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.

Why I Left Mormonism and Became an Atheist, and What it Would take for me to Return to Religion

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss my five main reasons for leaving Mormonism: historical anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the existence of many competing prophets and holy books, changes made to temple ordinances, the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham, and the unreliability of subjective spiritual experiences as evidence. For each reason I include a reflection as to the general lesson I learned from this which I now apply in my examination of other religions. I conclude with some remarks about the important of seeking truth through reason and consideration of alternative views.

Introduction

I was born into a Mormon family. Both my parents were Mormons, and for the first twenty years of my life we went to church (more or less) every Sunday. I regularly read the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, attended additional church activities, volunteered at church events, and on several occasions gave talks at different congregations. When I was nineteen years old I went overseas for nine months (shorter than the usual two years owing to health reasons), to share the teachings of my church full time in what Mormons call ‘serving a mission’.

Several months after returning home, I was preparing a church lesson that I was to present when in the course of my research I stumbled across some historical information about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon which was concerning to me and with which I had previously been unfamiliar. I cannot recall exactly what this first material was, but it marked the beginning of a period (from 19th December 2009 to 28th February 2010) of intense study, reflection, and prayer. After a great deal of reading and an immense quantity of soul-searching, I eventually came to the conclusion that I was most likely mistaken in my beliefs, and that Mormonism was probably not the true religion.

I told my parents of my decision on the morning of Sunday 28th February 2010, and as of that day I stopped going to church, and have never returned since. In the intervening five years, I have learnt much more about philosophy, history, and science, and grown a great deal as a person. Nevertheless, my outlook and views are still shaped to a significant degree by my time spent as a Mormon, and my experiences in leaving Mormonism.

In this piece, therefore, I explain my reasons why I changed my beliefs, and the lessons I believe that I learned from these reasons which affect how I evaluate religious and other claims to this day.

Book of Mormon Anachronisms

Key point: the Book of Mormon contains numerous references to animals, technologies, and languages which did not exist in pre-Columbian America.

Out of Place Animals and Artefacts

I was raised to believe, as do most Mormons, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record of various peoples who lived on the American continent which Joseph Smith translated into English by the power of God. It was not always clear to me how the events it narrates intersected with secular history, but nonetheless I believed that the two would be reconcilable if we had sufficient information. When I began to read more concerning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, however, I discovered that many specific practices, animals, and objects that it refers to simply did not exist in Pre-Columbian America.

Among those things mentioned explicitly in the Book of Mormon for which (as far as I am aware) no evidence has been found in ancient American cultures, and which mainstream scholars and scientific institutions do not believe existed or were found in the ancient Americas, include:

  • Knowledge of Hebrew or other Semitic languages (Mosiah 1:2, Mormon 9:33)
  • Jewish religious sacrifices, priests, temples, etc, (Mosiah 6:3, Mosiah 2:3, 2 Ne. 5:15)
  • Jewish synagogues (Alma 16:13, Alma 32:1)
  • Record keeping on plates (Mosiah 8:5,9)
  • Horses or the wheel (3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 4:4, Alma 18:9-12, 1 Ne. 18:25, Enos 1:21, Alma 20:6, Ether 9:19)
  • Domesticated cattle (Enos 1:21, Mosiah 13:18, 3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 6:1, Ether 9:18)
  • Donkeys (Mosiah 12:5)
  • Steel (Jarom 1:8, 2 Ne. 5:15, Ether 7:9)
  • Advanced metallurgy, including smelting (Mosiah 21:27, Helamen 6:11, Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23, 2 Ne. 5:14)
  • Silk (1 Ne. 13:7, Alma 1:29, Alma 4:6, Ether 9:17, Ether 10:24)
  • A land northward covered with bones, rusted metal weapons, bronze and copper breastplates, many ruined buildings, and more written records (Mosiah 8:8-10)
  • A tradition or mythology of being cast out of an ancient land and travelling across the sea (Mosiah 10:12)
  • Metal coinage (Alma 11:5-19)

Apologetic Responses

Learning about all these discrepancies was greatly disturbing to me. Like many Mormons, I was ignorant about the history and archaeology of the ancient Americas, and was not aware that the sorts of artefacts that the Book of Mormon predicated should exist simply had never been found. I went to the Mormon apologetics websites to see what responses existed, thinking there was presumably some explanation for such apparent discrepancies. The responses that I found seemed to fall into three main categories:

  • Appeals to some obscure finding of a possible horse fossil or piece of steel, etc, which were advanced by various Mormon apologist scholars but did not seem to be accepted by any other academics.
  • Claims that the Lehites, Jarodites, and Mulekites (the three separate groups of people the Book of Mormon mentions having travelled to the Americas from the Old World) were only some of the peoples present in the ancient Americas, and thus we fail to find remains of their language, buildings, or material culture because there constituted only a fairly small proportion of the overall population.
  • By far the most common response, however, is that when Joseph Smith used words like ‘horse’, ‘steel’, and ‘silk’, he was not referring to horses, steel, and silk as we would understand them, but rather was using these words as translations for words which originally referred to something that looked somewhat like, or functioned somewhat like, horses, steel, silk, etc. Thus, the translation is not literal, but analogical. Horse does not refer to Equus ferus caballus, but instead to llamas or deer or some other animal, and is only rendered as horse for ease of narration and understanding.

My Reaction to the Responses

I thought about these responses, read some rebuttals to them written by others, and eventually came to the following conclusions:

  • Obscure findings not accepted by mainstream scholars and scientists might be legitimate, but it is unlikely. The fact that mainstream scholarship does not support the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the way that it does for much of the Bible (at least post-Exodus) counts as evidence against it being a historical record, even if it is not totally decisive evidence.
  • Other peoples may have existed in the Americas at the time or after the time of the Book of Mormon (though this is not a belief that seems to be widespread in ‘Mormon culture’, where generally it seems to be believed that Native Americas are descended from Lehites and Mulekites), however the cities spoken of in the Book of Mormon are large enough and the cultures advanced enough that we should expect to see at least some surviving remains and records.
  • The explanation about ‘alternate translations’ was the one I found least compelling. First of all, this is something virtually no Mormons I knew believed or spoke about – certainly I was always brought up to believe that in the Book of Mormon, horse meant horse, steel meant steel, etc. Secondly, many of the items referred to simply have no known plausible alternate referent: there are no pre-Columbian domesticated animals that were anything like horses or cattle or sheep. Bison (one proposed candidate for ‘cattle’), were never domesticated, and deer (a proposed candidate for ‘horses’) are not ridden or used to pull chariots. Another suggestion is that ‘horses’ refers to ‘llamas’, but horses and llamas are really nothing like each other, and llamas are not used to pull chariots. Likewise, there was no smelted metal that was used at the time in ancient America which could plausibly be described as ‘steel’. Thirdly, the notion that ‘horses’ and ‘cattle’ are loose translations of some other form of animal seems inconsistent with the fact that some names in the Book of Mormon are left untranslated, including the unknown metal ziff (Mosiah 11:8), and the animals ‘cureloms and cumoms’ (Ether 9:19). It seems implausible that Joseph Smith would choose to, or be instructed to, use misleading translations like ‘horse’ and ‘steel’ whilst at the same time leaving some names untranslated. If ‘steel’ is actually some other metal or material, why not leave that untranslated? Of why not just call ziff ‘steel’? This inconsistently seems to have no explanation if Joseph was indeed receiving divine revelation during his translation.

Problems with Dating the Birth of Christ

There is one further problem with the historical accuracy with the Book of Mormon which, as far as I know, I may be the first to have noticed (I’m sure other people have come across this too, but I can’t recall having read of it anywhere else). The problem concerns that dating of the birth of Christ. 1 Nephi 1:4 states clearly that the record begins at the beginning of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, which has been dated to 597 BC. In 3 Nephi 1 versus 1,4, and 26, it is made clear that the signs associated with the birth of Christ occurred exactly 601 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. So, if Lehi left Jerusalem in 597 BC and Christ was born 601 years afterwards, that places Christ’s birth in the year AD 5 (remembering there was no year 0). This date is simply far too late; even the traditional dating places Christ’s birth at 1 BC, and most modern scholars accept a date of 4 BC or earlier, given that Herod died in this year and so was not alive in 1 BC.

Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Jesus was born about nine years after he actually was. I do not think it is plausible to argue that the dates given are approximate, as says quite clearly ‘the ninety and second year of the reign of the judges’. This also tallies with Mosiah 29:46, which tells us that the first year of the reign of the judges (when Mosiah died) occurred 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and 509 plus ninety-two equals 601. Joseph Smith was generally quite good with keeping dates in the Book of Mormon internally consistent, but in the one instance where we have the ability to cross-reference them with known historical events we find a discrepancy. A nine year discrepancy in dates is hardly sufficient by itself to totally discredit the Book of Mormon, but to me it was interesting (as I discovered it myself as far as I know) counterevidence to the belief that the book was divinely inspired, especially given that Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any Book on earth”.

Lesson 1: Historicity matters

The lesson that I take away from this examination of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is that it is exceptionally important to examine religious events that claim to be historical, and determine whether their claims are consistent with what is known from history and archaeology. Any inconsistencies that are uncovered do not by themselves necessarily disprove the religious claim, since history and archaeology can be wrong. Inconsistencies of this sort do, I think, count as evidence against the claims, and the greater are the discrepancies, the less plausible it becomes that the religious events in question actually took place.

Before accepting a new religion, therefore, I would need to conduct a careful investigation of whatever historical claims it makes, and determine the extent to which they are validated by, or at the very least consistent with, what we otherwise know about history. This is one reason why, for instance, I have become very interested in the historicity of the New Testament, and am concerned by some of its potential inconsistencies and problems (particularly the birth narratives). I am now very wary of religions that make false claims about history.

Competing Prophets and Holy Books

Key point: there are numerous prophets and holy men who have produced their own works of scripture comparable in various ways to the Book of Mormon, and there is no clear basis for accepting the claims of one over the other.

Other Claimed Prophets and their Scriptures

One of the most common reasons for accepting the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired that I heard as a Mormon was that there is no possibility that an uneducated young man like Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon by himself, given its considerable length, narrative complexity, internal consistency, inclusion of many specific cultural and technical details, and application of various literary conventions. I myself found this argument quite compelling for quite some time. During the course of my research, however, I discovered that there have been a great many alleged ‘prophets’ who, like Joseph Smith, have written lengthy and intricate works which they claim to have been revelations or divinely-inspired translations of ancient records.

A brief selection of some of these, many of them being breakaways from the main body of the Mormon church, includes: James Strang who wrote The Book of the Law of the Lord, Goker Harim who wrote The Sealed Portion of the Brother of Jared, Christopher Marc Nemelka who wrote The Sealed Portion: The Final Testament of Jesus Christ, Art Bulla who wrote The Revelations of Jesus Christ, and Joseph Morris who wrote The Spirit Prevails. Particularly intriguing is the case of Pearl Lenore Curran, an alleged spirit medium around the turn of the 20th century who produced a voluminous amount of literature (including many poems) allegedly all authored by the spirit she was in contact with.

View of the Hebrews

I also found out about a very interesting work called View of the Hebrews, which was published seven years before the Book of Mormon by New England clergyman Ethan Smith. It shares with the Book of Mormon a number of key themes, including that native Americans are descended from Israel, and the inclusion of many references to Old Testament prophets. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Joseph Smith knew of this book or copied it in any direct way, and there are many differences of details between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.

I do believe, however, that the existence of this work does show that many of the core ideas and major themes of the Book of Mormon were already circulating in the intellectual and social spheres in which Smith was raised. This does not prove that the Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired, but it seems to me more consistent with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith wrote the book out of his own (very vivid) imagination drawing upon ideas that were current at the time, than with the hypothesis that the content of the book was revealed de novo from a divine source.

Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon?

