Strange Notions

Do not go by revelation;
Do not go by tradition;
Do not go by hearsay;
Do not go on the authority of sacred texts;
Do not go on the grounds of pure logic;
Do not go by a view that seems rational;
Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances;
Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it;
Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent…
— the Buddha

My father has been engaging me, regularly but without pressing, regarding our disagreements on religion.  He is a lifelong and unusually pious Christian, and he raised me to be so also, though in recent years I became a naturalist and a humanist (but still religious, as I’m happily involved with the local Unitarian Universalists).  I thoroughly appreciate my father’s efforts on this topic, as they’re being done with obvious love and respect, and religious inquiry has long been an interest of mine that my father never before shared with me, and moreover, it is more interaction than I’ve gotten from him since I saddened him years before by converting Catholic.  His response has, indeed, given me new pride in him, and I hope to respond with similar personal and intellectual charity should I ever feel myself in his role of guiding a wayward child out of darkness!

The task he has set himself is doubly difficult for him because there are two gaps to cross in the space between us.

The first gap is that my father’s religion is typical late 20th century white American middle class Republican evangelical Christianity, whereas in all claims about what Christianity is or ought to be, I subscribe to the Catholic and Orthodox Tradition, and I have a pronounced preference for the older, broader, and deeper traditions versus modern ordinary form of Roman Catholicism.  The two span perhaps the largest possible range within current Christianity.  Their many differences would shock the typical religiously-unaware American.  Only one difference is critical, however.  The extremely specific form of evangelicalism back to which my father is attempting to draw me is too new and localized to have any serious intellectual roots, and consequently it is deeply hostile to science and human reason.  Unlike evangelicalism, the world-spanning Ancient Faith has always maintained that, though revelation goes beyond what could ever be established by reason, it can never contradict reason.  Thus solutions to atheists’ and other critics’ favorite theological difficulties, and many more difficulties they’ve never imagined, have typically been worked out in great detail centuries ago by many of history’s finest minds.  Catholicism has nothing to fear from traditional rationality.  On account of that key difference, even prior to the historical evidence, I hold the Ancient Faith to be worthy of belief, whereas evangelicalism appears to me unworthy of belief.  (Second, concerning the historical evidence, I’ve read nearly all the extant early Christian writings and they are unambiguously Catholic/Orthodox in tone and teaching.  Consequently, the prior and evidential odds for evangelicalism versus Catholicism are so low in my mind that only a totally unforeseen, utterly conclusive argument could bring me back to that camp.)

The second gap is that, in all historical and theological claims, I see inadequate evidence to believe the key religious claims of the early Christian writings, New Testament, and Old Testament over against the alternate possibility that those writings contain a substantial amount of hyperbole, misunderstood events, misremembered events, and even some religious fiction, and that the real events behind the stories may well be ordinary and not supernatural.  Whereas Catholicism abides the buffeting storms of traditional rationality techniques, its carefully constructed doctrinal and ideological house collapses in ruins under even the least intrusive inspection of prior odds and evidential weights.

In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination. — Mark Twain

Knowing all that, last week my father sent me the book, “The Reason for God”, by Timothy Keller.  I think he chose it from Amazon reviews, and if so he did an excellent search.  The book is a New York Times Bestseller with the subtitle, “Belief in an Age of Skepticism”.  It looks as if it is aimed squarely at me.  I read most of the book in one sitting.

The book, as it turns out, is not aimed at people like me.  Keller’s ministry to urban “skeptics” occurred a generation ago.  His target demographic appears to have been young adults who had been raised by 60’s liberals and religiously malnourished by their parents’ watery relativism.  They were not skeptics in any meaningful sense — he indicates that they frequently approached him seeking his answers when they realized they wanted the religiosity their parents had failed to provide.  He provided them answers, and that was that.  Skeptics, by contrast, would have demurred that it is unwise to believe extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence.

