Two Smart Believers Disagree

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob are bible believing Christians and they go to your church. They both also happen to have an education in interpreting the bible. One day, you ask them both a question about a particular interpretation on a significant passage (or doctrine) that has been troubling you.

Alice and Bob both give compelling, well thought out and equally biblically supported answers which just so happen to be mutually exclusive.

Questions

  • How do you as a person of faith determine which is true and which is false (or neither is true)?
  • Is revelation an effective method to discover truth?

This post is part of the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Two Islanders Thought Experiment

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

There are two isolated islands which have no contact with the outside world or each other. In a twist of fate, Alice and Bob find themselves alone on these separated islands just as they have reached the age of reason.

After a short time Theo, a theistic god, reveals itself to Alice and Bob independently. The revelation is the same in both cases. Theo miraculously provides writing utensils and parchment for both of them.

Ten years go by, in which, Alice and Bob on their respective islands independently worship Theo and write down the revelation they received including how to properly worship Theo. Remember they don’t know about each other and have no contact with anyone else.

After ten years Alice and Bob are rescued from their islands and tell their stories to the world.

Questions

Do you believe Alice’s and Bob’s written accounts of the revelation of Theo and how to properly worship Theo will be the same?

From the perspective of Theo, is revelation an effective way to transmit truth?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Thought Experiments for Believers

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

I am creating a new series of blog posts called “Thought Experiments for Believers.”

Unlike my typical verbose 1000+ word posts, these will be short setups with one or more probing questions. And that’s it. I am not going to answer them myself. The purpose of the questions is for the reader to decide for themselves. In many of the thought experiments, we will have three characters: Alice and Bob, of mathematics and encryption fame, and Theo, our generic theistic god.

Ironically, the thought experiments will take very seriously the premise of the existence of a theistic god. They will be predicated on the assumption that such a god exists and then ask the reader to consider the implications if that were true. My argument has always been that it is not that believers take god too seriously it is that they do not take the implications of a theistic god seriously enough.

There are a couple of hurdles the believer will have to overcome in order for the thought experiments to be useful. One, I am not suggesting that there will not be explanations for these thought experiments. Apologists will always have an answer. What I am asking of you is to seriously consider if it is the right answer. Do these explanations satisfy you? Two, many times apologists and believers will outright reject hypotheticals on principle. They can say to themselves, “well, this isn’t real so it doesn’t matter.” My challenge to you is to overcome this hesitation and take the questions seriously.

These are the types of questions I wish someone would have asked me early on in my faith. Even if you are convinced of the answers you have and are more confident in your faith after having asked yourself these questions, it will have been worth while.

I’ll continue to add broad topics here with links to the specific questions. If you happen to have a particularly good question you would like added here please contact me. If you are a believer and want to respond, please either comment or contact me.

Apologetic Arguments

Is revelation an effective method for communicating truth?

Does your theistic god intervene in the world?

Leaning Into My Presuppostions

Atheism, Communities of Unbelief, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Naturalism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Conversely inspired by presuppositional apologetics and continuing my Watershed Presuppositions series I thought it time to write down what my presuppositions are.

Presuppositions are truths you accept without justification. They are accepted a prori and may or may not have evidence to prove them. They are your starting point and the basis upon which everything you believe in is built.

It is important to note that everyone has presuppositions whether they are aware of them or not. Much of the difficulty in having a dialog with those you disagree with is the unstated incongruous presuppositions that you and your interlocutor hold.

My Presuppositions

Ontological and Epistemological

  • The universe exists and has patterns which are to varying degrees discoverable.
  • Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe.
  • Logic and mathematics abstracted from the discoverable patterns of the universe by conscious minds are sound and reliable.
  • The scientific method which uses logic, mathematics and observation is a reliable method for discovering the patterns of the universe.
  • Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality.

Moral

  • Human beings have value and inalienable rights.
  • Human beings are fallible.
  • Human beings are meaning makers.

These are the truths that I hold axiomatically. Some, even most, can be justified, meaning they have evidence. But, for our purposes here, what are the implications of these statements when held true?

You may find yourself saying, “but I don’t believe one or more of these.” No problem. These are my presuppositions not yours. The reason they are useful is for you to understand how I come to certain conclusions and not others. If you can accept them purely for the sake of argument you can begin to understand my worldview. If you cannot accept them even solely for the sake of argument then we have nothing further to discuss.

The universe exists

This one seems pretty obvious. If it seems as obvious to you as it does to me, you have probably never hung out with philosophers.

The purpose of this axiom is to do away with the interesting yet tiresome arguments of solipsism, that the only thing that can be proven to exist is our consciousness. Do we live in a hologram or a matrix? Are we just brains in a vat? So boldly and arrogantly I assert, the universe exists!

photo of galaxy

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Even more boldly I assert that at least to some extent it has patterns which are discoverable. These patters are observable and ultimately knowable to varying degrees of certainty. The old trite saying, “as surely as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West,” is an example of observing a pattern of the universe and gaining certainty that it is true.

Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe

This one is more of an assertion. Fewer people may agree with me here. But I take this as a given. Consciousness is not made of a mysterious non-natural substance. We may not understand consciousness in its entirety … yet. Therefore,  I assert consciousness is a product of the patterns of the universe we find ourselves conscious in.

This axiom is important to do away with the idea that consciousness is something other than natural. The idea of a soul dies hard.

Logic and mathematics are sound

Again, if you find this one obvious, you have not spent much time with either philosophers or presuppositional apologists.

Logic and mathematics are abstractions from the patterns of the universe by conscious minds. There are a few hidden assertions in here that I will point out.

Logic and mathematics do not exist in the platonic sense. We have discussed dualism in this series before it is a difficult one to escape. What I am saying here is logic and math do not have their own existence they are the product of human intellect based on observed patterns in the universe: abstractions. In philosophic language this is an epistemological claim not an ontological claim.

We as conscious human beings observe the patterns of the universe and we abstract “rules” that describe those patters. If I have two sheep and then I get two more I have four sheep. It does not matter if “sheep” are woolly mammals who chew the cud or blocks, or rocks, or anything. We have abstracted the rule 2 + 2 = 4 by observation and human intellect. From basic arithmetic to number theory we have abstracted rules from these patterns.

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board

Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

The most important assertion here is that logic and mathematics are sound and reliable. It is a feature of logical and mathematical proofs that each step taken relies on the proofs that came before it. If one of the foundational mathematics axioms were not true the proofs built upon it would not “work” as they do.

Don’t believe this one? Then throw out the magic device in your pocket that gives you access to the near sum total of human knowledge. That device, the network it uses and literally the information itself is all built on logic and mathematics.

Mathematics is the language of the universe.