Another claim with which I was familiar was that the time taken to translate the Book of Mormon was far too short for it to have been done without divine inspiration. During the course of my research I began to have doubts about this claim, and at one point I sat down to do the math. The bulk of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph Smith during a single period of 90 days, some sources saying that only about 65 of these days having been used for translation work. The Book of Mormon is 275,000 words long (which includes quite a lot of material copied verbatim from Isaiah which should probably be excluded from this count). If we assume Smith worked 65 days, he must have produced an average of 4,200 words per day, which for an eight hour day is roughly 530 words per hour, or about nine words per minute. Putting it that way, the output seemed much less miraculous to me. Still quite impressive to be sure (Smith was known to be a keen story teller and have a very active imagination), but hardly superhuman.

It must also be remembered that Smith originally started writing over a year before, when he produced the 116 pages that were subsequently lost. Thus Smith had quite a lot of time to think about, and perhaps even make notes, concerning his story – it’s certainly not the case that he started from scratch at the beginning of those 90 days. Also, Joseph Smith had a further eight months to make corrections and adjustments before the book was first published in 1830. Even then, the first edition is not the polished work we read now: it was not broken up into versus, and the chapter divisions were much longer and different to those now used. There were also a large number of spelling and grammatical errors which were progressively corrected by the church in subsequent editions. Considering all these factors, I came to conclude that although the production of the work by Joseph Smith was quite impressive, it was not a superhuman feat, and can certainly be explained without appeals to divine revelation.

Lesson 2: Comparative religion matters

The primary lesson I have taken away from this analysis of different prophetic works is the importance of not considering the merits of only a single perspective, but to instead compare the relative merits of different religious teachings. Joseph Smith’s claims and writings looked far more impressive to me when they were all I knew about, and much less impressive after I compared them alongside the alleged prophecies and holy books produced by many other religious leaders. It is so easy for one viewpoint to look amazingly compelling when it is the only one we have seriously examined.

This observation has contributed to my current deep concern with religious disagreement, and desire to find some clear, objective criteria on which the truth or falsity of given religious claims can be adjudicated. The mere fact that a religious book and body of thought seems incredibly impressive and compelling to us is insufficient, when there are so many in other traditions who think that their revelations, their beliefs, and their holy books are likewise so uniquely compelling. We need to try to look at things from comparatively form multiple perspectives, and not merely from within the narrow framework of the one tradition we are comfortable and familiar with.

Changes to Temple Ordinances

Key point: certain Mormon temple ordinances have undergone significant changes since they were originally restored by Joseph Smith, contrary to the church’s own teachings that God’s ordinances cannot be altered.

A Note to Mormon Readers

In this section I do not discuss or reveal any details or aspects of the current endowment ceremony which endowed members have covenanted to keep sacred. I limit myself to general remarks, and go into details only in the case of certain elements of the ceremony that have now been removed. If even this makes you uncomfortable, skip this section.

Changes to the Endowment

All Mormons go to religious services at a chapel each Sunday, but those who are of age and deemed worthy are also encouraged to attend another set of worship services in a building called the temple. There, Mormons perform special ceremonies and ordinances, the most important of which is called the ‘endowment’. Most members experience the endowment ceremony as a combination of pre-recorded videos and live actions performed by those present. With a few small exceptions, the entirety of the ceremony, which lasts over an hour, is scripted, and thus is performed word-for-word identically on every occasion. This is relevant because this script has been changed in some important ways since the endowment was introduced. Aspects of the endowment which have been significantly altered include the following:

  • Penalties: the endowment used to contain penalties associated with revealing any of the sacred elements of the ceremony. These were removed in a 1990 revision of the ceremony.
  • Ministers as agents of Satan: the ceremony contained several scenes in which a protestant minister was portrayed as an agent of Satan. This was removed in the 1990 revision.
  • Wives obedience to husbands: women used to be required to promise to ‘observe and keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness’. In 1990 this was changed to ‘obey the Law of the Lord, and to hearken unto the counsel of her husband, as her husband hearkens unto the counsel of the Father’.
  • Oath of vengeance: beginning in the days of Brigham Young and lasting until around 1930, the endowment ceremony included an oath of vengeance for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. It read ‘you and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation’.
  • There have also been substantial changes to another ordinance called the initiatory. For more information on this see http://www.i4m.com/think/temples/temple_ordinance.htm

There is no question about these changes; they are not lies made up to discredit the church, as some Mormons tend to say of such things. More information can be found on the relevant wikipedia pages, and also on the FairMormon Mormon apologetics website.

Divine Ordinances Cannot be Changed

While Mormons and non-Mormons alike may be troubled by the content of these removed portions of the endowment, most troubling of all for me when I discovered this information was that it seemed to directly contradict the church’s teaching that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly in the specified manner and cannot be altered. This was one of the justifications of the need for a restored church in the first place, namely the argument that the original correct form of many ordinances like baptism had been lost and corrupted over time. As stated in the official church publication Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:

“Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.”

Likewise from the church magazine the Ensign:

“Through time and apostasy following Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, however, the divine authority of the priesthood and the sacred ordinances were changed or lost, and the associated covenants were broken. The Lord revealed His displeasure over this situation in these words:“For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;”

And from church General Conference:

“We explained briefly the Apostasy and the Restoration: that there is vast evidence and history of an apostasy from the doctrine taught by Jesus and his Apostles, that the organization of the original Church became corrupted, and sacred ordinances were changed to suit the convenience of men, and that today good people all over the world are confused with contending religions with differing doctrine and methods of worship.”

Apologetic Responses

Mormon apologists have claimed that there is a difference between changing the ordinances themselves, and changing some outward details of their presentation. This is certainly contrary to what I was always taught, that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly. It also seems contrary to teachings such as this:

“No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God.”

According to this passage, every small detail of ordinances is important. Changes as substantial as removing entire portions of the endowment would thus surely be counted as ‘important’ details which contribute to the spiritual value of the ordinance, and thus presumably ought not to be changed. The church does not like to discuss these matters, and discourages members from speaking too openly about temple ordinances, even beyond the specific aspects that members promise not to reveal. As such, relatively few members (especially younger members) are aware of these facts. When I became aware of such things, my confidence in the church, though not completely undermined, was considerably shaken.

Lesson 3: Openness is essential

The main lesson I gained from learning about the changes to temple ordinances was the importance of openness to critical examination and discussion. The LDS church is notoriously sensitive to criticism, and very secretive about matters such as changes to the temple ordinances. I am not talking here about keeping certain aspects of the ordinances sacred; I’m talking about hiding from members the changes that have been made to key salvific ordinances (this also applies to various aspects of church history, but that’s another matter).

I do not believe that truth needs protecting, and were I to adopt another religion I would look for one which is open about its past and present activities, and which does not attempt to keep certain facts from its members or discourage them from thinking critically about such things. Any sign of resistance to critical open enquiry of this sort is thus very suspicious and off-putting to me. No true religion should feel the need to ‘protect’ its members from facts that they think may be unpleasant or may lead them to doubt.

Inaccurate Translation of the Book of Abraham

Key point: Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian papyri. Some of these papyri have been discovered, and the translations provided by modern Egyptologists bear no resemblance to those given by Smith.

Background to the Book of Abraham

The Book of Mormon was not the only ancient record Joseph Smith claimed to have translated. In 1835, Joseph Smith acquired several ancient Egyptian papyri taken from some mummies that had been brought to America from Egypt several years earlier. At the time, Egyptian hieroglyphics had still not been deciphered, and owing to his famed translation abilities Smith was asked to attempt a translation. Smith examined the papyri and declared that they contained the writings of the ancient patriarch Abraham. He translated the papyri over the course of a few months, and the resulting work, the Book of Abraham, was published several years later and eventually canonised by the church in 1880. It now forms a key component of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four canonical texts of the church.

Joseph Smith’s Inaccurate Translations

The original papyri owned by Joseph Smith were long thought to have been lost, but in 1966 several fragments were discovered in some university archives. It is unclear exactly what proportion of the original documents these fragments represent, however they do include large portions of one of the figures (called facsimiles) that are included in the Book of Abraham alongside the text (see here). Numerous professional Egyptologists have since examined these recovered fragments, and they are uniform in their assessment that their content bears no relation whatever to Smith’s translation. Essentially, the papyri are first century Egyptian funerary texts, and contain no mention of Abraham or any of the other doctrinal or historical elements contained in the Book of Abraham.

Apologetic Responses

When first I discovered these facts I was shocked and dismayed. This seemed to be a very clear disconfirmation of Joseph Smith’s ability to translate through divine assistance. I immediately sought out responses of Mormon apologists to see what they had to say on the matter. In preparing the present article, I discovered that just last year the church published a piece on its website discussing the translation of the Book of Abraham. The answers provided in this piece fall into two basic categories, and are essentially the same as those I read on Mormon apologetic sites when conducting my original research:

  • Since we have only recovered a fraction of the original papyri, we do not know whether the portions we have are the same as those Joseph Smith translated from, or what degree of overlap there may or may not be.
  • Joseph Smith may not necessarily have engaged in a literal textual translation of the papyri. I will quote from the lds.org essay on the subject, which articles this perspective quite succinctly: “Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artefacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalysed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri”

My Reaction to the Responses

I never considered these responses to be very satisfactory. At the very least, we know that Joseph Smith did not translate facsimile 1 correctly, since we have recovered large portions of it, and if any inference can be made about the missing portions of the papyri, surely the most reasonable presumption would be that they would likely resemble in subject matter the portions that we do have, not that they would concern matters totally unrelated. As to the idea of a ‘non-literal translation’, once again this is not what I had always been taught. I was always told and read in church materials that the Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, was a genuine translation of a real historical document.

There is no way we can know from historical investigation whether or not Joseph Smith received some sort of spiritual revelation catalysed by the papyri, however from my perspective the evidence fits far better with Joseph Smith having falsely believed in his divinely-inspired ability to translate, rather than God actually having inspired Joseph to write something that bore no relation to the document he thought he was translating, and then have highly misleading teachings about said document continuing to be taught throughout God’s true church. Like everything else, this alone is not completely definitive, but for me it was exceptionally compelling counterevidence against Joseph being a true prophet of God.

Lesson 4: Beliefs need to be testable

From my investigations of the Book of Abraham, and particularly upon discovering the ‘not a literal translation’ response, it became increasingly clear to me just how important it is that we have same method of testing or falsifying our beliefs. Not in some scientistic sense, but simply in the sense of being able to determine whether they are likely to be true or not. The ‘spiritual translation’ answer was so unsatisfactory to me precisely because there is no way to tell whether it is true or not, and can therefore be said of essentially any text from any religion. Thus, any religion which I joined now would to have at least some methods of testing out the truth of its claims, and not merely rely on completely untestable claims of spiritual revelation.

The Unreliability of Subjective Spiritual Evidence

Key point: Mormon doctrine places very heavy emphasis on personal spiritual witness as the prime method of learning the truth of the church, however the existence of many competing religion, as well as the findings of modern psychology, show that evidence of this sort is extremely unreliable.

Spiritual Witness in Mormonism

By far the single biggest reason why I accepted the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored church is because of the validating ‘spiritual witness’ I believe I had received from God. Mormons believe this is by far the most important and most fundamental way one comes to a knowledge of the truth of the church, often appealing to a passage found in the Book of Mormon in Moroni 10:4, which reads:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Mormons and those investigating Mormonism are encouraged to read the Book of Mormon and pray sincerely to God to provide them with a spiritual witness of its truth. For many years, I believed that I had received such a witness, which I described as a powerful sensation of peace, comfort, and insight that I gained when reading and pondering the Book of Mormon. I believed that this was a witness from God telling me that the things I was reading and praying about were indeed true, that they were good, and that they were from God.

Cognitive Biases and Conflicting Experiences

During my period of reflection, however, I started to learn about human psychology. I found out about expectation bias (how our expectations enormously shape our perceptions), cognitive dissonance (how we use motivated reasoning to manage apparently conflicting beliefs), the availability heuristic (our tendency to misjudge the probability of events based on a few particularly vivid examples), post-purchase rationalization, pareidolia (seeing patters where none exist), and selection bias (distorting our view of something by the biased way in which examples are chosen). I learnt about a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails, which documents how may end of the world cults continue to believe even after their predictions fail to come to. I learnt about the immense research documenting the fallibility of human memory, how every time we recall an event we reconstruct and potentially alter the memory, and how relatively easy it is to generate false memories.