Keller addresses seven classes of objections.  First is that there can’t be just one true religion.  This is not a sensible objection.  Second is that a good God would not allow suffering.  This is a powerful objection whenever people forget or never knew that the entire point of Christianity is the belief that God will redeem our sufferings, especially death, by using them to bring forth infinitely greater goods.  Third is akin to the first, that Christianity makes truth claims at all.  This is not a sensible objection either.  The fourth and fifth are akin to the third, that Christians are responsible for much of the world’s suffering and the sufferings of Hell make God worse than a demon.  The fourth has the same response as the third, and for Catholics who believe in apocatastasis the fifth has the same response as well.  Against believers in an everlasting torture-chamber Hell, the fifth objection is, of course, correct.  Sixth and seventh are that science and historically informed scripture reading disprove Christianity.  This is accurate against evangelical believers in Biblical literalism.  It’s a non-starter against Catholicism.

I don’t travel in circles where people say, ‘I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.’ That’s just a long-winded religious way to say, ‘Shut up.’
— Penn Jillette, in an NPR interview

My actual objections are quite different.  Here they are:

  1. Belief should be in proportion to evidence.
  2. The evidence for Christianity is much too weak to bother about.

I can give three examples of evidence I would accept as proving Christianity true, or at least making it the theory most likely to be true.

I. A modern, formal theory of God that parsimoniously explains any demonstrable feature of reality.  In detail…

  • Modern:  The study of philosophical logic advanced tremendously in the 20th century, but theists typically rely on ancient formulations that are riddled with ambiguities, unstated assumptions, and debatable conclusions.  Currently atheism versus theism is like chemistry versus alchemy.
  • Formal:  Expressible in a formal language so that the avoidance of logical fallacies is guaranteed and the argument structure is clear.  Currently atheism versus theism is accounting versus poetry.
  • Parsimoniously: The theory should make fewer, smaller assumptions than alternative theories.  Currently atheism versus theism is like “It’s swamp gas” versus “It’s an alien invasion”.
  • Explains: The theory makes successful predictions and retrodictions and no unsuccessful predictions or retrodictions.  Currently atheism versus theism is medicine versus faith healing.
  • Any … feature of reality: A fact, an observable, a feature, a describable characteristic, anything that can be distinguished from other things and identified specifically whether it is material or not. Currently atheism versus theism is matter-energy-spacetime versus “Ground of Being”.
  • Demonstrable: The feature should be something people have reason to trust, some part of consensus reality, not private, incommunicable mystical knowledge. Currently atheism versus theism is “Just the facts, Ma’am” versus “I had an experience!”.

Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.  — Sir Julian Huxley

II. Some combination of historical, archeological, literary, and anachronistic evidence in favor of Christianity’s extraordinary claimed historical events that is strong enough to make up for the rarity of those kind of events happening.  In detail…

  • Historical: For example, God could have ensured preservation of texts dating too early for oral history to have muddled the details revealed by those texts.  But he did not.
  • Archeological: For example, God could have ensured preservation of artifacts dating too early for oral history to have muddled the details revealed by those artifacts.  But he did not.
  • Literary: For example, God could have made the texts he was supposedly inspiring contain poetry of transcendant beauty, or teachings that can’t be easily interpreted to support antisemitism, slavery, sexism, and homophobia, or make the texts not look like oral history, or even put in genuine Bible Codes.  But he did not.
  • Anachronistic: For example, since Christ had access to divine knowledge, he could have kept the miraculous proofs that he so often gave going for future generations by predicting a series of future astronomical events with details and timeframes. Or he could have instituted religious rituals like boiling water and regular washing that would have saved millions of lives despite it being centuries before the germ theory of disease.  Anachronisms would be shockingly powerful evidence if he made use of them. But he did not.
  • Claimed extraordinary events: e.g. the Gospel miracles and NT miracles, and the miracles of subsequent generally-accepted traditions
  • Strong enough: The evidence ought to have a big likelihood ratio, being much more probable under the theory that the events happened versus the theory that they didn’t happen.  But it does not.
  • Rarity: The unlikelihood of the miracles is how rare you suppose them to be, or how much you would bet against them happening to a given person on a given day.  What percent of humans walk on sea waves?  What percent of humans rise from the dead after three days?  What percent of humans violate the conservation of mass and energy to make bread?  These are highly extraordinary claims and would require equally extraordinary evidence to be worthy of belief.  But the evidence is weak and sparse.


