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

Synopsis

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

A Motivating Anecdote

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

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

Disagreement and Doubt

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

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

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

Subjective Evidence

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

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

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

The Christian Response

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

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

What Evidence is For

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

But God can do Anything

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

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

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

The Value of Subjective Evidence

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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Seeking God versus Seeking Truth

Synopsis

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

Introduction

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

Seeking Truth

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

Seeking God

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

Beliefs Beyond Question

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

Truth First

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

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

There… Are… Four… Lights!

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

 

On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

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

Truth and Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Belief

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

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

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

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

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 Myth of Christian Humility: A Commentary

As is often the case, there seems to be a degree of confusion about what I meant in my previous post “The Myth of Christian Humility”. I’ll attempt to clarify some things here. First and foremost, the post was a polemic. Meaning, I deliberately stated things in a very forceful, at times overly simplistic, manner. I make no apologies for that, for I think it is appropriate in certain contexts to overstate and oversimplify one’s position in order to make a point.

  • When I speak of “Christians” and “Atheists”, I am speaking of abstract ideal types. That means there are no Atheists or Christians in the way I describe them. These are idealizations to make a point. Yes, I do think many Christians err in ways similar to those I attribute to “Christians” in the piece, and I do think many Atheists tend to moreso exhibit the kind of virtues I extol of them in the piece, but these are very broad generalisations subject to many exceptions and complexities.
  • When I say “The Christian worships their own ego”, I do not mean that they think they are the greatest thing in the world. Nor do I mean that they arrogantly force their beliefs on others. My point is nothing to do with their mannerisms or personality. They can be (indeed in my experience often are) the nicest people in the world. By ‘ego’, I simply mean the self, and by ‘worship’, I mean that they place it as primary, treat it as foundational. In other words, they treat their own subjective experiences and interpretations of events and words as clearly indicative of the existence and nature of God. Such people, in may experience, tend not to care much or devote much (or any thought) to other possible interpretations of their experiences, limitations of human perception, biases of thought, disagreement from those with differing religious experiences. They privilege their own subjective experiences above all else. That is what I mean when I say ‘they worship their own ego’.
  • When I say that a Christian claims to “know this or that”, I do not mean that they literally have zero doubt, or admit to perfect and absolute knowledge. Rather, I am saying that the ideal type of Christian I am speaking of in this piece does so. In reality, Christians may admit to varying degrees of doubt, but may point is that they still are generally far too confident given the actual weakness of the evidence they have, and (in the case of the “deficient” Christian) the lack of proper thought given to the matter.
  • When I say the Christian “does not care about what is true”, I don’t necessarily mean that if you asked them they would say they didn’t care about the truth of their beliefs. I mean that they behave in a manner, they form their beliefs in a manner, they are uncritical in such a manner that seems indicative of not caring about the truth, just as one who carelessly does a math problem may claim to care about the right answer, though their behaviour suggests otherwise.
  • When I say “the Atheist attempts, to the best of their ability, to adhere to the Golden Mean of human reason”, I am again using an ideal type. Most atheists, of course, do no such thing. Most atheists, in my experience, are roughly as dogmatic and unreflective as many religious people. I use the term ‘atheist’ because I am deliberately setting up a binary opposite of the “Christians” spoken of earlier in the piece. I think that a careful, intellectually honest, rigorous atheist thinker does, to a degree, emulate the ideal “Atheist” I have described here, but most self-described atheists do not. Hence, for instance, when I say “they answer cautiously…”, I do not literally mean this is what most atheists actually say. It is what the ideal “Atheist” says, that type of Atheist who in my view exhibits the proper intellectual virtues, as distinct from the “Christians” who do not.
  • Needless to say, I do not mean that atheists really worship the Roman god Veritas. This is a metaphor for always carefully, honestly striving to find the truth. Christians can and should do this to, and indeed they can often do a better job than self-described atheists.

You may think that some of my comments here undermine the original post, or seem very different from what I say there. I don’t agree. The original post is attacking what I call a myth: the myth of Christian Humility. In order to tackle that myth and demonstrate its falsity, I wrote a polemic piece constructing, in a small way, a mythology of my own, involving the fictional idealizations of “Christians” and “Atheists”. I think this new ‘mythology’ has more than a grain of truth to it, but nonetheless I do not intend it to be taken literally. I intend this new mythology to be a framework for looking at the claim of Christian intellectual humility in a new light, and in the process (I hope) providing a strong critique of this notion.

 

The Myth of Christian Humility

Synopsis

Some Christians say that atheists arrogantly place their own reason and intellect above God, thereby undermining their ability to understand the limits of human reason compared to the wisdom of God. I argue that this notion is completely the inverse of the truth. It is Christians, not atheists, who, for various reasons, arrogantly place their own experiences and intellect as being primarily and unassailable, and it is the Atheist who properly acknowledges the constraints and limits of human reason. (NOTE: this article is polemical, so for the purpose of rhetorical force and clarity, it omits certain caveats, qualifications, and exceptions that I would normally include. Readers should bear this in mind when interpreting the piece.)