Learning about these things, I began to see how they applied in so many ways to my own experience as a Mormon, and also to the way in which Mormons approach spiritual witnesses generally. When I prayed for spiritual confirmation, it was with a strong expectation that I would receive it, which greatly increased the chances that I would come to believe I had such an experience regardless of whether or not there was any true supernatural involvement. Pareidolia would help ensure that I interpreted a wide range of potential thoughts, feelings, and sensations as being consistent with a spiritual witness. The immense amount of time and energy I had put into the church throughout my life would lead to a significant amount of cognitive dissonance and post-purchase rationalisation effects if I were to fail to receive a witness, and thus I was much more likely to convince myself that I had received one. My memory of the spiritual experiences I had had, and those I had heard about from others, was likely altered over time and perhaps had changed significantly from the way events originally occurred.

I also became increasingly concerned about the variability of personal spiritual witnesses across different religions. I found examples of people from Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Wicca, all who reported experiences and feelings which were broadly similar in form to those I had experienced, and those I had heard other Mormons witness about. I wondered how different people could receive genuine spiritual witnesses of conflicting spiritual truths. The more I thought about this, the more dissatisfied I became with simply believing that I was right and others were wrong. I could not find any rational basis for thinking my spiritual witness, or those of Mormons I knew, where more likely to be true than those experienced by people in other religions. This realisation, combined with my new knowledge of human psychology and our powers for self-deception, eventually led me to believe that the experiences and sensations I believe I had had were in fact the products of my own mind, and not the result of divine influence.

The Three and Eight Witnesses

It was a result of similar considerations that I came to believe that the testimonies of the three and the eight witnesses (groups of men who claimed to have seen the gold plates from which the book of Mormon was supposedly translated) were also not a reliable source of information. In the course of my research on the matter I came across this quote by Illinois governor Thomas Ford, who opined that the event of the witnessing of the plates may have proceeding something like this:

“The witnesses were ‘set to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises.’ Then at last ‘he (Joseph Smith) assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren,  every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins ‘ The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”

I had no reason to believe that the details of this hypothetical account are correct, but it seemed to me that something like this was eminently plausible given what I now knew about human psychology. There were also some other problems with the witnesses which came to my attention, such that virtually all of them were either relatives or friends of Smith, and a number of whom had strong financial and social interests in the success of the church. Also, the witnesses did not give their own independent accounts of events, but merely signed a single document prepared for them, thus leaving us with no way to corroborate their separate accounts with each other, or see whether each of them experienced the same thing, rather than each having their own rather unique spiritual experience which they then misremembered and reconstructed upon later recall as being consistent with the written account. I also found out that a number of other prophets had their own groups of witnesses, including Solomon Spalding and Jesse Strang. I found out about the many sightings of the Virgin Mary, some of them very well documented and with a large number of witnesses (as a Mormon I did not believe in such apparitions). All in all, I was left far less impressed with the accounts of the witnesses than I had previously been.

Lack of Apologetic Responses

Searching for responses to these concerns from Mormon apologists, I could find almost nothing. It was almost as if Mormons had never even thought about such questions before, a notion which I found both bizzare and deeply discouraging. In the face of such evidence and in the absence of any real responses, I became extremely skeptical both of my own spiritual experiences, and of the reported and recollected experiences of others. I no longer considered them to be a reliable way of finding truth, or of determining the veracity of writings like the Book of Mormon.

Lesson 5: Subjective evidence is unreliable

My experience with Mormonism has taught me to be highly skeptical of any claims to divine or spiritual knowledge gained primarily on the basis of personal religious experience, sensations, or feelings. I do not believe that such things are a reliable way of finding truth, and as such any religion which I joined today, though it may have an important place for such experiences, would not elevate them to be the primary means of determining the truth of religious claims.

Bringing Things Together

Leaving Mormonism

By the end of my period of intensive study and reflection, I had come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was probably not a divinely inspired prophet, and that the church he established was probably not God’s true church. I did not come to this conclusion on the basis of any single argument or piece of evidence, but as a result of multiple, largely separate considerations, the five major ones I have outlined here (there were many other lesser considerations as well, but I have omitted them to save space). No single discovery I made was enough to completely undermine my faith by itself, nor did any of them definitively and conclusively disprove the truth of Mormonism. Rather, it was a question of relative plausibility and explanatory power of different ways of interpreting the facts.

Becoming an Atheist

Having come to the conclusion that Mormonism was probably not a true religion, I found myself having little or no reason to continue believing in god. The main reasons why I had previously believed in God were as a result of my belief in the Book of Mormon, in the first vision of Joseph Smith, and also as a result of my own personal spiritual experiences. Having become convinced that all of these reasons for belief were mistaken or inadequate, I lacked any reason to continue believing in God. I thus began describing myself as an atheist or an agnostic, depending on the mood I was in – at present I prefer the term ‘weak atheist’.

Continued Searching

To this day I remain open to the possibility that my decision to leave Mormonism might have been incorrect, and that the Mormon church is in fact true, and that Joseph Smith is in fact a true prophet of God. For me to once again believe in this, however, I would need to find compelling answers to these five problems I have outlined here, as well as a number of other comparatively minor matters that I have not discussed here. To my continued disappointment, none of my Mormon friends or acquaintances were interested at the time, or have seemed interested since, to discuss these issues and concerns with me.

Since leaving Mormonism I have also continued to search for new reasons or arguments as to why I should believe in God, or adopt some religion other than Mormonism. As yet, I have not found reasons or arguments which I find sufficiently persuasive. Nonetheless, my ignorance and limitations remain immense, and so the search goes ever on. I am still only near the beginning of my journey

Lesson 6: We must compare worldviews holistically

Partly as a result of my experiences investigating various aspects of Mormonism, I have come to the view that it is essential to consider a body of evidence collectively, rather than merely examining each argument or fact in isolation. It is certainly important to look at details of each particular argument, but if this is all one does, it is very easy to get caught in the trap of ‘explaining away’ every possible counterargument or discrepancy within the framework of what we already believe. In this way, we never shift our beliefs, and we are not receptive to new evidence.

Instead, we need to make the effort to consciously take a step back and think ‘which perspective, which worldview is most consistent with the evidence as a whole? What is the most reasonable thing to believe that has the greatest chance of being true?’ This means making a genuine sincere effort to understand alternate viewpoints and interpretations, rather than just dismissing them point by point on each particular argument. We need to put on the goggles of those we disagree with, see through their eyes, and then switch back to our own goggles and consider which pair provided the better view of reality. This is not an easy thing to do, but I think that if we wish to maximise our changes of holding true beliefs, it is something we must regularly strive for.

Some Concluding Thoughts on Reason and Belief

Many Christians I know are very committed to their faith, believing very strongly in Jesus and his power in their lives. Nevertheless, I have found that many such persons are unable to answer many of my questions, objections, and criticisms. When I raise such matter, they tend to change the subject, fail to get back to me after saying they will, respond in ways that seem to portray an almost complete lack of understanding of my perspective, or sometimes even flat out say to me that they do not know how to respond. At the same time, such persons, seemingly without fail (although I guess I cannot know for sure) remain unwavering in their beliefs. Nothing I say seems to have much of any impact at all. Even in the very act of being unable to provide any cogent or relevant response to something I have said, they nevertheless maintain the same level of confident certainty that their beliefs are correct. I speak mostly of my Christian friends here (and some of them are among my very dearest friends), though I suspect similar remarks would apply to many of my Mormon friends as well, had I ever had any substantive conversations with them about such matters.

My reaction to this attitude is one of considerable incredulity. It’s not that I want to prove to these people that they are wrong or to get them to change their minds. Rather, it’s a matter of wanting to understand their reasons, and becoming frustrated and disappointed when they seem unable to articulate them. As far as I can see, weighing up and interpreting evidence and arguments is the way we try to distinguish truth from falsity. If we hold on tenaciously to a belief even in the face of objections to central aspects of that belief to which we have little or no idea how to respond, then we are in effect abdicating our role as searchers after truth. If we are right, we hope to be so by sheer luck, not because we have done all we can to cleave true from false beliefs and maximise our chances of holding to the true and rejecting the false.

I refuse to believe that God created us with an intellect only to have us forego its use, and instead wallow in confident certainty in the very face of our own admission (tacit or explicit) that we do not have the tools we need to discern whether our most dearly held beliefs are in fact likely to be true. This is a rejection of the paramount importance of truth, an abdication of our intellectual integrity, and, having given up truth as our guiding light, constitutes a surrender to the vicissitudes of chance and passion to control our destinies. Such a life is not the life I want to live, and I call upon everyone everywhere reject this form of passive slavery to falsity and unreason, and instead fight with all our might, with all our strength, and with all our souls, to find out what is true, and to live by those truths that we find, always with a confidence proportionate to the reasons we have for belief.

This does not mean that we will have all the answers – that would be absurd – but it does mean that we should always have sufficient answers to justify our current level of confidence in how we can know what we claim to know. If we cannot give such answers but nonetheless hold fast to our beliefs, then we are lying to ourselves, and (if he exists) we are lying to God too, for we are pretending to know things that we do not in fact know, or at least do not know with the level of confidence we claim. I am guilty of doing this; I think we all are at times. But that doesn’t make it right or good.

I urge all people everywhere to think more carefully, to learn more, to listen to alternate views, and generally to put more effort into finding and holding onto truth, and not merely the appearance or the feeling of truth. I have no interest in this counterfeit version – only the genuine article will satisfy. I hope that Christians, Mormons, Atheists, and everyone else will recognise their fundamental underlying unity as seekers of truth, and join together on this grand and noble quest to understand this vast and confusing world in which we all live.

Why Am I still not a Christian?: A Letter to my Christian Friends

Introduction

This post is both highly personal, and also quite generally applicable. It is personal in that my remarks derive from my experiences in talking and engaging with Christians over the past several years, many of whom I consider to be close personal friends whom I respect a great deal. It is general in the sense that I believe the key ideas apply much more broadly to a wide diversity of interactions and engagement between Atheists and Christians (as well as those of other religions). In keeping with the personal nature of this post, I shall henceforth use the second person (‘you’) in reference specifically to my Christian friends, though it can also be interpreted more broadly to apply to any Christian, and indeed (with certain appropriate modifications of content), also to any religious person.

The Question and Possible Answers

My key purpose for this post is for you to seriously consider the question: why aren’t I a Christian? Even after nearly five years of fairly intensive thinking, reading, discussing, and debating about these ideas, why have I nonetheless not been converted to Christianity? I can see four classes of possible answers to this question, and I shall examine each of them in turn:

  1. Because Christianity is in fact false, and hence the arguments and evidence in favour of it are lacking. Not surprisingly, this is the answer which I like to believe is most likely. Perhaps more importantly, it is the only reason for which I would want to hold my current beliefs about Christianity. That is, if this is in fact not the case, then I want to change my views. Needless to say, you do not believe that this option is the correct one, so let now consider the others.
  2. Because there exist arguments and evidences with which I am insufficiently familiar, or which I have not heard explained in a sufficiently convincing way, or misconceptions or misunderstandings that result in mental barriers or objections to my belief.
  3. Because, consciously or otherwise, I do not and have not engaged in this pursuit with sufficient sincerity and objectivity. My analysis of the evidence and arguments is excessively and overwhelmingly clouded by my own prejudices, desires, presuppositions, or otherwise, such that I am not properly receptive to the true strength of the evidences and reasons offered.
  4. Because conversion to Christianity is not ultimately determined by our own beliefs or arguments we have heard, but comes as a result of an act of God’s grace. There are two main subsidiary possibilities I can see here: a) God has reached out his grace to me in this way, but I have rejected and refused to accept it, b) God has not done so, as for his own reasons I am not one he has chosen to save (or at least not yet). If you believe in the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, then you will of course not believe that (4a) is a possibility.