III.  Scientific evidence that the parts of Christian doctrine which ought to have earthly consequences really do have those consequences.  In detail…

  • Intercessory prayer on behalf of someone who is ill ought to be associated with better-than-chance rates of recovery.  But it is not.
  • Sacramental graces ought to be associated with the lives of the receivers gradually becoming noticeably holier than the lives of non-receivers.  But they are not.
  • Divine providence ought to be associated with highly religious territories or groups having slightly better outcomes than minimally religious territories or groups.  But it is not.


Keller doesn’t address these matters.  Few do.

Keller then proceeds to offer “clues” in favor of Christianity.  However, he displays no firm understanding of how evidence actually works.  If you notice something compatible with a theory, that isn’t automatically evidence for the theory.  It may even be evidence against the theory, if an alternative theory is a better fit.  A fact counts as evidence for one theory and against another theory when the two theories give different odds of the fact being true.  The strength of the evidence is proportional to how much more likely the fact is when you assume the better theory than when you assume the rival theory.

Imagine it’s true.  Then imagine it’s not.
How likely in each are the facts that you’ve got?
The odds of the facts times the odds for the thought
say how sure or unsure you ought be of what’s what.

Enter the new website, “Strange Notions“.  It is an attempt by smart-set Catholics to engage with atheists on a forum where Catholics get to set the terms.  Its web design follows current Internet fashions by being a visual heaven but a user-interface purgatory.  Currently, only pro-Catholic articles are hosted, with no rebuttals permitted.  All the discussion occurs in the comments in reaction to the pro-Catholic articles.  Several of the initial posts make it clear that the authors intend to use their own slanted definitions without regard for the positions atheists actually hold.  The unequal status accorded Catholics and atheists on the site will hopefully be outgrown as the site matures.  In any case, several interesting discussions have already occurred, with moderation of previously-held positions by people on both sides.  If the arguments for Christianity are to leap forward several centuries into the present day, perhaps the people at Strange Notions will be involved.

The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. — Albert Einstein


8 thoughts on “Strange Notions

  1. Hi, I came here through Strange Notions, noticing your ‘altercation’ with the disingenuous smug Rick DeLano, the nutty geocentrist. I certainly hope that most will see him as the fringe crazy that he is.


  2. Oh no, he’s a geocentrist?! Haha, I knew I was wasting time, because when his troll-nature became obvious it became fun to goad him, but I didn’t realize it was *that* much of a waste.


  3. I wonder whether you might be asking God to do the impossible – i.e., make you free, and then offer you so much clear and distinct evidence that He exists and established his Church for us that resistance is futile and freedom is a fiction. I’m feeling the same thing as I read Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” (there’s a section on mathematical platonism and Penrose which you might find interesting). For Holt, the existence of the world is a big problem that needs solving. Some also treat God’s existence this way. But we should learn, as Gabriel Marcel did, to distinguish between a problem and a mystery. The former, I can siege and neatly reduce; with the latter, “the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning.” No God reducible to logical syllogisms, scientific evidence, and legal proofs is worth adoring, any more than a husband or wife so reducible is worth loving and trusting. God is a person, not a proof, and faith a love affair – not a theory of why the world exists. I’m still learning this myself. Don’t wait to be so overwhelmed with evidence that love of God is compulsory – you very well may be waiting forever.


    • Hi Matthew,
      I’m not concerned with freedom to choose beliefs. If something is true, then I want to believe it, and if something is not true, then I want to not believe it. So I’m not asking God to do something contradictory about freedom. I’m also not waiting for overwhelming evidence; I’m waiting until evidence lifts the God-story over a basal threshold of “worth an ordinary person’s time to consider”. I don’t ask that husbands, wives, and God be reducible to logic, evidence, and argument. I merely ask that there be adequate logic, evidence, and argument to suppose that husbands, wives, and God are real before we worry overmuch about having affairs with them.


  4. Hi! I thought the stuff you wrote down was very interesting. I was just curious on some of your thoughts from what you wrote. I do have a lot of questions, so if you don’t have time to answer all of them that is fine. Anything you would be interested in answering would be really nice 🙂

    -I believe that God tests people. People don’t test God. So when I see studies that say prayer doesn’t work, I just shrug my shoulders and say if you’re going to try to test God, prayers just aren’t going to work. Do you believe this is a cop out answer that simply dismisses research?

