Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

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Why Arguments are (almost) Never Convincing: A Dynamical Systems Approach to Belief Change

Introduction

What I want to do in this piece is outline a perspective for thinking about belief systems and how people change (or don’t change) their beliefs in response to new arguments and evidence. The key observation that motivates this analysis is that in general, when people have a particular entrenched perspective with respect to an issue or subject, it is very rare that they find any new evidence or arguments sufficiently persuasive to significantly change their beliefs. I have been thinking about a model that would have to explain why this is the case, a model which incorporates concepts from physics and dynamical systems theory. That might sound very complicated, but I think the key idea is relatively simple. I am not claiming that this approach is exhaustive or completely accurate, but rather that it may be a useful way of thinking about when and why people change their beliefs, and why they seldom do. My focus here will be on disputes surrounding complicated and controversial matters such as politics, religion, and philosophy, though the model my be applicable elsewhere as well.

Background

Imagine a bowl with a marble in the middle, lying stationary at the bottom of the curve of the bowl. If we jiggle the bowl around, or push the marble up one side or another, it will roll back down towards the centre. It may jiggle around for a while, rolling up one side and down the other, but eventually it will return to rest at the centre of the bowl. This behaviour corresponds to that of a potential energy well in physics, whereby a system has a state in which its energy is lowest, to which the system tends towards as a result of the overarching tendency to reach its lowest energy state. Perturbations away from this minimal energy state will generally only be temporary, and eventually the system will return towards its ‘preferred’ state. In the language of dynamical systems, this state is described as a stable equilibrium, because if the system (in our example the system consists of the bowl and the marble) is perturbed slightly one way or the other, it will eventually return to its initial resting equilibrium state.

Now imagine that we placed two bowls next to each other, and joined together their edges so that they were connected by a smooth, curved edge, sort of like two sinks nested next to each other in the same bench. If we placed our marble exactly halfway in between the two sinks, we could get it to rest there without moving. However this equilibrium state, unlike the one where the marble is in the middle of one of the bowls, is unstable, since a small nudge in either direction will send the marble rolling into one of the bowls, never to return. This illustrates the key point that in contrast to stable equilibria, unstable equilibria are not robust to small perturbations.

Now imagine that we place a third, much smaller and shallower bowl in between our larger bowls (again with the edges smoothly joined), but placed on a platform so that its top is level to the top of the other bowls. This may be slightly more difficult to imagine, but essentially it would correspond to a shallow sink placed in the same bench in between two deeper sinks. A marble placed in the centre of this smaller will remain there and will return when subject to small shocks. However if we push the marble with enough force, it will have sufficient energy to exit the central bowl, travel over the curve connecting it to one of the larger bowls, and fall down to the centre of this bowl. From this location, it will obviously not be able to return to its original position in the shallower, central bowl. In the language of dynamical systems theory, this central bowl is called a locally stable equilibrium – it is robust to small perturbations, but not to larger ones. Note that it is also possible in theory to knock the marble out of the larger bowl all the way over the lip and back into the shallower central bowl, however this would take a very large push indeed. Thus we say that the larger bowl is a more stable, ‘lower energy state’ (in physics terminology) than the central bowl.

A final concept that I need to introduce is that of a dynamical system. The precise technical definition of a dynamical system is not of interest to me here, and would detract from the key logic of the argument. What I mean by ‘dynamical system’ is in particular a system which changes over time in a manner which is (in some sense) ‘recursive’, such that changes of the system depend upon the current state of the system. A simple example would be differential equations, which are equations whereby the value of one variable (say x) depends on the rate at which that variable is changing with time (dx/dt), which itself depends upon the current value of x. The key property is that many such dynamical systems can evolve in quite complicated ways, leading to some solutions which are stable (corresponding to equilbria discussed above), and others that are not. Dynamical systems evolve over time in what is called the state space, which corresponds to the set of possible values that all the variables could take. A simple example of a dynamical system is a pendulum. The system is dynamic because the velocity of the pendulum depends on the height of the pendulum, which in turn obviously depends on past velocity values, producing a potentially complicated temporal trajectory. The state space consists of the possible values of the height of the pendulum and the rate at which that height is changing. As the pendulum moves from side to side, speeding up and slowing down under the force of gravity, the pendulum moves through the state space, constantly changing its velocity and position values.

The Model

Having outlined some key concepts, I will now apply these ideas in understanding belief formation and change. The key idea is to consider the process of belief formation as a dynamical system seeking to find the ‘lowest energy’ state. Imagine viewing our set of bowls from above. Our marble corresponds to a particular person, and the marbles position in and around the bowls represents that person’s current set of opinions and beliefs about a specific subject; ‘where they are at’ intellectually. We can describe movement in three dimensions: north and south (the ‘y axis’), east and west (the ‘x axis’), and up and down (which corresponds to the depth below the top of the bowl). The position along the x-axis represents one’s opinion on one particular specific question, while the position on the y-axis represents one’s opinion on a different particular question. The depth below the top of the bowl represents one’s degree of confidence in one’s overall set of positions. It should be noted that for any sufficiently complicated issue there will be far more than two particular questions of relevance – they may be dozens or even hundreds. Mathematically there is no limit to how many dimensions a dynamical system can have, however for simplicity of visualisation we will stick with only two for this example, always bearing in mind that for real world examples we would always wish to extrapolate out the analysis to many more dimensions.

The system is said to be dynamical because each individual evaluates the x- and y-axis positions interdependently. That is, it is not the case that they arrive at a position on the issue corresponding to the y-axis and then independently decide upon the issue corresponding to the x-axis. Rather, they consider both issues simultaneously, so that the plausibility of a particular position along x is judged in relation to the position along y, which in turn is judged with respect to the position along x, and so on. The overall degree of confidence (depth) then depends upon how well one’s views on the two issues cohere or fit together, and so will also vary in accordance with the positions along the x- and y-axes.

