How Should I Be A Sceptic -- an important recognition about religious faith

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.

For connectivity purposes, I am beginning this entry by reprinting the last few sentences from the previous entry.]

As I have just illustrated, a denial of a link between faith and reason not only erects an unnecessary barrier between a sceptic and the truth (as I think Christianity to be), but also undermines any claim Christianity (or any other theism) may have to truth--even if we stick to a 'simple' faith.

But an even more pernicious problem rises in this situation; and although a believer of this sort [who dichotomizes faith and reason] may not recognize it, the sceptic very probably will:

This type of believer does in fact have a 'faith' based on reasoning!

This will be concealed from him by the fact that he is taught to distrust (or ignore) complex metaphysical and philosophical theorems, as being 'proof' or 'evidence' or 'reasoning'. It rarely occurs to him that he nevertheless all this time has been accepting evidence, and from this evidence has been drawing conclusions about the truths of Christianity.

This 'evidence' is (usually) the testimony of his teachers, preachers, friends and/or family. He may believe in Christianity because the Bible tells him so. But he believes the Bible to be trustworthy, not because the Bible tells him so, but because other people have told him so. And these are not just any people, but people who (for one reason or another) he has concluded are trustworthy! [Footnote: I do not discount witnessing by God directly via the Holy Spirit; but I will be discussing it much later. Until then, I will briefly say here that it falls into the same category of belief-formation process.]

Now I grant you, that if he bothered to trace back these habitually quick and long-ingrained inferences, the believer might decide that such inferences are not very strong. Indeed, many sceptics are sceptics today precisely because they have discovered this for themselves; or (worse) because such underlying weaknesses were rudely forced upon them when they were betrayed (to one degree or another) by those people, and thereby lost their trust in them!

But there is a significant difference between having weak reasons (whether actually or only perceptively so) and having no reasons at all.

A rock quite literally can have no reasons at all to believe in Christianity; therefore it does not believe.

A 3rd century aborigine in the Australian Outback is very far ahead of the rock: she at least has the capability to infer conclusions from data (be it testimony or abstract argumentation or experimentation or whatnot). Nevertheless, she has access to none of these things concerning Christianity. She really does have no available reasons at all (no data and thus no inferences to be drawn from the data) to believe in Christianity; therefore she does not believe. [Footnote: of course, she will have reasons to believe her own religious propositions instead; including possibly a tacit monotheism in the background. But folk anthropological analysis of latent monotheisms is a whole other vast discussion, and one for a different kind of specialist.]

However, a person raised from childhood in (for instance) a small-town Southern Baptist or Assembly of God church, even if he rejects or ignores detailed argumentation in favor of God's existence and character, nevertheless does have reasons to believe: his parents and preacher and teachers tell him it is true, and so far he has found them to be reliable.

But these inferences are so simple, and easy, and common, and habitual, that he does not recognize their existence as such; and obviously his instructors are either in the same boat, or have a vested interest in not admitting they have no stronger grounds to use.

[Footnote: for that matter, they might not mention stronger grounds even when they do have them; because they either know their student lacks the mental acuity to handle the stronger (tougher) arguments, or because they lack confidence in their ability to teach the stronger arguments themselves.]

None of this, however, can be of much help to the sceptic: how many mission outreach programs consist of going to door-to-door and (overtly) saying, "You should accept Christianity and the Bible because my preacher says it is true"?

Yet, this is ultimately what most witnessing, and most training within the Church, boils down to.

And once a sceptic perceives this, she will not say Christians have no reason to believe (she might, deep down, respect that with a sympathetically defiant attitude); but rather, Christians have singularly weak and puny reasons to believe--which is much worse! And to top it off, she will probably treat such witnesses as hypocrites or fools, for she can quite clearly see that they are in fact accepting reasons to believe; yet they piously tell her that she must be like them, and trust God with 'faith' instead of 'reason'!

I also reject this strategy, of dividing and dichotomizing between reasoning and religious belief, because it repudiates Scripture itself [Footnote: at any rate the scriptures I and most other Christians consider to be authoritative], up to and including the methods of Our Lord.

In the Old Testament narratives, God gives plenty of evidence to His people; not in formal logical disputation, of course, because those formal mental tools had not yet been developed and propagated. Yet He becomes angry with them, not because they keep asking for proof and signs, but because they are not willing to believe (and do the right thing) once they have the proof and signs! The miracles of the prophets are intended to be treated as evidence by the people, that what the prophets are saying is truly from God. [See first comment below for an extended footnote here.]

This concept carries on into the New Testament, where the miracles of Jesus and the Apostles function not only to relieve the burdens of groups and individuals, but also as "attesting signs" for the people to use as evidence. [Footnote: though as a fairly constant characterization across the texts, Jesus does not do miracles primarily for attestation purposes; and indeed often flatly rejects requests or demands for such validation. His appeal to the works as evidence is important, but avowedly secondary.] Again, granted, it is a different kind of evidence than what we in the modern West typically find (though this type of evidentiality still plays a significant role in belief-arrival, pro or con, within or without orthodox Christianity and its various branches, even in the modern West!) But it is still evidence, from which God (in the Biblical accounts) expects the people to draw rational inferences.

