Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

Synopsis

In this piece I present some personal experiences and impressions of how Christians have tended to engage with me over the years. I argue that such engagement is usually fairly superficial, with Christians generally not seeming to be very well informed or having put much thought into their positions, nor are they very willing to seriously discuss difficult ideas. I contrast this lack of engagement with the very strong Christian focus on evangelism, and argue that the two observations can be reconciled by notion that Christians are primarily interested in spreading their message to people who don’t think too much or ask too many questions. Thus I argue that most Christians are not in fact very interested in serious intellectual discussion of their beliefs.

A Personal Anecdote

As some of my readers may know, last week I attended the Melbourne University Christian Union (CU) midyear Summit, which is a five-day long camp featuring sermons, bible readings, discussions, and some social activities. I write this post partly as a response to some of my experiences there, but also drawing more broadly on my numerous past interactions with Christians.

One of the major themes of this Summit was evangelism, or Christian mission, as it is also called. One evening there was a particularly forthright sermon on the subject, by which I mean that it was very frank in exhorting Christians to take their faith generally, and evangelism specifically, very seriously. Some illustrative quotes from this sermon: “Christianity cannot be some kind of hobby or interest that you have – it’s all or nothing”, and “your former way of life is dead, and you are dead to the world…you no longer have to fulfill the expectations of the world”.

Following this sermon I commenced a discussion with a few fellow attendees (Christians) about some of the matters raised that I found perplexing or troubling. This included questions like ‘why is Jesus worth following to this extent?’, ‘is it not a profoundly negative outlook to talk of being ‘dead to the world?”, and various other such things. The sermon had troubled me in a definite, though slightly ineffable way, and I was desirous to discuss this issue further, hoping that the Christians may aid in my own understanding and interpretation of what was said.

I say all this by way of setting the scene for what happened next. As it turned out, there was a musical ‘cafe night’ scheduled to be held shortly after the conclusion of the sermon, and so, within a few short minutes of beginning our discussion, all three of my Christian discussants departed to join the party. Looking around me I found the dining room, which previously had been filled with well over one hundred people, completely deserted. Having no particular desire to participate in the festivities (I don’t think there was any heavy metal in the lineup), I retired to my room. As I walked back to my cabin, it struck me how incongruous it was that, immediately following a sermon which strongly extolled the overwhelming importance of evangelism, the Christians with whom I had been speaking all thought it a better use of their time to attend a musical cafe night, than to engage in meaningful religious discussion with a non-believer.

‘Serious Engagement

I narrate this incident not in order to cast particular aspersions on the persons involved, but merely so as to motivate and illustrative the broader point that I wish to make in this piece. That point is this: in my experience, most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. Let me clarify a few points. When I say ‘most Christians’, I don’t mean ‘most random people off the street who call themselves Christians’; what I mean is ‘most Christians who attend CU events, bible readings, talks, or other such events that I go along to’. When I say ‘serious intellectual discussion’, I don’t mean ‘exchanging a few pleasantries, attesting to their own person conviction, and affirming the importance of dialogue’, I mean ‘engaging in serious, thoughtful discussion of their own world view, my own world view, and the many difficult questions which stem therefrom’.

What does such engagement look like? I don’t think it looks like any one specific thing. Different people do it in different ways. Some characteristic properties of such serious, genuine engagement might include: sincere attempts to understand the other person’s viewpoint, asking questions about why the other person believes what they believe, thoughtfully considering one’s answers, asking what sorts of reasons or evidences could hypothetically change their mind, some acknowledgement of uncertainty or the complexity of the issues being considered, attempts to identify common ground and also specific points of disagreement, and importantly (when practical), attempts to followup the discussion later and continue the engagement for as long as both parties find the issue to be important and worth discussing.

My Experiences with Christians

Sometimes my interactions with Christians have looked a lot like this. More often, however, the following (stylised) outcomes are more common:

  • Even immediately following a sermon or bible reading , Christians I speak to will not say anything at all about what was discussed. The conversation will proceed as if we just bumped into each other on the street
  • The Christian will ask why as an atheist I am attending the event, I will tend them I like to discuss matters of faith and understand alternative viewpoints better, and then they express some general approval of that endeavor, but without any apparent interest in actually engaging in such a discussion
  • The Christian will engage in discussion with me for a time, often asking a number of questions, but then before long, either they seem to become uncomfortable or lose interest or something, but for whatever reason they break off the discussion
  • An engaging discussion will commence and continue for some time, but the Christian will not actually thoughtfully consider my views, objections, or doubts. In many such instances it seems that eventually each line of inquiry or discussion is ended by some platitude about faith, or the power of the bible, or God being relational, or an account of their own personal conviction
  • The Christian will engage seriously, but then seem uninterested in continuing the discussion on later occasions after further considering the matter

Let me make a few further points. Again, bear in mind that when I say ‘Christian’ I mean ‘people I meet at these events’, not ‘random professed believer off the street’. In my experience:

  • It is rare to find a Christian who knows (or at least seems to know – I don’t usually ask explicitly) what the word ‘epistemology’ means. That might seem petty, but given what protestations to knowledge they have and their mandate to spread it throughout the world, one would think it at least somewhat important that Christians (at Melbourne University no less) have some idea of what knowledge is and how it can be justified
  • It is rare to find a Christian who has any familiarity with even the most basic issues of New Testament historicity, such as the short ending of Mark, the debate about authorship of the gospels, the discrepancies between (for instance) the birth narratives, etc
  • It is very rare indeed to find any Christian who seems to have even considered the problem of many faiths – that is the question of how they can be so confident of their own religious experiences or revealed texts given the existence of so many conflicting experiences and revelations in other religions
  • Very few Christians seem to know anything more than the most superficial facts about religions like Islam, Mormonism, or Buddhism – other than the fact, of course, that said religions are not true
  • Though many Christians seem to have some notion that morality requires a ‘grounding’ of some sort in God, few seem to have even a basic familiarity even with terms such as ‘metaethics’, ‘moral realism’, ‘divine command theory’, and the euthyphro dilemma

My point here is not to show how much cleverer I am than all those silly Christians. I’m really not very clever at all – just annoyingly curious. My point is exactly as I stated it before: that most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. If they were, they would, it seems to me, at least be minimally informed about some of the basic issues I outlined above, and be far more receptive and willing to critically engage than my experiences above seem to indicate.

Ministry to the Gullible?

Some readers may wonder what business I have complaining about Christians not seriously engaging about their faith. Isn’t that their own business? Of course it is, but I find it puzzling given the seemingly high degree of lip service that is paid to the importance of discussing one’s faith with others, with evangelising – as my recent experience at Summit clearly illustrated. I have a theory about this. It is a very cynical theory. I don’t really have much specific evidence for it, other than that it seems to fit the facts as I related them above.

Here is my theory: Christians are interested in talking about their faith, and they are enthusiastic about evangelism, but generally speaking most Christians are only interested in doing so when it does not require them to think very much or very hard. Inviting people to read the bible, praying for them, bearing testimony about Jesus, sharing some of the key teachings of the gospel – these things may be scary at times, but none of them requires much real thought or intellectual effort. I know – I’ve done it. After a few times practice, its really pretty easy to go through the same basic points and invitations and deal with the same common but fairly simple objections or questions. When someone starts really engaging and asking tough, innovative, thoughtful questions you hadn’t considered before – that takes real effort to deal with. Probably better to find someone else who will just believe what we tell them without asking too many questions.

Conclusion

Am I being too cynical? Too harsh? I have listened to numerous Christian conversion stories. Often they are five or ten minutes long. In my experience,very few of them make any reference at all to any sort of reason or evidence or intellectual examination, or anything of the sort. Some people literally say things like ‘I was invited to read the Bible, and as I learned more about Jesus I was just amazed at how much he loved us, and I knew that I wanted to follow him’. Because, they don’t let you print books that aren’t 100% true, right? Because, everything I ‘feel’ about God must be 100% veridical, right?

My thesis here is that these are the sorts of people that Christians want to evangelise to. For the most part, they don’t care to evangelise those who actually think through the matter carefully and desire to engage in continued substantive dialogue. Christians may even acknowledge this – perhaps they will describe such people as ‘prepared’ or ‘receptive’, or say that the ‘spirit was working in them’. Personally I would use words like ‘credulous’, ‘unthinking’, and ‘gullible’. Whatever words one chooses to use, my point is this: most Christians seem to want to evangelise to people who will accept what they say without much challenge. They are not very interested in evangelising those who are really interested in seeking the truth, difficult and complex though such an undertaking can be.

How can Christians be so Certain?: Why Subjective Evidence isn’t Evidence

Synopsis

In this piece I ask the question ‘how can Christians be so confident in their beliefs’? I argue that it cannot be reasons and evidence, because the reasons and evidence available relate to matters that are too uncertain and about which we know so little that they cannot possibly justify the level of confidence that Christians have. I then turn to subjective evidence, and argue that it does not fulfill the crucial criteria of evidence, namely to distinguish true from false beliefs in some reliable way. Thus, I argue that subjective evidence cannot justify confident Christian belief. I then examine the claim that God could grant us a direct, indubitable spiritual witness if he so desired. I argue that even if God could do this, he does not, as we can see from the conflicting claims to possess such a witness from those of different faiths. I therefore conclude that, whilst Christians can adopt belief as a choice, they cannot justifiably claim high degrees of confidence in that belief.

A Motivating Anecdote

Below is a paraphrased and simplified, but accurate in essentials, outline of the final portion of an exchange I once had with a Christian:

Me: “So how do you that Christianity is true?”
Christian: “One compelling reason is all the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “But Jews read the same Old Testament and they don’t accept that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies”
Christian: “Yes but that’s because they are blinded by their beliefs. Jesus threatens their preconceptions so they don’t want to believe”
Me: “But what about your preconceptions? How do you know you aren’t biased by your beliefs?”
Christian: “Well just look at all the prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t agree that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, so how do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “But the Jews are blinded by their beliefs. They don’t want to believe in Jesus so they reject the evidence”
Me: “But how do you know that you are not blinded in a similar way? Maybe your beliefs are causing you to reject evidence”
Christian: “The life of Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament that he fulfilled, its very compelling evidence”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t accept that evidence. They read the same books and come to very different conclusions. How do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “I see what you’re trying to do here…” *ends discussion*

Disagreement and Doubt

I am perpetually puzzled by the degree of confidence that (many?/most?) Christians have that their beliefs about Jesus, God, the Bible, etc, are definitely true, or almost certainly true, or very likely true. Where does this confidence and certainly come from? It surely cannot come from the evidence, for the evidence and arguments are highly equivocal. Fine-tuning arguments? We just don’t know enough about such matters. Cosmological arguments? So many disputed concepts and so little evidence either way. Moral arguments? Disputed concepts, many arguments, very little agreement. Historical evidence? Limited in what it could ever prove with high degrees of confidence, subject to many different interpretations of the same evidence, and unable to deal with the issue of comparably attested historical evidence for other religions. I could go on. My point here is not that the arguments for Christianity are all unsound or clearly refutable, but simply that there is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty surrounding all of them.

Christians even say this in discussions with me: “humans are limited and there is so much we don’t know”. I totally agree! But how on Earth can anyone in their wildest dreams think that the fact that “humans are limited, fallible, and feeble in our knowledge”, can possibly constitute a reason to believe in God, or a reason to be more confident in such belief, or a reason to reject reasonable doubts of such a belief? It truly baffles me that anyone can think that.