Sometimes it may seem to us that with respect to a particular issue, different people have opinions that are spread ‘all over the map’, with each person being similarly confident in their individual set of beliefs. In the context of our model, this would correspond to a situation where hundreds of marbles were thrown into a flat-bottomed swimming pool, each at the same depth (degree of confidence), spanning the entire range of views along the x- and y-axes. In practise, however, I think this is a relatively rare outcome. More typically there are a few particularly deep wells that seem to serve as attractors for opinions, with only a few people residing outside of these deeper wells. Each of these wells, or deep bowls to use our previous language, corresponds to a particularly common set of positions on the subject in question. The reason these wells are so common is because they are self-sustaining, or in the language of dynamical systems, they are stable equilibria. Small changes in beliefs along either the x- or y-axes will not have any significant long-term effect on the system (the individual’s set of beliefs), which eventually will return to its initial state at the bottom of the well. The reason few people reside in between the major wells is because these positions, being much ‘higher up’ (corresponding to the connections between bowls discussed above) are unstable equilibria, where small perturbations in beliefs will lead to that individual ‘rolling down’ into one or other of the surrounding wells, arriving at a new stable equilibrium.

Applying the Model

To provide an example for this rather abstract model, consider the issue of the truth of Christianity. In this broad issue, two (among many other) specific questions would be that of whether the cosmological argument for the existence of God is found to be persuasive, and whether the historical evidence for the resurrection is found to be compelling. In theory, any possible combination of positions on these two issues is possible. In practise, however, probably only three main subsets of beliefs will be found: those who find neither argument very compelling (atheists and agnostics), those who found both compelling (Christians), and those who find only the cosmological argument compelling (some Muslims, Jews, and generic theists). Of course other combinations and intermediate positions are possible, but in general views will tend to cluster around these three positions. The reason for this, I think, is that these positions constitute attractor ‘wells’, such that people whose views are nudged in the direction of one of the wells are likely to fall into that well, seeking the lowest ‘energy state’ (i.e. a position with a high self-sustaining degree of confidence).

I think there are two processes key at work that lead to this outcome. The first is the interdependent way in which people analyse different specific arguments: those who are compelled by the cosmological argument are likely to find the evidence for the resurrection more persuasive, which in turn can feed back and increase one’s confidence in the cosmological argument. Conversely, a skeptical attitude towards one of these is likely to contribute to a skeptical attitude towards the other, thereby in turn reinforcing the original skeptical belief. In this way particular clusters of beliefs corresponding to ‘potential wells’ are likely to be far more stable than other possible clusters of beliefs, and thus result in these clusters being far more populated. The second process is that people tend to seek greater confidence and certainty, and this is likely to be found when their set of opinions on particular issues is mutually coherent and reinforcing. Again, this leads to certain particular clusters of beliefs, corresponding to the self-sustaining potential wells, to be more highly populated than other possible positions.

The combined effect of these two processes explains why people with intermediate or conflicting views on many particular questions are relatively rare. These people are not highly confident because their views are not mutually reinforcing. As such they seek out new arguments and evidence and are much more likely to change their views in the direction of greater coherence. Intermediate positions are thus unstable or only locally stable, so small perturbations (consisting of exposure to new arguments and evidence) are much more likely to push them into more stable potential wells. Once in one of these wells, however, opinions are much more stable. Even when confronted with potentially powerful counter-evidence on one particular question, the combined force of all one’s other positions (forming the coherent, mutually-reinforcing position) serves to pull one back to the original, stable position near the bottom of the well.

The only time when most people will move out of their wells is when they are subject to very large shocks, or enough moderate shocks in a relatively short span of time. Large enough shocks, or enough additive smaller shocks, may be enough to push someone out of their potential well and into the unstable area that lies between opposing wells. From there they may eventually return to their original well, or find themselves in an opposing well. Either way, it is unlikely that they will remain in the intermediate position for long, since this corresponds to an unstable or only locally stable equilibrium, where beliefs are not mutually reinforcing to a large degree and hence overall levels of confidence (corresponding to the depth of the potential well) remain low.

Virtues of the Model

This model can allow us to understand not only why people tend to cluster around a few particular positions (sets of beliefs about particular questions), and why people seldom change their belief when exposed to new evidence, but also why people sitting in opposing ‘wells’ (stable sets of beliefs) tend to react in exasperation at the ‘irrationality’ of each other. Consider the example of an atheist providing one argument in favour of their position. A christian evaluates the argument not in the context of the atheist’s set of beliefs (where the argument is persuasive), but from the context of their own set of beliefs. Because their set of beliefs is very different, and also because it is mutually coherent and stabilizing, the christian will either not consider the argument to support atheism at all, or they will not regard it as sufficient evidence to move from their current position (again, because their current position is a stable equilbrium, robust to even moderate shocks). The atheist seeing this intransigence to (from their perspective) such an obviously reasonable argument, regards the Christian as unreasonable and irrational. Exactly the same process occurs in reverse when the Christian presents arguments in favour of their viewpoint. As such both sides become polarised, viewing the other as unreasonable or irrational.

This model can also explain another puzzling phenomena: when the same evidence is claimed by different people as supporting their own, mutually incompatible positions. In the context of our model, this corresponds to a push in the same ‘direction’ leads to very different subsequent movements in the state space of possible positions. The explanation for this behaviour is that the way people respond to evidence and arguments (‘pushes’ or ‘perturbations’) in a dynamical system does not depend only on the size and direction of the push, but also on one’s current position in state space (i.e. one’s current set of beliefs). As such, the very same evidence (push in the same direction) can be interpreted by both the atheist and the christian as supporting their existing set of views. This renders the idea that ‘evidence speaks for itself’ as essentially impossible, since the manner in which evidence is interpreted depends upon one’s current set of beliefs.