— Neil Degrasse Tyson

The scientific method is a reliable method to gain knowledge

The scientific method is simply a process by which an idea is tested by gathering evidence. If there is strong evidence more credence is given to the idea, if there is little evidence credence goes down and if there is contradictory evidence the idea may be abandoned altogether.

My assertion here is that this is a reasonable and reliable epistemological method, a way to gain knowledge.

The scientific method leads toward truth in major part by discarding bad ideas. Finding true ideas is hard. Validating that an idea is true is just as hard. But by discarding false ideas the options are narrowed down toward true ones.

Science is self-correcting. If tomorrow credible evidence is discovered contracting any of the deeply held scientific theories credence in that theory would drop. Not only that the discoverer of the contradicting evidence would be lauded.

Science tends to assume naturalistic metaphysics. If that bothers you, then you need to account for science’s unreasonable, wild and fantastic success. The entirety of the modern age depends upon the successes of science from medicine to space exploration to binge watching your favorite TV series on demand.

Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality

Adding to the common definition of truth as that which conforms to reality and adding a bit of the scientific method. I assert that truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality where reality is the product of the patterns of the universe. We should have more credence in something that has been tested and has evidence than something that has neither.

Evidence, testing and validation are important because these are the only tools to convince the skeptic. Einstein was famously not a fan of quantum theory in the early days. But he was won over by the evidence.

If I make a claim, you can believe me or not. But if I make a claim and tell you how to test for yourself and that test validates my claim it is harder to ignore.

I expect the accusations of scientism, materialism and empiricism. Fine. It is certainly true that there are vast areas where science just doesn’t know. And in fact this is a feature: to humbly acknowledge all that we don’t know.

Focusing on the gaps in knowledge misses the point, keep in mind all that we do know. Evolutionary theory explains the vast complexity of life on planet Earth. Theories within cosmology can model the universe back to fractions of a second after the big bang. Gravity waves just recently verified were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The baffling quantum field theory explains nature’s behavior at the microscopic level which turns out to be deeply counter intuitive.

Even for those things which we cannot measure directly we use inference. We have inferred dark matter and dark energy. These two account for 96% of the material in the universe and yet we cannot detect them directly.

Human beings have value and inalienable rights

This is the basis of my morality: human beings have value and inalienable rights. I assert it thus, and then try to live out the implications. As sentient beings we recognize each other’s great value in the otherwise empty vastness of the universe we find ourselves in. We are not alone. We have each other.

I am a humanist as I have written before. This simply means that people are more important than ideologies of any kind. We ought to treat each other with Secular Grace.

woman carrying baby at beach during sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I appreciate the need to expand this concept to conscious creatures. This has vast implications on how we treat animals and potential artificial intelligences. However, as recent political history has shown we are not very good at treating each other with respect and valuing each other’s rights. So human beings are my focus.

Human beings are fallible

Just as important as recognizing the value human beings pose we must also acknowledge human fallibility. Although, I reject the concept of sin it would be foolishness not to recognize people can be destructive to themselves and others.

Human beings are neither all good nor all bad. If those terms are too loaded, they are neither completely selfish nor completely altruistic. Our motivations are complex and varied and they very rarely reduce to simple identifiable sources.

We are very good at fooling ourselves. We are susceptible to a vast array of cognitive biases. In fact, much of the process of the scientific method is to avoid human fallibility and our ability to find what we want to be true.

However, just because human beings are fallible or imperfect does not mean we are not of great value. Sentience being an exceedingly rare commodity in the universe we find ourselves in, we need to love each other.

Human beings are meaning makers

We humans are the conscious observers who abstract the patterns of the universe. We experience awe and mystery and give them meaning. We define human morality  I assert there may not be inherent meaning in the universe but we humans make meaning.

We are the universe aware of itself.

— Carl Sagan, Julian Huxley, Neil Degrasse Tyson all have said some variation on this quote.

I tend to agree with Hume that you cannot get an aught from an is. Rather than exhausting ourselves looking for external objective truth, morality and meaning we should take it upon ourselves to work together toward greater understanding of human truth, morality and meaning. Though all human moral systems are incomplete, taken together they point toward respect for human value.

Apologetics, epistemology and moving on

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Naturalism, Philosophy

I am done

I am done with apologetics. I am done listening to debates between naturalists and theists. I am done giving apologetics the benefit of the doubt as a valid point of debate. Over the past few years, right before and since my deconversion, I have spent a significant amount of time listening to debates, reading articles and generally trying to understand the theists’ arguments for the existence of god. This includes attempting to remember what used to convince me. But now I am done.

What disappoints me about apologists is not that they are making arguments for Christianity.
I expect and encourage that.
What disappoints me is that the arguments are weak.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, one story describes some characters using a fictional algorithm that filters diplomatic speak and reduces it to concrete information. It removes the flowery double speak and outputs the actual useful content, information that can be acted upon. In the story one ambassador’s lengthy comments reduced to no content whatsoever, many many words but no information. We might say something similar about a certain American politician today.

While reading this fictional story it dawned on me that this is what has been bothering me about apologetics for years. Apologetics reduce to nothingness. It is a shell game. There is no actual content, it is all assertions.

Here I have to acknowledge something. Let’s call it a confession. Even today when I read a new article or hear a new argument there is some part of me that hopes the argument will make sense, that it will be valid and that my metaphysics will be, if not overturned, at least challenged. My emotional reaction is one of deep disappointment. I do not mean to say that I want to be wrong, but maybe there is some lingering shame at having been gullible enough to believe the apologists in the past. If their arguments were at least sound, then I might have an excuse for having stayed as long as I did.

Me reading a new apologist:
Interesting …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Nope same old argument.

Apologetics no matter how sophisticated tend to reduce to a few well understood fallacies:

1) Begging the question

This is when the conclusion is baked into the question. My favorite(?) world class example of this is William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument. From my post What if I grant you that:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

… do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

2) Semantic games:

The simplest example of this is the deliberate misrepresentation of terms. Such as abusing the term theory; suggesting that the theory of evolution is “just a theory.” I need you to see how post-modern this is. The post-modern relativism the Church has decried for decades is the bastion of the apologist. I acknowledge here that this simplistic version tends to be deployed by the less sophisticated average theist.

However, a more sophisticated version is deployed when apologists are challenged on logical inconsistencies. For example the problem of evil as expressed by Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Here the sophisticated apologist will assert God’s intentions:

God wants us to be free
God wants us to experience the consequences of our actions
God’s ways are above our ways

Or on divine on hidenness:

God loves us enough to withhold his power
God will not force us to believe
Miracles ended in the first century because the bible

How do you know what God intends if his ways are above yours? Rather than acknowledging the obvious inconsistencies semantic games are played to warp the common sense meaning and obfuscate the truth: there is no substance to the apologist’s arguments.