You may of course be inclined to say that my lack of conversion results from a combination of the above factors, but personally I think most of the possibilities listed above make the others either impossible or redundant. So, for example, (2) and (3) could both be true, but in that case (3) seems largely beside the point if I am not engaging truly openly or honestly. Likewise, you may believe that reason alone is not sufficient, even if it is necessary for a strong conversion, in which case the question would become which of (2) and (4) you consider to be the main ‘limiting factor’, so to speak, in preventing my conversion to Christianity.

Four Possibilities in Depth

Here is where things get especially difficult, because it seems to me that whichever of (2), (3), or (4) you believe is the case, there are fairly negative implications.

Suppose you believe (2) is the main reason for my lack of conversion. If this is the case, then I must ask in total earnestness and sincerity why you do not make a greater effort to share these reasons or arguments or evidences with me? You may have done so to some extent, but if I still haven’t heard the most important reasons or the most persuasive articulation, or if I still hold objections or reservations based upon misunderstandings or misconceptions, why do you not point me to them and help me address them? I try to be very clear and upfront about my objections and reservations, and have written extensively about my views concerning such matters as arguments for God’s existence, the role of subjective religious experience, disagreement between Christians about important doctrines, my various key objections, the moral argument for God’s existence, the importance of reason in forming our beliefs, and I think most importantly, the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I honestly feel that I have raised numerous cogent arguments, doubts, and objections in these various pieces, and it is on this basis that I tend to believe that situation (1) in fact prevails. Though this applies more to some people than others, on the whole I feel that you have not engaged very extensively or carefully with most of my writings or objections, and if you believe that (2) is in fact the main reason for my lack of conversion, I really would appreciate it if you would do so, because (2) is not a situation I would like to be in. The negative implication here, as I see it, is that if you believe (2), then you believe that there are cogent, persuasive reasons of which I am unfamiliar, and responses to my objections which I have not heard, but which you have not told me, or not explained in a way that I can properly grasp.

Now let us turn our attention to possibility (3). If this is the main reason for my lack of conversion, the negative implication for me is fairly clear, since in this case I will not be properly receptive to any arguments or responses to my objections that anyone may raise. If you believe (3) is the case, I would truly appreciate it if you would be so open as to tell me so, and suggest ways I might be able to remedy this defect in my thinking. Perhaps there may be specific clear instances you can point to where my sincerity and objectivity has been clearly and substantially clouded (obviously none of us are ever going to be perfect in this respect, but its a matter of degree). Either way, I would greatly appreciate your assistance in extricating myself from (3), which truly would be a terrible situation for me to be in.

Even worse, arguably, than (3) is situation (4a), in which I have rejected God’s grace that he has offered to me (feel free to phrase this in a slightly different way if you disagree with my use of language here, its the underlying idea that I want to focus on). If (4a) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, then basically it seems that all is lost, at least for me. I’m fundamentally a bad person and just are unreceptive to the truth and light offered by God through his grace. There’s little or no question of changing my mind in the basis of reason or evidence, because its not a question of reason or evidence, just of being unreceptive to grace. If you believe that (4a) is the case, then you perhaps think that deep down I’m fundamentally not really a very good person. Maybe you have some way around this, I don’t know, but at least as I see it a good person doesn’t just reject a good God in this way. I know that you probably believe that no humans are ‘fundamentally good’, but if you believe that some people choose to accept God’s grace while others don’t, presumably that makes a meaningful difference in terms of what sort of person they are.

Lastly, let us consider possibility (4b). Maybe it is the case that I have the intellectual knowledge I would need to become a Christian, but nonetheless I have not yet received the outpouring of God’s grace, or spiritual witness from God, or whatever language one cares to use to describe this. This possibility is the one I find hardest to understand. If you believe that (4b) is the core reason I am not a Christian, then presumably you also believe that a major reason why you are a Christian is because you have been the recipient of such an act of grace, or spiritual witness, or whatever wording you prefer to use to describe the experience. If you do believe this, I guess I just find it very hard to understand why God would withhold such things from me. Doesn’t he want all of his children to enter into a relationship with him? Why would he extend his grace (etc) to you and not to me? I guess being God he can do whatever he wants, but still it kind of sucks for me (and those like me). Nor does it do any good to say that I still have misconceptions or mental barriers that prevent me being a recipient to God’s grace, because then we no longer think that (4b) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, but rather have reverted to options (2) or (3). The negative implication of (4b) is that there is effectively nothing either of us can do to change the situation. That said, however, I would still appreciate you telling me if you genuinely believe (4b) is the case. I would find it helpful to know.

Closing

So we have reached the end of the possibilities for why I have not converted to Christianity. As I have said, I don’t think any of them are especially positive, or free from negative implications. Nonetheless this matter does not go away merely because you or I fail to think about it or talk about it. You believe, I presume, that my eternal salvation is at stake in this question, and I believe that it may be at stake (because I might be wrong in believing (1)), so the stakes are high, and there is no time to waste. So what do you think? What is to be done? This question isn’t just for me; I think Christians everywhere should ask this of their non-believer friends, and seriously consider their answer. It is a matter none of us can afford to ignore, easy as that can often be to do.

Justifying Morality Without God: The Difference between Humans and Chickens

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss some comments made in this recent blog piece concerning the alleged inability of any atheistic worldview to provide a ‘rational basis’ for valuing moral life over chicken life. I argue that this piece fallaciously argues that because humans and chickens are comprised of the same fundamental substances, that therefore they must share the same moral value, explaining how this is an instance of the fallacy of composition. I then address the claim that atheism cannot provide a rational basis for human value, arguing that neither atheism nor theism can provide the sort of bootstrapping ‘value from reason alone’ that this piece seems to seek, and indeed that reason is simply not capable of doing so.

Animal Rights?

I wish to begin this piece by just very briefly remaking on this strange assertion found at the beginning of the article in question:

The other day I ate a chicken sandwich. The chicken was killed, dismembered and cooked and placed on a bread roll that I had for lunch. Yet there was no outcry, no police enquiry, and no news reports. Millions of people eat chicken every day and it is completely morally acceptable.

While I don’t doubt that there was no public outcry or policy enquiry, I am curious on what basis the author asserts that millions of people eating chicken every day is ‘completely morally acceptable’? I know a lot of philosophers and intelligent people generally who would not agree that eating chicken in this way is always ‘completely morally acceptable’. I myself do not eat chicken, in large part precisely because I do not find it ‘completely morally acceptable’. I will not defend this view here, I merely wish to raise the point to forestall others from doing so (and so distract the discussion from more central issues), and also to highlight that discussions of these sort involving morality and rationality are fraught with danger, given how much moral disagreement exists about even comparatively simple matters as eating chicken. What to one person is a totally innocuous act of no moral consequence to another is tantamount to murder (not that I think eating chicken is as bad as murder, but some people do). Enough on such things however. I will now move on to the meatier (haha) aspects of the article.

The Fallacy of Composition

“Now my question: in the atheist universe, why is cooking a human different to cooking a chicken? There appears no fundamental difference. A chicken is matter and energy and a human is matter and energy. Both are the same, neither has any intrinsic value. Hence it seems inconsistent and unjustified within an atheist system for there to be an outcry at the murder and cooking of human DNA.”

Let me attempt to paraphrase the argument I think is being made here in the following syllogism:

  1. A chicken and a human are both fundamentally comprised of matter and energy
  2. If two things are comprised of the same fundamental substance then they have the same moral value
  3. Therefore, chickens and humans have equivalent moral value

Premise 2 seems fairly obviously suspect. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental substance out of which something is made is what determines its moral value. As Carl Sagan said of beauty, but which could equally well apply to moral value, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together“. In particular, an atheist defending the greater moral value of humans compared to chickens could appeal to the greater human capacity for consciousness and self-awareness, their ability to experience higher forms of pain and pleasure, their greater potential for intellectual and social engagement with the world, and any number of other morally significant differences between humans and chickens. To put it another way, there is a vague collection of properties, the more of which are possessed by some entity, the more moral value it has. A rock has essentially none of these properties, a chicken has more, and a human has more still. The appeal to the face of being comprised of identical fundamental substances is of no clear relevance at all.

Indeed, this argument seems to be an instance of the fallacy of composition, in which it is falsely asserted that the whole must share the properties of its parts. For example, a puddle of water has a temperature and the property of being wet, but no individual water molecules of which the puddle is wholly comprised have such properties. Conversly, while the protons and electrons comprising the puddle are electrically charged, the puddle itself is electrically neutral. To give another example, in some random group of ten people, each person has a hair colour, but the group as a whole does not have a hair colour. Examples can be given ad nauseam. In this case, it is argued that because (in atheistic universe) humans are made up of nothing more than matter and energy, and because matter and energy of themselves have no moral value, therefore humans have no moral value. This is fallacious because, as illustrated previously, a whole need not share its properties with its parts. This is the fallacy of composition in action.

A Rational Basis for Morality?

“If a child is simply matter and energy, as are rocks, stars, chickens, computers and trees, there appears to be no rational basis for valuing human ‘matter and energy’ over chicken ‘matter and energy’. There appears no fundamental difference between cooking a human and cooking a chicken.”

Here I want to focus on the use of the phrase “no rational basis valuing human ‘matter and energy’”. I must admit it is not entirely clear to me what is meant by this. What is meant by ‘rational’ in this context? Does it mean that someone who was only interested in holding true beliefs about the external world would not come to value human matter and energy? If so, then I agree completely. I do not believe there is any such thing as value ‘built in’ (the word ‘intrinsic’ is often used, though I often find that more obfuscatory than enlightening) to the world, such that mere recognition of a fact necessitates some kind of attribution of value to something. Nor do I think this is a product of an atheistic universe – I think it is just as much a fact about any possible theistic universe as an atheistic universe.

For consider a hypothetical person who is fully rational, in the sense of caring only about holding true beliefs about the way things really are. Suppose such a person follows the evidence and arguments, and comes to the belief that God exists, and furthermore that God has given mankind various commandments and laws. Does it follow from any purely ‘rational basis’ that this hypothetical person should therefore value God’s commandments, or believe that they have a moral obligation to follow them? I contend that it does not. They have merely discovered a fact about what God commands, which by itself provides no ‘rational basis’ for valuing God’s commands. This idea is not mine; it is simply an application of Moore’s famous Open Question Argument.

An atheist most certainly can rationally defend human dignity and value. We, as individuals and as a society, care about the suffering, the joy, and the flourishing of self-aware, conscious, intelligent creatures such as humans (and possibly other species too, maybe even chickens, but let’s leave that aside for now). What’s that you say? What if our interlocutor claims not to care one wit about such things – what can we say then to convince them? The answer, of course, is nothing. Just as the theist has nothing to say to the person who claims to believe in God and his commandments, but feels no compunction or desire to follow them. ‘Rationality’ cannot bootstrap itself from nothing – it has to start somewhere. Just as the theist cannot give any deeper non-question begging reason deriving from rationality alone for why God ought to be obeyed or why his commands constitute moral laws, likewise the atheist can give no deeper non-question begging reason from rationality alone for why human life has value: the situations are symmetric.

The trouble here is not the dearth of reasons, but the desire to both reasons and rationality further then they can go. Rationality can get you from one belief to another without falling into falsity, but it cannot tell you what beliefs to start with, or in this case what things to ultimately care about. It is our mistake to expect that it would ever be capable of such a feat.

What is Atheism? What is Agnosticism? And who has the Burden of Proof?

Synopsis

In this piece I wish to consider the question: “does atheism need to be justified?” That is, does an atheist need to provide arguments and reasons to support their atheism, or is it sufficient for them to merely say that the evidence and arguments provided in favour of theism are insufficient? I first consider at length the meaning of the term ‘atheism’, distinguishing it from more specific appellations such as ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnosticism’. In doing so I present a tripartite typology of nontheistic views about God, based on differing attitudes taken to the proposition “God exists” and its negation “God does not exist”. I also defend my characterisation of the definitions of atheism and agnosticism based on historical and conceptual considerations. Finally, I apply my definitions of atheism and agnosticism to answer the question originally posed about justification and burden of proof, arguing that, in fact, agnosticism bears a greater burden of proof than does atheism simpliciter, which being (in my usage) a mere lack of belief, does not bear any burden of proof.