Conclusion

I think it sheds quite a bit of light onto the process of belief formation and change, including explaining why people tend to congregate into groups with particular sets of beliefs, why once arriving at such a stable equilibrium in a ‘potential well’ people are unlikely to change their beliefs, how different people can react so differently to the same evidence, and why people on both sides of an issue can plausibly see each other as being intransigent and irrational. I think the model can also account for why substantial belief change is rare but possible, since it requires sufficiently large or sufficiently many shocks to one’s beliefs, and these shocks are (plausibly, in many cases) randomly distributed across people, substantial belief changes will occur but only relatively infrequently. Supposing we take this model as useful and informative (though certainly not complete), how should we respond? What effect, if any, should this have on our discourse and belief forming process? My honest answer is that I don’t really know, I’m still thinking this through. I think that overall the model paints a pessimistic picture of prolonged and resilient disagreement, where each side regards itself as rational by its own lights. I suspect more can be said here, but at the moment I’m still uncertain as to where to go with this analysis. Nevertheless, I think it does highlight the importance of intellectual humility and of respectfully considering opposing positions from a sympathetic viewpoint.

If Jesus was Raised, Could the Bible be False?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.

Introduction

A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?

To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.

The Gospels as History

Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.

Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?

One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).

So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.

The Gospels as Scripture

A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.

First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.

Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.

Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.

Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.

The Role of Paul

Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?

A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.

One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.

Review of John Dickson’s ‘A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible’

In A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson seeks to provide ‘a sense of the whole biblical narrative and of the theology that emerges from it’ in a manner accessible to non-believers. An ambitious task for such a slim volume, Dickson nevertheless succeeds admirably in providing a solid, clear overview of the core themes of the bible. Shaping each chapter around a key biblical figure or event (Creation, Abraham, Moses, David, etc), he provides a tightly structured and very readable survey of how the entire bible ‘hangs together’ according to a Christian interpretive framework.

Notwithstanding the virtues of this book, there are several occasions when Dickson makes claims which I feel distracted from the book’s key message, and potentially reduce the author’s credibility with a skeptical audience. Of particular concern was Dickson’s apparent inconsistency in appealing to the authority of the ‘scholarly mainstream’ regarding the bible. Though he mentions this notion a number of times with reference to the life of Jesus, elsewhere he asserts the traditional authorship of all four gospels and also all thirteen epistles of Paul, views which I doubt can reasonably be defended as consistent with the ‘historical mainstream’. Furthermore, elsewhere he argues that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, unlike any other ancient ‘national histories’, describe their kings in a very negative light, speaking as if said books had all been commissioned by Israel’s kings and written at the time of the events they narrate – as opposed to centuries later, as most scholars believe.

Dickson also makes a number of problematic claims concerning other religions. For instance, he states that salvation through grace is a concept unique to Christianity, neglecting to mention the immensely important role that Kripa (divine grace) plays in Bhakti Hinduism, or the emphasis of grace within Islam, with one of the names of God being Ar-Rahman, meaning ‘the gracious’. Elsewhere Dickson states that besides Jesus ‘no other figure from ancient history’ has sufficient evidence to corroborate a miraculous healing ministry, a claim which left me wondering how Dickson could possibly have investigated every claimed miracle-worker from ancient history to judge the quality of the evidence. Dickson also describes it as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘miraculous’ that Christianity could ‘conquer an empire with little more than words and acts of kindness’, seemingly ignoring the fact that the same could be said for Buddhism in China and Islam in Indonesia.

Various other offhanded remarks and sloppy arguments are likely to frustrate skeptical readers. When discussing creation, for example, Dickson makes the ambiguous statement that ‘the modern evolutionary story is probably not even good science’, before proceeding to admit ‘I don’t know enough about this subject to pontificate about such things’ (so why mention it at all?). Later he makes the bold assertion that ‘an evolutionary worldview…will lead to relativism, because there are no absolute values’, totally disregarding the centuries of philosophical work on secular ethics. Particularly unfortunate and unnecessary is his comparison of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity with those of Adolf Hitler, and his dismissive retort that atheists concerned about biblical atrocities should stop ‘simply mining the text for stories to complain about’.

Despite its shortcomings, Dickson’s book is short, highly readable, and informative. Non-Christian readers who can overlook the occasional dubious claims and poorly-executed excurses into apologetics will profit greatly from this concise elucidation of how Christians understand the bible.

 

The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Eyewitness Testimony is not Enough

Apologists on the Resurrection

“There are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most scholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.'” – William Lane Craig

“The most crucial aspect of an argument for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is that the disciples were totally convinced that they had seen appearances of the risen Jesus. The community of critical scholars holds that these experiences are thoroughly historical. These same scholars nearly always recognize that natural alternative responses do not explain the data. Therefore, the impressive evidences that establish the disciples’ experiences, especially in light of the failure of these alternatives, now become impressive evidences for the resurrection ap­pearances themselves.” – Gary Habermas

“The resurrection hypothesis fulfills all five criteria for the best explanation of the relevant historical bedrock… Accordingly we are warranted in placing it on our spectrum of historical certainty at “very certain.” The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.” – Mike Licona

“How we interpret the above historical data depends significantly on our prior philosophical assumptions. If I am convinced that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe…then I will refuse to accept any evidence as sufficient to demonstrate the occurrence of a ‘miracle’, whether a healing or a resurrection. But those of us who don’t share this atheistic assumption…can logically conclude that, since we have exactly the kind of evidence you would expect a resurrection to leave behind, we are warranted in declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” – John Dickson

Introduction

Examining the quotes presented above from some leading Christian apologists, we see a common thread. Namely, the claim that the only plausible explanation for certain established historical facts (in particular, the claims of the disciples to have personally seen and spoken with the risen Jesus) is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Only a philosophical objection to the supernatural or miracles in general, it is said, could serve to undermine such a conclusion, for the evidence itself is strongly compelling. I have written elsewhere outlining my proposed HBS Model, a proposal for a plausible naturalistic explanation of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In this article I will not defend this account as a whole, but will restrict myself to an analysis of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