I don’t care if you call me an agnostic or an atheist (I think they are basically two words for the same thing), here’s what I am saying: we don’t know. And because we don’t know, I don’t believe. For I don’t make a habit of believing things that I don’t know enough about, nor do I think Christians should either – or at least, if they care about truth and believing accurate things, they ought not to believe things they don’t know enough about. The Christian, however, says that we do know, and that the truth is found in Jesus. But where does that confidence and certainty come from? The evidence is sparse, the arguments are equivocal, the experts (insomuch as there are any) are in disagreement, and the track record for people having accurate beliefs about any of these sorts of things is very bad indeed. So where whence the certainty?

Subjective Evidence

I think we all know where it comes from. It comes from what I will call ‘subjective evidence’. This means different things to different people, and is really a diverse category of experiences exhibiting some ‘family resemblance’, rather than any clearly defined or specific class of things. By ‘subjective evidence’ I mean things like: “God answers my prayers”, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, “I feel God’s love”, “God helps me though tough times in life”, “I really feel the power of Jesus in reading the Bible”, “I was healed by the power of the spirit”, and all the many other things of that sort. Christians might prefer to call them “spiritual witnesses” or some such thing. My argument in this piece is that I do not think such subjective evidence is of very much help at all in justifying Christian beliefs, because it is so very, very, very unreliable.

A Very Brief List of Things that People Believe in on the basis of Subjective Evidence

  • Homeopathy
  • Psychokinesis
  • Neopaganism
  • Acupunture
  • The Lunar effect
  • Graphology
  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Islam
  • ESP
  • Hinduism
  • Palmistry
  • Raelism
  • Mormonism
  • Phrenology
  • Laundry balls
  • Baha’i
  • Spiritualism
  • Sikhism
  • Voodoo
  • UFOs
  • Christian Science (Baker Eddy)
  • Crystal healing
  • Scientology
  • Bigfoot
  • Reincarnation
  • Iridology
  • Dowsing
  • Buddhism
  • Pyramid power
  • Astrology
  • Atheism

The Christian Response

The common response to lists of the sort that I provide above is to point to various reasons, arguments, and evidences that Christianity is in fact more rational, more reasonable, and hence superior to these other belief systems. “All miracle claims aren’t equal, you have to look at the details”. “Hindu philosophy just doesn’t make sense”. Etc. That’s all fine. That’s exactly what the Christian should do. But the catch is when I ask my question about where the confidence comes from in the face of all the sorts of uncertainties that I mentioned above. The answer, of course, is that reason and evidence is not enough. You need to have faith as well. You need to build a relationship with God.

So here is the argument as far as I can make it out. Christians can be confident in Jesus because of the subjective evidence (spiritual witness/relationship/etc) they have. They know that this subjective evidence is valid, not mistaken like most subjective evidence is, because of the objective facts, evidences, and arguments that back it up. The reason they can be confident that such reasons, evidence, and arguments actually do lend sufficient support for their beliefs, despite the disagreement and uncertainty surrounding such matters, is because of the subjective evidence that they have. This seems to be little more than a slightly more intricate version of this argument, which (in essence), I have actually heard Christians make: “Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because…”

What Evidence is For

As I see it, evidence, reasons, and arguments serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help us to distinguish (not perfectly, but with some degree of reliability) true from false beliefs. If something does not do that, then it is not a useful or relevant evidence, reason, or argument. Subjective evidence does not help us to distinguish true from false beliefs (at least not when it comes to spiritual/worldview/philosophical type questions, as opposed to “what did I have for breakfast this morning?”), which is clear given the vast number of inconsistent and false beliefs that various people believe on the basis of subjective evidence. Therefore, subjective evidence does not constitute relevant or useful or compelling evidence either for or against Christianity. That is, it does not help us to determine whether it is true or not, and hence Christians cannot justify their confidence on the basis of such evidence. Nor does it help to argue that “it is justified by the combination of objective reasons and evidence and subjective experiences”, because the whole point of my argument is that the objective reasons, evidences, and arguments are too uncertain to do the job, and subjective experiences are too unreliable to add any justification of their own. Thus arguing that ‘together they can do it’ does not address the core criticism of my argument.

But God can do Anything

But couldn’t God give us a firm, indubitable (or at least extremely compelling) spiritual/subjective witness if he wanted to? Why couldn’t he just ‘implant’ some sort of ‘justificatoryness’ in our minds/souls directly, so that all that person need do is introspect, and they would “just know”, with full justification in that belief. After all, he is God right? Well, I think a case can be made that this is actually logically impossible, but I’m not sure that such an argument would ultimately succeed. So let me make a more modest claim: regardless of whether God could do that, he does not. (I think there are good reasons why he doesn’t – e.g. its hard to see what scope would be left for free will or faith if God merely implanted an indubitable belief in our minds/souls).

But how do I know that he doesn’t? Well, let me ask this question: is it possible for a believer (chosen at random from any religion) to determine with confidence whether or not their religion is true, merely by introspecting to determine whether or not God (or whatever they believe in exactly) has granted them a direct spiritual witness of such truth? I say the answer is obviously ‘no’, because we have people from multiple spiritual and religious traditions claiming contradictory spiritual witnesses. Yahweh and Jesus and Allah cannot all have simultaneously granted such indubitable direct spiritual witnesses to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are inconsistent. But none of them can tell if they are the one who is right simply by introspecting, because the others do the same and think that they are the ones who are right!

In order to overcome this, the Christian would have to believe that they have a uniquely powerful direct, indubitable spiritual witness of the truth of Christianity, and simultaneously be willing to just dismiss and reject essentially identical claims (even at times based on the same scriptures – e.g. Jews and Mormons) from other equally honest, reasonable, pious believers of other religions. If a Christian is actually willing to do that, is actually willing to reify their own subjectivity over and above all other subjective claims, including even those that come from almost the same religious tradition, and if they think that such a witness is capable of delivering certain or near-certain belief that their faith is true; if a Christian is actually willing to say this, then I think they are not really worshiping Jesus at all – they are worshiping themselves, or as I have described it elsewhere, they “worship their own ego”.

The Value of Subjective Evidence

Christians reading this might get the impression that I am saying their subjective experiences of Jesus, etc, are not real – that they are imaginary, and that they have no value. I’m not saying that. They could be completely real. They could really be from God. My point is that you cannot tell just by looking at the subjective evidence. You need other reasons, evidence, and arguments that allow you to be confident that subjective experiences are veridical. I am also not saying that subjective experiences have no value. If Christianity were true, they would be of immense value in building faith/trust in God, in building a relationship with God, in learning to rely on God, in gaining comfort, etc. What they cannot do, however, is tell you whether or not Christianity is actually true.

Concluding Remarks

I return now to my original question: whence the high degree of confidence that Christians have? I have argued that it cannot justifiably come from the reasons and evidence, for we know too little, and there is too much doubt and uncertainty surrounding such matters. I then argued that it cannot justifiably come from subjective experiences, for they do not serve the crucial task of reasons and evidence – namely to distinguish between truth and falsity. Subjective experiences are just too unreliable to do that. I therefore conclude that Christians cannot justifiably sustain their confident belief in the truth of Christianity. At most they can justify a claim of the sort “I don’t really know that its true, but I think it might be, so I’m choosing to live my life as if it is”. But I think most Christians want more than that. They want to know. They want to be confident. And they want to say things like “James, you ought to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. To that, I say simply: show me something that allows me to be reasonably confident that accepting Jesus would not be a mistake based on a false belief. Evidence, reasons, and arguments would do the trick. Show me something like that which can avoid the problems of uncertainty and lack of knowledge that I discussed above. If it exists, I want to know.

Seeking God versus Seeking Truth

Synopsis

In this piece I contrast the notions of “loving and seeking for truth”, and “loving and seeking God”. I argue that, at least as many Christians understand it, these are quite different, meaning that seeking truth does not look the same as seeking god. I then argue that, contrary to this notion, truth must always and everywhere be first and foremost in our focus. Putting anything else first means that we are accepting beliefs that cannot be challenged, and hence may lead us to devote ourselves to things that are not actually real.

Introduction

If you love something, should one not seek after it? Not merely in a halfhearted or haphazard way, but “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” I love truth, which, for our purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘things as they actually are’. Christians love God, and they say that I should too. The trouble is, seeking God does not at all look the same as seeking truth.

Seeking Truth

In seeking truth, one must question all assumptions, rigorously analyze all relevant evidence, and critically examine all pertinent arguments. One must be ever vigilant, conscious of one’s own biases and limitations, ever striving to overcome them as best as one can, while knowing that one is perpetually bound by the shackles of one’s own subjectivity. One must be self-critical, honestly introspective, meticulously exacting in one’s standards of evidence and argumentation. One must be humble, ever willing to admit to the limits of one’s own knowledge and understanding, ready to seriously engage with the reasoned opinions of others, to take disagreement seriously, and to say “I don’t know”. One must constantly be searching, never satisfied that one has reached the final and definitive goal – because new evidence or reasons may always come to light. Each in their own ways and in their own fields, I think that is what happens, or ideally ought to happen, in fields such as philosophy, history, and science.

Seeking God

Seeking God, however, looks very different indeed. Let’s take the Christian perspective as illustrative. Rather then questioning everything so as to eradicate falsehoods, we are told to simply have faith; “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Rather then subjecting every assumption to scrutiny, we are told to place some beliefs forever beyond scrutiny, for “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”. Rather than seek evidence, we are told “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed”. We are told not to wonder too much or question too deeply, because “My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts”. We are told to spurn careful thinking and rigorous seeking of evidence, for “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”. Rather than carefully consider alternative viewpoints and be open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we are told to that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”. Seeking God looks like reading the Bible, praying, worshiping the Lord, and always trusting that, no matter how hard things get or how difficult a question is to answer, God always has a way, and always has an answer, even if they are not made clear to us.

Beliefs Beyond Question

I am not saying here that belief in God is incompatible with seeking the truth, or that there is a necessary conflict between faith and reason (I have argued against this in the past). What I am saying, however, is that seeking God and seeking truth are not the same; they look different. In seeking God, some beliefs and assumptions are never questioned, forming the bedrock upon which all else is understood. In seeking the truth, nothing is sacred in this way – everything is open to being challenged, for how else can we know if it is wrong? We can even challenge the very notions we are appealing to, questioning ‘what is truth?” and critically considering what is reason and how it can help us to get there. But in seeking God, there are some things that are beyond question. Some beliefs, such as the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, or the veracity of the Bible, are simply never to be doubted, never to be subject to rigorous scrutiny. We might have many questions, doubts, and confusions about God and about the Bible, but those basic beliefs themselves are utterly immune from criticism. All evidence that we find that appears contrary or may conflict with those core beliefs must everywhere, always, without question be either dismissed, or made to fit with those beliefs. Because some things cannot be questioned.

Truth First

When we place seeking God before seeking truth in this way, what we are saying is that “God is more important than truth, even if God does not exist”. I reject this. I refuse to go along with it. God is only of supreme importance if he actually exists. The Bible is only of paramount importance if it is the word of God. Jesus is only to be worshiped if he actually is the son of God. These things all may be true, I am not saying they aren’t. What I am saying is that we must seek the truth first and foremost. Otherwise, we have not done all we can to protect ourselves from error. Otherwise, we are not doing our utmost to ensure that what we believe and what is actually the case are as closely aligned as we can make them. Otherwise, we have no basis, aside from sheer assertion or blind belief, that we are not like the billions of other people in this world who devote some or all of their lives to false beliefs. I don’t even think this is contrary to what is contained in the Bible: the selection of quotes and arrangement thereof in the passage above was intended to convey a particularly common interpretation of these matters, which I do not think is the only way or indeed the best way of interpreting what the Bible has to say about the relationship between seeking God and seeking truth.