Assertion of my own:
All “known” attributes of god are themselves assertions.
Including, but not limited to, existence.

3) God of the gaps:

This is the beginning and the end for the apologist. Anything we do not yet understand is attributed to god.  This is the big bucket into which most of apologetics falls into.

In the beginning:

There was a time when humanity did not understand lightning. There was a time when we did not understand disease. There was a time when we did not understand evolution. During those times humanity credited these things to the gods.

Where we are now:

The god of the gaps argument is the rapidly shrinking space where science has yet to find answers. Don’t get me wrong, there are vast areas where we do not yet know. Some of them are hugely significant.

An incomplete list of things we do not know:

  • What happened “before” the big bang
  • The origin of life
  • How consciousnesses arises

But there are many many areas of knowledge that have been revealed by science. Areas that were once all assigned to god whether of the theist or of the deist kind. But now there is no reason to believe that our ignorance in a particular area will last forever.

The apologist uses our ignorance to insert a god to fill the gap. Those gaps have gotten smaller and smaller over time at an accelerated pace. At what point do they admit, there is no need of god?

Naturalist: The sum total of scientific, rational and empirical evidence suggests the natural world is all there is.
Theist: Yes, but people really feel like there is a god.

Moving on

To sum up: I am disappointed, bored and I am done. I am not mad at a non-existent god, I am mad at the apologists.

I acknowledge, this is not very intellectual of me. I am, in effect, dismissing arguments, out of hand, without considering them first. But this is the point. Apologetics, at least all of it that I have consumed, reduces to a few already refuted points. Until apologists have new information or evidence to present, the existing arguments can be safely dismissed.

One other complaint that could be leveled at me is that I am creating straw man arguments to knock down. Again, this is the point, the much more qualified scientists, philosophers and ethicists have exhausted themselves since the Enlightenment “steel manning” theists’ arguments and yet still refuting them. What more do I have to add to the argument? The burden is upon the apologist to bring new evidence.

This is sometimes called post-theism. The idea is that theism has had its time to make its arguments. Those arguments have been shown lacking. Therefore, it is time to move on.

It is not that there is no evidence for theism. Read any serious philosophical article on the subject and you will find some evidence for theism. However, the evidence is not compelling. The evidence is not strong enough to convince the skeptic.  The evidence for theism is insufficient to sustain belief. At this point it is a waste of everyone’s, including the apologitst’s, time to continue to beat a dead horse.  It is time to move on.

Built upon the sand

One reason for this insufficiency is the epistemology of faith has no objective basis. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. What is our basis for what is true and what is false. Faith is based purely on tautological assertions.

The god theists assert, asserts that he exists in the asserted divinely inspired scriptures that assert god exists.

It is a bit like a time travel movie where our hero travels to the distant past with an invention she created in the recent past. Say a time machine. She uses the invention to change something in the past. When she returns to the present everything has been changed. The past in which she created the time machine no longer exits. So where did the knowledge for the time machine come from?

I have written about this before. If you ask 100 believers about some point of doctrine or another, you will likely get 100 different answers despite the fact that they read the same scriptures. This is an order of magnitude worse with believers of different faiths. There is no epistemic basis to decide between competing faith positions. There is no way to know which is true and which is false. Because it all is based on subjective experience.

Solid Ground

I don’t know how to explain to you that evidence is important

Much more compelling is the epistemology in science. Science acknowledges as step zero, that human beings are capable of fooling themselves. Therefore, the scientific method takes great pains to prove a hypothesis wrong, to falsify. Even a well established scientific theory which has withstood this onslaught can be overturned given new evidence. The scientific method actually encourages peer reviewers to be skeptical, to work at disproving a given hypothesis.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have.
— Carl Sagan

The difference between science and faith, is that rigorously obtained, peer reviewed and replicable data can change the mind of a skeptical scientist, but has no effect on the believer.

I am very open to being proven wrong. I am open to evidence. That would not be boring!

We are all scientists

Lest you think that only a few can be scientists, remember, that humans are natural Bayesians. Few of us understand orbital dynamics and Einstein’s General Relativity, and yet few of us doubt the sun will come up in the morning. We have seen it day after day for all of our lives. We have replicable evidence that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We can observe it just by looking up.

We don’t have to understand the warping of spacetime in order to know that objects fall to the ground. We have experienced it since childhood. Long before we could say the word gravity we had a visceral understanding of it.

This is Beysian thinking. We come up with an explanation for a phenomenon. We then we gather data. We experience. If the experiences reinforce the explanation we put more trust in it. If it contradicts it we throw it out. The trouble comes when things are inconsistent. Then we tend to fall prey to selection bias and motivated reasoning.

Take prayer as an example. We pray for something, usually something very likely to occur. When it happens, we attribute it to god. When it doesn’t we either forget the prayer all together or we come up with reasons why the answer was a “no.” That is motivated reasoning. When we think back about answers to prayer, we remember when we got what we asked for and forget when we didn’t. That is selection bias.

I want to make one last point clear. I am not saying that people’s experience of god are not real. There are perfectly good natural explanations for people’s religious experiences. The experience is real the cause is misidentified. I know this from personal experience.

people-all-along

Being rigorous about what we accept as true is critical. A rigorous epistemology is quite possibly the most important resource of our times. Fake News, anyone?

I am done with apologists and moving on. I’ll continue to seek knowledge and truth as rigorously as I can. Join me?

Review: Hell Is The Absence of God

Atheism, Book Review, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Thought Experiments

Permit me to geek out a bit.

This past year, the movie Arrival hit theaters. I am an admitted geek with a particular weakness for time travel, linguistics and alien science fiction. So this movie was like crack cocaine for me. After watching the movie, I wanted more. I discovered the source material is a short story called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It can be found in his book titled “Stories of Your Life and Others” which is a collection of short stories.

The short story did not disappoint. Like all great science fiction, the subject is not actually aliens or technology but humanity and what it means to be human. In fact, this is a poignant story about a mother and her daughter. Because of the mother’s exposure to the alien language, she is able to “remember” the future. She knows the toddler bumps on the head and the teenage temper tantrums that will occur *before* her daughter is born. Ultimately the mother decides to have her daughter even after gaining foreknowledge of her daughter’s death at age 25. In the same way that many of us, given the chance to do life all over again, would say “I would do it the same way because it led to my significant other and my children” the mother chooses to do it the “same” way for the first time.

There is a humanist message here. Human relationships are what give us meaning in life even though human lifetimes are finite. The joy and love are worth any pain and heartache we may experience.

Hell on Earth

As good as “Story of Your Life” is, another of Chiang’s short stories stood out as more significant for an atheist humanist such as myself. In his short story, “Hell Is The Absence of God,” the excellent​ premise is that a (generic) theistic god exists. One which, crucially, actually intervenes in the lives of modern humans in the form of angelic visitations that have both miraculous and disastrous effects. In short, no one in this world doubts the existence of god because there is physical evidence of his interventions.

