CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

We continue our examination of Greta Christina's list of the top ten reasons not to believe in God. In the first post we looked at her claim that history shows a pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones in the explanation of events (spoiler alert: it doesn't). In the second post we looked at her claim that, because the world religions disagree about the nature of the divine, we are just making this religion stuff up.

The next reason Christina offers for not believing in God is that all the arguments offered for the existence of God are "ridiculously weak". 

A bold claim, and one Christina comes nowhere near substantiating. First of all, the comment I made about the fundamental flaw running through Christina's whole piece in the first post needs to be repeated: "her definition of God is so all-encompassing (at one point she says that by 'God' she includes "the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance") that her arguments, far from relentlessly picking apart one well-defined hypothesis, at best strike glancing blows at a dozen different and sometimes incompatible views." This flaw is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of this reason. She discusses a smattering of arguments, not all of which aim to establish the same conclusion and which come from many different religious contexts. 

Let's assume to be charitable, however, that in this part Christina is referring to arguments which aim to prove, or at least render probable, the existence of the monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, even though earlier she made no distinction between this highly specific understanding of the divine and things like 'the soul, metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance'. She makes the following claim:
I have seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God. And they all boil down to one or more of the following: The argument from authority. (Example: "God exists because the Bible says God exists.") The argument from personal experience. (Example: "God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.") The argument that religion shouldn't have to logically defend its claims. (Example: "God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.") Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle... so abstract that it can't be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: "God is love.")
Christina insists that arguments for the existence of God all fall under four categories-appeal to authority, personal experience, denial of the need for proof, or redefining God-even though in the very next paragraph she expands this list to include arguments from the nature of the Bible and the argument from design, thus immediately contradicting her first statement: apparently not all religious arguments fall under those first four categories, after all. And even though she alludes to the design argument, she makes no mention of the other three classical arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, cosmological and moral arguments. 

The truth is that the arguments that could be offered for the existence of the monotheistic God are legion (see, for example, Alvin Plantinga's famous paper, Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments). So Christina is just wrong that they can be reduced to her four initial categories. No doubt it was easier for Christina to convince herself (or at least try to convince her gullible 'skeptical' readers) that religious argumentation boils down to those categories, as it enables her to avoid the hard work of reading up on rigorous philosophy of religion and science. But extraordinary claims (that all theistic arguments are 'ridiculously weak') require extraordinary evidence, and Christina does not supply that evidence.

Let's start with the argument by appeal to authority: "God exists because the Bible says God exists." Well, if the Bible could be shown on other grounds to be a legitimate epistemic authority, then the above reason would be a very good reason to think that God exists! Like most skeptics, Christina seems ignorant of the fact that most of what we know, we know on the basis of the authority of other people, most of whose claims we are not in a position to directly verify (for example: parents, teachers, scientists, professors, etc.). Appeals to authority are entirely legitimate, so long as the authority in question is legitimate.

Christina argues that appeals to authority are illegitimate, because "Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn't have any mistakes." I have yet to encounter a scientist who never made any mistaken pronouncements. Does that mean I should not listen to what they have to say about nature? An authority does not have to be infallible in order to be legitimate, and in order for appeals to authority to have epistemic force. Of course, the possibility of error does mean that we should not believe things entirely based on authority. Christina comes close to making a valid point when she says that "Instinct and intuition play an important part in human understanding and experience... but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject." The same could be said for appeals to authority. For example, the fact that the Bible testifies to God's existence is an importance piece of corroborating evidence that God exists, assuming we have other reasons to think the Bible is a legitimate epistemic authority, but we should not believe that God exists just on that basis. 

Unfortunately Christina retracts her valid point in her hypothetical example of her claiming that the tree in front of her house is 500 feet tall and has hot pink leaves, offering as a defense 'I know this is true because my mother/preacher/sacred book tells me so'. She then asks if anyone would take her seriously. This is such a silly, contrived situation that I am having a hard time taking Christina's discussion seriously (that one would consult a sacred book to determine the stature and color of the leaves of a tree in one's front yard is simply asinine, and not even the most rabid reason-denying fundamentalist would do such a thing). First of all, this is not the kind of claim she would have to rely on authority to verify. It can be verified just by walking outside her front door. Why would she appeal to authority in the first place? Second, as we noted and Christina seemed to accept, one would never believe something entirely on the basis of authority, especially a single authority. Third, supposing she knew her mother or preacher to be decent, honest people with good eyesight, why would she not take their testimony seriously? Christina cautioned about letting instinct and intuition have the final word on a subject, and this (valid) point can be extended to appeals to authority, but her hypothetical example is all about whether her claim based on appeal to authority should even be taken seriously. Christina is just piling on the evidence that she is a sloppy, lazy thinker who herself should not be taken seriously.