If, in order to believe in God, I must love God more than I love truth, then, as Queen Amidala said “That is something I cannot do”. Nor do I accept the Pascal Wager-type arguments that I should abandon whatever intellectual integrity I may have (not to say that I have much), in exchange for “a live of ease”, so to speak, living eternally with God.

There… Are… Four… Lights!

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf
My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf
My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf

 

Why I am still not a Christian: My Unanswered Objections

Synopsis

Here I outline the six core reasons why I do not believe that Christianity is true. Beginning with a list of objections that I no longer consider to be compelling, I then explain what I would require for an objection to be ‘answered’, and which of the objections I think are most important. I conclude with a plea for more sustained and substantive dialogue on these important issues.

Update (April 2015): This post has been deprecated. I no longer consider it an accurate representation of my views. It may still be informative reading nonetheless.

Former Objections

A list of objections to Christianity/Theism which I used to consider to be compelling, but which I now no longer consider to be particularly strong objections. For some of these I still think there are “difficult issues” to deal with (e.g. the Old Testament atrocities), but that these difficulties do not by themselves constitute reasons for withholding belief in Christianity. Note that here I will not attempt to explain why I have changed my mind on these issues; I include them here for completeness.

  • The bible has no corroborating historical evidence
  • Religious belief is inconsistent with science
  • The doctrine of the Trinity is incoherent
  • Prayer is nonsensical and perhaps immoral
  • Problem of evil
  • Old Testament atrocities
  • Faith is irrational
  • There is ‘no evidence’ that God exists

Outstanding Objections

Here follows a list of objections which I currently consider to be powerful, compelling reasons to withhold belief in Christianity/Theism. None of these are new – they are all topics I have written about before. However, I do not consider that the responses I have received to any of these objections have been adequate or especially detailed in addressing the core criticism. I have had some limited engagement with the Euthyphro Dilemma, the Argument from Philosophical Disagreement, and the Theological Confusion Objection, and essentially no substantive responses to the other three objections.

If all six of these objections can be answered satisfactorily, I would say it is “very highly likely” that I would become a Christian. However, many of the objections address largely independent lines of argument, so it is certainly not the case that all six would need to be addressed for me to change my mind. The objections are also in (rough) order of importance, such that I think that even if only the first two or three were adequately answered, that would probably be sufficient for me to become a Christian. The final three objections are, I think, the weaker ones (though still important, just not as important as the first three), so answering those three alone would probably not be sufficient for me to change my mind, though it would cause me to increase my subjective probability in the truth of Christianity.

Finally, when I talk about these objections being ‘answered satisfactorily’, I don’t mean that complete, fully worked-out, and totally unproblematic solutions must be provided, or that every last issue or reason for doubt be removed. As I said above about some of my ‘former objections’, it is quite possible for an objection to be ‘satisfactorily answered’ even if ‘difficult issues’ still remain. This happens all the time with theories in science, history, and philosophy. Instead, what I require is that that ‘core central objection’, or that the ‘central sting’ (so to speak), of the objection is addressed in a way that greatly weakens it as a reason to withhold belief in the truth of Christianity.

The HBS Model of the Resurrection Appearances: the reports of appearances of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion, and also related matters like the empty tomb, are better explained by my purely naturalistic HBS Model, which has wider explanatory scope than the traditional Christian explanation, and requires no new or controversial assumptions about God’s character or desire to intervene in the world. More on this here goo.gl/KCrJgL

The Argument from Metaphysical Uncertainty: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological, fine-tuning, and ontological arguments, are based on so many uncertain premises and inferences about matters (the ‘ultimate nature’ of space, time, causation, reality, being, etc) concerning which we know very little, and have extremely limited ability to discern truth from falsity. Hence it is not justified to draw any confident conclusions either way on the basis of these types of arguments. More on this objection here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/

The Argument from Philosophical Disagreement: over 80% of professional philosophers do not believe in God. This does not prove that God does not exist, but I do think that it is a powerful reason to be considerably less confident in the strength of the philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/

The Theological Confusion Objection: many informed, intelligent, pious Christians disagree about a large number of fundamentally important doctrinal and theological questions. These are not minor matters – they are vital to understanding mankind’s relationship to God, how to live righteously, interpretation of the bible, the nature of God, etc. This is not an argument for Christianity being false, but it is, I think, a powerful objection to the claim (often made) that Christianity can provide a compelling ‘explanation’ for the ‘big questions’ of life, the universe, mankind’s purpose, etc. Without such explanatory power I think the case for Christianity is significantly weakened. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/

The ‘Ego Worship’ Criticism: in appealing to subjective experiences in their own lives of relating to God or feeling God’s power and God’s influence in their lives, and other such things, Christians arrogate to themselves an unjustified degree of epistemic privilege. They assume that their own subjective experiences are veridical, in spite of enormous variability of such experiences across those of differing religious beliefs, and without justification treat the conception of God they construct in their own minds to be clearly indicative of the true nature of God. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/ and here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/

The Euthyphro Dilemma: is the pious (the good) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? The usual response to this is something like ‘goodness is part of the nature of God’, which I consider to be inadequate as it simply buries one mystery within a bigger one, without providing any actual explanation. This is not an objection to Christianity being true, but it is an objection to the notion that Christianity can provide a metaethical ‘explanation’ or ‘justification’ for morality.

Conclusion

I will conclude with a quote from a piece I wrote last year for a Christian website (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/an-atheists-point-of-view-why-christians-arent-being-heard):

“Some Christians I have spoken to think that reason is antithetical to faith, or that use of reason and evidence represents an arrogant dependence on one’s own faculties in place of reliance on God. I think this concern is misplaced. Reason and evidence are not cynical devices designed to undermine faith – they are tools to help us, as limited and imperfect humans, to guard ourselves against self-deception, overconfidence, and other sources of false belief. Nor should reason be considered to be in opposition to faith. As I have learned in my time speaking with Christians, faith does not mean blind belief without evidence: is means placing one’s trust in God by building a personal relationship with him. Such trust should not be without foundation, but should be firmly grounded on solid reason and evidence. In 1 Peter 3:15 it says that Christians should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. I thoroughly agree with this sentiment.

Christianity makes a very bold claim: that all humans are eternally lost unless they surrender themselves to the redeeming power of Christ. As an atheist, I think this claim is false. But if this claim were true, I would very much want to be convinced of that fact, as would many of my fellow atheists. Indeed, I would go further than this: if Christians believe they have compelling reasons and evidence for their beliefs, I insist they share them with us! In the words of Isaiah 1:18 “come now, let us reason together”. Let us sit down together, Christians and Atheists, and politely but honestly share our best reasons in a spirit of good faith and friendship. Let us do this not occasionally, but often. These issues are too important to be neglected as a result of our tendency to separate ourselves from those we disagree with.”

What Christians Disagree About

Synopsis

Some claim that all Christians agree on the ‘important matters’, or something similar. I think this position is only defensible if one is willing to admit that none of the matters outlined below, and a good deal more that are not included here, are deemed to be not ‘important’. Alternatively, one may wish to dub all those who hold contradictory views on some or all of these matters as not being Christians, in which cause it seems that one must be willing to judge a very large fraction of Protestants and Catholics alike, not to mention the various branches of Orthodoxy, to to be non-Christian. I find both of these alternatives to be implausible and very hard to cogently defend. I also think the large degree of disagreement on so many fundamental matters constitutes a serious objection to the notion that Christianity provides a clear and coherent ‘explanation’ for life, the universe, the human condition, etc. For instance, Christians might agree that “mankind is saved from sin through the grace of Christ”, but if there is little agreement what is actually meant by “saved”, “sin”, “grace”, and even what exactly is the nature of “Christ”, then it seems to me that very little explanation of any substance has been provided.

Some things that many intelligent, informed, and apparently faithful Christians disagree about:

The Bible

Which books are the word of God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Canons_of_various_Christian_traditions

The degree to which the bible is completely correct or trustworthy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy

The degree to which the meaning of scripture is clear

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarity_of_scripture

Salvation

The manner by which the atonement of Christ reconciles man to God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_in_Christianity

Whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_atonement

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unlimited_atonement

Whether salvation by God is conditional on any act of human will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_election

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconditional_election

Whether salvation is by faith alone or grace alone, and how these two concepts are related

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_gratia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide

Other Doctrinal Issues

The necessity, purpose, and proper mode of baptism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism#Comparative_summary

The nature of Christ

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christology#Post-Apostolic_controversies

The possibility and nature of Christian apostasy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perseverance_of_the_saints

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_preservation_of_the_saints

Whether all events are predestined by God and how this fits with human free will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predestination

What will happen at the ‘end times’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summary_of_Christian_eschatological_differences

The nature of hell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_Hell

Whether all souls are immortal or the wicked will cease to exist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_immortality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annihilationism

Creation and the Fall

The meaning of the Creation account in Genesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism#Types_of_creationism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Framework_interpretation_%28Genesis%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis

The degree to which and manner by which humanity inherits the guilt of Adam’s sin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Denominational_views

Church and Worshiop

The nature, functions, and proper governance of the Christian church

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiology

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_church

The appropriate modes of worship

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulative_principle_of_worship

The relationship between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Covenants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_the_old_covenant

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersessionism

Ethical Matters

Whether the bible supports or opposes slavery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_and_Christianity#Christianity.27s_changing_view

God’s position on the morality of homosexuality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_homosexuality

God’s position the morality of abortion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_abortion#Protestant_denominations

 

On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

In this piece I explain what I consider to be the purpose of evidence, namely that it is the way to distinguish truth from error. I argue that, if our objective is to hold beliefs that are most likely to be true, then evidence and reason are the only methods we should use to form our beliefs. Note: here I am addressing questions of fact, existence, etc. I am not talking about personal preferences or other purely subjective matters, for which reason and evidence are much less useful instruments.

Truth and Reason

What is the purpose of evidence/reason/rationality/etc? What is it for? Why do we bother with it? Why not just believe whatever is convenient, or whatever makes us feel nice, or whatever gives us hope, or whatever is most popular, or whatever those in power tell us to believe? Certainly one can believe on such bases, but there seems to be something very unsatisfactory about such beliefs. Let me outline some premises.

1. Our purpose here (i.e. for this analysis) is to have beliefs that are most likely to be true/accurate/reliable (let’s not quibble on exact words for now)

2. Of the many different possible ways to form beliefs, some are more prone to error than others

3. The least error prone method of forming beliefs is by using reason and evidence (broadly defined)

4. Therefore, we should only form beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence

It should be understood that I advance (3) largely as a matter of definition – that as, I define ‘reason and evidence’ as being those ways of arriving at beliefs which are most consistent with our goal of having true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Such ‘reasoning and evidence’ can take many forms, including scientific reasoning, philosophical reasoning, the historical method, legal evidence, naive sensory observation, etc. Needless to say, the specific forms of evidence and modes of reasoning that are applicable can differ considerably from one instance or subject matter to another, nor is it necessarily the case that everything that is claimed to constitute ‘reasons’ or ‘evidence’ is actually worthy of such an appellation, but nonetheless my core thesis stands, namely that it is reason and evidence alone of all the possible modes of belief formation which allow us to form beliefs with a minimum of error. This is not to say that reason and evidence are infallible, or that they can yield certainty. Infallibility and certainty are utterly beside the point. What is crucial, rather, is maximising the chances of finding truth and minimising those of arriving at falsehoods. Reason and evidence are, I argue, precisely those things which best enable us to cleave truth from error in the cleanest, most reliable way possible.

