Attached is a link to my slides from a talk I presented at the Humanist Convention in April of 2017 (last week as at the time of posting). They summarise some of my recent thinking about metaphysical naturalism, an argument in defence of which constitutes the majority of the talk. I hope they may be of use and interest to some. Eventually I will get around to writing up my thoughts into a proper article, which I will post on my blog. I anticipate, however, that it will be significantly more technical than these slides, so these may make a good ‘first introduction’ to some of these issues for people with less philosophical background.
In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.
First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.
A Naive Argument from Evil
I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:
P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.
P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.
C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.
Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.
The Inconsistency Response
One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:
P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.
P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.
C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.
I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.
Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?
Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.
In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.
The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.
Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?
Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?
Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.
In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.
The Materiality of Mankind
‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’
I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.
Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.
The Is-Ought Gap
‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’
The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.
Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.
This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.
A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.
Blind Forces of Nature
‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’
This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.
The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.
Laws Imply a Law-Giver
‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.
I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).
Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.
Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.
On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.
An IBE Argument from Evil
Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.
P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.
P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God
C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist
Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.
The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.
The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.
In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.
In A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson seeks to provide ‘a sense of the whole biblical narrative and of the theology that emerges from it’ in a manner accessible to non-believers. An ambitious task for such a slim volume, Dickson nevertheless succeeds admirably in providing a solid, clear overview of the core themes of the bible. Shaping each chapter around a key biblical figure or event (Creation, Abraham, Moses, David, etc), he provides a tightly structured and very readable survey of how the entire bible ‘hangs together’ according to a Christian interpretive framework.
Notwithstanding the virtues of this book, there are several occasions when Dickson makes claims which I feel distracted from the book’s key message, and potentially reduce the author’s credibility with a skeptical audience. Of particular concern was Dickson’s apparent inconsistency in appealing to the authority of the ‘scholarly mainstream’ regarding the bible. Though he mentions this notion a number of times with reference to the life of Jesus, elsewhere he asserts the traditional authorship of all four gospels and also all thirteen epistles of Paul, views which I doubt can reasonably be defended as consistent with the ‘historical mainstream’. Furthermore, elsewhere he argues that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, unlike any other ancient ‘national histories’, describe their kings in a very negative light, speaking as if said books had all been commissioned by Israel’s kings and written at the time of the events they narrate – as opposed to centuries later, as most scholars believe.
Dickson also makes a number of problematic claims concerning other religions. For instance, he states that salvation through grace is a concept unique to Christianity, neglecting to mention the immensely important role that Kripa (divine grace) plays in Bhakti Hinduism, or the emphasis of grace within Islam, with one of the names of God being Ar-Rahman, meaning ‘the gracious’. Elsewhere Dickson states that besides Jesus ‘no other figure from ancient history’ has sufficient evidence to corroborate a miraculous healing ministry, a claim which left me wondering how Dickson could possibly have investigated every claimed miracle-worker from ancient history to judge the quality of the evidence. Dickson also describes it as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘miraculous’ that Christianity could ‘conquer an empire with little more than words and acts of kindness’, seemingly ignoring the fact that the same could be said for Buddhism in China and Islam in Indonesia.
Various other offhanded remarks and sloppy arguments are likely to frustrate skeptical readers. When discussing creation, for example, Dickson makes the ambiguous statement that ‘the modern evolutionary story is probably not even good science’, before proceeding to admit ‘I don’t know enough about this subject to pontificate about such things’ (so why mention it at all?). Later he makes the bold assertion that ‘an evolutionary worldview…will lead to relativism, because there are no absolute values’, totally disregarding the centuries of philosophical work on secular ethics. Particularly unfortunate and unnecessary is his comparison of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity with those of Adolf Hitler, and his dismissive retort that atheists concerned about biblical atrocities should stop ‘simply mining the text for stories to complain about’.
Despite its shortcomings, Dickson’s book is short, highly readable, and informative. Non-Christian readers who can overlook the occasional dubious claims and poorly-executed excurses into apologetics will profit greatly from this concise elucidation of how Christians understand the bible.
I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.
Atheists and Scientism
“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss
“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking
There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.
I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:
- Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
- Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
- Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
- Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.
Atheists and Jesus
“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian
“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins
In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).
Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.
Outright False Claims
- Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
- The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
- The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
- The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.