Defining Atheism

The first and most obvious thing to do is establish a working definition as to what is meant by the term ‘atheism’, and its close relative ‘agnosticism’. This represents a problem, because atheism is used in different ways by different people. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

“The task is made more difficult because each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions  for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure”

Much ink has been spilled attempting to categorise and define the differences and similarities between atheism and agnosticism. As a result of such efforts there is now a positive cornucopia of differing terms and labels, including agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, weak agnosticism, strong agnosticism, explicit atheism, implicit atheism, weak atheism, strong atheism, apatheism, naturalistic pantheism, antitheism, ignosticism, and many more.

In this article I cannot possibly attempt to satisfactorily address each of these terms. Instead, I shall present my own preferred typology, drawing a distinction between three broad classes of positions: strong atheism, weak atheism, and agnosticism. For clarity, henceforth when I use the term ‘God’, it should be understood that I am referring to something akin to the traditional God of monotheism.

Belief and Reasons

Before proceeding, I think it may be helpful to say a few preliminary words about the nature of belief. I consider belief to be a particular sort of cognitive attitude that one holds toward a proposition. To any proposition, it is my view that there are essentially two possible cognitive attitudes which are relevant to our concerns here: that of accepting the truth of the proposition, and that of refusing to accept the truth of the proposition. These, of course, can come in degrees of enthusiasm or confidence in accepting or refusing to accept, but I consider the two to represent extremes along a single spectrum.

Note that under this typology, refusing to accept a proposition is not equivalent to assenting to its negation. This may strike some as counterintuitive, but I do not think there is anything especially new or unusual here. For example, suppose someone were to ask me “would you accede to the statement ‘it will rain on this day one year from now’?”, I would respond “no I would not”. But that does not mean that I would affirm the negation of the statement, namely “it will not rain on this day one year from now”.

My Tripartite Typology

Consider the following two propositions:

  • “God exists”
  • “God does not exist”

In my view, it is possible to hold separate cognitive attitudes concerning each of these propositions, though not all combinations of attitudes will be logically consistent. I foresee the following possibilities:

  • Accept the proposition “God exists” and refuse to accept “God does not exist”: a person who hold this view would typically be called a theist
  • Accept the proposition “God does not exist” and refuse to accept “God exists”: this constellation of views is typically described as strong atheism
  • Accept both propositions: belief that it “God exists” and also that “God does not exist”. Aside from some unusual equivocation in the definition of ‘God’ between these two propositions, it seems difficult for this view to be coherent
  • Refuse to accept either proposition: this person refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but also similarly refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”. In my view, both the weak atheist and the agnostic fit into this category

Given this understanding, let me now outline my preferred tripartite topology:

  1. Strong Atheism: explicit endorsement of the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”
  2. Weak Atheism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but without explicit endorsement of the truth of its negation (namely “God does not exist”)
  3. Agnosticism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists” and also the proposition “God does not exist”, motivated by a belief that such claims concern matters which are simply unknown, and perhaps unknowable

Strong Atheism, Weak Atheism, and Agnosticism

There seems to be a certain class of people (in my experience typically theists, but some atheists as well) who seem adverse to the entire concept of ‘weak atheism’. Such people seem to believe that ‘weak atheism’ is not a real position, that it is either another name for agnosticism, or another name for strong atheism, and that there is no meaningful ‘middle ground’ between the two. I believe that this view is mistaken, and that if we tried to do away with the concept of ‘weak atheism’, there would be sufficient demand for a ‘third position’ distinct from agnosticism and strong atheism such that a new label would emerge to take its place.

That being said, given that I have categorised both weak atheism and agnosticism in 4) above, what is my basis for distinguishing them in my tripartite typology? I think that the meaning of ‘weak atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ is very similar and overlaps a great deal, which is precisely why there is so much conflict and confusion concerning their meanings. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are meaningful (if subtle) distinctions between these two positions. I would put these differences into two categories, which I will discuss in turn.

First, while united in their rejection of belief in the proposition “God exists”, weak atheists and agnostics differ slightly in exactly what cognitive attitude they hold with respect to the proposition “God does not exist”. Agnostics refuse to grant assent to this proposition either – they view both beliefs as essentially equally unsupportable. Weak atheists, on the other hand, while refusing to explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (if they did, they would be strong atheists), typically are reticent to be so explicit in their refusal to assent to the proposition “God does not exist”, in general because while they lean towards the truth of this proposition, they are not quite confident enough to categorically endorse it without qualification or caveat (strong atheists, by contrast, are typically much more confident about this belief).

Second, agnosticism is, at least in my view, and contrary to how it is often perceived, a more substantive position than weak atheism. Agnosticism, as originally outlined by Thomas Huxley and generally explicated by its proponents since, incorporates not only a rejection of assent to either proposition about God’s existence, but also includes certain epistemological views about the limits of what can be known, and what sort of attitudes are appropriate in the face of such limits and uncertainties. Agnosticism is, in this sense, a profoundly skeptical position, in the traditional sense meaning ‘belief that firm knowledge either way is difficult or impossible’. Weak atheism, in my view, lacks any of these connotations, and as such it is a less substantive position, having less to say.

To summarise, therefore, we might say that agnostics and weak atheists are united in their refusal to accept the proposition “God exists” (which distinguishes them from theists), and are also united in their refusal to explicitly and clearly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (which distinguishes them from strong atheists). They differ, however, in the credence or probability they tend to assign to the proposition “God does not exist”, as weak atheists generally lean towards accepting this proposition, while agnostics refuse it with a fervour equal to that with which they refuse to assent to its negation. These two positions also differ in that agnosticism entails certain highly skeptical beliefs about the limits of human knowledge concerning matters of the divine, while weak atheism makes no claims either way about such epistemological issues.

My definition of ‘Atheism’

On the basis of the above analysis, my personal preferred usage of the term ‘atheism’ simpliciter, is to refer to the lack of a belief in God, irrespective of what beliefs may be held about the plausibility of the claim “God does not exist”, or broader philosophical questions about knowability. Therefore, so say that someone is an atheist, in my preferred usage of the term, is merely to assert that they refuse to assent to the proposition “God exists”, without saying anything else whatever about them or their views.

I acknowledge, of course, that this is not the only way the term ‘atheism’ is used. Many people, including many atheists, use it to refer to people who explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist”. I think this is a valid usage of the term, however it is not my preferred usage because I believe it can contribute to conceptual confusion. I also acknowledge that agnostics will probably not agree with my preferred usage of ‘atheism’, as it means that essentially all agnostics are atheists. I would say, however, that whenever possible it is best to clarify with the more specific terms ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnostic’, all of which (in my conception) fall under the broad umbrella of ‘atheism’, as making these distinctions can alleviate much of the confusion that otherwise tends to beset these sorts of discussions. I think this is also a helpful classification, since many non-believers (myself included) are often happy to refer to themselves either as agnostics or as atheists. My preferred usage thus allows for a single generic term to refer to all such people (‘atheists’), along with more specific terms to differentiate with some greater precision what precisely they believe.

Defending ‘Weak Atheism’

As I noted above, there is a certain class of people who believe that ‘atheism’ can correctly only refer to those who explicitly endorse the claim “God does not exist”. They may argue that any alternative conceptions of atheism are invalid ‘redefinitions’ and not what atheism ‘really means’. Let me say first and foremost that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter concerning what the ‘real meaning’ or ‘true definition’ of a word is. All we can talk about, in my view, are the following: 1) the origins of a term and how it was originally used, 2) how it is commonly used today, and 3) how we think it ought to be used so as to promote conceptual clarity and ease of communication.

I have already outlined my argument as to why I believe conceptual clarity is best achieved by my preferred usage of the term ‘atheist’, as this allows for a clear generic term as well as more specific labels of more subtle positions. As to common usage, I refer readers first to essentially any online discussion about the meaning of atheism, where the usage of atheism in both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ senses will be readily apparent, and secondly to the excellent wikipedia page on the subject, which links to a number of quotes from various authorities exhibiting both forms of usage.

Regarding the historical usage of the term, the word ‘atheist’ was originally used as essentially an insult – it did not have any particularly clear meaning other than being a term of derision. Karen Armstrong writes that:

“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”

One of the very first such self-professed atheists, a French philosopher by the name of Baron d’Holbach, famously stated “all children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God”. This is, to me, a very clear endorsement of a form of weak atheism, as clearly children, having no idea of God, cannot form the belief that he does not exist. I believe that this clearly demonstrates that my ‘weak’ understanding of atheism is an old view that traces back to the very first modern professed atheists. It is not a ‘redefinition’.

It is interesting to note that, while the first publicly declared, self-professed atheists in the modern period appeared during the 18th century, agnosticism is a much more recent concept. Although there are antecedents to the idea (as there always are to any idea), the term itself was coined by English biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869. He said:

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

This, I believe, supports my contention that agnosticism is actually a more ‘substantive’ position than atheism understood in the ‘weaker’ sense that d’Holbach uses, which refers merely to a lack of belief in God.

Default Positions

A brief note on the idea of a ‘default position’. To be blunt, I have very little interest in this notion. If ‘default position’ is taken to mean something like ‘the position held in the absence of knowing anything about the question’, then I agree with d’Holbach: young children are not ‘agnostic’ by Huxley’s understanding; they are atheists (simpliciter) by my understanding of the term. That said, some theists believe that all children are born with some knowledge or understanding of God’s existence and goodness, and so if God does exist, it may be the case that theism is actually the ‘default’ position in this sense. Personally, I care very little about what is the ‘default position’, since literlaly no one comes to discussions of religion from any sort of ‘default position’. What I am interested in is the question of who bears a burden of proof and for what sort of claims, and I do not think that the notion of ‘default position’ is necessary in order to answer this question.

Burdens of Proof

Having outlined at some length my preferred understanding of the term ‘atheism’, I will now briefly return to the original question I posed, which was whether or not atheism needs to be justified or supported as a position. Some argue that atheism is just as much an affirmative position as theism, and that therefore both bear essentially equal burdens of proof. The ‘default position’, on this view, and the only one to avoid any burden of proof, is agnosticism, which makes no claims either way.

In accordance with my typology given above, I disagree with this analysis. In my view, ‘strong atheism’ does bear an equal burden of proof to ‘theism’, as both make ontological claims of essentially equal strength with respect to God. Perhaps surprisingly, agnosticism too also bears some (though arguably less) burden of proof – not with respect to disbelief in the existence of God, but with respect to the positive claims agnostics tend to make concerning the inability of human reason or evidence to arrive at justified beliefs on the matter either way. Even weak atheism, I think, can bear a burden of proof, although only insomuch as weak atheists ‘lean towards’ accepting the claim “God does not exist” do they bear a burden of proof for demonstrating the basis of the greater credence given to this position (the burden is, of course, greater as their stated degree of confidence, or ‘leaning’, is increased).

As I have defined it, however, ‘atheism’ simpliciter, the generic term referring to mere refusal to accede to the proposition that “God exists”, does not bear any burden of proof, for it makes no positive claims about anything. In fact, often I do not think it greatly matters if a person calls themselves an atheist or an agnostic – if all they are asserting is that they lack belief in the existence of God, and are saying nothing about God’s non-existence, or relative likelihood thereof, or about the unknowability of the answer to this question, then they are not making any substantive claim, and so bear no burden of proof.

Conclusion

Given my analysis, I do not believe that an atheist, in the sense that I have defined the term, need give any positive justification for their mere refusal to assent to the proposition “God exists”. They need only provide responses to whatever reasons or evidences are advanced in favour of this proposition (as this is necessary in order to justify rejecting the claim), but they need not provide any arguments of their own in favour of the proposition “God does not exist”, as being an atheist (in my usage of the word) does not entail holding any particular belief concerning this proposition. Of course, many atheists do advance particular beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, either concerning its impossibility, or improbability, or even its unknowability. In my view, whenever atheists step beyond the very narrow bounds of merely denying belief in God, and make further claims concerning his non-existence, then they also bear a burden of proof for such claims.