Christian Belief

Truth be told, I take it that everything I have said thus far, subject to some minor disagreements about methods of phrasing and precise usage of terms, should be utterly uncontroversial. Indeed, many readers will (I hope) wonder why I have bothered to make the above claims at all, given how apparently innocuous and self-evident they are. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is necessary, far more often that one may think, to assert this basic point, that beliefs should only be formed on the basis of reason and evidence, for it is, at least to me, disturbing how often this fundamental notion is apparently forgotten, or even dismissed outright, by intelligent people who should know better.

Let me take particular issue with Christians, something I am rather want to do. Certain Christians have, on many occasions, said something similar to the following to me:
“Belief in God isn’t all about evidence or reason. That’s not the most important thing. Its about having a personal relationship with God, not knowing certain facts”

Let us consider this statement, and many others like it that I have heard (other examples would be things like “God is love” or “through faith in Jesus all can be forgiven”). First notice its form: it is a proposition. It asserts some factual claim about the way the world actually is. Being a proposition, it has a truth value. It could be true, it could be false, or maybe it could be neither (depending upon your disposition toward many-valued logics), but the point it that it has a truth value that we would like to evaluate. So how can we tell if this claim is (probably) true or (probably) false? As per my argument above, the answer is, of course, we should use reason and evidence! What type of reason and evidence? Well, that is a deep and tricky question. I’m certainly not saying that this claim needs to be experimentally tested, but it does need to be tested in some way. Some argument needs to be made, some reasoning analyzed, some evidence examined, in order to discern between the case where this proposition is true, and the case where it is false. One could simply believe this claim because it sounds nice,  because it brings hope, or because it fits with one’s subjective experiences of life in general, but none of those things will be able to tell us whether the claim is actually true or not.

So, when a Christian says to me that something other than reason or evidence is responsible for some belief that they have, what I hear them saying is something to the effect that “I first and foremost care about something else other than whether this belief is actually true or not”. To this I say: No! Never! Get thee hence, Satan, father of lies! Truth first and foremost. Truth above all. Truth may be subtle and delicate, only to be seen partially obscured or in glimpses from the corner of one’s eye, but that does not make her any less worthy in seeking. I will not settle for anything less.

A Case for Christianity – A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I provide a critique of the Cosmological Argument portion of this video (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Vr1Bkmvhk), a talk called ‘A Case for Christianity’ which has recently come to my attention. I argue that the speaker’s defenses of inference to the best explanation, the contingency of the universe, and the principle of sufficient reason, are all inadequate, and fail to properly consider plausible alternatives and counterexamples. I also discuss the comparative abilities of theism and naturalism to offer an ‘explanation’ for the origin of the universe, arguing that the speaker’s case for theism’s superiority is not well supported by the arguments he uses. Finally, I make some brief comments in response to the fine-tuning argument. Note that I do not discuss the historical arguments made in the second part of the talk, as I have addressed these in much more detail here (http://goo.gl/KCrJgL).

Inference to the Best Explanation

The speaker begins by appealing to ‘inference to the best explanation’, claiming that we use this sort of inference in science, history, and everyday life all the time, and that therefore it is valid. I believe that his argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First let me consider the two ‘examples’ that he gives to illustrate inference to the best explanation.

His first example is of electromagnetic theory providing evidence for the existence of electrons. Here, however, he simply presupposes the truth of scientific realism (that is, the notion that theoretical entities like electrons ‘really exist’, and are not merely useful fictions). Not only is scientific realism highly controversial, but it is also precisely the point he is attempting to establish here. That is, in order to accept that electromagnetic theory provides strong evidence for the ‘real’ existence of electrons, one would already have to accept the philosophically controversial premise that abductive arguments (another name for inference to the best explanation) are a valid method of reasoning about what is true. But this is precisely the point that the speaker is attempting to establish by citing this example. Thus the argument is question-begging.

In the case of the open window example, the speaker is confusing abduction and induction. Induction refers to the process of inferring that because something is often the case, or has often happened in a particular way, that therefore it is probably likely to happen similarly in this particular (new) case. That is a different type of argument to inference to the best explanation, but is precisely the type of reasoning being used in the window example. Thus, this second example also fails to support the speaker’s argument about the validity of inference to the best explanation.

Aside from the flaws of his examples, there is a deeper problem with the speaker’s argument – he fails to provide a proper definition of what they mean by ‘explanation’. It does no good to say ‘explanation tracks truth’ when it is not at all clear what ‘explanation’ actually means, or what one looks like. At various points throughout the talk he speaks of explanations as providing ’causes’ of something, as giving ‘a reason why’ something happens, and also of being able to fit with empirical data. These are all different notions of explanation (and there are many more that are debated in philosophy). Before any sensible argument can be made about what inferences can be drawn on the basis of explanations, it is first necessary to provide at least a reasonably clear explication of what exactly is meant by this term. Otherwise, things that one claims as being ‘explanations’ may not actually be explanatory at all (a potential issue with some of his later arguments). In sum, the speaker simply does not address these issues in sufficient depth (or really even allude to them at all), and thus they fail to make their case for the validity of abductive arguments.

A final problem with inference to the best explanation, which the speaker also does not address, is that at best all that such arguments can tell us is that when some explanation is superior to another, then we can infer that the state of the world ‘corresponding to’ that explanation is more likely. We cannot actually say how much more likely it is without knowing more about the comparative explanatory power of the competing explanations. It could be the case that even the best explanation available is so poor, is such as bad explanation, that the corresponding state of the world is still not very likely.

The Contingency of the Universe

The speaker argues that the universe is probably contingent, because the universe is simply the sum total of everything in the universe, and as far as we know everything in the universe is contingent. There are several flaws with this argument.

First, we simply do not know very much about the large-scale structure, origin, and nature of the universe. We do not know what was possible and what wasn’t – the science (and philosophy) of these matters is a long way from being settled. For the speaker therefore to simply assert that ‘as far as we know everything is contingent’ grossly overstates the extent of our knowledge, and dismisses too readily the high levels of uncertainty that remain.

Second, the speaker actually gives no reason as to why the universe should be contingent even if all of its constituent components are contingent. This is simply the fallacy of composition. He does acknowledge that it isn’t logically necessary that this be the case, but then he simply brushes off this objection and asserts that ‘it is a real stretch’ to argue that the universe could be necessary even though all its constituents are contingent. Why? No argument is given. Indeed, there seem to be many obvious counterexamples where properties of the whole are not manifested in any of the parts. For instance, cells are alive, but cells are made up of nothing but atoms, which are not alive. Words have meaning, but words are made up solely of vibrations of air or dots of ink, which do not have any meaning associated with them individually. To give another example, we would have to ‘go and look’ to see if any particular book was in a library – that fact would be contingent. But it would not be a contingent fact that a library contains books of some sort, or else it would not be a library at all.

For these reasons, the speaker fails to establish their conclusion that the universe is contingent.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason

The speaker argues that all contingent facts must have some reason or explanation as to why they are the case, a notion which is called the ‘principle of sufficient reason’. He argues that this principle underpins essentially all of science, and that rejecting it leads to nonsensical conclusions. However, I think the speaker fails to establish their argument about PSR, for the following reasons.

First, he is not clear about exactly what constitutes a ‘reason’. Is it a physical cause? A non-physical cause? An explanation? A purpose? What exactly? It seems difficult to take the argument very seriously when it is not even clear what claim is actually being made. On a related point, even the notion of causation itself is philosophically problematic, as David Hume and others have noted. To this the speaker makes no reference at all, and seems content merely to take the concept of ‘causation’ as an unproblematic given.

Second, the fact that something like the PSR (arguably) ‘underpins all of science’ does not imply that it is everywhere and always true. The author falls into the same trap that he accuses the naturalist speaker of falling into, namely of assuming that because a given concept sometimes works or is successful in a particular sphere (in this case science), it therefore follows that it is universally applicable. That simply does not follow. It could be the case that science works well for questions where PSR (or something like it) is applicable, and does not work well for questions where it does not. One can also raise the deeper question of whether science actually provides ‘reasons’ or ’causes’ at all, rather than merely describing empirical regularities (again, as argued by Hume). These are complex and much-debated questions in philosophy, but the speaker ignores them, and simply adopts as ‘obvious’ particular simplistic answers which, conveniently enough, also support his argument.

Third, to reject the PSR does not imply ‘nonsense’. It merely is to say that we do not properly understand abstract and difficult concepts like ‘causation’ well enough to make confident claims about them.

The Failure of Naturalism

The speaker then proceeds to argue that naturalism is unable even in principle to provide an explanation for the origin of the universe, as naturalistic explanations can only refer to physical laws, which themselves did not exist before the universe and hence cannot be appealed to in an explanation of it. A few responses are in order here.

First, the line of argument being made here is very dubious. It seems that the speaker is saying that we could tell that naturalistic explanations could never explain the origin of the universe, even before we had even tried to construct any, or test them to see if they work. He is saying that even in principle they simply cannot yield such an explanation. Looking back over history, it seems this line of argument that science ‘cannot possibly even in theory’ explain any given phenomenon has fared very poorly, the most obvious example being vitalism and explaining the unique nature of living beings. In general, I think it is wise not to place great confidence in armchair philosophizing arguments about what science can and cannot explain ‘in theory’. Their track record seems to be very poor indeed.

Second, it is not at all clear the a naturalistic explanation would require physical laws. When we begin talking about things that existed “before” the universe began, and how the universe could have come into being, we are so far outside of the realm of what we can understand, of what we can know about with any confidence, and so far beyond the bounds where our intuitions are useful, that it is just not at all clear what a naturalistic explanation of the origin of the universe would look like, or what it would need to appeal to. The fact that the speaker cannot now imagine how such a thing could be developed is simply an example of the fallacious argument from lack of imagination.

Third, the argument here relies on the notion that the universe is contingent, and that contingent things require explanations, both premises which, as I argued above, are questionable at best.

God as an Explanation

In this section, the speaker argues that theism provides a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the universe, on that basis that it was created by an uncaused non-physical mind. There are many problems with this proposed explanation.

First, no non-physical substance, entity, or process, is known uncontroversially to exist. The only non-physical things that we think ‘exist’ are abstractions, like nations or languages or mathematical theorems. But God is not supposed to be an abstraction; he is supposed to be a ‘real’ non-physical entity. It is certainly possible that such entities exist, but outside of the question of God, we do not have any other good reasons to believe that such things are exist at all (indeed, the very notion may be incoherent – this is debated). In contrast, we know that physical processes and entities are real (or, at least, we know this with a fairly high level of confidence, philosophical skepticism notwithstanding). For this reason alone, I think it is reasonable that naturalistic causes be granted higher plausibility when considering questions such as how the universe came to be.

Second, even if we are to accept non-physical causes, there seems to be no reason to accept this particular one that the speaker presents. Instead of a non-physical uncaused mind, could we not instead posit a non-physical uncaused substance called ‘vitalic phlogiston’, which gives rise to the universe as a product of the fluctuations of its internal harmonic vibrations. It seems there is an almost limitless number of potential non-physical ‘explanations’ (again, a problematic term the speaker does not properly define) for the origin of the universe. Why should we prefer Christian theism over any of these others? One may argue that additional criteria or evidences are available with provide such reasons, but in that case it seems that the cosmological argument by itself is not actually doing very much ‘work’, so to speak, of providing support for theism.