Irrelevancies and Distractions
- The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
- There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
- There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.
My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.
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:
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
In this piece I argue that it is possible for God to exist but be unworthy of our worship (or at least of my worship). I discuss what traits I believe a God would not to exhibit in order for me to desire to worship him, and then defend my views against the charge that I am being arrogant in placing my own views of goodness above those of God. I conclude with some reflections on why this issue is important.
Could God be Unworthy of Worship?
Suppose that I came to believe in the existence of an all-powerful God who created us, and who reveals himself to mankind by various means, such as scripture or experiences of the divine. My question is, should I worship such a God? By ‘worship’, I mean (something like) devoting my life to that being, showing them admiration, reverence, paying thanks, granting praise, etc.
My answer to this question is ‘it depends’. Specifically, it depends on whether said being is a good God. By this I do not mean ‘does this being declare themselves to be good?’ (for sinners also do the same), but rather ‘do they satisfy what I believe are the standards of goodness?’ My standard of goodness for God would be something like ‘exhibiting a deep love and concern for all sentient beings, and doing everything within its power to promote the ultimate welfare of such beings’. According to some Christians I have spoken with or read, particularly those coming from a reformed tradition, God does not exhibit such qualities. They say things to the effect that mankind has rebelled against God and rejected him, and as such God no longer has any obligations to them. God is righteously angered (some may substitute a different word here which expresses a very similar meaning) towards mankind because of this rebellion. As such, God chooses to enter into a renewed relationship with some people (‘saving’ them), but not with others. That is his prerogative and perfectly just, as no one is deserving of such treatment at all, so there is no basis on which anyone can complain or claim unjust treatment for not receiving it.
If God is like this, then I do not judge God to be good by my criteria. I couldn’t care in the slightest whether or not God has a moral (or really any sort of) obligation towards mankind, nor could I care less if mankind rejected God seventy times, or even seventy times seven. To do good is, I believe, to strive to promote the ultimate wellbeing of others, regardless of whether or not they have treated you nicely or fairly or justly. If God is not doing this, if he is doing any less than his utmost to promote the wellbeing of mankind, if he is picking and choosing whom to save (or whatever word one cares to use) on the basis of some arbitrary whim and then justifying this on the basis that he has no ‘obligation’ to anyone because they all rejected him, then I call that God nasty, petty, callous, and uncaring. I will not devote my life to such a God, shout hosanna to them, or express unqualified rapturous gratitude to them. I will use what is left of my life to do what I can to help others, and then after I die I will face the eternal conscious torment that at least some Christians believe such a God has justly prepared for me. I’d rather suffer in hell than undeservedly worship the creator of such a horrific place in the obsequious hope of avoiding being sent there.
Am I Being Arrogant?
Is it not exceptionally arrogant (a word I henceforth use to mean ‘too stubborn and overconfident in one’s beliefs’) to declare that God must adhere to my standards of goodness and morality, especially given that I have assented to the proposition that such a being is our creator and is immensely powerful and knowledgeable? I don’t think so. Why should it be the case that because God is our all-powerful all-knowing creator, that therefore he must be good and worthy of worship? What justification is there for such a belief? To me it seems totally without basis, and indeed stands in direct contradiction with our overwhelming evidence that power and intelligence do not in any way imply goodness or virtue. God could be all knowing and all powerful, but just not care very much (or at all) about the welfare of his creation. If that is what God is like, then why should I devote my life to him? Why should I worship him? I’m totally serious about this – I can’t understand how anyone would want to worship such a being, even if they believed very strongly that he existed. Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m looking at this all the wrong way, but currently I feel no desire whatever to worship a being of this sort, nor can I see any reason as to why I should have such a desire – again, even if I strongly believed he existed.
Many Christians speak of how they came to a firm conviction that God exists by sensing his actions in their life, or by reading the bible, or by considering various other arguments and evidences, or by some combination of these methods. Whatever its genesis, making such an emphatic and strong claim is, in my view, profoundly arrogant. If someone thinks that God has revealed himself to them in some personal or experiential way, they believe not only that God has chosen to reveal himself to them when so many others do not receive such divine favour, but also that they have been able to correctly understand and interpret God’s intended message while so many others are deceived or mislead by their spiritual experiences. Similarly, if someone believes that they have come to a correct understanding of God through careful study and analysis of the arguments, then they believe that they have managed to see the evidence clearly and correctly where so many other learned and intelligent people have failed (including both non-theists and adherents of other religions).