In particular, I will focus on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which he defends the position that the gospels faithfully preserve eyewitness testimony concerning the words and deeds of Jesus. For my purpose here, I am happy to accept much of the argument of the book (which I have not read in its entirety), as I do indeed believe that, in particular, the disciples (among others) strongly believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in bodily form. Whilst I do not accept every detail of the gospels as historical, that core fact I do not deny. What I want to focus on, rather, is what we can infer from this fact, particularly with reference to some of the claims made by Bauckham about the reliability of memory and testimony. My claim, in brief, is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally-charged anomolous events (e.g. the resurrection appearances as described in the gospels), is unreliable, and that therefore we cannot infer from such testimony that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Bauckham on Eyewitness Testimony

The reliability of eyewitness testimony is an issue I believe Christian apologists have for the most part not addressed satisfactorily in their arguments for the resurrection. Bauckham likewise makes a very similar claim at the beginning of Chapter 13:

Psychologists have been studying recollective memory for well over a century. There is a large body of data and interpretation available that is highly relevant to these questions about the reliability of eyewitness memories. New Testament scholars have rarely made any use of these resources, and this chapter (chapter 13) represents a first attempt to access the relevant data and theory and relate them to the gospel traditions in a systematic way.

Bauckham then proceeds with an analysis of certain aspects of the psychological literature on memory, including a discussion of the different types of memory (of which ‘episodic’ memory is the sort of most interest to us here), a comparison of the ‘copy’ and ‘reconstructive’ theories of memory, a discussion of schemas and how they are used in memory storage and recall, and an overview of some of the factors which effect the accuracy of memory. Much of the material he presents is fairly expository and as such, although I do not always agree precisely with some of his interpretations, I do not have a great deal to say about it. What is of most interest to me here is the section ‘Remembering Jesus’, in which he compares the gospel narratives against the factors mentioned earlier that mitigate for more or less reliable memory storage and retrieval. He summarises this section as follows:

The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events, unusual events that would have impressed themselves on the memory, events of key significance for those who remembered them, landmark or life-changing events for them in many cases, and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event. They did not need to remember — and the Gospels rarely record — merely peripheral aspects of the scene or the event, the aspects of recollective memory that are least reliable. Such details may often have been subject to performative variation in the eyewitnesses’ tellings of their stories, but the central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.

Although I have quibbles about some of these claims (in particular, I think the gospels do include a number of tangential details about the resurrection appearances which I think are quite questionable), overall I agree with Bauckham that the gospel accounts share a number of features which would tend to increase our credence in the testimony having been accuracy preserved and recalled. There is, however, another side to this question that I do not think Bauckham adequately addresses in this section, nor do I believe has really been dealt with in any considerable depth by other Christian apologists in their discussion of the evidence for the resurrection. This concerns the psychology surrounding memories of what I shall call ‘anomalous events’.

Memory of Anomalous Events

Most of the studies on the reliability of memory to be found in the literature are concerned with fairly ‘ordinary’ types of episodic memory: remembering the details of a story, forgetting curve for remembered events, remembering what took place in a film, producing false memories of being lost in a shopping centre, etc. In such circumstances, Bauckham is correct in his assertion that we generally are more likely to remember the general gist of novel, unusual events when we engage in frequent rehearsal (i.e. as per the situation with the resurrection appearances). As Bauckham himself goes to some lengths in various sections of his book to point out, however, the experiences of the apostles with respect to the risen Jesus were not by any means ordinary – they were exceptional. They fall into a broad class of events which I call ‘anomalous events’, which encompasses miracle reports, paranormal experiences, mass hysterias, and perhaps also certain types of traumatic experiences (though I will not discuss these in much depth). These sorts of events have a number of key elements in common:

  • They are often experienced in groups, and so remembering takes on a very distinctive communal form, not being a purely individualistic activity of the sort most studied in psychology
  • They have very high emotional content
  • They can often be life-changing for those who experience them (less applicable for mass hysterias)
  • They often involve people reporting to have experienced or witnessed very strange phenomena quite far outside ordinary experience
  • These memories are often maintained with high levels of confidence in spite of lack of corroborating evidence or even in the presence of strong counter-evidence

These quite unique attributes mean that eyewitness testimony concerning anomalistic experiences involves distinct factors beyond those captured in investigating memory in ordinary contexts. This is not at all to say that the findings of memory research are irrelevant – they are still very relevant – but it does mean that to neglect the particular literature on the psychology underpinning these sorts of anomalistic experiences, as I believe Bauckham does, is to miss a very sizeable component of the evidence relevant to the case of the resurrection appearances.

I believe that the relevant question here is not, as per Bauckham’s analysis, ‘are memories of anonalous events reliable?’, but rather the broader question of ‘how likely are such eyewitness reports to be veridical?’ The difference between these two questions is that the former supposes that events were originally perceived in essentially a correct manner and that only later may memories become corrupted, whereas the latter considers the reliability of eyewitness testimony of such events to be a broader question incorporating a diversity of psychological and sociological processes, including the effects of expectation, group interaction, perceptual biases, suggestibility, and a variety of other such factors, many of which I discuss in my HBS Model. It must be acknowledged that the literature concerning such events and processes is not nearly as extensive as we would like, and I believe there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the psychological and sociological mechanisms behind these sorts of events.

Nevertheless, I think one broad conclusion can be drawn from the available evidence, and this I will state as follows: in the right circumstances, it is quite possible for psychologically healthy people to form confident, detailed memories of highly emotive and unusual occurrences, even when such events did not in fact occur in anything resembling the manner in which they are remembered. In some cases, something may well have happened, but very different to how it is later remembered. In other cases, such memories can be completely falsified, with no basis in reality at all. This claim will doubtless strike many as far-fetched, however I think it can be quite readily substantiated.

Examples of False Anomalous Memories

I have presented a large number of additional cases in my HBS document, and I so will not attempt a full analysis at present. Here I seek only to give a few key which I believe serve as strong evidence in support of my claim that people can confidently come to believe in having experienced or witness very strange, memorable things which they did not.