There is a myth which many Christians believe, and is frequently raised as an objection or snide refutation of atheist thought. This myth – nay, this lie, for many who reiterate it should know better – asserts that atheists arrogantly place their own reason, their “science”, above all else, displacing God from his rightful place as primary and foremost of all. Christians, so says this lie, humble themselves by accepting the limits of human reason and science falsely so called; the Christian defers his own judgement to that of God, whose wisdom far exceeds our own. For it is a fool who says in his heart “there is no God”, and the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord. The Christian thus humbles themselves in the face of their limitations, while the Atheist arrogates to themselves the position of arbiter of ultimate truth.

This is a lie. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the truth. It is the Christian, not the Atheist, who arrogantly asserts their own intellect as supreme above all else, and it is the Atheist, nor the Christian, who properly acknowledges their own limitations. Amongst Christians, there are two main types of attitude with respect to reason; the one can be said to be deficient, and the other, excessive. In actual fact, the sin is as great in either case, for to err either side of the mean is equally deplorable.

The Christians who exhibit deficiency are those who reject the need for reason and evidence altogether. For them, their own personal experience of God, be it through prayer, reading the bible, attending church, or various life experiences, is sufficient to convince them totally, utterly, and with utmost finality, of the truthfulness of all of the many claims of Christianity. Arguments, evidence, logic: these might be useful in making Christianity appear more acceptable to the world, to attract those who would otherwise reject the good news out of hand. But ultimately, such things do not matter, for even if an argument is refuted or a piece of evidence found to be inadequate, it does not matter; after all, even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. These Christians know the bible is the word of god. They know Jesus died for their sins. They know god answers prayers. In exercising such resolute belief, however, these Christians exhibit perhaps the worst form of intellectual arrogance known to mankind. their own subjective experience, their own interpretation of biblical passages, their own life history, their own thought processes – these things trump every possible argument, objection, and disconfirming piece of evidence imaginable. Such Christians have not made God their sovereign, they have made themselves – their experiences, their emotions, their interpretations – primary, foremost, dominant over all else. They do not care about what is true; they care only for the God that their own subjectivity has built for them, out of a haphazard, idiosyncratic mixture of their personality and life experiences. In worshiping a God that is a construct known only through their subjective experiences, they are in essence worshiping nothing but their own ego.

Christians who exhibit excess, by contrast, are those who claim to believe on the basis of reason and evidence. It is they who appeal to such stratagems as the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the appeal to the Resurrection of Jesus. In so doing, however, they venture far beyond the bounds where reason and evidence can safely take them. Not content to remain silent on that about which we cannot speak, such Christians confidently pontificate on matters far beyond human ken, discussing the ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘true nature’ of such abstruse notions as time, being, essence, goodness, and causation. Indeed, they go further than more speculation; they claim to establish confident, firm knowledge on the basis of these sophistries. They care not that many men and women more learned than they have considered the same matters all throughout the ages, arriving at utterly contradictory conclusions. Nor do they care that such questions are unable to be tested by science, history, or indeed by any known reliable method for separating falsehood from truth. Disagreements, uncertainties, ambiguous evidence, and other difficulties are of no concern to these Christians, for they know that they are right. In making such a determination, however, they place themselves – their own minds, their own intellects, their own wisdom – as supreme above all else. Not only is their wisdom superior to that of all those lesser heathens who disagree with them, but it is also of sufficient penetrating depth and expansive breadth as to be capable of accurately illuminating, with unprecedented surety and clarify, the most arcane mysteries of the universe. Such hubris is the exact opposite of the intellectual humility to which these Christians pretend. Thus, in establishing their own opinion, their own intellect, their own assessment of the evidence as primary and foremost above all else, they have made a God in their own image. They worship not God, but their own minds.

Unlike the both deficient and the excessive Christian, the Atheist attempts, to the best of their ability, to adhere to the Golden Mean of human reason. They seek out reliable evidence wherever it can be found, and as evidence mounts, doubt diminishes and certainly grows – but never to a full ripeness, as the Atheist knows that human reason is limited, always leaving room for doubt. The Atheist seeks to understand the mysteries of life, space, and time as best as they can, but are ever vigilant and watchful of false pretensions to knowledge, when claims are not supported by sufficient evidence, or when our ability to question outstrip our ability to understand. When, as is often the case, evidence is equivocal, good arguments are to be found on both sides, experts are in disagreement, and sources of reliable facts are scarce; in cases like this the Atheist properly withholds judgement. Thus, to the question “do you believe that God exists”, they answer cautiously: “I do not, for the evidence is inconclusive, however I am open to changing my opinion in the future if new evidence or arguments become available”. Atheists are wary of subjective, anecdotal experiences and abstract, unfalsifiable philosophising – not because such things are always wrong, but simply because they have turned out to be wrong so often in the past, and the Atheist does not assume himself to be in such an epistemically privileged position that merely because it is their experience or their reasoning process, that therefore all these difficulties of reliability and uncertainly magically vanish into the ether. In short, rather than arrogantly asserting the supremacy of their own intellect, it is the Atheist, and the Atheist alone, who properly humbles themselves, recognizing both the power, but also the limits, of human reason and certainty.

There is one thing, however, about which the Christians are totally correct. They are right in saying that Atheists do, in fact, worship a God. For, in striving always to abide by the Golden Mean of human reason, the Atheist worships Veritas, god of truth. Although she is elusive and often subtle, she is a far superior God to those worshiped by most Christians.