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.

‘The Absurdity of Life without God’ – William Lane Craig’s Non-Argument

Synopsis

This piece is a critique of William Lane Craig’s piece The Absurdity of Life without God, in which he attempts to argue that under an atheistic worldview “life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose”. My contention is that Craig not only fails to establish his conclusion, but fails to advance any cogent or coherent argument at all. By ‘argument’, I mean, in essence, a connected series of defended propositions which taken together entail (or purport to entail) the conclusion one is seeking to establish. I argue that Craig’s ‘argument’ consists of little more than rhetorical questions, red herrings, and question-begging assertions. Much of this piece is comprised of quotes from the original piece; I mostly confine myself to making comments and observations. I believe that, perhaps with a small amount of guidance, essentially all readers should be able to easily see that in this piece Craig fails to deliver anything that can reasonably be described as a philosophical argument. At best it is a piece of rhetoric, but certainly it is not a serious argument. Parts of my critique may be somewhat repetitive, for which I apologise, however (at least by my reading) Craig’s piece itself was quite repetitive, as the same assertions are made and questions raised repeatedly. Text in italics are quotes from Craig’s article; regular text are my remarks.

No Ultimate Meaning without Immortality and God

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

This is a question, not an argument or premise in an argument.

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events?

Another two questions.

If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them?

This is a conditional, the antecedent of which has not been established as true. It is also a question, not a premise or argument.

Ultimately it makes no difference.

This assertion is not established by anything Craig just said, for he didn’t actually say anything, he just asked a series of questions.

Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the “Big Bang” about 13 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make?

Yet another question. If Craig wishes to establish his contention, he must provide an argument in favour of it. By continually asking questions he is merely shifting the burden of proof to his interlocutors, implicitly calling upon them to outline their own theory of how there can be meaning without God. This is very different to actually providing an argument that such a theory cannot exist, which is Craig’s contention. Merely asking questions does nothing to establish this contention.

The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.

This is a non sequitur. The fact that the universe will eventually cease to exist, does not imply that its current existence is of no value of significance – unless one presupposes what Craig is attempting to prove, namely that something must be eternal in order to have real meaning or value. In order for this inference to be valid, Craig must defend a premise (something like) ‘that which ceases to exist has no ultimate significance’, which he makes no attempt to do.

The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

The fallacy here is the same as that which Craig committed above. The fact that something ‘makes no ultimate difference’ (in the sense of changing the final temporal state of affairs of the universe) does not entail that it ‘has no significance’ unless one accepts the premise ‘something has no real significance or value unless it makes an ultimate (i.e. eternal) difference’. Craig does not provide any reason to accept this premise, which I regard as highly dubious at best.

But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful.

This seems reasonable, though it would also apply to theism: the mere existence of God does not by itself make anything meaningful, unless we also adopt the (highly questionable) premise that God’s existence necessarily imparts meaning to certain things.

If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.

This is an assertion made without any justification.

To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial—he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever—a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning.

Once again, Craig is presupposing his conclusion. He is attempting to argue that life without God is meaningless, by using the premise that an eternal life without God would have no meaning (just like the astronaut’s life). He makes no attempt to connect the analogy to his argument by any actual reasoning – he merely asserts that “if God does not exist, our lives are just like that“, which is precisely the contention he is trying to establish.

We could still ask of life, “So what?”

This is true, but the same applies to life with God. Even if God did exist and even if he did create us, we could still ask of life ‘so what?’ Some further reasoning and explanatory framework would have to be given before a claim like “God’s existence gives meaning to life” could be established.

No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God

If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please.

Craig’s premise does not entail his conclusion, unless we also adopt the additional premise that ‘it is necessary for one’s behaviour to make an ultimate (eternal) difference in order for it to matter how one lives’. This suppressed premise is, I think, very much open to debate. Craig provides no reason to accept it.

But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence.

Craig seems to be presupposing that objective standards of right and wrong cannot be facts of existence outside of God. But this is precisely what he is attempting to show. He has not given a reason as to why naturalistic facts about the world cannot constitute or entail facts about value.

Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning.

Craig gives no justification for accepting this dichotomy, which ignores a great many alternate possibilities proposed by philosophers over the centuries. I will not discuss them further here, but if Craig wishes to make the claim that “there cannot be any other possibility”, then he faces a significant burden of proof of ruling out all other possibilities. He makes no effort at all to do this, merely asserting it as established fact.

In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God.

This is a red herring. The question at hand is not who will decide the truth of moral claims. The question at hand is whether moral truths can exist or make sense in the absence of God. It is not necessary to specify the former in order to answer the latter. This is to confuse the question of ‘does the question make sense’ or ‘can a solution exist’, with the quite different question of ‘how could we actually find the answer’ or ‘who would decide the answer’.

No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God

If death stands with open arms at the end of life’s trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless?

These are questions, not arguments or parts of arguments.

If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal no purpose for the universe.

Craig twice asserts his contention, that there is no ultimate purpose in an atheistic universe, but provides no reason to accept it.

And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe?

More questions.

The English writer H. G. Wells foresaw such a prospect. In his novel The Time Machine Wells’s time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun… But if there is no God, it will end that way, like it or not. This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose.

Craig does not provide any reason as to why an Earth that ends as he describes it cannot have an ultimate purpose. The suppressed premise would presumably be something like ‘a thing must make some everlasting difference in order to have an ultimate purpose’, but Craig does not make any argument for accepting this.

What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog.

Both assertions are question-begging (as no reasoning or justification is given), and also, as far as I can tell, factually wrong (in particular, human and canine lives, I contend, are very obviously qualitatively different).

But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists.

Craig’s argument here seems to assume that the purpose of a thing is inextricably bound up with its mode of coming into being, or facts related to its creation. He does not, however, provide any justification for this belief.

As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality.

This seems little more than derisive and emotive language. I could equally well say that Jesus was “just” a dead guy nailed to a piece of wood. Using such dismissive language avoids having to present any actual arguments or good reasons, and in my view contributes essentially nothing to the discussion.

Conclusion

Craig states near the end of his piece that:

If God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose—since the end of everything is death—and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.

I do not think Craig comes even close to establishing this conclusion. Indeed, I have argued that in this piece, all Craig’s ‘arguments’ are either questions, question-begging, or just irrelevant to the central issue. Coming from a highly esteemed Christian apologist with a PhD in philosophy, I find this somewhat surprising and rather disturbing. I honestly wonder if Craig is more interested in appealing to people’s emotions rather than outlining a cogent, clear argument which is actually philosophically defensible. My point here is not that I disagree with Craig’s conclusion – I do, but I have not outlined a clear argument as to why I think there is meaning without God. Here I have merely attempted to show why Craig’s piece is so lacking in establishing its contention. I personally believe that this piece is in broad terms representative of similar pieces found on various apologetics websites purporting to present an ‘argument’ as to why life without God lacks ultimate purpose or meaning, but which in fact mostly consist of little more than rhetorical questions and unfounded assertions. The extent to which this piece is more broadly representative, however, is something I will leave it up to the reader to decide. At the very least, I think that this piece, quite lengthy and published on Craig’s website, is very disappointing coming from someone as renowned and qualified as Craig.

 

 

Refuting Criticisms of Utilitarianism and Effective Altruism

Synopsis

This piece is a response to Robert Martin’s piece critiquing Peter Singer’s views concerning utilitarian ethics and Effective Altruism (EA). I do not address every point raised in this article, but restrict my response to four key lines of argument. First, I argue that Martin’s response presumes a binary conception of morality (moral versus immoral) which utilitarianism itself denies, and as such the criticisms he levels on the basis of this assumption have little relevance to utilitarianism. Second, I consider Martin’s argument that EA ethics inevitably leads to its attempted practitioners experiencing unbearable guilt, and argue that this falsely presupposes both that guilt has any place in a utilitarian ethic, and also that a perfect ideal needs to actually achievable in order to have merit as an ideal. Third, I argue that contra Martin’s argument, it is actually the EA supporter, and not the EA critic, who is more loving and caring towards his neighbour. Fourth, I argue that Martin’s critique of EA fails to adequately come to grips with the fact of opportunity costs in the use of resources, while in contrast EA very naturally and deliberately takes opportunity costs into consideration when making ethical judgements.

Note that the quotes at the beginning of each section are taken from Martin’s original article.

Binary Thinking about Morality

“To be truly objective the maxim, ‘to do the most good we can’ would be binding on all people regardless of whether we believe it or not. Therefore at any point if one is not ‘doing the most good we can’ we are actually acting immorally!”

“Hence justifying simply ‘moving in the right direction’ is inconsistent because it means that you don’t actually need to ‘do the most good we can’. The ethic is reduced to, ‘do the most good you feel you’re able to afford.”

“Effective altruism and the consequentialist ethic of Peter Singer reduces ethics to a kind of communist race to the communal bottom. Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical.”

“My point is that given the claim of the objectivity of this particular ethical system it becomes immoral to do anything which does not save lives of those in extreme poverty.”

Utilitarian ethics has little place for binary notions like “moral” and “immoral”. At best, these may be useful as heuristics to guide behaviour in the face of uncertainty or insufficient time to fully consider the likely outcomes of a particular action in greater depth. They may also serve as shorthand to be used in particularly extreme cases (murder, robbery, rape, gross abuse, etc). In general, however, utilitarianism considers the morality of essentially all actions to be one of degree: action A is morally preferable to action B insomuch as the expected consequences of A serve to increase total utility more than the expected consequences of action B.

Under such an ethical framework, it makes no sense (other than in the purely heuristic sense as outlined above), to assert in any absolute, unqualified way, that an agent has acted “immorally” when they take an action which produces lower expected utility than some possible alternate action. Rather, what they have done is take an action which does less good than another action they may have performed – no more, and no less.

References to non utility-maximising actions as being ‘immoral’ thus exhibit a misunderstanding of the nature of the ethical claims made by utilitarians. Such statements simply fail to say anything non question-begging with respect to the suitability of utilitarianism as an ethical framework; for in criticising utilitarianism for pronouncing every action other than the very best possible one as being ‘immoral’, they are necessarily importing binary absolutist notions of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ which utilitarianism itself rejects. In order to proceed with this line of critique, therefore, it would be necessary to make an argument as to why incorporating such a binary, absolutist notion of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ actions is necessarily in order to provide a suitable ethical account. Absent some such plausible account as to why this is in fact the case, however, this line of attack on utilitarianism fails.

Effective Altruism and Guilt

“Ethical altruism has some helpful contributions to make in assessing how scarce resources be allocated, but my criticisms would be less savage if Singer didn’t claim it as an ‘objective’ system. If consequentialism and ethical altruism is objective then we are all condemned under a brutal loveless, ethical system which will lead to social improvement in the developing world but at the cost of an ascetic guilt-ridden hypocrisy.”

“In this ethical framework there is nothing to avoid the slide into a guilt-ridden (how can I ever enjoy chocolate again?) asceticism. Nothing beyond the basics could ever be enjoyed because they would be declared objectively ‘immoral’.”

“There is no forgiveness in ethical altruism, if you eat a chocolate for yourself, you are condemned under the objective guilt of knowing that lives could have been saved elsewhere in the world.”

The argument here seems to be that Effective Altruism is unliveable as an ethical system because it is too demanding, meaning that no one can live up to its dictates, and since no one can live up to its dictates, all those who try will inevitably be subject to a great deal of guilt and anxiety over their perceived moral failings.