Either way, or in the case of a mixture of the two methods, a Christian who claims strong confidence in their beliefs is, I think, making an exceptionally arrogant claim. (Note: I am not saying that Christians are arrogant. I am saying rather that Christians who claim such high confidence are exhibiting arrogance in making this particular claim. I have argued this point in more detail here.) This doesn’t make the claim false, but I think it is grossly inconsistent for a Christian to state that they have seen past all the potential confusions of human psychology, false spirits, bad arguments, and all the rest, and have been able to accurately grasp some of the most profound and deepest truths of human existence, whilst simultaneously criticising as arrogant my claim, which I regard to be the relevantly innocuous, that I have no reason to worship a God who does not care deeply and supremely about the welfare of all sentient beings and do all within his power to help them.
Many Christians speak of how the positive influence of God in their lives is a factor that strengthens their faith. And yet, when I express my negative reactions to certain Christian beliefs about God’s nature, I am accused of being irrational and allowing emotions to cloud my judgement. Not only does this seem to me to be grossly inconsistent, but it also misunderstands the nature of my claim. I am not claiming that the truth of God’s nature or existence is in any way affected by my moral reaction to it (which I think is totally different from ’emotion’, but let’s leave that for the moment). Rather, I am claiming that my moral reaction to God’s nature is relevant to my decision about whether to devote my life to worship of said God. Given that often Christians will speak of how their reading about or contemplation of God leads them to see how amazingly good and worthy of worship he is, I hardly see it as consistent to then criticise me for expressing my reservations about devoting myself to God on the basis that when I read about or contemplate certain teachings about his nature, I am led to see how morally inadequate and unworthy of worship he is (at least according to these particular understandings of God).
I am not claiming here that God is unworthy of worship, or that the Christian God is an evil God. I am not even saying that the God as understood by the particular reformed perspective to which I react so negatively is necessarily ‘evil’. What I am saying is that if certain beliefs about the nature of God are correct, then I see no reason to worship or unreservedly praise such a being. This is important, because it means that if I were to adopt Christianity or another other religion, I would need to be persuaded not only of the existence of whatever divine being the religion believes in, but also of the desirability and rightness of worshipping such a being. I need to be persuaded both that God exists, and that God is good. Either alone is insufficient.
In this piece I outline an approach to weighing up the degree of evidence in favour of Christianity with the degree of evidence against it. I discuss this approach in analogical terms as similar considering how much load (arguments against) can be borne by the legs of a table (arguments for), in order to support justified belief in a proposition (the table, or in this case belief in Christianity). Having outlined this framework, I then proceed to list the fourteen key pieces of evidence which I think are relevant, and whether I think they provide evidence for or against Christianity. I conclude by offering some personal reflections on my subjective sense as to how these different evidences balance out against each other.
Specifying the Question
Suppose that we agree to the following set of propositions:
- A creator God exists
- This God is omnipotent and omniscient
- This God desires to communicate his divine will to all mankind and aid everyone in entering into a willing relationship with him
Subject to minor rewording of 3 to rectify various possible quibbles, when I use the word ‘God’ henceforth in this piece, I mean a God that satisfies 1-3.
These three propositions, as I take it, represent approximately the limits of what the many philosophical arguments for the existence of God can establish (e.g. the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the transcendental argument, etc). What I aim to do here is presuppose the success of such arguments in establishing 1-3, and then consider the question as to which of the world’s revealed religions are genuine instances of divine communication with humanity which preserve (to a reasonable level of accuracy) divine teachings and intentions. In particular, I wish to consider (multi-part) proposition:
4. The life of Jesus of Nazareth (and the events surrounding it) was the supreme method by which God has revealed himself to humanity, and the teachings of Christianity accurately indicate God’s will for mankind.
Although not its strict logical negation, for our purposes here I wish to consider its counterpart as:
4′. Christianity is not uniquely divinely inspired (either not at all, or at least no more than many other religions), but instead developed over historical time as a result of the shifting and often conflicting ideas, motivations, and opinions of many different individuals (i.e. like Christians would believe other religions developed).