There are still decisions to be made about this god. During the visitations, for example, one person may receive miraculous healing while another may be severely injured by the debris from a building destroyed by the divine presence. The devout in this world see the miraculous after effects of the visitations as proof of this god’s goodness and downplay the destructive elements, while others see the negative consequences as either negating the benefit of the miraculous or down right outweighing it. Sound familiar?

When this short story first came out, this was the main theme that caused controversy. Christians felt it was a direct attack on Christianity and a rehashing of the problem of suffering. Though the story never identifies a specific religion as its target, there are vague Jewish and Catholic overtones. Chiang did an excellent job of making it as generic as possible and not, in fact, specific to any extant religion.

For a critique from a theist along these lines see John C Wright. For a critique of that critique see this. Also check out a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards where David and Tamler take on the purposefulness/purposelessness of suffering in the short story which according to Ted Chiang’s notes on the story is much closer to Ted Chiang’s intention than what you find here.

Although there is much to unpack regarding the problem of suffering, that is not the most damning point of the story. I want to focus on the more obvious point: that this God actively intervenes in the world of the story. The subtle, or not so subtle, subversiveness of this story is an attack on divine hiddeness in the real world. In particular, this god continued to intervene in the world even in the modern scientific age. In the story, the visitations were studied scientifically, statistics were gathered and evaluations were made about those who benefited and those who suffered. In our world, where are the emperor’s new clothes?

Any straight forward reading of the bible (insert the usual apologies for focusing on Christianity) suggests a god who interacts with his creation, and yet that is not the world we find ourselves in. This highlights, as I have pointed out before, not that theists take religion too seriously but that they don’t take it seriously enough. If they really believed what the bible describes, they would be in sack cloth and ashes every day crying out for god to *DO* something … anything.

In the notes on the story Chiang quotes Anne Dillard as saying:

If people had more belief they would wear crash helmets when attending church and lash themselves to the pews.


For more see critique of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast


Thought Experiment

Like the premise of this story we can run the thought experiment:

If God is real what would we expect to observe in the universe?

We would expect to see evidence that god created the universe. Instead we see a universe that behaves according to the laws of physics. And we can model the evolution of the universe from near the Big Bang until now. There is also a common theory among liberal theists that god guided evolution of life on Earth. Yet we see no evidence of tampering in the DNA record. Asserting that a god created the universe is not the same as evidence.

We would expect to see that believers experience statistically significant better quality of life from non-believers. But we see that believers and non-believers experience about the same positive and negative life experiences. The divorce rate is not significantly different. Cancer rates are the same.

We would expect to see miracles. Really, this is the big one that this story highlights. The god of most theistic religions is an interventionist yet miracles mysteriously disappeared in the modern scientific age. I have always, even as a Christian, felt the explanations from believers for why miracles ceased were very weak tea. Their explanations would seem to be describing a change in character in their unchanging god. Double blind tests researching the effects of intercessory prayer on healing diagnosed sick people showed no effect beyond the placebo effect.

We would expect to see prophets accurately speaking for god. Today if a person says they are speaking for God we quietly call the authorities to have the person institutionalized. Where are the prophets who predict a god’s intervention before a natural disaster occurs rather than pontificating after the fact?

We would expect to see justice. Returning to the topic of the problem of suffering, we would expect to see the righteous victorious and the unrighteous punished.

This list of reasonable expectations is not even approaching exhaustive. One could go on and on about the expected results of an interventionist god participating in the world vs the deafening silence that we actually experience.

Angelic advise for the real world

In the story we learn that the fallen angels are rather rational creatures who tell the humans to “Make up their own minds.” Hell turns out to be … well … not much different than the world we find ourselves in minus the visitations of angels. This highlights that Reality is the absence of god. In short, this fictional story allows one to viscerally feel the disparity between what a reasonable person would expect and what actually happens in our world.

Does the character, Neil, experience god’s grace?

Another theme of the story to explore is the very human reaction when others experience miracles but you do not.

Both in the story’s world and in ours there is a tendency to equate success in life with god’s favor. How easy is it for those who are born comfortably ensconced in the middle class to avoid questioning whence their success came from? With a simple answer close at hand, “god loves me,” it takes a very self reflective person to recognize the privileges that are the more likely reasons.

Neil is born with a birth defect that affects his leg. He is ambivalent about his condition but resents that others take it as sign of god’s disfavor. The story highlights our tendency to see those less fortunate than ourselves as “deserving” it somehow.

Even worse, when his wife dies as a result of a visitation, those who experienced miracles push him to become devout. This is a painful reminder of the well intentioned but ultimately destructive pat answers believers give to those suffering (whether those suffering are believers themselves or not).

Neil’s reaction to such attempts at persuasion depended on who was making it. When it was an ordinary witness, he found it merely irritating. When someone who’d received a miracle cure told him to love God, he had to restrain an impulse to strangle the person. But what he found most disquieting of all was hearing the same suggestion from a man named Tony Crane; Tony’s wife had died in the visitation too, and he now projected an air of groveling with his every movement. In hushed, tearful tones he explained how he had accepted his role as one of God’s subjects, and he advised Neil to do likewise.

While Chiang’s one weakness is a tendency toward dues ex machina, in this story it is fitting: a literal shinning of the divine light on his main character, which sets up the last stinging critique. Neil, the main character, has been “blinded by the light” (his goal all along so he could join his devout wife in Heaven) which allows him to “love” God despite his bitterness. And yet when he dies shortly after, God chooses to send him to hell instead. Such that Neil is the one person in hell who actually experiences it as a hell. He loves God (he can’t help it) but will never experience his nearness. This is a stinging critique of the devout in our world who most yearn to experience the closeness of an absent god.

Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

— Neil

Neil still loves Sarah, and misses her as much as he ever did, and the knowledge that he came so close to rejoining her only makes it worse. He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose being served. None of this diminishes his love for God. If there were a possibility that he could be admitted to Heaven and his suffering would end, he would not hope for it; such desires no longer occur to him.

Neil even knows that by being beyond God’s awareness, he is not loved by God in return. This doesn’t affect his feelings either, because unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

And though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves Him still. That is the nature of true devotion.

The point is that Neil having experienced the blinding of the light and finding himself sitting in hell loving a god who neither sees him nor loves him back represents believers in our world on Earth. They are dedicated to a god who, at best, is indifferent and more likely is non-existent.

Is this grace?

My opinion: no. This is the opposite of grace. This is the cruelty of religious claims. The strong implication that if one does not experience god’s graces in one’s life it is somehow the fault of the believer.