A brief word about the appeal to personal experience: "God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists." Again, there are legitimate and illegitimate appeals to personal experience. On some level, since we encounter the world only through the filter of our personal experience, ALL claims to knowledge whatsoever boil down to appeals to personal experience! Christina (as usual) does not clarify exactly what she means by 'feel' in the above statement, but presumably she means something like a direct impression, an inner conviction of the reality of God. She would do well to consider that, ultimately, if someone asked her how she knew there was an external world, and that she wasn't just interacting with the contents of her own mind, her answer would boil down to something like a direct impression or inner conviction. As Cleanthes puts it in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in reference to the radical skeptic: "External objects press in upon him: Passions solicit him: His philosophical melancholy dissipates; and even the utmost violence upon his own temper will not be able, during any time, to preserve the poor appearance of skepticism." Of course, since we do have mistaken impressions about the objects of our perception, one should never base a belief entirely upon one's felt experience. A paranoid person may feel that they are being followed, but that in itself is not reason to believe it. But other evidences could be adduced to reinforce a felt impression (for an entertaining example of how that could work, see Mel Gibson's character in Conspiracy Theory), and it would be wrong to say that a felt impression has no epistemic weight. 

This points to another general flaw in Christina's discussion of religious arguments. She presents them as if a reflective believer would say that he or she believes God exists solely because the Bible says so, or solely because of a felt impression. In reality, people come to believe that God exists on the basis of multiple, converging lines of experience and evidence, each of which are of some weight taken on their own and of substantially more weight when considered in confluence. Consider how you might reasonably come to the conclusion that shadowy people are scoping out your house: a neighbor you trust might report seeing men in black coats moving stealthily around the bushes outside your house. Because you have come to know the neighbor as an honest, level-headed, clear-sighted person, you take their report seriously, even if that by itself does not convince you. But then on your way home from work one night you hear a rustling in the bushes and you just get the impression that you're not alone. Now it could be that the rustling was entirely innocuous and the impression that you're not alone resulted because the neighbor's comment has made you more suggestible, but you have to admit it does cohere with the neighbor's report, and if there is no reason to doubt the neighbor's report the impression now takes on added weight. Further events (finding a black coat discarded in the bushes, a news report that a gang of burglars has been terrorizing your neighborhood) might then even further reinforce your conviction and make it reasonable to conclude that you are indeed being scoped. 

Something similar happens to most people when they come to believe in God. It is not a single factor like a felt impression of God's existence or the Bible's testimony considered separately, but multiple factors considered together that lead to that conclusion. In such a context, appeals to the authority of the Bible and to personal experience are entirely legitimate as arguments for the existence of God.

Christina briefly discusses evidential arguments, but insists that they are "inevitably terrible". She dismisses the appeal to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document with a single link to the Skeptics' Annotated Bible, a website which offers massive commentary on each book of the Bible, pointing to alleged inconsistencies and errors. Talk about appeals to authority! The perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic book is too vast a subject to get into here, but I will say that one need not establish the Bible's accuracy in every detail in order to accept its credibility. A very good case can be made for its accuracy in depicting key events in the life of Jesus, for example, treating it as a purely secular, potentially errant historical source, just like the works of Josephus. Another factor that encourages confidence in the Bible is its profound wisdom and insight into human nature. But again, these are all individual factors that combine with others to result in a confidence in the Bible. I personally do not argue on this basis, so I won't comment any further. Suffice it to say that merely pointing toS a skeptics' website does not debunk the argument from the Bible's perfection.

Christina also briefly mentions the design argument in at least two versions, fine-tuning and complexity. Here at least she seems to have produced more elaborate arguments of her own, and I will read the posts she links to and respond to them in more detail. I will just comment on an assertion she makes that "the conditions that allow for life on Earth have only existed for the tiniest fragment of the Universe's existence and are going to be boiled away by the Sun in about a billion years." This statement is at least partly false. Most of the conditions that allow for life on Earth have been in place since the beginning of the Universe, including the precise values of certain physical constants that were calibrated shortly after the Big Bang, if not at the Big Bang itself. Furthermore, those universal life-supporting conditions made the local, solar life-supporting conditions possible, and these local conditions have actually been in place for a substantial fraction of the age of the Universe (the current estimate of the Universe's age is about 13.75 billion years, while the solar system began to form approximately 4.6 billion years ago). And it doesn't really matter that those conditions are not going to last forever, since they have clearly lasted long enough to produce human beings that can question, wonder, praise, procreate and work, God's intention according to the Bible. 

Finally Christina discusses the objection that believers don't need to produce arguments or evidence in the first place. She summarily dismisses this objection as "conceding the game before you've even begun", implying that you know you don't have a good case to begin with. But again she is ignorant of the fact that the need for arguments and evidence in support of our beliefs is a much-discussed topic in epistemology (particularly in connection to Reformed epistemology, but also in other contexts such as the discussion of Michael Polanyi's 'tacit knowing'). This discussion arises, not because there are those who would rather avoid coming up with arguments for their beliefs, but because there are many situations in which we seem to 'know more than we can tell' (for example a football coach calling a play based on his intuitive 'read' of the game so far), and also situations in which certain claims could in principle be directly verified but which would be very impractical to do so (for example most of the claims which we accept from scientists and doctors). Although I would not say that religious believers are never under an obligation to produce evidence and argument for their beliefs (see above the problem of Christina taking arguments in isolation), there are definitely cases where a believer can simply and confidently say 'I believe', even if he or she is not up to date on the latest work in philosophy of religion. 

I won't say anything about proving God's existence by redefining God, because I agree on this point with Christina, that such a position is not very interesting.

So the pattern continues: Christina makes a bold claim about the quality of religious arguments without backing it up in the slightest. She does not understand how the arguments work, what their background is in ordinary experience and she does herself what she criticizes in others (see her appeal to authority in debunking the perfection of the Bible, for instance). 


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