  1. False memory of Satanic abuse: ‘The Thurston County ritual abuse case was a case in which Paul Ingram…was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, by at least one daughter of satanic ritual abuse… Psychologist Richard Ofshe claimed that Ingram, because of his long-standing and routine experiences in his church, was inadvertently hypnotized by authority figures who conducted his interrogation, although no mental health professionals were present, and that the confessions were the result of false memories being implanted with suggestion. Ofshe tested this hypothesis by telling Ingram that a son and daughter had accused him of forcing them to commit incest with each other. Interrogating officers had previously accused Ingram of this, but he denied it, and also denied Ofshe’s accusation. Ofshe instructed Ingram to pray on the idea, and later Ingram produced a full, detailed written confession. Questioning the daughter who was supposed to have been involved, despite many other accusations against her father, she denied that such an incident had ever occurred. Upon being told that no such accusation had been made by either his son or daughter, Ingram refused to believe the incident wasn’t real, maintaining “it’s just as real to me as anything else”. Ofshe became convinced that Ingram’s confessions were solely the result of extensive interrogation sessions and questions being applied to an unusually suggestible individual.’ (see the wikipedia article).

  2. Mass hysteria resulting in psychogenic illness: though not exclusively a matter of memory, I think this case (and others like it that I document) is highly instructive for the social processes it illustrates: ‘In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and cause them to develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon sixty two employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized…After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria. While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was probably the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.’ (see wikipedia).

  3. False identification of rapist: ‘Donald M. Thomson, an Australian psychologist and lawyer, undoubtedly will never forget the day 15 years ago when he walked into a Sydney police station on routine court-related business and was arrested for assault and rape…The evening before his arrest, Thomson appeared on a local television program, where he discussed psychological research on eyewitness testimony and how people might best remember the faces of criminals observed during a robbery. As he spoke, a Sydney woman watching the show was attacked, raped and left unconscious in her apartment. When she awoke several hours later, she called the police and named Thomson as her assailant. The following day, after Thomson’s arrest, the woman confidently selected him as the perpetrator from a lineup of possible rapists at the police station. Thomson, of course, professed his innocence. “The police didn’t believe me at first,” he recalls, but I had appeared on a live television show when the crime occurred, so I had a good alibi.” Officials quickly dropped the charges when they realized the woman had unwittingly substituted Thomson’s televised face for that of the attacker.’ (see here for more on this).

  4. Alien abduction accounts: see for instance this excellent study ‘Autobiographical memories are often suspect. For example, a  surprisingly large number of people  report having been abducted by extraterrestrials. We offer a prototype of the abduction experience and an assessment of the frequency of such reports. These accounts are hard to dismiss on the basis of mendacity or insanity, but there are ample reasons to doubt their literal accuracy. We offer a cognitive-motivational explanation for how spurious memories of unidentified flying object (UFO) abductions can be created and maintained. The motivational roots lie in the desire to escape from ordinary self-awareness, and this explanation is supported by parallels
    between UFO abduction accounts and masochistic fantasies. The cognitive bases involve the integration and elaboration of hallucinations, general knowledge, and contextual cues into full-blown accounts, usually with the aid of hypnosis. Due to the pitfalls of hypnosis, people develop a high degree of confidence in the veridicality of spurious UFO abduction memories.’ The masochistic elements of their account have been criticised, but I think it is clear from this paper and others that many non-psychotic people confidently claim to have been abducted by aliens, and that such claims can be understood to be the product of psychological and sociological processes leading to false memories. (see here for original article).

  5. Jesus appears to a crowd in Nairobi: ‘On 11 June 1988, a man suddenly appeared before a vast crowd in Nairobi, Kenya, gathered to witness healing prayers. Instantly recognizing the tall, white-robed figure as “Jesus Christ,” the crowds fell down overcome with emotion. The editor of the Swahili edition of the Kenya Times, veteran journalist Job Mutungi, witnessed the event and took some pictures’ (see for example this article. Interested readers can contact me for additional sources I’ve collected on this, or search for their own. It is a very unusual event).

Note that I am not arguing the eyewitness testimony of these sorts of events is unreliable because we know that miracles etc do not occur, and therefore all testimony of them must be mistaken. What I am saying is rather that, irrespective of whether there are real miracles or genuine paranormal occurrences, there are a very large number of eyewitness reports of such things which we know (by corroboration with other evidence, and in some cases by direct experimental manipulation) are not veridical. That is, we know that confident, detailed eyewitness testimony can be completely mistaken. Of course, a key question here is ‘how frequently does this happen?’ I believe that there are enough documented cases of religious miracles, paranormal encounters, mass hysteria, false memories of crime, and other such things to make the claim that with respect to such anomalistic events, eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable. That doesn’t mean that it is always unreliable in such circumstances, nor does it mean that such events never actually occur. What it does mean, however, is that the mere existence of eyewitness testimony for such events is itself insufficient evidence for such events, because we know that such evidence is in general quite unreliable.

Eyewitness Testimony in Courts

In concluding his section on the reliability of memory, Bauckham makes some comments regarding the use of eyewitness testimony in courts:

An important problem for the use of eyewitness testimony in court is that, as we have noticed, recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details. But it is often precisely the latter that a court needs: exact words of a statement made long ago, exact times of day, voice recognition of a person met only once, faces of people merely glimpsed fleetingly. Witnesses may have been wholly uninvolved bystanders who had no reason to notice or remember the details required…Interviewing techniques, especially leading questions, may serve to feed information to witnesses who come to think they remember it. But these aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not come easily to mind.

