The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.

‘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.

 

 

 

Peer Disagreement

Synopsis

Many intelligent people disagree about many important questions. This means that many intelligent people are wrong about many important questions, and it is not possible to tell if you are one of these people simply based on how confident you are. Looking at the arguments on both sides doesn’t address the problem, because everyone claims to do that, and reaches different conclusions. Nor does attempting to explain how disagreement is consistent with your worldview address the problem, as it begs the question of how you know that your worldview is correct. I therefore conclude that in the absence of expert consensus on a given question, we should suspend any firm judgement on the matter.

Introduction

Is abortion morally wrong? Is fiscal stimulus effective at reviving an economy? Is there a God? What is the best type of diet to lose weight? Is the brain a computer? Are men and women hardwired to be different? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is intelligent life common in the universe? Is gun control effective at reducing violence? Will mankind will face extinction in the near future?

These questions span many different topics. Some are scientific, some are political, and others are philosophical. Nonetheless, they do have one important property in common: many (perhaps most) of those who have a strong opinions about these questions are wrong. Regardless of what the actual answer is, there is so much disagreement about these sorts of questions and so many mutually-incompatible views that, whichever position is actually the correct one, most people’s views are false. This means that right now, many ethicists are wrong about abortion. Many economists are wrong about fiscal stimuluses. Many philosophers are wrong about whether there is a God.

Main Argument

Everything I have said thus far is really quite obvious and (aside from minor quibbles about specific choice of examples, etc), fairly uncontroversial. What, then, is the big deal? The big deal, in my view, comes the from conclusion that, I think, we should draw from these facts. Allow me present my main argument in the form of a syllogism.

  1. If two or more people hold incompatible views on any matter that is not purely subjective (e.g. favourite dessert), then at least some of those people must be wrong
  2. Many intelligent people hold incompatible views on many important questions, despite being well informed and strongly convinced they are right
  3. Therefore, many intelligent people hold incorrect beliefs despite being well informed on the subject, and being convinced that they are right
  4. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for intelligent, thoughtful, intellectually honest, well-informed people, to be strongly convinced about the correctness of their position, whilst nonetheless being completely wrong
  5. Therefore, it is possible (and given the enormous extent of disagreement, I would say likely) that you, as an intelligent and informed person, are mistaken about at least some of the core beliefs that you consider to be very important and (likely) hold with a high degree of confidence

Looking at the Evidence won’t Help

Perhaps you might imagine that you could not possibly be one such person, because the answer seems to clear and logical in your head. After all, you have looked at the arguments and evidence on both sides, and come to a reasoned, rational conclusion. What, then, is the problem with feeling confident in your opinion, when clearly the facts and evidence support it? The problem lies in the fact that we can never, as finite, fallible human beings, have access to the actual facts, evidence, and arguments in their pure, objective, unadulterated form. All we ever can access are our perceptions and interpretations of the evidence and arguments – how persuasive they seem to us. And we know, from the fact of widespread disagreement, that our sense of the persuasiveness or reasonableness of such evidence and arguments is, in general, quite unreliable.

Whatever argument you have heard about abortion, whatever evidence you have seen about fiscal stimuluses, whatever religious experiences you may have had, you can be essentially assured that there exist many other equally intelligent people as yourself who have heard the same arguments, seen the same evidence, and had similar experiences, but who do not find them to be a persuasive reason to believe in your position. This is a fact that we all need to be able to deal with.

Interchanging Perspectives with Another

Of course, our own beliefs will always feel more ‘real’ to us than those of others, because as finite human beings were are limited by our own nature as embodied, subjective beings. We have direct access to our own beliefs and reasons for those beliefs in a way we can never have for those of others. But how does that justify us in thinking that our beliefs are actually, objectively, more likely to be true? It might sound like I am arguing for some form of relativism, but I am not. In fact, I think it is by ignoring the problem of disagreement that we head towards relativism, as doing so leads to the situation in which whether a particular proposition should be believed or not is relative to which person’s methods of reasoning one chooses to use in analysing the arguments. Everyone thinks they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong, but if it were possible to switch perspectives and use one’s opponents methods of thinking and analysing arguments,  then you would conclude the exact opposite. A model of knowledge that makes justificatory claims so variable and mind-dependent is, in my view, far more deserving of the name ‘relativism’ than the position I am advocating.

Explaining Disagreement from your Worldview

It might be tempting to introspect about one’s worldview, and attempt to find reasons as to why, given your worldview, many other intelligent people could be wrong about such important questions. For example, the atheist dismisses intelligent Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the grounds that humans have evolved a sense of spirituality, and tend to attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to inanimate objects in an attempt to derive a sense of comfort and meaning in an otherwise uncaring universe. The Christian, on the other hand, dismisses intelligent atheists on the grounds that, whatever evidence is presented for God’s existence, many will still choose not to believe because of the stubbornness of their hearts and their refusal to submit their will to God.

The problem with arguments like this is that they do not allow us to distinguish which state of the world actually prevails. Both the Atheist and the Christian expect, given their worldviews, to see religious disagreement among intelligent people, so whoever is right we expect to see the same thing (at least in this respect). We then arrive back at the same question we started with: given such disagreement, who is more likely to be correct? Arguments that attempt merely to explain disagreement within the framework of a particular belief system thus do not actually address the problem of disagreement at all. Unless a particular viewpoint is actually inconsistent with the existence of peer disagreement (I know of none that are), then all worldviews are capable of constructing such justifications. None of them, however, can address the real question: given the extent of peer disagreement, how do you know that you are not one of the many who are mistaken?

Conclusion

To be clear, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as truth, or that we can never know what it is. There are plenty of issues on which there does exist a considerable degree of expert agreement. Many questions in science are of this sort, as are at least some questions in ethics, politics, and economics. What I am trying to argue is that, if there exists widespread disagreement among equally informed and rational people, then, in general, this means that there exists insufficient evidence to answer the question, and thus we should withhold judgement, or at the very least, substantially lower our confidence that we are correct. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.