Third, the speaker’s claim that the rebuttal that ‘minds are complex’ necessarily assumes materialism, seems to be rather a stretch. In fact, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that, even if materialism is false, minds are still very complicated things. Minds are capable of a wide range of thoughts and behaviours, which are often very unpredictable and interact in complex and unexpected ways. One can go on and on listing various ways in which minds are complicated, none of which depend in any way on the notion that minds must be material. The argument is not that minds are complex because brains are complex. The argument is that minds are complex precisely because, by their nature, by the definition of what we mean by ‘mind’, a mind is an intricate, multifaceted, and hence complicated thing. Merely stating that ‘God is non-material and therefore simple’ does not address this point, and is little more than argument by assertion.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

The speaker ends with an argument that further evidence for divine creation can be gained from the fact that the universe is, despite apparently enormous odds against it, capable of sustaining intelligent life, a fact which is a natural corollary of the theistic explanation, but not of any naturalistic explanation. One can question this argument on a number of grounds.

First, it is by no means established that the universe is in fact actually ‘fine-tuned’ for life. Certainly some scientists and philosophers think that this is the case, but there are also many who do not (e.g. Victor Stenger). As I argued before, we simply do not know enough about the laws of nature, how they interact, why they are as they are, and what else could have been possible, to make any confident claims about ‘fine-tuning’.

Second, even if the universe is fine-tuned, the speaker does not adequately consider potential naturalistic explanations for this. He too readily dismisses multiverses, which, although doubtless sound absurd to a layman, are nonetheless taken very seriously by a large number of physicists and philosophers, and are widely considered to be a powerful, plausible explanation for a wide variety of phenomena (including many apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics). This of course is not proof that multiverses really exist, but I think the notion cannot be dismissed nearly so readily as the speaker does. A second, totally independent possible naturalistic explanation is the various forms of the anthropic principle. Although this sort of anthropic reasoning is highly controversial, so too is the existence of God, so it seems unreasonable and unfair to dismiss such potentially powerful alternative explanations arguments so readily.

Overall, contrary to the speaker’s argument, it is not clear that theism has the unique advantage of being able to explain the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe far better than can naturalism.

Conclusion

In my view, the speaker fails to establish his argument. He makes too many quick leaps of logic on the basis of questionable premises, without adequately considering possible objections, alternate explanations, or rebuttals. The speaker is also far too ready to make confident conclusions about difficult questions, such as the nature of causation and the origin of the universe, despite the fact that we simply do not know very much at all about these matters, or even how to think about them properly. Overall, the claims made about the likely existence of a creator God are not justified by the equivocal and incomplete nature of the reasons provided.

‘Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection’ by John Lennox: A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I present a critique of John Lennox’s argument in his ABC online article ‘Eliminating the Impossible: Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection?’, found here http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/04/16/3986403.htm. I recommend reading it first, as I assume the reader has some familiarity with its structure and broad outlines. Also, in order to keep my critique somewhat focused, I have decided to ignore Lennox’s initial remarks about Hume and the laws of nature, and focus solely on his arguments concerning the empty tomb, and the historical evidence for resurrection appearances. Please note that although I do discuss some issues relevant to broader discussions about the historical reliability of the New Testament and the likelihood of the Resurrection, that is not my primary intention here. The primary purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the specific claims and arguments made by John Lennox in this particular article.

Evidence and Superstition

“The brilliant ancient historian Luke, a doctor trained in the medical science of his day…”

Two points here. First, some non-trivial number of biblical scholars have doubts as to the authorship of Luke-Acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_Luke-Acts). One could argue that is not central to the point here, but I think Lennox is painting a picture of excessive certainty, as if there is no doubt who the author was. I believe this is disingenuous in the context of the argument he is trying to make about the reliability of the gospel accounts, and hence he should be more careful in aligning the strength of his claim with the strength of scholarly consensus on the matter.

Second, the use of the term ‘medical science’ is very misleading, and indeed anachronistic. Medicine in the ancient world was nothing like modern scientific medicine. Indeed, the notion of ‘science’ as an empirical enterprise didn’t even really exist. Lennox here speaks as if Luke was trained in modern empirical science and related modes of critical thinking, but that is simply not the case. Roman doctors didn’t even know about such basic things as the germ theory of disease, or that that heart was a pump, and humoral theory was widely accepted. Nothing Lennox said is directly contradictory to these facts, but the point is that once again the language he is using presents a biased, misleading picture of the real situation. Luke was not trained in ‘medical science’ in any meaningful sense of the term, and to say that he was grossly misrepresents the situation.

“Luke here makes it obvious that the early Christians were not a credulous bunch, unaware of the laws of nature, and therefore prepared to believe any miraculous story, however absurd.”

Lennox draws this conclusion on the basis of a single anecdote about Zechariah and Elizabeth, though later on he also mentions a few other examples of skepticism in the NT (e.g. Thomas). But his claim here far exceeds what can be concluded from the evidence he presents. Lennox provides some examples of people expressing skepticism about miraculous claims, and then on that basis concludes that (most? all?) early Christians were ‘not a credulous bunch’. That simply doesn’t follow. I believe there is considerable evidence that the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in which these events took place were deeply superstitious, full of magicians, rituals, magic artifacts, and miracle workers. There are numerous books on the subject, for example http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Magicians-Greco-Roman-Matthew-Dickie/dp/0415311292/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1T20P8MHD3EA73D8ZG62. Lennox just totally ignores such issues, painting a picture of widespread skepticism which simply isn’t warranted by the few anecdotes he provides as evidence.

“Christianity won its way by dint of the sheer weight of evidence that one man had actually risen from the dead.”

Again, Lennox here is just asserting his conclusion. He has not provided any reason to accept this other than his very dubious claim that most people of that time were skeptical about miraculous claims. I think there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I have indicated above. Even today, where literacy is widespread and access to information has never been easier, erroneous beliefs about all sorts of matters are abundant. How many people today believe in ghosts, or bigfoot, or that the moon landings were hoaxed, or that global warming is a myth… the list goes on. I argue, contra Lennox, that there is no reason at all to believe that most people in the ancient world would have required much in the way of evidence or critical evaluation before believing in supernatural miraculous claims; just as it is the case today that, despite our much greater levels of education and the influence of modern science, many people (even most in some cases, depending on the survey) quite readily believe such things.

“Most of our evidence comes from the New Testament and it may surprise many that, in comparison with many other ancient works of literature, the New Testament is by far the best-attested document from the ancient world”

True but largely beside the point. The question is whether the documentation available provides sufficient evidence for the supernatural claims being made. Arguing that the documentation is better than that available for many other events in the ancient world is simply beside the point. Many accounts from the ancient world contain a mixture of the plausible, the dubious, and the very unlikely (though scholars don’t always agree which is which of course). For example, the generally reliable Roman historian Tacitus has some rather dubious claims about Vespasian conducting miraculous healings in his court. As far as I know, no scholars argue for the likely historicity of these events, despite the fact that they are documented relatively early. The point is, one of the main things ancient historians do is sift through documents to determine which parts are likely to be historical and which parts are not. In doing so they consider a wide range of different factors, not least of which is the plausibility of the claims. Historians don’t simply say that because one event is better documented (or documented sooner afterwards) than something else, it is therefore more likely to be historical. History isn’t that simple.

The Empty Tomb

“If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus, demonstrating conclusively that no resurrection had happened”

On what evidence does Lennox base this claim that the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus had the tomb not been empty? What makes him so sure that the authorities either knew or cared where Jesus was buried? Or perhaps the body was moved and its location was lost (or at least lost to the authorities)? Even the world-class scientific organization NASA couldn’t keep track of the original footage of the Apollo 11 moon landings. More than a few famous artifacts and documents have simply gone ‘missing’, even from some of the world’s leading museums (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/dec/10/row-british-empire-museum-artefacts). Now granted this isn’t precisely the same thing, but my point is that mistakes, screw-ups, and incompetence abound. Can we really be so sure that the ancient Jewish or Roman authorities could not possibility have encountered any difficulty that would have prevented them from producing a body?

“If they had had the slightest evidence that the tomb was empty because the disciples had removed the body, they had the authority and the forces to hunt down the disciples, arrest them and charge them with tomb-robbing”

Lennox is making a lot of assumptions here. First of all, he is assuming that the authorities cared at all about what happened to Jesus’ body or who stole it. It seems very plausible to me that, with the leader of the sect dead, neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders had much reason to pay any attention at all to the remaining Christian movement, at least at this very early stage. Second, Lennox is assuming that the authorities had the capability to find and punish those responsible. Even today in many places in developed countries, with much greater police resources and forensic technology, the majority of murders (and other crimes) remain unsolved (e.g. http://www.timesrecordnews.com/news/2010/may/24/unsolved-homicides/). Third, how does Lennox know that the authorities didn’t arrest any of the disciples (or something like it)? Granted, we have no documentary evidence for it, but why should we? We have very little documentary evidence of anything from that period. For instance, we do not have one single example of a first century document attacking Christian beliefs (we have some from the second century but not the first, I think Celsus is among the earliest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus). So how can we be so sure that exactly the sorts of things Lennox is talking about did not happen, and we simply have no record of them?

“Tomb-robbers would not have taken the corpse, and left the valuable linen and spices.”

How does Lennox know that the valuable linen and spices were left? Luke and John both mention ‘strips of linen’ being left, and John also speaks of ‘the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head’. Were these the only pieces of linen that were originally used? We don’t know, but Lennox seems to assume that they were. I don’t see any reason to share this assumption.

“How could any tomb-robber have removed the stone when the guard was there?”

Was there a guard there? Only Matthew mentions any such thing. And Matthew also, in the same passage, gives us details about a private meeting between the chief priests and elders in which they devise a plan to announce that the disciples had stolen the body. How did Matthew know about that conversation? I doubt any of the disciples were invited. For these and other reasons, a number of scholars think the the entire section about the guards is a later addition. I’m sure Lennox and others would dispute this, but the point is Lennox doesn’t even mention the issue. He just treats the presence of guards as if it is an established fact.

“But it was the way in which the grave-cloths were lying that convinced St. John of a miracle. So, could someone have taken the body and rewound the cloths deliberately to give the impression that a miracle had happened?”

Lennox here is (I presume) referring to John 20:7. I won’t quote it, because the proper translation and interpretation of this verse is quite controversial. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_20:7. Some translations use a phrase like ‘folded together’ or ‘rolled together’ to describe the cloths, while the NIV simply refers to the cloth ‘lying in its place’. So Lennox’s argument here is highly sensitive to the exact translation one uses, and what you think the author was originally trying to say. Personally, I think that an argument which relies on such an equivocal detail from the last of all the gospels to be written, should not be granted especially much credence.

Psychology and Hallucinations

“It was also psychologically impossible, since they were not expecting a resurrection”

Really? They weren’t expecting a Resurrection? What about Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus says “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again”. There are similar predictions in Mark 9:30-32, and Matthew 20:17-19. Now, one might argue that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, as happens so often in the gospels. That is certainly possible, but is it not also plausible that, in the days after Jesus’ death, some of the disciples might have remembered his words about rising again on the third day, and formed expectations on that basis? I’m not claiming I can say for sure what was going on inside their heads, but Lennox seems to think that he can, even despite the fact that his claim evidently runs counter to what the NT says elsewhere.

“Hallucinations usually occur to people of a certain temperament, with a vivid imagination”

The research I have done on the matter indicates that hallucinations are fairly common (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11166087), though I think it does depend on how one defines one’s terms and how the survey is conducted. A the very least, a citation for Lennox’s source for this claim would be nice.

“But Matthew was a hard-headed, shrewd tax-collector; Peter and some of the others, tough fishermen; Thomas, a born sceptic; and so on.”

