument to believe that there’s a real-life Frodo Baggins who saved us from real-life enslavement by destroying a real-life One Ring? Barring serious issues separating reality from fantasy, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t give that argument a moment’s consideration for one simple reason: you probably don’t believe Sauron or Mordor are real. Therefore, the threat isn’t real. It can’t possibly frighten you.

            But even so, what if I were to tell you that if you didn’t believe that Frodo Baggins saved us all from eternal enslavement by destroying the One Ring, I would imprison you and torture you. That seems a little more of a threat, right? I exist, after all, and you can probably satisfy yourself of this fact to a reasonable degree of certainty. So maybe you would tell me that you believe in Frodonic salvation, for the sake of avoiding torture. But you wouldn’t really believe it, now, would you? You wouldn’t be actually convinced of the existence of a humble Hobbit and his ring of invisibility. Because the threat has absolutely nothing to do with demonstrating the truth of the claim.

            Oh, also, I imagine you’d probably consider it pretty immoral of me to make such a threat to begin with.

            To bring it a little closer to home: suppose I were to tell you (assuming you’re religious) that if you didn’t stop believing in your god, you would be tortured or killed. Not only would you probably not find that a compelling reason to change your actual belief (even if it compels you to tell me you did), but you’d think I’m an asshole (if not outright evil) for making the threat. Guess what: it’s no different when you do it. And it’s no different when the writer of a “holy book” does it, either.

            So what it comes down to is this: if you ever find yourself on the point of saying that the only reason to believe in your god is hell, or eternal damnation, or anything similar, you’re really at the point of admitting that there’s no reason whatsoever.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Why Do You Believe in Pythagoras?

            So there’s this Atheist and Theist debate page on Facebook that I’ve been following lately. I can’t say that I recommend this particular page to anyone; you have to wade through a lot of ignorance, vitriol, and insults from all sides to find even the tiniest nugget of something with any merit. But every now and then someone will pose a question that might be worth addressing. This is one such question.

            The person who posted this was asking why mathematicians believe in Pythagoras, or why philosophers believe in Socrates, given that there’s little to no hard evidence that either was ever actually a living breathing person. The source of this question is rooted in the fact that there are a growing number of scholars calling into question the idea that Jesus ever existed. And we’re not even talking about the idea that Jesus was just an ordinary human historical figure who has been exaggerated to mythical proportions. These scholars (collectively referred to as “mythicists”), make the claim that there may never even have been that much; that the entire Jesus narrative was a myth that does not refer to any real person whatsoever.

            I’ve heard some of the arguments in favor of the mythicist position, and while they do seem to have some merit I can’t say that I am necessarily convinced by them. I just don’t feel like I have enough information to make a judgment yet. I also don’t know any of the evidence for or against the existence of Pythagoras or Socrates. But that’s not really necessary for addressing the question at hand: why accept the existence of Pythagoras or Socrates on little or no evidence, but not accept the existence of Jesus?

            It has to do with the nature of the claims, and what depends on them.

            You see, belief in Pythagoras is trivial. He was a Greek mathematician, perfectly ordinary in every way except for a gifted intellect, who supposedly founded a school of math and philosophy in Ancient Greece, and is credited for a number of advancements in the mathematical field (most famously: the Pythagorean Theorem that is named for him). I know Greeks exist; I’ve met some. I know mathematicians exist; I’ve met some of those as well. I know schools exist that teach mathematics; I’ve been to a couple. It’s reasonable to believe Greek mathematicians exist, and some of them have founded schools. Nothing about believing in Pythagoras asks us to accept anything preposterous.

            And what is credited to Pythagoras? Mainly, a lot of mathematics, none of which actually depends in any way on Pythagoras having been a real person. Whether Pythagoras existed or not, the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle would still be equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. That’s mathematically provable and physically demonstrable, and the possibility that we may have accredited that statement to a fictional person makes not one bit of practical difference.

            In other words, it’s the fact that the existence of Pythagoras is utterly unimportant that makes it easy to accept without specific evidence. You don’t need to prove the existence of Pythagoras, precisely because whether he really existed or not makes absolutely no difference. And it’s reasonable to accept the existence of Pythagoras because doing so doesn’t require you to discard your everyday observations about the world. If you find out you were wrong, it’d make almost no difference in how you viewed the world or lived your life.

            Contrast that with the claims for Jesus. Many Christians will tell you that the most important statement attributed to Jesus is “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; nobody comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement that requires a complete revision of one’s understanding of the world and how one ought to be living one’s life. That statement is utterly, completely, irrevocably dependent on Jesus actually existing, and actually being the person who made that claim. That is the barest minimum that must be true in order for that statement to have any possibility of being true. If Jesus never actually existed, that statement cannot possibly be anything more than a metaphor, and the stories of his life cannot be anything more than parables.

            Of course, the existence of a historical Jesus-figure is far from sufficient to justify believing any of the fantastical claims made about him. There easily could have been an ordinary man preaching in ancient Israel who couldn’t walk on water, who couldn’t conjure food out of nothing, who wasn’t the son of God, but around whom a body of fantastical legendry grew. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that guy existed. But it also wouldn’t matter much – just as whether Pythagoras existed or not doesn’t matter much. It’s the divine claims that make it imperative to know if Jesus existed, and demand that evidence of his actual existence be pursued that much more rigorously. So it’s reasonable to dig into the question. And if, in the course of trying to prove whether the divine figure existed, you can’t even find the evidence to prove whether the ordinary historical figure existed, what reason would you have to believe it anymore? The intellectually honest thing for someone in that position would be to admit that they don’t have reason to believe Jesus existed.

            So yeah, in the strictest sense, there may be no more reason to believe in Pythagoras or Socrates than in Jesus. But it’s reasonable to prioritize the relative importance of granting or withholding belief – or even whether it bears investigation - based on the nature of what depends on the claim. Belief (or nonbelief) in any of them ought only to be provisional anyway, open to change with the emergence of new evidence.