When one wakes up and accepts reality on its own terms, one can experience awe, mystery and most important, the powerful loving connection between human beings. This is what actual grace can look like: Secular Grace.

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

What if I grant you that?

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Deconversion, Philosophy

Since my deconversion and becoming an atheist I am particularly interested in engaging Christian apologists. During my Christian faith I was always fascinated and somewhat uncomfortable with apologetics. Reading apologists I began to realize the arguments tended to have fatal flaws and I became increasingly doubtful about their efficacy. Ultimately, apologetics was one of the factors that led to my rejecting the faith.

Now as an atheist I am relieved of the need to defend apologetics and Christianity in general. Instead I am fascinated by why I ever found them convincing even in part. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why I used to find apologetic arguments if not fully convincing at least comforting and why now they sound hollow.

Atheists are sometimes falsely accused of being willfully ignorant of the gospel. Contrary to this false narrative, I find atheists to be some of the most biblically literate people I have ever met. Likewise many atheists can express apologetic arguments (and their flaws) better than Christians can.

Instead of avoiding apologists, I have re-read or read for the first time a number of books on apologetics after becoming an atheist. I actively listen to the Unbelievable podcast which hosts theists and atheists in constructively debate (however, with a decidedly Christian bias). In fact to put my money where my mouth is, if you are a theist and have a suggestion for an apologist with a killer argument I am not familiar with, let me know on Twitter or in the comments and I will try to read or listen and respond.

The average Christian in the pew (and even the average pastor) tends to take the resurrection as a given and work backwards. Jesus was raised, therefore he is the incarnation of God. God communicates with his people, therefore the bible is his authoritative word. God is, therefore he is the creator of everything that is, etc. It is in the realm of faith alone and evidence and logic have little to nothing to do with it. I actually have no problem with this as long as it is acknowledged and not obfuscated.

Apologists, on the other hand, at least make the appearance of objectivity, rationality and logic by attempting to make the arguments for God without taking his existence as a given, a priori. In other words, they have stepped into the arena of evidence. Evidence, unlike faith, can be tested and weighed for its validity.


For more see my critiques of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast.

On the podcast I challenge believers not to an intellectual contest but to an honesty contest.

So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume there is a true 50/50 probability that God does or does not exist making as few assumptions as possible and let’s examine some of the apologetic arguments. I am going to be overly generous, only making passing arguments against, and granting the apologist’s argument as we go for the sake of argument in order to progress through the complete apologetic argument for Christianity. The point of this exercise? Does this line of argument lead to a theistic God? Does it lead to Christ?

My apologies up front for the cultural and religious centrism. Since my background is Christianity that is what we will focus on.

Watch your step

Step zero is actually granting that the immaterial, non-physical or meta-physical is even possible. I discuss this in a thread about presuppositions. It is important to highlight here that we cannot even begin the discussion without granting without any evidence to support it that the immaterial exists at all.

Rather than building up to an argument for the existence of a god, tellingly, we must begin almost immediately with asserting one. We effectively have to bootstrap the existence of a god. This takes a tremendous amount of assumptions about the nature of reality. Obviously, this is the step that atheists cannot accept. There are so many bootstrapping apologetic arguments that picking just one is difficult. I will focus here on the one that used to make sense to me.

First Cause

This is often called the Cosmological argument. Aristotle called it the Unmoved Mover. Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause or the Uncaused Cause.

The modern version of the argument is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument most prominently espoused by William Lane Craig. It starts with this syllogism:

 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2. The universe began to exist;
Therefore:
3. The universe has a cause.

I’ll just mention that there is not scientific consensus beyond the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. Therefore, even premise 2 is an assumption of sorts. However, here is where we get to the point of this post.

What if I grant you that?

If I grant the universe has a cause, this leaves us with a near infinite range of possible explanations. The cause could be 4 dimensional branes from M Theory banging together. The universe could be a simulation with an “intelligent designer” that would probably not satisfy theists. It could be that universes pop into existence from the quantum mechanical nature of vacuum energy. It could be the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy. I am skeptical of all of these because as yet there is not enough or in some cases any evidence to support them. The point is I do not know what caused the universe. Scientists do not know what caused the universe or if it is caused at all. And neither do you.

Nothing about acknowledging the universe had a cause leads to evidence for a god. Ignorance (lack of knowledge) is a terrible argument for god, because our gaps in knowledge have a tendency to get filled. This has happened over and over since the scientific revolution.

Bootstrapping a deity

Having accepted that the universe has a cause William Lane Craig moves on to an argument for God:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

First off re-read the above argument. Now read it again. Does that honestly give you comfort? Are you more convinced that God exists because of it?

Or like me and many many others, do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

In the technology world when a difficult problem is overcome with a complex solution, it is said:

Now you have two problems

Asserting a deity for the cause of the universe is the ultimate complex solution to a difficult a problem. Now you have the second problem of explaining where the deity came from. Further asserting said deity is uncaused and eternal only furthers your problems as you add complexity on top of complexity. If the deity invoked to explain the existence of the universe can be eternal and uncaused so can the universe itself which is the simpler answer.

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered,
than answers that can’t be questioned. ― Richard Feynman

Before I grant you that. I actually need to insert several steps here because William Lane Craig has inserted so many unsupported assertions into premise 2 that I have to grant you more than one thing.

Rather than beat a dead horse, I need to grant you a number of things:

 2. If the universe has a cause,
2a. there is an uncaused cause,
2b. it transcends the universe,
2c. it is powerful,
2d. it is a being or beings,
2e. it is creative,
2f. it is intelligent.

This is an incomplete list of what is being asserted in premise 2. Notice that none of these things follow from premise 1. There is no logical requirement that if the universe has a cause it must be a deity like being. We have begged the question.

What if I grant you that?

I need to point out that around this point, I have granted you Intelligent Design in regards to the universe. The ID advocates may rejoice.

Hold your rejoicing for a moment. We have had to grant a huge logical leap to bootstrap a deity or deities. But what does this give us? The answer is deism. Deism is the idea that there is a creator god but that it does not interact with its creation. The analogy of a clock maker is often used to describe deism. The clock maker winds up the clock and steps away from its creation. This was actually the predominant philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson famously ripped out all the parts of the bible that included miracles of any kind.

What deism is not is theism or a personal god that interacts with its creation. Most Christian believers will not be satisfied with a deist deity or deities.

Theistic God

Observant readers will note that William Lane Craig’s premise 2 sneaks in personal as one of the descriptions of the cause of the universe. I have left it until now to point out that even though we have granted the huge logical leap of a deistic deity or deities, absolutely nothing we have said so far requires said deity to interact with or care about its creation. The universe could be a simulation by a pan-dimensional programmer and it would mostly still fit what has been granted. Another point is that William Lane Craig has been a bit cheeky by asserting so much in premise 2. I had to break it into multiple arguments just to highlight how much question begging was taking place.