Jesus warns the people in the fourth chapter of Mark (and in the eighth chapter of Luke, which recounts the same speech in somewhat different words) that they will be held responsible for what and why they believe; and that if they fall into error because they just don't want to bother to figure out the truth for themselves, they will have only themselves to blame for the consequences! [See second comment below for an extended footnote here.]

Another time (reported in John 10:19-39), Jesus sarcastically asks his accusers which mighty work of God they are about to stone him for. They reply that they are going to stone him for what they believe to be a blasphemous remark concerning his self-identification. He counter-replies that he has given them loads of attesting signs (i.e., he has given them evidence), in the form of miracles, practical wisdom, etc., that show he is from God and so what he has said therefore cannot be blasphemy, even if it looks like it at the moment. His enemies cannot argue with his supernatural power; but they cannot accept his (increasingly less obscure) statements about his relationship to God, either. So they accuse him of black (Satanically provided) magic--despite his obvious good works and animosity to possessing devils. [See third comment below for an extended footnote here.]

After the resurrection, Jesus seems to rebuke Thomas' requirement of absolute evidence and pronounces a blessing on those who haven't seen and yet who believe (John 20:19-29). [Footnote: in fact, there is no rebuke of Thomas specifically mentioned here; although there is a strong rebuke toward the unbelieving apostles in general presented in the late Marcan epilogue-summary (Mark 16:14).] But was Thomas a speculative philosopher trying to find the truth? No: according to the story he was a man who already believed in God and the Hebrew Scriptures (including, to at least some degree, the advent of the Messiah); who had seen Jesus do amazing things for years; who had heard Jesus occasionally predict one more amazing thing; who had heard testimony from his closest companions that Jesus had indeed done this one more amazing thing; and then had required absolutely irrefutable proof. This is a man who, given 99% assurance, withheld any assent until he received 100% assurance--which is the same as saying that he would never choose to believe, no matter how good the evidence: that someone would have to make him 'believe'. No wonder Jesus was gently ironic! [Footnote: possibly not only to Thomas but toward the other disciples as well--for there had been many more than one ‘doubting Thomas’ in that group who had required absolute evidence rather than a personal trust!] And let us remember that Thomas did give a stronger assent to the evidence than any other character in the narratives: "The Lord of me, and the God of me." [See fourth comment below for an extended footnote here.]

Does this end with Jesus? No--his first Apostles are given supernatural power to help spread the gospel: these people could back their testimony with attesting signs, from which evidence the people were intended to infer conclusions.

It is true that in these stories, we do not find wire-thin metaphysical disputation; but neither was it needed, nor (culturally) had it been largely developed yet, and the general populations (for whom the scriptural documents were written) would by and large not have understood it. They get what they need; and in fact most often they already believed in the Hebrew God and the Hebrew Scriptures, to one degree or another, so that is where the reported arguments focus.

On the other hand, Luke reports Paul's statements at the Mars Hill forum, for example, presumably because those statements are still accessible to most everyone. [See fifth comment below for an extended footnote here.] The letters of the New Testament are written to people already converted, and so largely touch other matters. [Footnote: not that St. Paul never engages in tough disputation--his epistle to the Romans is a famous example--but it still isn’t formal in the sense we would recognize it, and his goal is still different from establishment apologetics.] Beyond the canon, some of the later writings of the Apostolic Fathers (to whom many denominations accord major authority) feature essays and letters written to begin arguing their case philosophically to pagan authorities and audiences; Justin Martyr's apology to the Roman Emperor is a good example.

I would agree, of course, that any metaphysical disputes carried out by the first Christians would be different in shape and thrust (though not completely so) than today's arguments would be. I deny that such disputes must not have ever taken place and (more importantly) I deny that they could have no Divinely approved effect; and I certainly deny that drawing inferences from evidence cannot lead to an acceptance of Christian truth--not because I reject Scripture's authority, but because I accept what its writers have reported.

In this way, I hope I have explained sufficiently to my Christian (and, to some degree, my other theistic) brethren why attempts such as mine, or those of other ‘classical’ apologists, may be possibly useful; while I have also shown why no sceptic should be surprised at being unable to use this popular stance against me, taken from the mouths of 'Christians' themselves.

But perhaps a sceptic of 'religion' may have his own (non-religious) reasons to regard faith and reason as being mutually exclusive; and so I might as well give up and go home early rather than continue with an argument that might turn out to be in favor of God's existence and character. To this issue I now turn for my next chapter.

[Next week: beliefs (generally) and reasoning.]