    -I’m from the southwestern corner of Pa. Pa has a very large Catholic population, but I’m also very close to West Virginia, so I’ve also seen a lot of individuals with a Protestant (largely Baptist and nondenominational) background. In my experience those that I’ve met with a Protestant background generally have a much deeper understanding of their faith than Catholics do. Also within my experience, I’ve seen a lot more protestants who “walk the walk” of their faith and truly try to live their life according to their faith as opposed to Roman Catholics. So, the study that talks about binge drinking being more associated with Roman Catholic areas than Protestant areas, do you believe that it is truly because of religious affiliation or do you believe it has more to do with religious adherence (something the study seemed to disagree with).

    -Matthew 19:23-24 says “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Generally speaking, there is a correlation between wealthier nations and lower levels of the population believing that their a God. Not the case in all countries ( ex, Qatar), but it does appear to be the case for numerous areas of the world. Is wealth the best indicator of divine providence? Why or why not? What are your thoughts on the beatitudes (ex, “Blessed are those who mourn; for they will be comforted”) in relation to divine providence?


    • Hi James, thanks for the interest. I’ll respond briefly to your points:

      1. It could be a cop-out if it was a special exemption without adequate justification. Two objections come to my mind. First is what the implications would be if you were right. A God who would refuse to answer prayers when they would give evidence about himself would be a recluse, trickster, or just unreliable. He never had a problem with giving evidence in the Bible stories, like with Elijah on Mount Carmel. And it provides an obvious exploit: if you have an enemy, just document their prayers, and then God won’t help them. Second, when we start adding stipulations and exceptions to one theory (“God helps those who call on him”) to corral it into making the same predictions as another theory (“God doesn’t help those who call on him”), then there’s a strong sense in which we actually believe the second theory and only wish we believed the first.

      2. I haven’t seen the study you mentioned. I’ve lived mostly in areas with large Protestant populations, and the situation you described was reversed in some of them. I suspect the differences in zeal we saw are more about local culture and not about the religions themselves.

      3. Money is not a good indicator of divine providence. Similarly to what some of the beatitudes express, I suppose the best indicators of divine providence would be peace, protection from natural disasters, social stability, happiness, health, and so on. Those are real wealth, not money.


      • Thanks for the reply 🙂 I do appreciate it. I’m going into a Carmelite order in August, so nice mention of Elijah on Mount Carmel, LOL! I think we will just have to agree to disagree on some things. Showing proof to an individual who is crying out to God as opposed to a research team putting God’s actions under a microscope, so to speak, is significantly different in my opinion. Yes, they are asking people who sincerely believe in God to pray, but the underlying intentions of putting God’s actions to the test for academic research is still there. There are instances within the Bible where it is noted that God does not answer all prayers, so the idea that God might not choose to answer some prayers because He does not like the motivations some individuals might have for the prayers is not in anyway close to being a trickster in my opinion. Not sure what exactly you were saying in the second point.

        The research article that I was referring to was one of the links within section III of the blogpost you wrote. My experience has almost always been the more active an individual is within their faith (ex, participation in Bible studies, mass attendance, etc.), the more likely they are to follow the teachings of their faith. However, the small percentage of people who really do sweat the details of their faith are usually overshadowed by the much larger percentage of individuals who don’t. I’m sure Catholics are more faithful than Protestants in some cultures and vice versa, so I can agree with the fact that culture does play a part in how adherent some people are to their respective faiths, but I disagree that culture is the main determining factor. I believe that was what you were saying from your post.

        Nice answer to number 3. I do believe though that all of the things you listed could very well be forms of “wealth” as well that can potentially make one less likely to look towards God. Material wealth is not necessarily a bad thing, nor are any of the other things that you listed, but it truly does appear that the more stable the country becomes, the more money they have, and so forth, the less likely the people are to believe in God; thus, it does make me question if receiving these things are necessarily signs of divine providence or not since receiving them seems to make a populous more likely to reject the existence of God. You might be interested in this article:

        Thanks again for your reply! I greatly appreciate it 🙂 Your response was very thoughtful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s