I think Bauckham here is somewhat understating the degree to which the evidence points towards there existing very considerable limitations and distortions to memory in legal and courtroom settings. Consider this extract from a very useful review article on the subject:

Sixty-four psychologists were asked about their courtroom experiences and opinions on 30 eyewitness phenomena. By an agreement rate of at least 80%, there was a strong consensus that the following phenomena are sufficiently reliable to present in court: the wording of questions, lineup instructions, confidence malleability, mug-shot-induced bias, postevent information, child witness suggestibility, attitudes and expectations, hypnotic suggestibility, alcoholic intoxication, the cross-race bias, weapon focus, the accuracy–confidence correlation, the forgetting curve, exposure time, presentation format, and unconscious transference

Furthermore, I do not agree with Bauckham that all of these courtroom factors are of limited relevance to the resurrection appearances. Clearly some of them are not relevant, such as mugshot-induced bias or lineup instructions, however others I think are of immense relevance, such as unconscious transference, post-event information, and hypnotic suggestibility (note I am not claiming that the disciples hypnotised each other explicitly, but there is nothing mystical about hypnosis – its just a form of heightened suggestibility, and suggestibility may well have played a considerable role in shaping their experiences, as it has been documented to do in other cases of miracle and paranormal reports). Even something like the recognition of faces is of potential relevance, as in some of the accounts Jesus is not first recognised by those who seem him, but they only realise who it is later on, which to me is possibly indicative of later memory distortion (though of course we cannot say for sure). In any case, I think the literature on the problems with the use of eyewitness testimony in courts is both more extensive and more relevant to the gospels than Bauckham admits in this section, and I believe it is something Christian apologists should address in more detail.

Conclusion

People will doubtless infer from this article that I am saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Indeed, people have even characterised my HBS model as stating or implying that the disciples invented their stories, or engaged in conscious deception in some way. I am not making any such claims here. The disciples and others claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. They believed what they said, and were sincere enough to suffer persecution for their claims. These claims were made by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, and are not (at least in their essentials) the later accretions of legend. All these facts notwithstanding, the claim I have defended is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally charged anomalous events is unreliable, and therefore we cannot infer from the testimony of the apostles that Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to them.

I therefore am in disagreement with the Christian apologists quoted at the beginning of this piece. I do not believe it is the case that the only reasonable interpretation of the historical facts is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and nor does a reluctance to assent to this explanation require philosophical predispositions against supernaturalism. Rather, my reluctance to accept such an explanation stems, first and foremost, from my belief that the available literature shows clearly that memory and eyewitness testimony about such occurrences is unreliable, and that people can and do make confident eyewitness reports about such things even when the events in question demonstrably did not occur. Bauckham, despite his commendable efforts to engage with a body of literature heretofore largely ignored by Christian apologists, has nevertheless in my view failed to address this fundamental point. For this reason, I do not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evidence to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe he did rise from the dead, but the historical evidence and eyewitness testimony we have is by itself insufficient evidence to warrant such a belief.

Weighing up the Arguments For and Against Christianity

Synopsis

In this piece I outline an approach to weighing up the degree of evidence in favour of Christianity with the degree of evidence against it. I discuss this approach in analogical terms as similar considering how much load (arguments against) can be borne by the legs of a table (arguments for), in order to support justified belief in a proposition (the table, or in this case belief in Christianity). Having outlined this framework, I then proceed to list the fourteen key pieces of evidence which I think are relevant, and whether I think they provide evidence for or against Christianity. I conclude by offering some personal reflections on my subjective sense as to how these different evidences balance out against each other.

Specifying the Question

Suppose that we agree to the following set of propositions:

  1. A creator God exists
  2. This God is omnipotent and omniscient
  3. This God desires to communicate his divine will to all mankind and aid everyone in entering into a willing relationship with him

Subject to minor rewording of 3 to rectify various possible quibbles, when I use the word ‘God’ henceforth in this piece, I mean a God that satisfies 1-3.

These three propositions, as I take it, represent approximately the limits of what the many philosophical arguments for the existence of God can establish (e.g. the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the transcendental argument, etc). What I aim to do here is presuppose the success of such arguments in establishing 1-3, and then consider the question as to which of the world’s revealed religions are genuine instances of divine communication with humanity which preserve (to a reasonable level of accuracy) divine teachings and intentions. In particular, I wish to consider (multi-part) proposition:

4. The life of Jesus of Nazareth (and the events surrounding it) was the supreme method by which God has revealed himself to humanity, and the teachings of Christianity accurately indicate God’s will for mankind.

Although not its strict logical negation, for our purposes here I wish to consider its counterpart as:

4′. Christianity is not uniquely divinely inspired (either not at all, or at least no more than many other religions), but instead developed over historical time as a result of the shifting and often   conflicting ideas, motivations, and opinions of many different individuals (i.e. like Christians would believe other religions developed).

Henceforth, when I talk about ‘Christianity being true’ (or similar), I am referring to the truth of 4. Rather than speaking of Christianity being false, I shall instead refer to the truth of 4′. I acknowledge that 4 and 4′ are not strictly speaking negations of one another, but for our purposes here I think they serve as the most useful propositions to juxtapose.

An Analogy: Supporting Legs and Heavy Bricks

The following analogy may help readers to understand the approach I take here. Being an analogy, it is of course imperfect, but hopefully it will nonetheless still be of use.

Consider a circular table. The table is supported by many legs, each bearing some portion of its weight. The table is old and somewhat lopsided, so each leg does not necessarily support the same amount of weight as every other. On top of the table are a number of bricks, each of varying mass. The larger the combined mass of the bricks, the more likely it is that the legs will be unable to support total weight, and table the will come crashing to the floor. Conversely, the larger the combined weight the legs are able to bear, the higher will be the total mass of bricks the table will be able to support.

In this analogy, the table represents our (potential) justified belief in the truth of Christianity. Each brick represents a piece of evidence/argument/observation/fact/etc (henceforth simply ‘evidence’) which makes it more difficult to retain justified belief in Christianity; that is, the bricks are evidences against the truth of Christianity. Each leg represents a piece of evidence which supports our justified belief in Christianity. No single leg alone need bear all the weight of ‘justifying’ Christianity, but the combined weight they bear must be at least equal to the total weight of the bricks. (I don’t think it much matters if the tabletop itself is thought of as having weight or not.) The number of bricks is not important, because a single very heavy brick could be enough to bring down the table. Likewise the number of legs is not important, for a single sufficiently sturdy leg could be enough to support a very large weight.