Update: I have come to understand why Craig does this, but this does not diminish in any way the critique being leveled here.

William Lane Craig is asserting an all powerful, all knowing, eternal, interactive, transcendent, unchanging, personal creator. Also note the singular.

 3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

What if I *cough* *heave* grant you that?

Again, I need you to feel the vast logical leap from a deistic deity to a theistic one. Nothing requires this. It is being granted for the sake of argument. At this point, we have granted a theistic singular God who created the universe and interacts with his creation. Note: for the sake of the argument I will now use the capital ‘G’ and the pronoun ‘he’ just for expediency, nothing granted thus far requires this.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

One might think we have just about wrapped this up. But what we do not have is any indication if this God is a good God. He could be a malevolent sadist. Or he could be indifferent.

The Problem of Evil and the Theodicy

Typically the theistic God is defined as:

  • Omniscience: All knowing
  • Omnipotent: All powerful
  • Omnipresent: Everywhere present
  • Eternal: Existing in all of time: past, present and future

This has effectively been granted thus far. But in addition to the above at least Christian theists add:

  • Loving and benevolent

Here we have to address a negative argument against the existence of God. If we accept the five definitions of God above we have a logical problem for the source of evil or suffering in the world.

This logical problem is most famously posed by Epicurus, the Greek philosopher:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

If you are a theist and you find William Lane Craig’s argument convincing as a logical argument, then you have to take seriously Epicurus’ logical problem of evil. Is God responsible for evil and suffering in the wold and if he is should one worship him?

The attempt at overcoming this logical problem is called theodicy. Theists have been making theodicy arguments for centuries for either why there is no logical problem or why God is still just to punish evil doers regardless of his own culpability in creating evil.

The most often quoted theodicy is free will. The idea that in order for creatures to love they must be capable of choosing otherwise. I’ll just note two problems with this. One, nothing about free will explains why a free willed good creature, created by a good God would choose evil. Why did Adam and Eve eat the apple? In fact, this raises more questions than it answers. Second, we run right back into a logical problem.

An omniscience, omnipotent and eternal God, one that knows the outcome of all possible choices would seem to preclude truly free will in his creatures. This God in physics speak is able to observe the space-time loaf and nothing can surprise him, so how could a creature choose anything other than what God already knows and wills? And if this is the case, how do you explain evil and suffering?

Extra credit: My favorite theodicy from a beloved systematic theology professor of mine is that evil is absurd and therefore cannot be accounted for. But again, this raises more questions than it answers.

What if I grant you that?

Let’s pause and appreciate, yet again, what a large leap is being granted. We are granting a benevolent theistic God that in some mysterious way is not responsible for evil and suffering experienced by his creations. This does not logically follow from what has been previously granted. This is granted for the sake of argument.

What has been granted is a benevolent theistic God. Should one worship him?

Pascal’s Wager

When theists talk with atheists they often eventually use some variation of this lovely argument:

If you (the atheist) are right and I (the theist) am wrong, when I die nothing happens.
But, if I am right and you are wrong, when you die you will go to hell.

This is called Pascal’s wager named after the famous mathematician who made this as a probabilistic mathematical argument.

  1. God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. You must wager (it is not optional).
  4. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  5. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
  6. But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

There are a number of problems with this argument. I’ll point out just one at the moment. Even if I am convinced by the probabilistic argument, can I make myself believe? Can I fake it till I make it? I understand that theists believe atheists choose not to believe but this is actually not the case. Atheists are atheists because they are unconvinced by the arguments for God. It turns out it is not actually possible to choose to believe. Think of it this way, can you choose not to believe?

What if I grant you that?

If I were convinced by Pascal’s unassailable game theory, I still have one very important question that needs to be answered before I can act on it.

Which God?

I was a bit sloppy earlier by jumping to the use of capital G god and using the pronoun he. Nothing precludes multiple gods nor likewise goddesses. But for the sake of argument let’s ignore that.

There are approximately 5000 gods worshiped in present day. If we take into account the 200000 years or so of human history, the vast majority of which was before writing was invented, that number likely balloons to something much greater. Even just within written history we have many gods to choose from. Is Zeus the one true God?

This is very important for theists to understand. The great passion, dedication and piety with which you believe in your God is equally felt and expressed by theists of other traditions. Yet each faith tradition claims unique exclusivity. How can a person possibly decide which is correct?

If you are a Christian, a Muslim feels exactly the same way about their God as you do about yours and looks at you as an outsider the same way you do them. Can you honestly say if you were raised in another part of the world under a different tradition you would still believe your current faith is the one and only?

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Even if you are of the ecumenical type who says that YHWH, The Father and Allah are one in the same that is still a tiny fraction of the gods who are or have been worshiped by humanity. Even if you are a universalist, many theists would argue you are condemned not in spite of but because of your universalism.

YHWH

As a nod to Pascal, let’s use probability math. Granting that there is a theistic God to begin with your odds are 1/5000+ (< or = .o2%) of having been born in the culture which worships the correct God. In this case, we are assessing the probability that YHWH is the one true God.

What if I grant you that?

YHWH is the particular theistic God who has been granted for the sake of argument.

Now the burning question is how should YHWH be worshiped? Do I need to sacrifice a bull? Will eating bacon offend him? Am I to give all that I have to the poor? Must I tithe? Is the Eucharist a saving grace? Is baptism a requirement? Do I need to be born again?

For the sake of expedience even if I grant that the God of the New Testament supersedes or reveals YHWH (with apologies to my Jewish friends), we are still left with approximately 2000 different Christian sects. Which one is correct?

This is a non-trivial question. For a millennium there was almost exclusively the Catholic (universal) Church. Then came the Orthodox Church near the first millennium. Protestantism is a relative new comer in the last few hundred years. There are some dramatic differences between even just these three faith traditions.

Evangelicalism

Things are beginning to take focus. Much has been granted but we still have a handful of steps to go. We are selecting among the many sects to decide which is the correct way to worship YHWH.

We still have a number of selections to make:

Jewish or Christian?
Catholic or Protestant?
Bible believing or liberal theology?
Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness or orthodox Christianity?
Main line or Evangelical?

What if I grant you that?

Ignoring the great many other sects of Christianity, let’s grant that Evangelicalism is the correct way to worship YHWH. For the sake of expediency we are going to ignore the fact that Evangelicalism itself can be split many more ways. Baptist or Pentecostal? Calvinist or Arminian? etc, etc. Diminishing returns and all that. We will grant that one must be born again.

Besides their focus on the Great Commission to evangelize the world the other defining characteristic of Evangelicalism is their reverence for the bible.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

The current question on the table: can the bible be trusted?

