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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Over at Debunking Christianity, John Loftus has declared that religious people are closed-minded, and therefore they cannot accept the evidence that would otherwise overturn their faith:

"There are two problems we face in order to cultivate the intellectual virtue of open-mindedness. The first is to learn what constitutes evidence, since most people are unreasonably persuaded because of anecdotal evidence, or fallacious arguments substituting for the lack of evidence, or even peer-pressure or the accidents of birth into a particular family or a different culture. The second is to learn to avoid confirmation bias as much as possible, which Michael Shermer calls "the mother of all biases." [In The Believing Brain, p. 259].Once we learn about these problems and recognize them as the serious ones they really are, and that they stand in the way of a clear-headed investigation of the truth, we can proceed to be honest investigators of the truth. We would know what kind of evidence to look for and be better able to see any bias we might have and adjust for it....  When it comes to investigating the truth of a religion, open-minded people will reject faith-based subjective private states of the mind in favor of objective scientific evidence...."

Okay, let's stop there. Sensible as it sounds at first glance, this is a false dichotomy. The reason confirmation bias is so widespread in the first place is that each of us is led by "faith-based subjective private states of the mind." Consider an analogy: the Wright Brothers developed a working airplane not by rejecting the effects of gravity, aerodynamic drag, etc., but by taking these unwelcome factors fully into account and working out a solution despite them. Likewise the key to maximizing our own methodological objectivity is to first acknowledge our biases, not "reject" them (impossible) or pretend we don't have them. Loftus certainly has his. A man simply does not build a website and write numerous books wholly dedicated to "Debunking Christianity" without some rather strong and settled predispositions against Christian belief. Projecting at length about the confirmation biases of others won't change that very obvious fact.

For the same reasons opinions will vary quite widely on what is and isn't "objective scientific evidence." Mere collections of facts, data and observations are not evidence until they are worked into a hypothesis. And what is a hypothesis? Well, it's basically a tentative explanation, based on a belief or a hunch, usually inspired by some initial observations or reasonings. Suppose I stumble upon a watch on the ground. If I'm William Paley, I may see evidence that an object's design can be reliably inferred from the functionally complex structure of the object itself. If I'm Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, I may see evidence that the suspect was near the scene of the crime. What the watch "means" evidentially depends largely on contextual elements – especially the psychological states and purposes of the investigator, not the observation at hand. Inanimate objects cannot generate hypotheses.

Without beliefs and biases science could not possibly get off the ground. As Poincare put it, "Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." No amount of scientific data will demonstrate that nature is intelligible, that properly derived probability estimates correctly represent the actual probabilistic situation, or that the scientific method is the best way to ascertain truth about the world around us. Those are untestable beliefs we bring to our experiments; the experiments won't confirm them.    

Loftus continues:

"Open-minded people who honestly want to know the truth will consider the evidence as dispassionately as possible, using no double standards. They will do so from the perspective of an outsider in the same way they already reasonably investigate all other religions (which is what The Outsider Test for Faithasks of them). Closed-minded people will not do this. Closed-minded people will even desperately attempt to argue against doing this, even to the point of saying faith is a virtue. But faith has no method and solves no problems. It allows people to remain in their own mutually exclusive certainties. If faith is trust then there is no reason to trust faith.

So when we see Christian defense lawyers like Victor Reppert, David Marshall, Randal Rauser, Thomas Talbott, Mark M. Hanna, Norman Geisler, Matthew Flannagan, Steve Lovell, and others argue differently, you're seeing how faith interrupts the rational thought processes of otherwise intelligent people. Because that's what faith does. Faith itself is a cognitive bias causing people to misjudge the probabilities in favor of one's own faith."

As far as I can tell faith is not a "cognitive bias" but an honest recognition of cognitive limitations, "the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). In some cases faith appears to be a reasonable inference drawn from observable facts, as when Jesus said "believe Me for the sake of the works themselves" (John 14:11). But Loftus argues that because religious people have faith, they must be closed-minded and do not objectively weigh the evidence before them. What is the evidence Loftus provides for the closed-mindedness of religious people? None. The deep irony here is that no evidence whatever is provided to back up the assertion that religious people, and not atheists, believe things on insufficient evidence. To add insult to injury, the Christian faith is supported by all kinds of evidence (where evidence is roughly defined as some fact or set of facts that makes the truth of a proposition more probable than it would be otherwise). Here then are some strong sources of evidence for Christian theism: 

·         The correlation of the creation story in Genesis with the basic facts of cosmology and the "fine-tuned" structure of the universe.
·          The astonishing levels of specifiable, functional complexity observable in living creatures, suggesting their deliberate design.
·         General human acknowledgement of a transcendent moral law, pointing to a transcendent moral legislator.
·         The historical origin and prophetically foretold global dispersion and re-gathering of Israel, as recorded in the Scriptures.
·         Countless archaeological confirmations of the narratives of both testaments.
·         The miraculous ministry and uniquely authoritative teaching of Jesus Christ, attested in the accounts of many thousands of early Gospel manuscripts and writings of early church fathers.
·         The birth of the early church in Jerusalem (the very site of Christ's crucifixion) through the preaching of the bodily resurrection of Christ in the face of violent persecution.
·         And perhaps more than the others, unforgettable personal experiences of God's loving presence and healing power, also known as religious experience.

Now by Loftus' own reasoning, I can determine whether he is open to evidence for the truth of Christianity by simply observing whether he accepts or rejects these facts. By accepting, he demonstrates evidence of openness.