Our first task is to examine what are the key legs supporting the table, and what are the key bricks pushing down on it. The next step is then to estimate the total weight of the bricks, and compare it to the total weight bearing capacity of the legs. The purpose in approaching the problem this way is that everyone seems to have their own intuitive sense of whether the table stands or falls, but without some way of more carefully identifying which legs support how much weight, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to adjudicate disagreements about the table as a whole. My aim here is to try to break the question down into smaller parts, and see whether those parts represent bricks or legs. I will not, in this piece, attempt the second step of weighing up the weight supported to the total weight of bricks.

The Technical Version: Taking Partial Derivatives

The following is a more formal account of the approach outlined in the analogy above. If you find it confusing, skip this section.

Consider a differentiable function f(e), which maps a vector of evidences e onto a real number in the interval (0,1), which number represents our degree of justification or support for 4 given 1-3. The partial derivative of f with respect to each ei represents the bearing that evidence i has on our degree of justified belief in 4. If the partial derivative is zero, the evidence is irrelevant and can be ignored. If the partial derivative is positive, the piece of evidence provides support for 4, while if it is negative it provides evidence against it.

The taking of partial derivatives is important, because in practise we do not know the functional form of f, but we may be able to determine the sign of each partial derivative, and hence the relevance of each piece of evidence considered individually. We may then attempt to heuristically estimate the plausible magnitudes of these partial derivatives, and hence arrive at a judgement concerning the overall strength of the arguments for compared to the arguments against, even in the absence of exact knowledge of the form of f.

In the following section, when I speak of a piece of evidence e1 being ‘more consistent’ with state of affairs A than state ~A, I mean something like ‘P(A|e1) > P(~A|e1)’, where P is understood to be the marginal distribution over all other evidences ei (that is, we are considering the partial effect of e1 alone on our belief).

The Evidences

The reader will note that there are eight ‘against’ arguments and only six ‘for’. No doubt that this reflects, in part, my own personal bias and limited perspective. It is important to note, however, that as I stated previously, the number of arguments is irrelevant, not least of all because whether a given ‘argument’ is split up into sub-parts or combined into a single whole is arbitrary. The important question is the relative combined ‘weight’ of the ‘bricks’ (arguments against) compared to the combined ‘weight-bearing capacity’ of the ‘legs’ (arguments for). I make no claims to answer that question in this piece – here I attempt only to outline the key arguments, and indicate which ‘direction’ I believe they point in, that is in favour of 4 or in favour of 4′.

Against (‘Bricks’)

For (‘Legs’)

SufferingGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the amount and degree of suffering in the world is more consistent with 4′ than 4, given that 4 entails that God is all good and loving.
Resurrection AppearancesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the reports of Jesus appearing to many groups of people following his death is evidence in favour of 4.
Conversion of PaulGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sudden and unexpected conversion of Paul is evidence in favour of 4.
The Empty TombGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the early accounts of Jesus’ tomb being found empty by women is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Cognitive Biases and Social InfluencesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sorts of cognitive biases, memory failings, and social influences that I document in my HBS model are evidence against 4 and in favour of 4′, since by such processes beliefs in miracles and divine revelation can (at least to some degree) develop in the absence of any actual divine intervention.
Immoral CommandmentsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the numerous immoral commandments in the bible (very harsh penalties in Law of Moses, genocidal orders, treatment of women, condoning slavery, etc) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4, given we would expect God to reveal a fair, just moral law, but would not necessarily expect this given 4′.
Cultural BoundednessGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Judaism and later Christianity were for most of history only accessible and known to a small fraction of the world’s population is evidence against 4.
Size and Staying PowerGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with a significant presence across large parts of the world today, and having survived many centuries of change and disruption, is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Doctrinal ConfusionsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant disagreement between Christians, both historically and at present, about many important questions concerning the nature of God and of his word is more consistent with 4′ than with 4.
Subjective Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many Christians feel with respect to God are evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Conflicting Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many non-Christians feel with respect to beliefs they hold are evidence against 4.
Biblical ConfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the archaeological and historical support for the accuracy of many aspects of the new and old testaments is evidence for 4 over 4′.
Biblical DisconfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the conflict of certain events of the bible with archaeological and historical evidence (such as the nativity accounts and the exodus) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4. Note: I would also include creation, the flood, the tower of babel, and numerous other events here as well, but only if they are interpreted as literal historical events. I do not think that 4 entails such beliefs, but some Christians do.
Changing DoctrinesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant doctrinal changes introduced by Jesus and Paul over traditional Jewish teachings (e.g. superseding much of the Law of Moses, new ideas about hell, the atonement, altered interpretation of Messianic prophecies, etc) are more consistent with 4′ than with 4, given that 4 includes notions of God being unchangeable and consistent.

 

Irrelevant Considerations

Here I will simply list, without explanation, a number of considerations which are often raised as being potentially relevant to the question of the truth of Christianity, but which I do not believe offer particularly strong support either for 4 over 4′, or for 4′ over 4.

  • Christians doing good at present or historically
  • Christians doing evil at present or historically
  • Similarities of Christian beliefs to other religious mythology
  • The doctrine of the trinity
  • Personifications of God in the bible (e.g. speaking as if God had a physical body)
  • The religious beliefs (or absence thereof) of Hitler, Stalin, or Darwin
  • The existence or findings of science (aside from certain findings of psychology and archaeology, as outlined above)
  • The coherence or compellingness of Christian doctrinal teachings

Some Personal Reflections

I will conclude with a few brief thoughts about where I personally stand currently on weighing up the evidences. Very loosely, I tend to think that the biblical confirmations and disconfirmations roughly ‘cancel out’ (i.e. the weight added by the brick of disconfirmations is roughly the same as that supported by the confirmations). I think likewise that subjective experience is roughly cancelled out by conflicting experiences, and that cultural boundedness is roughly cancelled out by size and staying power, though in these cases I might lean towards saying that the bricks are somewhat heavier than the corresponding legs support. I think that the cognitive biases brick noticeably outweighs the resurrection appearances, empty tomb, and conversion of Paul all combined. I tend to think that suffering, immoral commandments, and doctrinal changes are problematic bricks without any sufficiently compensating load-bearing legs, though I am not especially confident about this. I also suspect that (given my bias) this list is more likely to omit some important ‘legs’ than it is likely to omit some important ‘bricks’.