Jason Pratt said…
....... [first extended footnote starts here]

For accuracy’s sake, this kind of process should not usually be identified as ‘God of the gaps’ argumentation, of the sort typically fulminated against my modern sceptics. While that sort of argument may have been, even probably was, happening too; the OT, much less the NT, does not present its examples in terms of ‘Nothing we know of could be doing this, therefore God must exist and be doing this’, or even usually ‘...therefore it must be God Who is doing it’. Nevertheless, events were considered to be data to be reasoned about, concerning God, including to conclusinos about His character and characteristics. Sometimes sceptics do much the same thing, though to somewhat different results, based on the textual details!
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second extended footnote starts here]

I think this is the meaning of Mark 4:10-12 plus 21-25, and Luke 8:10 plus 16-18. Jesus tells his disciples that he is not speaking parables in order to be altogether unintelligible, but in order to encourage people who care about truth to think about what his parables mean. The people who, through laziness or uncharity or an unrepentant heart, refuse to work out the meaning of what he is saying, will fall into error; and so will the people who try to work out his sayings according to principles of uncharity.

Of course, Jesus would say all this parabolically, too...!
Jason Pratt said…
.......[third extended footnote here]

Since the chapter from which I've excerpted this entry is not actually directed to sceptics, I am taking some notions for granted here; but setting aside issues of philosophy and historical accuracy, this is at least how the story runs, as a story, in these anecdotes. I mention this, because I occasionally find sceptics who want to treat these anecdotes only as 'stories', yet who still seem incapable of even giving them that much credit.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fourth extended footnote here]

No English translation can quite do justice to the blunt affirmation of the Greek here (ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou, 'the Lord of me and the God of me', with grammatic emphasis on 'the'), which is why attempts to write this off as an exclamation of surprise and not a testimony of the recognition of Deity fall fallaciously short. This is not the same as saying the comment and incident were reported accurately, of course; nor that Thomas was correct in his estimate--although I believe he was.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fifth extended footnote here]

Acts 17:16-34. Some of the philosophers sneer at Paul, but others agree to hear more of Paul (implying that more may well have been said by Paul later, which Luke does not record); and Luke reports that several people accepted Christ at that time and in that way, including Dionysius the Areopagite, traditionally identified as the first bishop of Athens.

An especially interesting 'pagan' story, involving the Cretan philosopher Epictetus--whom Paul elsewhere clearly has a high opinion of--connects to this incident, and can be found, among other places, in Richardson's Eternity in their Hearts.
BK said…
Are you going to be discussing Plantinga's "properly basic belief" ideas in the course of this series? I would be interested in your thoughts.
Jason Pratt said…

Not by name per se--I try to set things up in the series so as not to invite distraction over what some other author was doing or not doing or whether I understood him rightly or whatever.

However, you wouldn't be wrong to suppose that the next couple of entries (at least) will be topically related to his work on properly basic beliefs. {g} Actually, the next chapter is either the longest or (close) second longest one in the whole book (I'll be breaking it into multiple entries of course); and frankly needs redrafting anyway. Posting up the material as journal entries forces me to do updating and re-editing, so it's a good exercise. {g}

Since I won't be discussing his work directly, though, I should probably report (here is as good a place as any) that I'm one of those people who is highly suspicious about whether there is such a thing as a basic belief (in the sense of non-inferred); and about whether 'theism' would count as such a belief anyway. I am absolutely positive, in any case, that anything beyond minimal content for theism would not count as a properly basic belief; but then, I sometimes suspect Plantinga wants more than that included.

Victor Reppert (former student of Plantinga) and I have had numerous discussions on this in the past, some of which might be locatable on his DangIdea journal. Victor has been generally in favor of Plantinga being right about this. His most recent comment on it (which I wanted to participate in at the time but couldn't for scheduling reasons), involved pointing to some other scholar/student's suggestion that any hypothesis presented for abductive argumentation might legitimately count as a 'properly basic belief'. This is fairly close to my observation that what Plantinga is talking about is simply sheer assertion; but part of my problem is that I don't think sheer assertions necessarily count as beliefs (though they can easily reflect beliefs.) I'll be discussing that concept in later entries based on the next chapter, btw. (And more in-depth again much later in a series of chapters spanning two whole sections on numerous topics.)

I'm pretty sure Plantinga's goal is to protect non-philosopher believers from having their beliefs discarded as non/irrational on the ground that those people can't come up with an identifiable inference chain leading to the belief.

Insofar as Plantinga's goal is to protect them being recognized as legitimately rational agents, I have absolutely no dissension--though I would extend that recognition to sceptics or alt-believers, including naturalists and/or atheists in their beliefs (whether I happen to think them mistaken or not), which in the past Plantinga has sometimes seemed reluctant to do--thus illustrating that we're probably talking at very different angles to the topic, I guess. {g}

I would be glad to send a paper I wrote up on a comparison (and I think severe contrast) between Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (as represented in his important article following up Warrant and Proper Function, "Naturalism Defeated?"), and Lewis' Argument from Reason as found in MaPS 2nd edition chp 3, to anyone who asks. Though I should add that I don't think I've yet re-read it in light of Steve Lovell's comments/criticisms of my paper.

Anyway, yes that's a good question. {s!}

Jason Pratt said…
Opps: comment typo. {g}

{{fulminated against my modern sceptics.}}

Should be 'against by'. I do love some modern sceptics, but I'm not thinking possessively of any there. {wry g}

Also "including to conclusinos about His character and characteristics." Duh, should be 'conclusions'. Sorry. (I added that phrase in late, and the spellchecker didn't catch it.)


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