Biblical Authority

Fundamentalist Evangelicals hold to a few hard line doctrines in regards to the bible.

The bible is God-breathed: Inspired by God
The bible is inerrant: It has no errors
The bible is authoritative: The buck stops here

Apologists like to point out that the bible (if one takes it as one unit) is the most attested to ancient text. Meaning there are more and older fragments of the new and old testament than any other ancient text.

What is the second most attested to ancient text, you probably did not ask? Tellingly, it is Homer’s the Odyssey and the Iliad. Should we ascribe only slightly less authority to Homer’s descriptions of Zeus as we do YHWH?

Regarding inerrancy, apologists claim there are no contradictions in the bible. I will simply ask you to read two stories in all four gospels and decide for yourself. The Christmas story and the story of the resurrection. However, when you read them in each gospel, actually compare the genealogies, try to reconcile the timelines, who was where and when. I appreciate that there are apologetic explanations. But do you find that compelling when you read it for yourself?

For a slightly more comprehensive look at biblical contradictions take a look at http://bibviz.com/.

Update: When I originally wrote this piece I was still learning. Though the above link has many real contradictions, they tend toward the trivial and easily dismissed.  For a much more scholarly and, therefore, all the more devastating look at contradictions see Steven DiMattei’s Contradictions In The Bible.

What if I grant you that?

Logical minded theists will note that around this point we should be at the end of the conversation. If I have granted you that YHWH is the one theistic God and that he has inspired the inerrant and authoritative bible and that Evangelicalism is the way to worship him, there is not much more to debate.

However, for the sake of argument I have granted many things thus far so please grant me a few more steps to discuss. We have yet to discuss Jesus. I think you will agree he is rather an important figure to bring to the front.

Jesus

It is to the person of Jesus we turn next. We have had to forcibly bend the arguments to get here by ignoring all the other religious traditions in human history. For Christians the person of Jesus is both the revelation and the veiling of YHWH. And thus the most important figure in history.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis put forth the argument that is often paraphrased as:

Jesus is either
a liar
a lunitic
or Lord

The argument that C. S. Lewis is making is that based on the claims of Jesus he cannot be just a good teacher. He is arguing against people who admire Jesus’ teaching but do not believe his claims as a member of the godhead. The fantastic claims made by Jesus require a  choice to be made. You are “either for him or against him.”

There are some flaws in the logic and there are other possible answers. But ultimately, Lewis’ argument is that Jesus claimed deity and one must grapple with that claim.

Did Jesus claim deity?

What if I grant you that?

Because my background was Evangelicalism this one is not difficult to grant. Unlike a few sects of Christianity and many of the other world religions who deny Jesus claimed deity I have no problem granting that he made these claims, with a couple of fairly large caveats.

I’ll first have to grant the historicity of Jesus though this is not a given and requires granting. I’ll also have to grant that the words and claims made in the gospels attributed to Jesus were claimed by this granted historical figure. But please keep in mind the longstanding historical tendency to put words into a historical figure’s mouth long after the fact.

To be clear, what I am granting is that based on the New Testament texts that we have today the figure of Jesus in those texts claimed deity.

How do we evaluate those claims to deity?

Paul and the Gospels

If you have been paying attention over the last 20 years or so of apologetics, you will have noticed a curious thing. Apologists have stopped using the four canonical gospels as evidence and focused almost entirely on Paul and an early catechism of the Christian faith:

3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. — NET 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Rather than attempting to hide or downplay their lack of faith in the gospels many modern apologists in debates with atheists will make a point of it with a bold statement like:

I am going to make my arguments without reference to the gospels

What a curious thing. And the reason they are doing this is the dating of the gospels. Even conservative theologians are starting to recognize that the gospels were likely written much much later than previously thought. I’ll not go into depth on this argument but to say that some of the prophetic statements attributed to Jesus are not as impressive if they happened after the fact.

Regardless of the academic debates of the exact dating of the gospels, apologists have in fact moved away from using them as evidence. They now focus on Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 catechism because it is dated much earlier. The average Christian is unaware that many of Paul’s writings preceded the gospels. It would not be unfair to say that Christianity is of Paul’s making.

Was the catechism in 1 Corinthians from an early date and an accurate expression of the Christian faith at the time?

What if I grant you that?

Accepting an early date of the Pauline catechism in 1 Corinthians proves beyond a shadow of a doubt one thing and one thing only. It proves that Paul believed that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and was the Christ.

I’ll just point out there is a huge difference between accepting that Paul believed Jesus was risen and Jesus having in fact been resurrected. An honest apologist will acknowledge this. When we read of other religious claims of people raising from the dead we dismiss them out of hand. There is as much reason to believe these stories as there is the Jesus story.

If you are an Evangelical you probably do not believe Joseph Smith discovered golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni. Why not? Were you aware that there are signed affidavits to the authenticity of Smith’s translations?  Clearly I am not trying to convert you to Mormonism. The point is you rightly dismiss this story as unreliable even though it has more and more recent “evidence” than the 500 unnamed sources who are claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. Did they sign affidavits?

Resurrection

Apologists rightly focus on the resurrection. It is the crux of Christianity. C.S Lewis’ argument hinges on the resurrection to prove Jesus’ claims to the godhead. This is the starting point that most theists take as a given. But here we are trying to look at the evidence.

Believe it or not I agree with Paul:

12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. 15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone. – NET 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

A few years before my deconversion I had this conversation with my atheist friend. I acknowledged that it really is binary. Either Jesus was resurrected from the dead or this is all useless. At the time I was confident in my faith that Jesus was raised from the dead.

I would still be a Christian and I would return to Christianity today if there were strong objective evidence for the resurrection. Alas, I am sad to say there is not.

Either this super-natural, unprecedented and never repeated event is true or in Paul’s words “our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.”

What if I …

There is a fourth option to C.S. Lewis’ argument even granting that Jesus was a historical person: Jesus may have been acting on faith in what he believed and simply been mistaken.

Apologists tend to ignore or minimize information that is difficult to explain. Mathew describes some unbelievable phenomena at the time of Jesus’ death:

51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised.53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) — NET Mathew 27:51-53

No one bothered to comment about dead people coming back to life and walking around town like some kind of zombie movie!? Not only do we not have a mention of this extraordinary phenomenon in secular recorded history but no other gospel writers felt the need to mention it. It is not that apologists do not have explanations, it is that the explanations make the apologists case less tenable. You might argue that this is poetic or metaphorical but if you do then you must give a reason why the resurrection itself is literal and not metaphorical.

Apologists often make the argument that the disciples were willing to die and therefore they must have seen the resurrected Christ. But to make this argument is to willfully ignore the history of martyrdom among all faith traditions. People have been willing to die for their particular faith throughout human history. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Christianity.