Overall, I am left with a conviction that even given 1-3, Christianity is noticeably, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to be false than true. Maybe I’d put my subjective degree of belief (again, conditional on 1-3) at around 0.2, which large margins of error. Though strictly speaking outside the scope of this piece, I would accord a similar, though perhaps slightly higher, degree of belief in 1-3 themselves, for which reason I call myself an atheist. The truth of the matter is, of course, not in any way affected by my degree of belief. Nevertheless, I want to hold true beliefs and avoid falsehoods, and this article represents a summary of my recent manner of thinking about how to best achieve this goal. I hope it will be of use to others and simulate further discussion and profitable exploration of these important ideas.

Everyone is Right – Why Debating Religion is a Fool’s Game

I am increasingly coming to the view that religious debate, philosophy, and apologetics are little more than an elaborate game, and a tiresome one at that.

In my view, there are obviously both good arguments for, and good arguments against, the existence of God (and likewise for other similar issues). I fail to see how a great many ridiculously clever, thoughtful people can spend centuries going back and forth on an issue such as this unless there is some real controversy there – unless there are genuinely compelling reasons, and a plausible case to make, on both sides.

I challenge anyone to visit (for example) the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, pull up the page on any of the key philosophical theistic/atheistic arguments (cosmological, teleological, problem of evil – though not ontological, that one’s sort of a special case), read it, think about it, and then tell me with a straight face that there are is not a real issue here, that one side should clearly and decisively defeat the other upon consideration by any fair-minded, rational person. I make a similar challenge regarding my document concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus: I challenge anyone to read it, think about it, and then tell me in all sincerity that I have not at least made a sufficiently plausible case such that it could be rationally believed by an informed, fair-minded person.

The trouble is that all of these arguments and questions are so complicated, so multi-faceted, and so interwoven with other related philosophical, scientific, psychological, and historical issues, that it is essentially impossible for any sufficiently well-read, clever person to be placed in a position where they feel compelled to significantly change their views. Such persons can almost always rationalise anything away by constructing some plausible-sounding justification, or by appealing to yet another aspect of the issue that their interlocutor (in their mind at least) just doesn’t understand or hasn’t thought about properly, or by delving yet deeper into the fractal subtlety of one particular point or argument. There can never be an end to the byzantine labyrinth of these discussions – there is always one more step to take, one more clarification or retort to make, one more line of rebuttal to give.

Speaking personally, I actually think I’m quite good at doing that: at arguing at such length with such persistence, making ever-finer logical and conceptual distinctions and clarifications with mind-numbing analytic pedantry, and employing a dose of pseudo-profound rhetoric and intellectualised sophistry, such that in the end my interlocutors, though seldom convinced, run out of things to say, or just decide that they have better things to do with their lives then continue talking to me about this (especially when to them I am quite clearly, if sometimes elusively, mistaken). Either that, or the debate is stopped in its tracks by an apparently unbridgeable chasm of some fundamental difference of underlying assumptions or values, for which no rational analysis seems possible. In both cases, it is not reason or evidence that wins the day, but rhetorical power, stubbornness, eloquence, and the sheer dogged tenacity to continually best one’s interlocutor by writing yet another blog post, facebook comment, or journal article.

It is my view that most people, atheists and theists alike, have very poor justification for their beliefs. But what difference does that really make when, even if we engage with the very best scholarship and literature on the issues and construct the very tightest, most plausible arguments possible, we are still left at a position of stalemate, where the rational belief is not uniquely determined by the reason or evidence? That’s not to say that theism/atheism are exactly equiprobable, or that the uniquely most rational position is agnosticism. Rather, what I’m saying is that there are wide range of rationally supportable positions ranging from atheism to strong theism, and including ‘strong agnosticism’ in the middle. Given that, what’s the point of all these fancy arguments? Why bother? Who really cares?

That’s what I mean about philosophy/apologetics being mostly a game: it is played in accordance with certain rules, it serves no real purpose other than to stay fit (mentally in this case) and have fun (though mostly people just get upset), and at the end of the day everyone goes home and forgets about it, coming back the next week rooting for the same team and going through all the same motions over again. Sometimes your team wins, and sometimes your team loses. Both teams get better over time: more prepared, more sophisticated, with better honed arguments. But at the end of the day, reason can’t tell you which team to support – you just pick one and stick by it.

The funny thing is that I can envision atheist and theist friends alike agreeing with my contention, though naturally drawing very different conclusions. The former may be inclined to say things like ‘I’ve been telling you all this religious stuff is a waste of time’ or ‘why don’t you spend your energies on something more useful or worthwhile’? The latter may be inclined to speak of the importance of personal experience/relationship with God/faith/etc over merely an intellectual engagement with these matters. Really, though, these sorts of responses exactly underscore my point: at the end of the day the decision to be religious or not is not primarily a rational one, as there are a wide diversity of rational positions. Rather, what it comes down to is our decision (which of course may be mostly or entirely unconscious) as to whether or not we desire to believe, or what we desire to believe in (I am strongly influenced by William James on this point).

So what is my takeaway after all this rambling? What do I think ought be done? Honestly, I really do not know. Disillusioned as I have become about the entire enterprise of religious philosophy/apologetics/etc, it is still nonetheless a game I feel compelled to play. It is one of the few things I actually seem to have an aptitude for, and it is something I feel drawn to do (feel free to interpret this through theistic, evolutionary, or Freudian perspectives in accordance with your preference). I still like to think it is a game worth playing, even though I see few good reasons for thinking so. Perhaps, in the end, it is all vanity, and vexation of spirit.