Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

Synopsis

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

A Personal Anecdote

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

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

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

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

‘Serious Engagement

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

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

My Experiences with Christians

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

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

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

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

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

Ministry to the Gullible?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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Seeking God versus Seeking Truth

Synopsis

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

Introduction

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

Seeking Truth

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

Seeking God

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

Beliefs Beyond Question

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

Truth First

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

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

There… Are… Four… Lights!

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

 

On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

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

Truth and Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Belief

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

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

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

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

A Case for Christianity – A Critique

Synopsis

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

Inference to the Best Explanation

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

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

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

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

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

The Contingency of the Universe

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

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

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

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

The Principle of Sufficient Reason

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

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

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

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

The Failure of Naturalism

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

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

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

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

God as an Explanation

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

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

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

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

The Fine-Tuning Argument

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Faith and Reason: A Place for Both

Synopsis

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

What is Reason?

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

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

What is Faith?

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

Faith and Belief

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

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

Faith and Doubt

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

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

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

Faith in the Bible

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

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

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

Faith in Science

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

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

On Subjective Evidence

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

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

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

Summary and Applications

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

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

 

 

 

 

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs

I have written a piece about when it is rational not to update one’s beliefs in response to new evidence, in particular with respect to anecdotal evidence. The piece contains some equations, so I have uploaded it as a pdf here:

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs (in pdf form)

Synopsis
I argue that in cases with low prior probabilities and unreliable evidence (e.g. personal anecdotes), it is rational not to update one’s posterior probabilities at all in response to additional low quality evidence (e.g. an additional anecdote). I present my basic case with reference to Bayes’ Theorem, and then consider some rebuttals. I reject that rebuttal that updates should be small but non-zero on the grounds that such small updates are within the bounds of error of one’s probabilities. I reject the rebuttal that many anecdotes provide stronger cumulative evidence on the basis that anecdotes are not independent events. I conclude with a discussion about the differences between updating in abstract theory, and updating in the real world.