As with his comments about Luke, Lennox’s claims greatly overreach the evidence here. As for Luke, scholars are far from united on the belief that Matthew wrote the gospel commonly attributed to him. More importantly, though he may have been a tax collector, what makes Lennox think that such an occupation has anything to do with being ‘shrewd’? Indeed, according to this survey (http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html) accountants (the closest thing we have to the profession ‘tax-collector’ today) are among one of the most religious professions. Now of course that evidence is rather silly and not really relevant to first century palestine, but I think it is at least better than any evidence Lennox has presented for his implicit claim that being a tax-collector makes one less likely to hallucinate or form false beliefs. His remarks about Peter and Thomas should be considered equally without basis. ‘Tough fisherman’? ‘Born skeptic’? What does that even mean? Is putting an emotive and unsupported adjective in from of something supposed to constitute some kind of argument?

“Again, hallucinations tend to be of expected events. But none of the disciples was expecting to meet Jesus again. The expectation of Jesus’s resurrection was not in their minds at all.”

See my comments above. This is highly dubious given that Jesus predicted his resurrection, at least if you trust what the gospels say as generally being historical, which I understand Lennox does.

“Hallucinations usually recur over a relatively long period, either increasing or decreasing. But the appearances of Christ occurred frequently, over a period of forty days, and then abruptly ceased”

Again, a citation would be nice. I think there are plenty of other cases of unusual or miraculous events being widely reported for a brief period before ‘dying down’. Two examples I would cite are the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard and the Devil’s Footprints in Devon. One must also consider what evidence there is that the appearances ‘abruptly ceased’ after forty days. What ceases abruptly are the accounts of the gospels, not necessarily the appearances. Acts does continue the narrative, but it focuses mostly on missionary work. I don’t see any particular reason to believe that sightings of Jesus didn’t continue for long afterward, especially in the Jerusalem area. Indeed, people still claim to see Jesus today.

“Hallucinations, moreover, do not occur to groups and yet Paul claims 500 people saw Jesus at once.”

I agree that hallucinations per se do not occur in groups, but I think we have more than enough cases of groups large and small reporting seeing and experiencing very strange phenomena. I have compiled a list of such cases here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwSqSiJGs1DPUE82QVBHcm1XM1E/edit?usp=sharing. I don’t think the Resurrection appearances are unique in this regard. At the very least, Lennox hasn’t bothered to include any sort of comparative analysis as a basis for claiming that they are unique.

Other Matters

“They clearly do not account for the empty tomb – no matter how many hallucinations the disciples had, they could never have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, if the nearby tomb had not been empty.”

How does Lennox know this? The famous book When Prophecy Fails discusses a number of doomsday cults, and analyses how, in many cases, people continued to believe even after specific predictions about the world ending on a particular day fail to come true. Some people believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen, despite mountains of evidence that it did. I think Lennox here grossly underestimates the ability of human beings to believe things without much evidence, and even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

“To anyone who knows anything about the ancient laws regarding legal testimony, it is very striking that the first reports mentioned in the Gospels of appearances of the Risen Christ were made by women. In first-century Jewish culture, women were not normally considered to be competent witnesses”

I’ve never understood why so many apologists consider this argument to be so compelling. All that it proves is that the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb were not invented whole-cloth in order to make the Christian story sound more appealing. It does not follow at all the that stories must therefore be accurate, or probably historical, or that they could not have become changed over time or before they were written down (remember Paul doesn’t mention the women or the empty tomb, so we are talking about a period of decades until these stories were written down). I accept that the story of the women was not invented. I see no reason why it therefore follows that it is probably true, or true in all the details that Lennox et al would like us to believe.

“The explosion of Christianity out of Judaism and the testimony of millions today are inexplicable without the resurrection”

What about the testimony of millions of Muslims, and the explosion of Islam out of Arabia? What about the testimony of millions of Mormons, and the explosion of Mormonism out of New York? What about the testimony of millions of Buddhists, and the explosion of Buddhism out of Hinduism? Indeed, what of the convictions (testimony would be the wrong word but the devotion can often seem equally religious) of millions of Marxists, and the explosion of this ideology from the writings of an obscure German living in mid 19th century Britain? Lennox’s argument here seems to apply to far too many movements at far too many times in history to be supportive of his case. It seems demonstrably true that new religions or ideologies can develop and spread very quickly, even if we regard them to be substantively false.

“As Holmes said to Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?””

Here is my explanation of events. The body of Jesus was moved, either stolen, or reburied by Jospeh of Arimathea, or relocated by some unknown third party. After that, the disciples had various experiences of seeing and meeting with the risen Jesus. These stories were modified over time through retelling and the foibles of memory, becoming more impressive and coherent then were the original experiences. The Christian movement, on the basis of true conviction and missionary zeal (nothing unique to Christianity, though still admirable) then spread over the course of the succeeding years and decades, just as have many other religions (there’s an interesting piece here comparing the growth rate of early Christianity with Mormonism http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=95). I don’t consider any elements of this account impossible. Unlikely? Perhaps, in some parts. But impossible? I think Lennox has not even come close to establishing that this sort of account is ‘impossible’.

Conclusion

I originally said that this piece was ‘terrible’. I stand by that claim. I contend that, at least in the part of the piece that I have reviewed, Lennox makes very few cogent arguments. He makes assertions without providing any evidence, he makes unjustified leaps of logic, he rules out alternative explanations too readily and without justification, and he is far too confident in the conclusions he draws given ambiguous and complicated evidence. Quite frankly, I think in many ways this piece is an embarrassment. Granted, it is only a short article on the ABC website, but still, I think much better was possible given the space and resources Lennox had at his disposal. My primary purpose in writing this critique was to highlight to any Christians who did find this piece compelling just how lacking in substance I found its arguments to be, and to call Christians to action (as it were) in putting forward more robust, evidence-based, carefully-considered arguments in favour of the resurrection of Jesus. The question is too important for us to simply ignore, or to be satisfied with mediocre arguments on either side.

 

 

Faith and Reason: A Place for Both

Synopsis

In this piece I am going to do something rather presumptuous: I am going to tell Christians what I think should be the proper relationship between faith and reason. I expect both Christians and Atheists will disagree with much of what I have to say, but since when does that stop me? I will first provide a definition of reason which I hope should be fairly uncontroversial, and then give a definition of faith which may well be objectionable to both New Atheists and Christians alike. I argue that faith is not, as some Christians claim, the abolition of doubt, but rather the trust to believe and act in spite of it. I then attempt to substantiate my position with some passages from the bible, and also with a comparison to the manner in which faith is applied by scientists. I conclude with a brief discussion of the role of personal religious experiences, arguing that although they are not very strong evidence for belief, they can serve as powerful methods of building faith.

What is Reason?

By ‘reason’, I mean ‘the careful, critical, and open-minded analysis of arguments and evidence’. Reason is thus very broad and multifaceted, and obviously it is possible for people to attempt to apply reason but end up doing so poorly (e.g. making logical fallacies). The detective making deductions to solve a case, the scientist conducting experiments to make a discovery, the mathematician manipulating equations to prove a theorem, the philosopher using logic to construct an argument, the historian analyzing documents in order to learn about the past, the lawyer weighing up facts in order to build a case, the anthropologist carefully observing an isolated tribe to better understand their culture, and even the small child who successfully passes the Sally-Anne test (google this if you haven’t heard of it, very interesting), are all using reason as I define the term.

The gambler who thinks that their run of bad lack now means a win is on the horizon, the ideologue who agrees heartily with everything his side says whilst immediately and uncritically dismissing every point made by his opponents, the homeopath who believes of the efficacy of their craft based solely on their own anecdotal experiences without attempting to engage with the scientific evidence, the conspiracy theorist who insists that any evidence that their conspiracy lacks is due to a massive government coverup, and the religious believer who uncritically accepts the faith they have been raised in without honestly or carefully considering alternatives or acknowledging legitimate doubts, are not using reason as I define it (or at best are using it improperly or inconsistently).

What is Faith?

As I understand the term (in a Christian context), ‘faith’ refers to ‘a rationally grounded belief in, reliance on, and trust in, the saving grace of Jesus Christ’. This definition contrasts noticeably with the typical New Atheist definition of faith as ‘belief without reason’, or even ‘belief in the face of strong reasons against’. Although many Christian thinkers have rightfully rejected these as grossly ill-informed mischaracterisations, I do nevertheless think that the New Atheists may have some justification for describing faith this way, because it seems to me that this can often be how Christians use the term as well, even if they know better. I will explain what I mean by this in the following section.

Faith and Belief

On seemingly many occasions, Christians have said to me something to the effect that “belief in Jesus isn’t all about arguments and reason, its also about having faith. So even though we still have doubts and unanswered questions, at some point we just have to have faith and believe”. Another type of response that seems to be fairly common is “I think my beliefs are supported by good reason and evidence, but ultimately it is my faith that allows me to be supremely confident, to be sure about the truth of Jesus’ claims”. In making statements like this, the Christian seems to be thinking of faith as a sort of augment to reason. Reason and evidence allow us to believe to some degree of confidence, 50% or 80% or whatever, and then faith takes our confidence the rest of the way up to 100% (or 99.9% or whatever). Alternatively, perhaps the conception is of faith and reason both working together and mutually reinforcing each other, in a sort of upward spiral of confidence and trust that leads the Christian to grow in confidence and faithfulness over time.

I think this conception of faith as something that augments one’s degree of confidence is mistaken. Reason, and reason alone, is what justifies confidence in the truth of a proposition. If reason suggests that some proposition has an 80% probability of being true, then that should be my confidence in that proposition now and forever (unless of course I discover new evidence or find a flaw in my reasoning, etc). Crucially, no amount of trust or subjective confidence or anything of the sort should cause my estimated probability to change, because only reason and evidence can justifiably cause such a change. That’s what we mean when we talk about having justifiable reasons for believing things. Reasons and evidence are precisely those things which can appropriately and validly cause a change in our beliefs about how likely some proposition is to be true. Faith cannot and should not change that in any way.

Faith and Doubt

Now at this point my Christian readers (kudos if you’ve made it this far), will be shaking their heads in disagreement, for it seems that I have ruled out all place for faith in religious belief. This, obviously, is not consistent with the Christian worldview. But, I hasten to add, I am not saying that there is no role for faith. On the contrary, as I will argue in due course, I think faith is vital for many things. Rather, I am arguing that the role and purpose of faith is frequently misunderstood. What faith does not do, I argue, is take a belief that is justified to 80% probability by the use of reason, and then push it up to 100% certainty or 99.9% certainty. Rather, what faith does do is take that belief at 80% certainty, and enable one to act on that belief with confidence, courage, and hope. Thus, faith is not the abolition of doubt or the false leap to certainty (or near certainty); it is precisely the courage and trust to act in spite of uncertainty and doubt. And I am not just talking about ‘narrow doubt’ of the sort Christians usually mean, like doubt about what God wants from you in life, or what doctrinal position is correct, or such things. I partly mean that, but I also mean ‘broad doubt’, doubt of even the most fundamental things like ‘does God really exist at all?” and ‘did Jesus really rise from the dead?’ I am saying that true faith, properly understood, is not only consistent with these sorts of doubts, but actually requires them (to an extent).

As I said earlier, faith refers to a trust, a hope, a confidence. This is clear from the bible. In Hebrews 11:1,3 we read ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible’. In Romans 8:24-5 it says ‘For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ In my view, these versus (and many similar ones) describe faith as being present in a context were we do not ‘see’ directly, when something is not immediately present before us, when we do not ‘know‘ something for a surety. Do I have faith that my computer screen is sitting before me right now? Do I have faith that 2+2=4? Do I have faith that I need to eat in order to stay alive? I argue that I do not, as I know these things for a surety – there really is no reasonable doubt about any of them. So of what value is faith in these circumstances? I don’t need to ‘trust’ or ‘hope’ that my monitor is actually in front of me, for it manifestly and most obviously is! Faith has no place in cases like this where there is no real doubt. Precisely the reason faith is necessary in the case of believing in Jesus is because the truth of the matter is not manifestly, obviously, indubitably present to us.