My first response takes the form of a question: in what way does this constitute a refutation of EA as an ethical framework? EA says, in essence, that 1) it is morally right to produce as much utility/benefit/happiness/etc as possible, 2) certain courses of action, according to our best evidence, produce much more utility/benefit/happiness/etc than others, therefore 3) it is morally good for us to undertake those courses of action. How is this argument in any way undermined by the fact that it may be difficult, or even impossible, to carry out to its fullest extent? It seems even if the EA ethic is unliveable and tends to produce a great deal of guilt, that in no way casts doubt on any of the statements 1)-3). Thus this objection merely comes down to an assertion that the EA framework is inconvenient for us, as we would rather avoid all the bother and potential guilt. Needless to say, this does not constitute a philosophical argument of any substance for the inadequacy of effective altruism as an approach in applied ethics.

My second line of response is to say that this line of rebuttal seems to presuppose that effective altruism is only valid or relevant as a moral principle if it is possible to be a perfect, completely effective altruist. As far as I can see, this principle is totally unfounded and without any basis. One is a better EA to the degree that one accords one’s actions with EA principles. This is a matter of degree, and not a binary decision. This is hardly a radical concept: essentially all normative systems incorporate ideals that are unattainable in their pure form, but which nevertheless constitute a valuable ideal to strive towards, and to focus our thoughts and efforts around, even if we know we will never reach them. A cook my strive to make “the perfect dish”, even if they know such a thing is in reality impossible. In science, philosophy, and the legal system, we often speak of epistemic virtues like objectivity, rationality, and impartiality. Everyone accepts that such virtues, in their pure, idealised form, can never be achieved by any actual person in any real situation. We do not, however, conclude on that basis that the notions or theories themselves are flawed, or that therefore everyone is everywhere and always being “irrational” or “partial”. We accept that these virtues are only ever be exercised in greater and lesser degrees, and that the impossibility of the actualisation of their perfect ideal form does not somehow undermine the concept in its entirety.

A third line of response would be to point out that notions of guilt have very little relevance to either a utilitarian ethic in general, or an EA framework in particular. Guilt is simply of no interest to the EA supporter, except insomuch as it may be relevant to ethical outcomes, either by promoting giving, or inhibiting action by leading to despair or discouragement. The EA supporter views guilt as a real and important aspect of human psychology which one needs to seriously consider. It does not, however, play any critical or central rule, motivating or otherwise, in a utilitarian ethical theory. As such, it is simply false to assert that a person who chooses an action which yields less than maximal utility is “condemned under the objective guilt”. Likewise the notion of forgiveness – this notion just has no place in a naturalistic, utilitarian ethic. Arguing that the utilitarian/EA ethical framework is defective because it has no place for forgiveness is simply to beg the question against utilitarianism, because precisely the point of utilitarianism is that such notions about binary abolute moral/immoral decisions, guilt, and forgiveness are largely irrelevant to the question of morality, which is instead concerned with degrees of goodness determined by the consequences of different possible actions. A cogent critique of utilitarianism as an ethical theory cannot proceed by simply pre-supposing aspects of morality which utilitarianism itself rejects, as this is to simply beg the question.

Misconstrual of Love

“Indeed love is absent from the brutal consequentialist system advocated by Singer.”

“All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). This means I can enjoy a chocolate cake!”

“Yet the imperatives also broadens the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include not just our global neighbours, but also our local ones, meaning we can build a school hall to the betterment of our local society and love our neighbours with cancer and perform research to help them. Therefore caring for the ‘good’ of our neighbours is achieved through both the Christian ethic and consequentialism, but the Christian ethic is more nuanced and sophisticated.”

The sincere Effective Altruist strives to do as much good for their fellow man as possible, knowing that they will never succeed completely, but always attempting to do better, and endeavouring to use the best reason and evidence available to seek out new and better ways to do the most good with the limited resources at their disposal. They seek to serve as many of their neighbours as possible, not discriminating by race, class, distance, or convenience, but deciding purely on the basis of how much help they can do to their fellow man.

The EA critic, it seems, is content to eat chocolate cake, donate to their local school hall, and then maybe also donate some money to EA charities as well, justifying this to themselves by saying that one could never be truly and completely effectively altruistic anyway, and also by pretending, through various logical contortions, that somehow the resources and time spent on their chocolate cake and local school hall could not have actually been used to help the world’s poor and needy anyway. They seek to serve their neighbour, but with a special preference for neighbours who are conveniently located close by (note: I hope this is not taken as a personal attack against anyone – it is not intended as such, I’m just trying to make a point).

I ask the reader in all sincerity: which now of these two, thinkest thou, was most loving?

Ignoring Opportunity Costs

“If Singer and the effective altruism ethic is correct, then virtually every economic, social and moral choice made in Australia today is ‘immoral’”

“This is because when these decisions are compared with saving lives of people in extreme poverty then on the simple consequentialist metric outlined by Singer, saving lives of those in extreme will always ‘win’ i.e. they will always be morally preferable. Therefore when posed with the question, ‘should we build a new road in Melbourne? The answer under effective altruism will be ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’. Should I eat a chocolate cake on my birthday? ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’ Should we build a new school auditorium? Should we treat an injured knee? Should I treat my friend’s cancer? The answer to all these questions is the same – ‘no, because this could save lives of people in extreme poverty’.”

“Moreover other decisions which would have enormously beneficial outcomes for the extreme poor are also rendered ‘immoral’. For example this ethical framework would preclude funding Ebola virus research because the net ‘utility’ of lives saved in developing countries would be greater by providing Malaria nets or immunisation compared with lives saved through Ebola research.”

It is unclear to me what these sorts of statements are attempting to accomplish. If we consider the tripartite core EA argument which I outlined above, which of the three propositions are these arguments supposed to address? They seem to be total non sequiturs. To take the Ebola research example, why would it be a bad thing for EA to recommend that we ought to put resources into bed nets and vaccinations rather than Ebola research, if it is true that the former will save more lives than the latter? Is it because Ebola research will save more lives in the long run, or have other indirect benefits that we haven’t considered? If this is the case, then we have simply denied the premise that vaccinations and bednets will actually do more good than Ebola research, in which case the effective altruist would support the Ebola research as well, so there is no disagreement. On the other hand, if it is agreed that the Ebola research will do less good than vaccinations and bednets, even when factoring in future benefits and side-effects, etc, then what possible justification can there be for preferring the Ebola research over the bednets and vaccinations? How is it a defect of the EA framework for coming to this conclusion?

I wish also to say a few words regarding resource use in developed countries. Taken at face value, the EA ethic would seem to imply that since building roads, medical expenditure – indeed most public expenses of any sort in developed countries – are not as effective uses of funds as donating to the leading EA charities, then we ought not do them. The first point to say here is that it is simply a fact that resources have opportunity costs. Instead of building a new road or paying a doctor’s salary or whatever else, that money could have been used to save lives in the developing world. This is a fact about reality. It has nothing to do with one’s ethical framework, or the worldview one is operating under. Opportunity costs exist, and (needless to say) they don’t go away merely because we don’t like the sound of them, or thinking about them makes us feel uncomfortable about the difficult tradeoffs we must make.

The second point, however, is that it is necessary to exercise some care when making statements like “we should donate money to EA charities rather than build a new road”, because there is in fact no moral agent to which such collective pronouns apply. “We” are not a moral agent; individuals are moral agents. “We” don’t have any money or any ability to choose how it is spent, so it makes little sense to ask how “we” should spend our money as a nation or a community or whatever. What makes sense from a moral framework is to ask how should you and I spend our money, as individual moral agents who can take particular moral actions. So rather than asking what “we” should do, we should be more careful in our thought and speech, and consider exactly who we are saying should do this or that with the resources they have at their disposal.

The third point to make about this comparison is that, as an attempted reductio against EA, it is a very poor one. The reason is because, if EA were applied ‘universally’, or even in a much more systematic way by many more people and organisations, there would be no need at all to redirect money from road building or hospitals (or whatever else) to fund EA charities, because all such charities would already have been fully funded many times over through funding sourced by forgoing other expenses. Every effective charitable cause could be fully funded many times over with the enormous amount of money that could be diverted from non-essential spending by westerners (I leave it to the reader to imagine precisely what is included in this category), without any need to sacrifice truly important things like roads, schools, and hospitals.

 

A Naturalistic Explanation of the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that the Hallucinations, Biases, and Socialisation Model (henceforth HBS model, which I outline here) provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth than does the competing Christian explanation (i.e. that Jesus was raised by God). In making this argument, I first present an account of what I mean by an ‘explanation’, and how one explanation can be judged superior to another. I argue that an explanation has greater explanatory power to the degree to which it can explain diverse phenomena (‘explanatory scope’), and to the degree to which it does not need to introduce antecedently unknown entities (‘plausibility’).

I then argue that the HBS model is both more plausible and has wider explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. I argue that it is more plausible since it depends only on the existence of psychological and sociological processes which are known to exist, whereas the Christian explanation must make contentious and uncertain assumptions about the existence and motivations of God. I argue that is has wider scope because it is capable (with minor adjustments) of explaining a wide range of miracle claims across different religions, whereas the Christian account is specific to the Resurrection appearances only. I thus conclude by arguing that, since the HBS model provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances without needing to posit the divinity of Jesus, the alleged superior explanatory power of the Christian explanation (as argued by apologists like William Lane Craig or Mike Licona) cannot in fact be appealed to as a significant argument to support the probable truth of Christianity.

Explanation

What is an Explanation?

I will begin by assuming that our objective is to provide an explanatory account of the resurrection appearances, including other associated details like the empty tomb and the conversion of Paul. The first step, I think, is define what we mean by an ‘explanation’, since different people use this word in different ways. In my view, an ‘explanation’ is more than just a satisfying story, or an account that seems to ‘make sense’. An explanation needs to get at the ‘underlying truth’ of the situation; what we might call the ‘causal structure’ of what is occurring. I know words like ‘truth’ and ‘causal’ are themselves problematic, but I’m trying to gesture at a very tricky concept here by using terms that I hope people have some existing familiarity with.

In light of these considerations, let me provide what I think is a suitable first-order approximate definition which will be sufficient for our purposes here: “an explanation of some phenomena X consists of a set of events, entities, and processes, which taken together provide/entail the causes which gave rise to X”. Put simply, an explanation of X is an answer to the question “what made X be the case?”, or “why X and not something else?”

Quality of Explanations

Explanations are not all or nothing; they come in varying degrees of higher and lower quality. In assessing the relative quality of different explanations, I believe that essentially what we are doing is maximising some abstract quantity, which for the sake of argument I will call the ‘power’ of the explanation. That is, better explanations have greater ‘explanatory power’. Explanatory power is a difficult and abstract concept which eludes simple definitions. Here I propose (again for the sake of conceptual clarity and without pretence of comprehensiveness) to think of explanatory power as being the combination (in a vaguely mathematical manner, analogous to multiplication) of two additional concepts: ‘scope’ and ‘plausibility’. Let me explain each of these in turn.

Scope

Explanatory scope refers to the size and extent of the phenomena that a given explanation can explain. Thus, given a particular explanation, the more different things that are in X (the set of things which are explained), the greater is the scope of that explanation. Special Relativity has greater explanatory scope than classical Newtonian Mechanics, as the latter is only applicable when velocities are considerably lower than the speed of light, while the former is applicable with any velocities. Greater explanatory scope is to be preferred, as it means that the explanation yields a greater insight into the underlying causal processes at work; it ‘tells us more’ about what is going on. However, greater explanatory scope does not by itself mean that an explanation is a good one – for instance, conspiracy theories tend to have very large explanatory scope, as they provide causal explanations for (often) a very diverse range of social, political, and economic phenomena. Such explanations, however, generally score poorly on the criteria of plausibility, to which I will now turn.

Plausibility

The plausibility of an explanation refers to its ‘simplicity’ or (more loosely) its ‘elegance’. This is closely related to the idea of Occam’s razor, which some people state as being the principle that ‘simple explanations are to be preferred’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct’, however I think this is a misleading characterisation. As I believe the idea is generally understood and applied in science and elsewhere, the notion of ‘simplicity’ has little or nothing to do with how easy an explanation is to understand, or how long it takes to explain, or even how many entities or processes it needs to appeal to. Rather, the version of the razor which I prefer, and which I think is most accurately descriptive of good inferential practise, is ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. That is, given a particular phenomena to be explained, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions or premises that are new (that is, not known antecedently) is (all else equal) to be preferred as an explanation. Understood in this way, the value of simplicity in an explanation is that with every new assumption we introduce about something existing or some process working in a particular way, we also introduce another place where we might make a mistake or go wrong. The more of these there are in our explanation, the more likely it is that at least one of them is incorrect, and hence the less likely the explanation is to actually be true.

