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:
- Belief should be in proportion to evidence.
- 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