Henceforth, when I talk about ‘Christianity being true’ (or similar), I am referring to the truth of 4. Rather than speaking of Christianity being false, I shall instead refer to the truth of 4′. I acknowledge that 4 and 4′ are not strictly speaking negations of one another, but for our purposes here I think they serve as the most useful propositions to juxtapose.
An Analogy: Supporting Legs and Heavy Bricks
The following analogy may help readers to understand the approach I take here. Being an analogy, it is of course imperfect, but hopefully it will nonetheless still be of use.
Consider a circular table. The table is supported by many legs, each bearing some portion of its weight. The table is old and somewhat lopsided, so each leg does not necessarily support the same amount of weight as every other. On top of the table are a number of bricks, each of varying mass. The larger the combined mass of the bricks, the more likely it is that the legs will be unable to support total weight, and table the will come crashing to the floor. Conversely, the larger the combined weight the legs are able to bear, the higher will be the total mass of bricks the table will be able to support.
In this analogy, the table represents our (potential) justified belief in the truth of Christianity. Each brick represents a piece of evidence/argument/observation/fact/etc (henceforth simply ‘evidence’) which makes it more difficult to retain justified belief in Christianity; that is, the bricks are evidences against the truth of Christianity. Each leg represents a piece of evidence which supports our justified belief in Christianity. No single leg alone need bear all the weight of ‘justifying’ Christianity, but the combined weight they bear must be at least equal to the total weight of the bricks. (I don’t think it much matters if the tabletop itself is thought of as having weight or not.) The number of bricks is not important, because a single very heavy brick could be enough to bring down the table. Likewise the number of legs is not important, for a single sufficiently sturdy leg could be enough to support a very large weight.
Our first task is to examine what are the key legs supporting the table, and what are the key bricks pushing down on it. The next step is then to estimate the total weight of the bricks, and compare it to the total weight bearing capacity of the legs. The purpose in approaching the problem this way is that everyone seems to have their own intuitive sense of whether the table stands or falls, but without some way of more carefully identifying which legs support how much weight, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to adjudicate disagreements about the table as a whole. My aim here is to try to break the question down into smaller parts, and see whether those parts represent bricks or legs. I will not, in this piece, attempt the second step of weighing up the weight supported to the total weight of bricks.
The Technical Version: Taking Partial Derivatives
The following is a more formal account of the approach outlined in the analogy above. If you find it confusing, skip this section.
Consider a differentiable function f(e), which maps a vector of evidences e onto a real number in the interval (0,1), which number represents our degree of justification or support for 4 given 1-3. The partial derivative of f with respect to each ei represents the bearing that evidence i has on our degree of justified belief in 4. If the partial derivative is zero, the evidence is irrelevant and can be ignored. If the partial derivative is positive, the piece of evidence provides support for 4, while if it is negative it provides evidence against it.
The taking of partial derivatives is important, because in practise we do not know the functional form of f, but we may be able to determine the sign of each partial derivative, and hence the relevance of each piece of evidence considered individually. We may then attempt to heuristically estimate the plausible magnitudes of these partial derivatives, and hence arrive at a judgement concerning the overall strength of the arguments for compared to the arguments against, even in the absence of exact knowledge of the form of f.
In the following section, when I speak of a piece of evidence e1 being ‘more consistent’ with state of affairs A than state ~A, I mean something like ‘P(A|e1) > P(~A|e1)’, where P is understood to be the marginal distribution over all other evidences ei (that is, we are considering the partial effect of e1 alone on our belief).
The reader will note that there are eight ‘against’ arguments and only six ‘for’. No doubt that this reflects, in part, my own personal bias and limited perspective. It is important to note, however, that as I stated previously, the number of arguments is irrelevant, not least of all because whether a given ‘argument’ is split up into sub-parts or combined into a single whole is arbitrary. The important question is the relative combined ‘weight’ of the ‘bricks’ (arguments against) compared to the combined ‘weight-bearing capacity’ of the ‘legs’ (arguments for). I make no claims to answer that question in this piece – here I attempt only to outline the key arguments, and indicate which ‘direction’ I believe they point in, that is in favour of 4 or in favour of 4′.
|SufferingGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the amount and degree of suffering in the world is more consistent with 4′ than 4, given that 4 entails that God is all good and loving.|
|Resurrection AppearancesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the reports of Jesus appearing to many groups of people following his death is evidence in favour of 4.|
|Conversion of PaulGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sudden and unexpected conversion of Paul is evidence in favour of 4.|
|The Empty TombGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the early accounts of Jesus’ tomb being found empty by women is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.|
|Cognitive Biases and Social InfluencesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sorts of cognitive biases, memory failings, and social influences that I document in my HBS model are evidence against 4 and in favour of 4′, since by such processes beliefs in miracles and divine revelation can (at least to some degree) develop in the absence of any actual divine intervention.|
|Immoral CommandmentsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the numerous immoral commandments in the bible (very harsh penalties in Law of Moses, genocidal orders, treatment of women, condoning slavery, etc) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4, given we would expect God to reveal a fair, just moral law, but would not necessarily expect this given 4′.|
|Cultural BoundednessGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Judaism and later Christianity were for most of history only accessible and known to a small fraction of the world’s population is evidence against 4.|
|Size and Staying PowerGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with a significant presence across large parts of the world today, and having survived many centuries of change and disruption, is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.|
|Doctrinal ConfusionsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant disagreement between Christians, both historically and at present, about many important questions concerning the nature of God and of his word is more consistent with 4′ than with 4.|
|Subjective Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many Christians feel with respect to God are evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.|
|Conflicting Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many non-Christians feel with respect to beliefs they hold are evidence against 4.|
|Biblical ConfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the archaeological and historical support for the accuracy of many aspects of the new and old testaments is evidence for 4 over 4′.|
|Biblical DisconfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the conflict of certain events of the bible with archaeological and historical evidence (such as the nativity accounts and the exodus) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4. Note: I would also include creation, the flood, the tower of babel, and numerous other events here as well, but only if they are interpreted as literal historical events. I do not think that 4 entails such beliefs, but some Christians do.|
|Changing DoctrinesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant doctrinal changes introduced by Jesus and Paul over traditional Jewish teachings (e.g. superseding much of the Law of Moses, new ideas about hell, the atonement, altered interpretation of Messianic prophecies, etc) are more consistent with 4′ than with 4, given that 4 includes notions of God being unchangeable and consistent.|
Here I will simply list, without explanation, a number of considerations which are often raised as being potentially relevant to the question of the truth of Christianity, but which I do not believe offer particularly strong support either for 4 over 4′, or for 4′ over 4.
- Christians doing good at present or historically
- Christians doing evil at present or historically
- Similarities of Christian beliefs to other religious mythology
- The doctrine of the trinity
- Personifications of God in the bible (e.g. speaking as if God had a physical body)
- The religious beliefs (or absence thereof) of Hitler, Stalin, or Darwin
- The existence or findings of science (aside from certain findings of psychology and archaeology, as outlined above)
- The coherence or compellingness of Christian doctrinal teachings
Some Personal Reflections
I will conclude with a few brief thoughts about where I personally stand currently on weighing up the evidences. Very loosely, I tend to think that the biblical confirmations and disconfirmations roughly ‘cancel out’ (i.e. the weight added by the brick of disconfirmations is roughly the same as that supported by the confirmations). I think likewise that subjective experience is roughly cancelled out by conflicting experiences, and that cultural boundedness is roughly cancelled out by size and staying power, though in these cases I might lean towards saying that the bricks are somewhat heavier than the corresponding legs support. I think that the cognitive biases brick noticeably outweighs the resurrection appearances, empty tomb, and conversion of Paul all combined. I tend to think that suffering, immoral commandments, and doctrinal changes are problematic bricks without any sufficiently compensating load-bearing legs, though I am not especially confident about this. I also suspect that (given my bias) this list is more likely to omit some important ‘legs’ than it is likely to omit some important ‘bricks’.
Overall, I am left with a conviction that even given 1-3, Christianity is noticeably, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to be false than true. Maybe I’d put my subjective degree of belief (again, conditional on 1-3) at around 0.2, which large margins of error. Though strictly speaking outside the scope of this piece, I would accord a similar, though perhaps slightly higher, degree of belief in 1-3 themselves, for which reason I call myself an atheist. The truth of the matter is, of course, not in any way affected by my degree of belief. Nevertheless, I want to hold true beliefs and avoid falsehoods, and this article represents a summary of my recent manner of thinking about how to best achieve this goal. I hope it will be of use to others and simulate further discussion and profitable exploration of these important ideas.