Explanatory Power

Now that I have outlined the notions of ‘scope’ and ‘simplicity’, I will return to articulating the concept of ‘explanatory power’. As I stated earlier, I believe that explanatory power can be profitably understood as combination (loosely speaking, like the mathematical product) of scope and plausibility. That is, an explanation is said to have greater explanatory power to the degree to which it has greater scope, and the degree to which it has greater plausibility. Explanations with greater explanatory scope are to be preferred because they tell us more about the underlying causal processes at work, and more plausible explanations are to be preferred because they are ceteris paribus less likely to introduce a false assumption or premise which would invalidate the explanation.

Many explanations in science, and I also think some in history and even philosophy, have both a wider scope and high plausibility, and so consequently have high explanatory power. Some explanations, like conspiracy theories, have wide scope but immensely low plausibility (as they must posit a very large number of people working behind the scenes, competence to avoid detection, presence of immense resources, motivations to act, and many other such things that we do not antecedently know to exist, and indeed I think often have good reason to believe do not and even cannot exist). Other explanations may lack explanatory power for the opposite reason: although they have high plausibility in the sense of not needing to posit many new entities or processes, they may be so circumscribed and restricted in the class of phenomena which they can explain, that their explanatory scope is very narrow (arguably many historical explanations are of this sort). The sort of explanations which have the least explanatory power of all are those with both narrow scope and low plausibility (I think many paranormal explanations fit into this category, as they often only apply to specific events or a small class of events, and also make reference to ghosts and other such entities which are not antecedently known to exist).

Degrees of Plausibility

Before moving on, there are two final points to make. First, when I talk about ‘positing new entities and processes that are not antecedently known to exist’, this should be interpreted properly be interpreted as also being a matter of degrees. Entities or processes are seldom known for certain to exist, but are antecedently established with varying degrees of probability. Likewise, one entity or process cannot necessarily be assumed to be equal in plausibility to another merely because they are both referred to by a single word. Positing a new type of fundamental particle, or a new Neolithic culture in some part of the world, will in general be much less ‘extravagant’, and hence much more plausible, than positing the existence of ghosts or big foot, even if the latter are capable of providing a causal account of (i.e. an explanation for) the same set of phenomena. Of course, making this determination about the relative degrees of plausibility of different entities or processes is often quite difficult, but in principle I believe this is what we ought to attempt when constructing a plausible explanation.

Consistency

Second, many people in discussing explanations make reference to the consistency of an explanation; both the consistency of the explanation with the specific events or processes to be explained, and also more generally its consistency with our existing background knowledge about the world. Personally, however, I do not think it is necessary to introduce ‘general consistency with background beliefs’ as a separate criterion in judging explanatory power (or the quality of explanations generally), as I believe the idea of an explanation being consistent with our ‘background knowledge’ about the world is already incorporated into the notion of simplicity, in the form of the number of ‘new entities’ that a proposed explanation must posit. As to the question of consistency of the explanation with the specific phenomena to be explained, I think that if the explanation is inconsistent with the phenomena to be explained, then it is simply not an explanation of those phenomena (though it may be a partial explanation of sum subset of those phenomena). This sort of specific consistency, however, is relatively easy to obtain, simply by introducing additional ad hoc auxiliary hypothesis into an explanation (e.g. in an extreme example, one could simply say the explanation works one way on Mondays and another way on Tuesdays. Obviously this has very low plausibility, but it is nonetheless consistent with the specific phenomena to be explained).

The Resurrection Appearances

The HBS Model

We are now in a position to analyse competing explanatory accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Given the above considerations, we have established that our goal is to discover or develop an explanation with the maximum amount of explanatory power. Such an explanation allows us to understand the most about why things happened as they did, at the lowest ‘cost’ in terms of introducing new, antecedently unknown entities or processes (and thus multiplying the chances for error to creep in).

I believe that my HBS model (probably with some tweaks and additions, as its only a first draft, and I’ve had much less time to work at it and expertise spent on it than have the apologists on their arguments) possess greater explanatory power as an explanation for the resurrection appearances (and related events) on both accounts: I believe it has wider scope, and also greater plausibility. I will now defend each of these claims in turn.

Scope of the HBS Model

I believe the HBS model has reasonably wide scope because, with relatively small adjustments of details, it can serve as an account for the development and propagation of many different miracle claims and other paranormal beliefs throughout history. The psychological and sociological processes that it refers to are, given their widespread documentation and repeated validation, largely universal (in broad terms, obviously specifics vary), and so can be appealed to in many different cultural and historical circumstances to explain how people’s memories are reshaped over time, and how large groups of people can come to believe very unusual things even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, since it is able to provide an account of a wide range of phenomena, the HBS model has reasonably wide explanatory scope.

Plausibility of the HBS Model

I also believe the HBS model has reasonably high plausibility, as it does not require the introduction of many new entities or processes. The model is based upon known psychological and sociological phenomena which have been generally quite well documented (though more work remains to be done on many details of course), and thus are antecedently known to exist. The main posit necessary in the model is in extrapolating these processes beyond the specific environments in which they have been originally studied, and applying them in collectively to explain a particular complex event in history (i.e. the resurrection appearances). In extrapolating and applying such phenomena, there is of course a degree of uncertainty. The HBS model assumes that the processes operate in broadly the way they have been observed to in various other contexts, and also assumes that they can interact and play off each other in the way I outlined in the model. I believe that these are reasonable assumptions to make, as the processes I document are sufficiently robust, and have been observed in sufficiently many contexts, that extrapolating them in the manner in which I have done in the HBS model is reasonably plausible, and consistent with other such ‘extrapolation’ practices in science and history.

Explanatory Power of the HBS Model

Thus, taken together, I believe that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances exhibits a fairly high degree of explanatory power. Its antecedently unknown assumptions are relatively few, mostly restricted to extrapolating and applying processes which I believe are already quite well documented. As such, it has fairly high plausibility. Likewise, its explanatory scope is reasonably high, as (with some appropriate modifications of specifics) the broad account can be applied to explain many other miracles and supernatural claims throughout history.

Plausibility of the Christian Explanation

I will now contrast the HBS model, with the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances – namely that God resurrected Jesus, who then went on to appear to his various followers. First, I believe this account has relatively low plausibility. As far as I can tell, it requires three assumptions or premises which are not antecedently established: 1) that there is a God, 2) that this God desires to intervene in human affairs, and 3) that Jesus was the/a means by which this God desired to intervene in human affairs. I have chosen this tripartite division because I think it facilitates greater conceptual clarity: God could exist but not care to intervene in the world, or he could exist and be interventionist, but not be interested in resurrecting Jesus because in fact he is the Islamic God or the Hindu god (or whatever else). Of course, one could subsume all three assumptions into a single premise, for example simply “Jesus was God”, but I think this is essentially just stating the same three things in a different way. The key point is not how many sentences we write, but how many distinct conditions there are, each are separately controversial: some people believe 1) only, some believe 1) and 2), some all three, and others none.

So how plausible are propositions 1-3? I don’t know. I have argued elsewhere that our best guess for the probability of 1) is something like 10%, however I think even values north of 50% are also defensible (though not, say, 90%). The other two are considerably harder to put numbers on. Regardless, the real point is simply that I believe a Christian should agree that, antecedently to considering the resurrection, all of these three propositions are at best uncertain. They are a long way from firmly established. By contrast, I think most of the psychological and sociological processes utilized by the HBS model are quite firmly established, and the extrapolations made in applying them to the particular case of the resurrection are relatively small. This is, of course, a question of weighing up relative plausibilities, which is not easy to do. But I do think a strong case can be made that the processes and entities which the HBS model must posit in order to explain the resurrection appearances are antecedently known to exist with considerably higher confidence than the entities and processes required by the Christian account. As such, it is my view that the HBS model has greater plausibility than the Christian explanation.

Explanatory Scope of the Christian Explanation

I also think that the HBS model has greater explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. As noted before, the HBS model (with minor adjustments) can explain a diverse range of supernatural and miracle claims from all over the world, as it relies on psychological and sociological processes which (in general terms) are known or reasonably thought to operate in sufficiently similar ways across different times and cultures (there is, of course, a degree of extrapolation here as noted above, but I believe it is reasonably small). In contrast, the Christian explanation is so specific that it can only account for the Resurrection appearances, and perhaps also (with minor adjustments to extend the account to Jesus also appearing at other times and places in history) at least some subset of other Christian miracle claims throughout history. It cannot, however, provide any explanation for the many other miracles reported in Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Islamic, Pagan, and many other religious and spiritual traditions. As such the Christian explanation has narrower explanatory scope than the HBS model.

A Caveat

I am not saying here that a Christian worldview cannot provide an explanation for non-Christian miracle claims or paranormal occurrences. Rather, what I am saying is that the Christian account of the resurrection appearances, or any simple extrapolation thereof, does not itself provide such an explanation. Perhaps by introducing further assumptions about God appearing in other ways throughout history, or demons acting to deceive mankind, or even by appealing to some of the very same psychological and sociological mechanisms which the HBS account is based on, a Christian would be able to provide an explanation for these other miracle claims that is consistent with their worldview. But my point is precisely that this would require positing additional entities or processes (demons who can appear to people, or God choosing to reveal himself in additional ways to other peoples, etc) which are not entailed by the original explanation of the resurrection appearances itself.

Conclusions

Summing up, I have argued that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances possess greater explanatory power than does the Christian explanation. As such, I believe that we ought to prefer the HBS model over the Christian explanation, and judge that the former is more likely than the latter to be a correct, ‘true’ account of the causal processes which accounted for these sequences of events. If this is correct, it follows that the inference from the resurrection appearances to the probable divinity of Jesus (and hence the truth of Christianity) is an unsound one. Such an inference cannot validly be drawn, because in fact a more satisfactory causal account of these events can be given which does not entail the divinity of Jesus or the truth of Christianity.

It is very important to emphasise that here I am not in any way making an argument for the falsity of Christianity. Indeed, I believe a perfectly orthodox Christian could agree with my entire argument here. I am saying only that the Christian explanation for certain historical facts concerning the resurrection appearances (and related matters like the empty tomb and conversion of Paul) does not constitute by itself a strong reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, as there exists a superior explanation which does not entail this conclusion (namely, the HBS model). In spite of this, Christianity could nonetheless be true, since the HBS model does not rule out the divinity of Jesus or the reality of the resurrection accounts; it simply renders them unnecessary to explain said phenomena. Indeed, I believe (though I don’t have any firm data on this) that the majority of Christians both in the present and throughout history have not believed on the basis of this sort of historical argument. As such, I certainly don’t think that refuting this argument is a refutation of Christianity. It is merely a refutation of this particular argument in favour of Christianity.

A final point that I wish to make is that this isn’t merely some sort of intellectual game. It’s about finding the truth. If we wish to honestly seek the truth, we cannot decide on our conclusion beforehand and work out what evidence or arguments will get us there. We must examine the evidence and arguments as objectively as we can (with perfect objectively always remaining elusive), and attempt to arrive at the conclusion which is best supported by said facts and arguments. I believe that the conclusion which is best supported by the facts and arguments available, in the light of the analysis I have given, is that the resurrection appearances can be better explained naturalistically rather than supernaturally, and that as such the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances does not constitute any substantial reason for belief in the truth of Christianity. I might be wrong about this conclusion, and so I invite everyone reading this to honestly and politely critique my arguments to expose errors or gaps in my reasoning. May we all be enriched in this joint search for the truth concerning this most important question.

What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments

Synopsis

In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.

Conclusion

Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.