That is why I think it is a mistake for Christians to talk about faith as if it is the thing that gets them from 80% confidence to 100% confidence (or 99.9% if you prefer). That isn’t faith – it’s blind belief, irrational overconfidence that is not justified by the evidence. Faith does not ask you to be more confident about something, in the sense of according it a greater chance of being true. Rather, faith is about trusting in what we already have good reason (though not decisive, indubitable reasons) for believing to be true, about having the strength and confidence to act on these beliefs. Who has more faith: the person why prays to Jesus without a shadow of a doubt in their mind that Jesus hears their prayers, even if perhaps they can cite little evidence to support this degree of confidence, or alternatively the person who believes based on careful study and reasoning that Jesus hears their prayers, and despite having doubts and being less than certain, they pray in spite of these doubts, placing their hope and trust in the fact that what they believe to be true (but are not sure about) is in fact true, and that Jesus does in fact hear their prayers. Christians may well disagree, but I argue it is the second person who has the greater faith, and indeed it is the latter situation which best encapsulates the biblical notion of what faith is.

Faith in the Bible

Consider the way Paul treats faith. In 1 Cor 15, he presents a list of appearances of the risen Jesus: ‘he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.’ Later on he continues ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ Paul isn’t saying that faith alone is enough. He is taking great pains to emphasize that what actually matters is whether or not the object of one’s faith, in this case Jesus’ divinity and resurrection from the dead, is actually true. And, in order to establish the truth of these beliefs, he presents the evidence of the numerous witnesses of the risen Jesus. He isn’t saying that faith is enough by itself. He is saying that faith is necessary, but must be grounded upon evidence.

Consider Genesis 22, the story of Abram being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you think Abram knew for certain, or even with very high confidence, that God was going to relent at the last minute? I don’t think he did. He had faith, because he trusted in God, on the basis of the evidence his past interactions with God, that all would turn out for the best, but I don’t think he knew this without any doubts. Consider Mark 5:25-34, the story of the bleeding women who was healed by touching Jesus’ cloak. In verse 28 it says ‘she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed”‘. At least the way I read this, it seems unlikely to me that this women knew, beyond any doubt, that touching Jesus’ cloak would heal her. By the way the story is told it doesn’t sound like anything of quite this sort had happened before. Nonetheless, the women had reasons (presumably on the basis of reports she had heard about Jesus, or perhaps people she knew someone else who had been healed) that touching Jesus’ cloak would heal her, and, though she may have doubted, she had enough confidence and trust in this belief to actually act on it, to the extent of (apparently) pushing her way through noisy crowds so as to be able to reach Jesus. So when Jesus says in verse 34 ‘“daughter, your faith has healed you”‘, I think he means this fairly literally: the women believed on the basis of some evidence, but she also had enough trust and confidence in what she believed in to go forth and take action on the basis of that belief, and by so doing she was healed. It wasn’t sitting in quiet certainty that healed her, it was her acting as a manifestation of the faith that she had, even in the (probable – the passage doesn’t say for sure) continued presence of doubt.

(Parenthetically, I will note that there do seem to be a few passages in the bible where faith and doubt are used in such a way that they appear to be opposites, or acting in contradiction to one another; for example Matthew 21:21 and Matthew 14:31. However, I think there are differing senses in which words like ‘faith’ and ‘doubt’ are used in different parts of the bible (translation can sometimes become an issue here), so notwithstanding these complications I think my basic argument here holds.)

Faith in Science

In the sense that I have described it, faith is not something unique to Christians; it is an essential part of life for everyone. To give an example, when a scientist sets up an experiment to test some hypothesis, they must have faith: faith that the devices they are using were constructed correctly, faith that the materials they use are actually what they are purported to be, faith that the other scientists whose data and theories they are relying upon carried our research honestly and competently – the list goes on. I say the scientist must have ‘faith’, because that is precisely what it is. They have good reason to think these things are true (e.g. the equipment has always worked when calibrated in the past, lots of academics have tested this theory in the past, academic fraud is rare, etc), but certainly none of the things I have highlighted are certain, and reasonable doubts remain. The scientist, I argue, should not respond to these circumstances by saying “well I know I can’t be certain that this experiment is set up properly, but I have faith that it is, so by faith I can be very highly confident (or perhaps even certain) that it is going to work”. That would be an unreasonable response. That would be irrational overconfidence that is not justified by the evidence. Instead, what the scientist should say, if they are of a reflective mindset, is something like “I have good reason to believe that this experiment is set up properly, and although I cannot be certain and some doubts remain, I am going to operate on the basis of my faith and trust that it is set up properly, and hope that things will work out”.

The analogy here to Christian faith is of course imperfect, but I hope my point is made. That point being, again, that faith in the sense I am using the term is something we all need to have in life all the time (even scientists!), and so there is nothing unusual or irrational about Christians applying a similar notion to their theological beliefs. (Obviously faith is more central to Christianity than it is to science, playing a critical role as it does in Christian doctrine and, one might say, having much richer applications, but I think the basic thrust of the comparison stands.)

On Subjective Evidence

Before concluding this already overlong piece, I want to make a remark about what I will call ‘subjective religious experiences’. These are the sorts of things Christians commonly speak about when describing how they have come to know Jesus, and how he has helped and comforted them in their life. Often these are personal anecdotes relating to finding guidance in the words of the bible, having prayers answered, feeling God’s comfort and guidance in non-specific ways, and other sorts of subjective religious experiences. Though I doubt Christians will agree with me, in general I do not think these sorts of experiences constitute reliable evidence in favour of the Christian worldview. I don’t want to be too dogmatic and say that such experiences can never act as evidence, but I think they rarely do, and even when they can serve as evidence, they are not a very strong form of evidence.

Explaining why I think this would take us rather beyond the topic of this piece, but in essence I do not think these sorts of evidences are reliable because their track record of leading to accurate beliefs is very poor. We know that people from all sorts of religions and other worldviews report comparable types of subjective experiences (obviously the details vary but many core similarities remain) all supporting different truth claims about the world. We also know from psychological research that human perception, memory, and judgement is systematically flawed and biased in many ways that are often subtle and difficult for us to detect (e.g. one of my favourites, the introspection illusion). The reason I raise this issue is because I think Christians should be more careful in making claims about what sort of value these types of experiences have (again, I’m speaking generally, I don’t want to imply there are not exceptions, Paul’s conversion being an obvious potential example). In general, I think these experiences do not provide very reliable evidence to increase one’s confidence in the truth of Jesus’ claims on the basis of reason. I do think, however, that such experiences can and should increase one’s faith in Jesus, that is one’s degree of hope and trust that his claims are true, and that following his will can bring joy and comfort (etc).

Let me make a silly, but hopefully somewhat useful, analogy to explain my point here. I take melatonin to help myself fall asleep at night. I have read a number of studies and examined the scientific evidence on the matter, and I believe with a reasonable level of confidence (maybe 80-90%) that melatonin can help reduce sleep onset time. When I began taking melatonin, it certainly seemed to me that it helped a lot, and I was very pleased with the results. So does that mean that I should now update my confidence level to 99% (or something) on the basis of this new evidence? No, I don’t think it does. Perhaps a small upward adjustment is in order, but in general I know that one’s subjective sense of whether or not a medication is working is a very, very unreliable indicator of whether it is in fact working. There is mountains of research on this subject. To take an extreme example, some people literally bet their lives on homeopathy on the basis of their own anecdotal, subjective experiences with it, even though literally all of science tells us that homeopathy cannot possibly work. Yet, they remain convinced that it does work, quite literally even on their death beds. For these sorts of reasons, I don’t consider my subjective of experience taking melatonin to be particularly strong evidence for its efficacy. So if you ask me for my cold-headed, reason-based assessment of the probability that melatonin helps to reduce sleep onset times, I would still say maybe 80-90%. However, that does not mean that my own experience is without value. On the contrary, I now have a much greater trust in melatonin than I did before I started using it. I have a real confidence and hope that it works; one might say I have faith which grows over time through continued successful use, even if my reason-based estimated level of confidence stays the same. Again, the analogy with Christian belief is imperfect, but I think somewhat valid: I don’t think subjective religious experiences should be taken by Christians to be particularly useful evidence in favour of the truth of their beliefs, but I do think that such experiences can and should be a means of building and sustaining faith, the motivation to act on those beliefs, that is already grounded upon sound reasons.

Summary and Applications

In this piece I have argued that faith is neither belief without evidence, but nor can it serve to increase the certainty of our beliefs beyond the degree of confidence justified by reason and evidence. Rather, I have argued that faith is the trust, confidence, and hope that what one believes on the basis of compelling (though not decisive) reasons and evidence is in fact true, and also the courage to act on these beliefs. I have argued that this conception of faith is not only consistent with a central place for faith in Christian life, but also that it is fully in line with biblical explications of the nature of faith, and even the way faith (in a similar though not identical sense) is exercised in scientific research, and everyday life.

Under my conception of faith, therefore, the Christian should not say ‘reason only gets me so far but faith takes me the rest of the way’. Instead, they should say something more like ‘reason takes me so far, and I still have doubts and uncertainties, but I think the evidence is sufficient to act upon, and I have faith and hope that what I believe is true’. These might sound like different ways of saying the same thing, but I don’t think they are. I think the first is an inaccurate and indefensible notion which treats faith as a sort of ‘secondary backup’ to reason when reason itself is insufficient, while at the same time providing cover to false claims of certainty and overconfidence in the fact of reasonable doubts. In contrast, I think the second is a more honest engagement with of the limits of what can actually be known, and how confident we can really be given the evidence available. I also see the second statement as an affirmation of the true purpose of faith in enabling us to hope, trust, and act even in the face of genuine and ongoing doubts and uncertainties. Thus, I don’t think Christians should be afraid of faith (as the New Atheists would say they should be), but I don’t think they should be afraid of uncertainty and doubt either. Indeed, I think the two go very naturally together. Without doubt, faith would be pointless and unnecessary, for we would simply know. Without faith, doubt would become overwhelming and disabling, preventing us from acting upon what we believe to be true.

 

 

 

 

The Probability that God Exists is 10%

Synopsis

Consider the proposition “some sort of deistic or theistic God exists”, where “God” need not necessarily be a personal God, but is understood to be more than a transcendent spirit or panentheistic notion of ‘God as nature’. What is my level of confidence that this proposition is true? My best estimate is on the order of 10%. In this piece I will explain how I arrived at this figure, and why I think it is the most reasonable rough indication of humanity’s current state of knowledge on the matter.

Framework

When I say that “the probability that God exists is about 10%”, this should be understood within a (loosely) Bayesian framework. In other words, the probability figure is an expression of one’s confidence in the proposition; a statement about how much we know and how much we don’t know. I am not saying God exists in 1 in 10 possible universes, or that the existence of God is literally a random event that would occur one time out of every ten. Many people think that God’s existence is necessary, meaning that if God exists, he necessarily exists – there is no possible way he could have failed to exist. Perhaps that is true, but the question is, how confident can we be that it is true? Unless we assume that all our thoughts and reasoning regarding necessary beings (or similar entities) is infallible, it seems at least possible (perhaps likely) that we could falsely come to believe that something necessarily exists. My probability estimate is thus designed to capture these effects of uncertainty. As such, I do not think it is inconsistent with arguments about the necessary existence of God.

Why 10%?