I’ll make the same point I did with Paul. The New Testament proves only that the disciples believed Jesus had been raised. And even here we have to grant the historicity of the disciples as the gospels were written years after the fact.

The difference between proving the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus actually having been raised is similar to our earlier analogy of hopping from the Earth to Alpha Centauri. This extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. Hearsay is not enough for me.

Was Jesus resurrected? I am afraid, based on the evidence, I cannot grant you that. And if the resurrection is not literally true, believers “should be pitied more than anyone.”

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Conclusion

The purpose of this exercise was to see if using apologetic arguments from the general to the specific would lead to theism and ultimately Jesus and the resurrection. An honest apologist will acknowledge that at each step we had to grant the argument in order to proceed.

The arguments do not follow from each other logically and inexorably toward the resurrection. In fact the opposite is true, we had to make very large logical leaps at almost every step. The three largest leaps requiring the most faith without evidence are the following:

  • The non-physical exists at all
  • Asserting a deity as the first cause of the universe
  • The resurrection of Jesus

Without granting each of these there would be no discussion at all. There is no evidence for a non-physical reality. The apologetic theist needs to begin by providing evidence for meta-physics of any kind before asserting anything about deities.

It takes a massive complex leap to go from acknowledging a cause for the universe to asserting that the cause is a deity. “Now you have two problems.”

Having documents that show that early followers believed Jesus rose from the dead is much much different than having evidence for the resurrection itself. It takes more than an empty tomb to be considered evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

It is possible to quibble over a point here or there in the above arguments. I have purposefully avoided an in depth argument over any one given point. You may think, “Aha!, I have got you on this one or that one.” However, the thrust of my argument here is that the long list of assertions made by apologists is cumulative. If just one of the assertions is incorrect the whole of the apologetic argument crashes like a house of cards. I argue that none of the assertions has enough evidence to overcome reasonable doubt.

1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. — NET Hebrews 11:1

Ironically, I am actually OK with a person saying that they believe by faith alone. If you find the above apologetic arguments comforting based purely on faith, more power to you. All I ask is that you acknowledge this. There are, however, some implications to this position. If it is faith alone, then the believer must acknowledge their faith has no bearing on anyone besides themselves and possibly their faith community. It has no claim to reality in the physics sense. It is not OK, therefore, to impose your faith on others in the public forum.

If, however, you enter into the arena of apologetics and evidence you must acknowledge the dearth and weakness of the evidence. Evidence is not that which convinces the faithful. Evidence is that which convinces the skeptic. Based on the evidence available to me I find the claims of Christianity un-believable.

Watershed Presuppositions

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Philosophy

When I was a Christian I wondered often why many of my peers who were atheists did not believe. And more importantly I questioned why I did believe. We were of similar intellect, social and economic background so why the difference?

I theorized there was some watershed idea, experience or environmental variable that caused one person to believe and another to reject faith.

Now after having a deconversion experience and becoming an atheist myself, I think I have some insight into why intelligent people of good faith believe and others do not.

Culture

Our culture encapsulates us completely. Like a fish that is unaware that it is wet, we are blind to the culture that surrounds us. It influences us in benign and insidious ways. For the purposes of this discussion, let me just point out that the surrounding culture dramatically influences our thinking and perspective sometimes in imperceptible ways.

For me and my likely readers we are a part of Western culture. Western culture has been heavily influenced by ancient Greek thinking. We have many great cultural artifacts from our Greek past including democracy, the Socratic method and geometry.

Dualism

One of the Greek ideas that we could do without is dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the physical and the non-physical exist and may or may not be seen as in opposition to one another. The two major philosophical influences that lead us to dualism are the Platonic ideals and Gnosticism.

In The analogy of the cave Plato argues that the reality we experience is a mere shadow of the true reality. We are like cave dwellers who are looking at shadows on the wall rather than going out into the light and witnessing the reality that causes the shadows. Plato is suggesting that the perfect ideals are the real reality and that the physical reality we experience is crude facsimile of the perfect forms.

From Platonism we get the idea that the non-physical ideals (or forms) are more real than the physical world we experience around us. Let that sink in.

Soon after came Gnosticism which took dualism to the next level. They taught the dichotomy that the material physical world was evil and that the spiritual non-physical world was good.  The flesh is to be despised while the things of the spiritual world were holy.

Relevant to our discussion, the early Christian fathers argued with and against the Gnostics. Much of the early doctrinal creeds had to do with arguing against Gnosticism. Many of the rejected books of the apocrypha are Gnostic books. In spite of this effort, early Christianity was deeply influenced by the Gnostics. The Gnostic influence on Christianity is seen in the ascetic sects which taught the need to flagellate the flesh into submission.

This dualistic perspective has permeated what we call Western thinking throughout history. Dualism to one degree or another has continued to influence our thinking to this day.

It is in the sea of unexamined cultural dualism that most people view spirituality. The non-physical exists and it in some mystical way is more real than the physical reality around them. It is holy. Through the prism of dualism theism is not a huge leap.

To those who reject dualism either intuitively or analytically the physical, that which can be experienced, tested and examined is all there is. For these people theism is a very huge leap indeed.

Presuppositions

The point I am trying to make is that we have a number of presuppositions that lead us either to credulity or incredulity. One’s perspective on theism or atheism does not happen in a vacuum.

It wasn’t so much my rejection of Christianity itself that lead to my deconversion but the eroding of these underlying beliefs. I held on to faith in the resurrection for dear life up until the bitter end knowing that it was a binary choice. Once I admitted to myself I did not believe in the resurrection it was all over. This did not come from a rejection of the “evidence” in the bible because that was all of a piece, a closed system. It came by examining the assumptions that the closed system rested on.

To further make the point, given a certain set of presuppositions it might even be reasonable to have faith in a theistic god. This is why Christian apologists almost always use the same arguments. They are arguing within the closed system that makes assumptions about reality. The atheists who debate with them are speaking an entirely different language based upon an orthogonal set of assumptions.

You may note that I have not shied away from using the term assumption. At some level we must make assumptions. I think math is beautiful in that it conveys rock solid truth. 1+1=2 is True with a capital T. But even mathematics makes some assumptions about reality. For even the concept of twoness is abstract, not two sheep or two apples but two as a concept. It took humanity a while to understand numbers as abstract ideas. It is very easy to fall into an epistemological black hole when discussing assumptions, a hole which I would like to avoid.

Therefore, I would like to posit a number of presuppositions that act as watersheds separating those who believe and those who reject belief. My plan is to write a blog post about each of these in the coming months. We have already talked about dualism here,  and I have written about the soul. I’ll be adding to the list as time goes on. Let me know what you would add to the list.