The particular figure of 10% is fundamentally derived from an excellent survey on philpapers (http://philpapers.org/surveys/), which shows that about 15% of philosophers believe in God, while 73% are atheists. These results are broadly comparable to surveys of scientists, which indicate that something like 30% of scientists believe in God (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/, http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html). I have adjusted these percentages down slightly for several reasons. Firstly, these surveys (in particular the Philpapers survey) are disproportionately of American and British philosophers and scientists. Levels of religious belief are substantially higher in the US than in many continental European and Asian countries, for which we do not have comparable data (scroll down to the bottom of this page http://philpapers.org/surveys/linear_most_with.pl?A=main%3AGod%3Atheism for some interesting data though – American philosophers are much more religious than their continental counterparts). I think that ideally we should consult a representative survey of thinkers and scientists from across the globe, and that if we had these figures, we would find (for example) significantly lower levels of belief among intellectuals in continental Europe and China. Absent such figures, I have made a downward adjustment from 30% or 15% to about 10%. Secondly, levels of religious belief are lower for more prestigious scientists (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html), which it seems reasonable to believe correlates at least somewhat with intelligence and careful thinking. Certainly the correlation would be far from perfect, but it seems very plausible that there is at least some positive relationship between knowledge and ability, and the likelihood of holding a carefully considered, informed opinion on this matter.

Why Trust Experts?

Many people, especially theists, will take objection to my approach here. They will question the validity of polling experts as a method of determining the state of knowledge. Truth, so they say, is not a popularity contest. I think, however, that such objections miss the point of this sort of analysis. The fundamental problem is that the arguments and evidence for God’s existence is equivocal. Some people are convinced by them, and some are not. What then should we conclude? Should we simply assume that our subjective analysis of the evidence and arguments is definitive? Should we place ourselves in the position of being ultimate arbiters of truth? “Its compelling to me, therefore it is probably true” is not a reliable way of arriving at accurate beliefs, as we know that most people (even informed people) arrive at many false philosophical and religious beliefs through this method. What we need is some more ‘objective’, more reliable method of analyzing the strength of evidence and the quality of arguments. I propose that the best method we have for this is to take a representative sample of intelligent people who are sufficiently well informed about the evidence and arguments, and determine what proportion of these people find the arguments convincing. If only 30% of informed people find an argument (or set of arguments) compelling, then it seems that this argument is not sufficiently conclusive for one to believe with high confidence. We use this sort of reasoning all the time – if only four or five of the twelve jurors think that that evidence is sufficient to warrant a guilty verdict, then we judge that the evidence is not strong enough for conviction, even though some people think that it is. We weight across many people, in the hope that this will produce a more accurate evaluation of the evidence than would a single person alone.

My fundamental argument here, and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough, is that the mere fact that an opinion is your own does not make it more likely to be true. In other words, if only one out of on hundred informed experts believed a certain fact to be true (and let’s assume there’s no evidence of a conspiracy or the like), then we should be pretty confident that the 99 are right and the one is wrong – even if that one lone expert happens to be you! Unless that lone expert has some very, very compelling reason to think their opinion is privileged (e.g. maybe they have access to a secret document no one else does), this expert should admit that, despite how convincing the case feels to them, it is unreasonable for them to place their own judgment above that of their 99 peers.

Few people like this idea (“truth isn’t a democracy!”), but I ask how one can possibly justify giving one’s own views epistemic privilege? It is good arguments and quality evidence that are indicative of truth, and the way we attempt to track which arguments are good and which evidence is sufficient is by seeing what proportion of informed persons find them to be so. Obviously there are problems here with cultural presuppositions, biased selection, institutional barriers, etc, but I think it is hard to argue that these problems are greater when we take the average opinions of a large group of people than when we simply considering a single individual’s opinion, with all their unique biases and quirks. Crucially, this argument applies even if that individual happens to be you. Obviously we have direct, immediate access to our own opinions, something we do not have for the opinions of others (though the depth of our insight into our own reasoning processes is quite limited – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Introspection_illusion). Nevertheless, it is not clear why this more immediate access should mean that our own opinions are more likely to be true. Accessibility does not imply truth. It simply means that the ideas and opinions feel more compelling to us, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.

Thus, I think this method of ‘averaging experts’ is the best (albeit imperfect) method we have for trying to determine how the evidence stands on complex and difficult questions like the existence of God. Theists may accuse me of constructing an elaborate justification for a method which ultimately confirms my own bias (since I am an atheist), however I would argue that this method actually yields a much higher probability for God’s existence (10%) than most atheists would generally admit to or feel comfortable with. Thus I think that the confirmation bias argument is at leas, somewhat less plausible than it may initially seem.

Philosophers of Religion

One challenge to my argument derives from the observation that, of philosophers who specialise in ‘Philosophy of Religion’, 72% are theists, compared to the 15% base rate for philosophers in general. This seems potentially to be evidence that, of philosophers who focus specifically on examining the arguments for and against theism, and various relevant philosophical problems, a considerable majority come to be believe in God. There is, however, an obvious problem of causation here. Do philosophically-minded people who are also religious tend to disproportionately specialize in philosophy of religion (so that belief leads to this specialization), or do specialists in philosophy of religion initially more-or-less resemble other philosophers, but later become theists as a result of their exposure to the strong arguments in its favour? Although it is very difficult to say, I think there are good reasons to think that the former explanation plays the dominant role here.

First, it is important to understand that philosophers can select more than one area of specialization for the survey. Most philosophers (if you browse their profiles) have more than one specialization listed, as their work spans a number of different areas. It seems very likely to me that already-religious philosophers are more likely to include ‘Philosophy of Religion’ on their list of specializations, as (regardless of whatever other work they may do), they also have an interest in these matters, precisely because they are religious. Atheistic philosophers are much less likely to do this, resulting in a significant inflation of the relative number of religious philosophers listing ‘philosophy of religion’ as a specialization.

Second, the difference between specialists and non-specialists on the question of theism is very large, far larger than any other such differences. The difference in percentage of theists between specialists and non-specialists in the philosophy of religion is 56%. The next biggest gap is 30% on a rather esoteric question in decision theory, followed by 23% for the B-theory of time. Most specialization effects are much smaller, on the order of 5%-10% or so (see http://philpapers.org/bbs/thread.pl?tId=426). If specialization allows philosophers to focus on the specific arguments surrounding a particular issue and hence arrive at a more reliable, better informed viewpoint than their non-specialist colleagues, it seems that this should apply to a broad number of questions. Perhaps not every question, but still a good number of them. Instead what we see is that the effect is generally fairly small for most questions, and for religion in particular it is dramatically larger (almost twice the size of the second-biggest effect size). I think this is most plausibly explained by the fact that much fewer people specialize in (say) philosophy of time because of a pre-committment to the B-theory of time, whereas that is a real and significant factor in the choice of philosophers to specialise in philosophy of religion.

Third, I made an effort to actually discover whether particular philosophers who list themselves as specialising in philosophy of religion came from a religious background, or whether they converted later as a result of exposure to philosophical arguments. Naturally, there is no direct data on this. What I did was to browse through philosopher’s bio pages on the philpapers website, looking for those who listed ‘philosophy of religion’ under their ‘area of specialization’. I then googled their names to find any information available about their religious background. I found 15 scholars with philpapers bios who both specialised in philosophy of religion and also had a stated position (i.e. those who responded to the survey and made their responses public). This may sound low, but remember that only 47 philosophers in total described themselves as specialising in philosophy of religion (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=22&areas_max=1&grain=coarse). Of these 15, all were theists. I could only find background information on about half of them, but all those I could find information on seem to have been raised as Christians. My methodology here is subject to question, as no one explicitly mentions their upbringing. Instead, I used attendance at a theological seminary or religious college, or completion of a theology degree, as proxies indicating probable pre-existing religious belief. I have included a table of all the scholars I evaluated below. My conclusion from this analysis is that the data are most consistent with the hypothesis that philosophically-minded Christians selectively choose to specialise in philosophy of religion, rather than existing philosophers of religion being led to belief on the basis of the quality of the arguments.

Name Position Background
Garrett DeWeese Theist Dallas Theological Seminary before PhD
Daniel von Wachter Theist Intermediate Exam in Protestant Theology before PhD
Tyler Dalton McNabb Theist B.A. Biblical Studies before PhD
C’zar Bernstein Theist No info
Mark T. Nelson Theist No info
Ben McLean Theist RLDS member, seems for some time
John M. DePoe Theist B.A. Philosophy and Theology
Jonathan Fuqua Theist No info
Kenneth L Pearce Theist No info
Ben Arbour Theist Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before PhD
Patrick Toner Theist BA from Franciscan University of Steubenville
Lincoln Stevens Theist BA from Asbury University, Christian liberal arts college
Christopher M. P. Tomaszewski Theist Attended S. Charles Borromeo Seminary before MA
Andrea Ciceri Theist No info
David McNaughton Theist No info

Past Experts

Some have raised the question of why only current experts should be counted. There seems no particular reason why great thinkers of the past should not also have their opinions included in the analysis, and were we to do this we would find the proportion of theists considerably higher than we do currently. I have a few things to say on this matter. First, obviously we do not have the data for past thinkers, so we cannot readily include it in our analysis. Even if we do know the likely direction such an inclusion would have on the probability, we don’t know the magnitude. Second, it must be remembered that history is long and intellectual thought diverse. Many ancient Greek thinkers, and arguably also many Buddhist and other non-western philosophers, would not count as theists in anything resembling the usual modern understanding of the term. In other words, if we are thinking of including past thinkers we cannot restrict ourselves only to medieval and enlightenment thinkers from Europe and the Middle East. Third, it must be remembered that although the proportion of thinkers who were religious in the past was higher, there were also many fewer of them than there are today, meaning that including them in the overall average would have less of an effect than one may naively imagine. Fourth, if one is to include past thinkers, it seems reasonable to include future thinkers as well. Obviously we have even less data on what they believe, but it seems at least plausible that belief in God will continue to remain at relatively low levels. Maybe I am wrong about this, but my point is that if we are to imagine what including thinkers from the next 20 or 40 years would do to the average belief in God, it seems most likely that the percentage would fall. This mitigates, to some extent perhaps, the upward affect of including figures from the past.

Conclusion

My argument here is that the degree of confidence one can place in the claim “God exists” is approximately 10%. Error bars are wide here, so I think one could quite justifiably argue for figures of 20 or maybe 30 percent, or for 5% or less. What I would say, however, is that figures that are ‘dramatically different’ from 10%, say something like 0.5% or 95%, are difficult to justify. I just do not think the degree of honest, intelligent disagreement about these matters merits such strong claims. I also think that theists should take this evidence seriously. The plain fact is that a large majority of philosophers do not believe in God. This obviously is not decisive proof of God’s non-existence (10% is hardly decisive), but it is, I think, more than enough to ‘sit up and take notice’. I think it should lead theists to seriously and critically re-evaluate the strength of their convictions, beliefs which rest ultimately on philosophical positions (even if one thinks that God reveals himself directly to people, that is actually a belief that has very particular philosophical underpinnings and implications). If a theist believes that they have a ‘killer argument’ that allows them to fairly easily and quickly dismiss the majority opinion of philosophers – people who think long and hard about these sorts of questions – I think it is very unlikely indeed that such a retort has not already been advanced (probably in a much more sophisticated form) by some past or present philosopher (for example, if you think belief is primarily a matter of faith and not reason, that is a heavily contested philosophical position called Fideism). The point is, whatever a theist may say about why they believe, their belief system rests upon certain philosophical notions or presuppositions. It is unavoidable. Given that the group of people in the best position to consider the relative merits of these sorts of ideas generally are not religious, I think that is strong reason for the theist to critically re-consider how genuinely confident they can and should be about their religious beliefs.