How about it, John? :-)





8 comments:

Postscript:

Also it's interesting to me that on one hand Loftus warmly embraces the "overwhelming evidence" for that most beloved intellectual centerpiece of scientific modernity, Darwinian evolution, in order to justify the singular view of naturalistic atheism; while on the other endorsing the postmodern notion of cultural relativism in order to debunk Christianity as just one claim among many. This is a striking inconsistency. Has he failed the outsider test for atheism?

Hi Don, I wish I could engage you more fully than this, but I'm sorry to say I cannot.

I do recognize I have confirmation biases. But they don’t get in the way when it comes to dispassionately and fairly investigating Mormonism or Scientology or Islam or Hinduism or Orthodox Judaism Christianity. So I am better prepared to investigate those religions honestly, than believers within them. I do so as a “non-believer” or non-theist or a-theist. That's what you should think of when you hear the negation of the word "theism" or atheism. Of course, when investigating religions fairly across the to all religions I come to the conclusion none of them can withstand rigorous scrutiny.

Let me put it to you think way. Take for example the Jews of Jesus’ day. They believed in Yahweh, that he performs miracles, and they knew their Old Testament prophecies. Yet the overwhelming majority of them did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead by Yahweh. Since these Jews were there and didn't believe, why should we? No really. Why should we? Why should anyone?

The usual answer is that these Jews didn't want to believe because Jesus was not their kind of Messiah, a king who would throw off Roman rule. But then, where did they get that idea in the first place? They got it from their own Scriptures. And who supposedly penned them? Yahweh. Christians will also claim God needed for them to crucify Jesus to atone for our sins, just as he needed Judas to betray him. So God needed to mislead them about the nature of the Messiah too. But look at the result. Because he used people for whom we're told he loves, Christians have also been given a reason to persecute, torture and kill Jews throughout the centuries for their alleged crime (the Romans are actually the guilty ones). Not only this, but the overwhelming majority of Jews will go to hell, where Judas is right now. Does this sound fair for a righteous omniscient judge? It smells exactly like entrapment pure and simple.

See this link for a powerful modern example of this rejection:

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2015/06/michael-alters-encyclopedic-book-on.html

Finally, here’s a question. Have you read any of my books where I back these claims up? You couldn't have read the one I linked to in my post, this one:

http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Light-Science-Critically-Examining-ebook/dp/B017G7HFT8/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1456586801&sr=1-9

Let's say you really are an honest seeker of the truth who does not suffer from confirmation bias. Then I suggest you try doing what you claim. Read that book when it comes out. It's a good one. Consider it as a Consumer's Digest report telling you the other side when trying to figure which car to buy. You never did that with your religion even though you will do that with cars. So do it. Read that book when it comes out.

Sorry about the typos. Typing fast. You can figure it out. Cheers.

John,

Apparently we are both busy today. Let me just quickly but sincerely say thanks for coming over and offering your thoughtful comments and questions. I will try to reply sometime later this weekend.

No, I haven't read your books, not yet anyway. That said, if I misrepresented your position here or there I would be happy to acknowledge and correct any misstatements of fact. Take care.

"I do recognize I have confirmation biases. But they don’t get in the way when it comes to dispassionately and fairly investigating Mormonism or Scientology or Islam or Hinduism or Orthodox Judaism Christianity. So I am better prepared to investigate those religions honestly, than believers within them. I do so as a “non-believer” or non-theist or a-theist. That's what you should think of when you hear the negation of the word "theism" or atheism. Of course, when investigating religions fairly across the to all religions I come to the conclusion none of them can withstand rigorous scrutiny."


I know I'm biased but not in your case. OIs that special pleading or just BS?

To be fair I we could all say that. I know I have my biases but I know what Presidential camdidate4s are just Hot air and which ones are are off scale stupid. I wont say which is which but I think you know,

"Let me put it to you think way. Take for example the Jews of Jesus’ day. They believed in Yahweh, that he performs miracles, and they knew their Old Testament prophecies. Yet the overwhelming majority of them did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead by Yahweh. Since these Jews were there and didn't believe, why should we? No really. Why should we? Why should anyone? "

Well John I guess we could call this the insider test hu? If you read Jewish literature from the early centuries you see so many gad v=become Christians they really feared being wiped out.

good post Don

John, I meant to reply earlier, but I guess late is better than never.

I do recognize I have confirmation biases. But they don’t get in the way when it comes to dispassionately and fairly investigating Mormonism or Scientology or Islam or Hinduism or Orthodox Judaism Christianity. So I am better prepared to investigate those religions honestly, than believers within them. I do so as a “non-believer” or non-theist or a-theist. That's what you should think of when you hear the negation of the word "theism" or atheism. Of course, when investigating religions fairly across the to all religions I come to the conclusion none of them can withstand rigorous scrutiny.

Understood – the religious outsider can take a more dispassionate view because he has no vested interests in the truth of the religion in question. The problem I have with that line of reasoning is not that it isn't valid in principle but that it applies to no one in the real world. When it comes to deep-seated metaphysical beliefs about the world, there are no outsiders. You may be an "a-theist" but you're not an "a-naturalist," for example. That's why I mentioned "Darwinian" or naturalistic evolution. It's no coincidence that atheists are notably vigorous (biased?) defenders of evolutionary theory; for if theism is false, something much like evolution has to be true. None of us thinks in a metaphysical vacuum. As Joe suggested, to declare otherwise sounds like special pleading.

Let me put it to you think way. Take for example the Jews of Jesus' day. They believed in Yahweh, that he performs miracles, and they knew their Old Testament prophecies. Yet the overwhelming majority of them did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead by Yahweh. Since these Jews were there and didn't believe, why should we? No really. Why should we? Why should anyone?

Good question. Rather than explain why in depth, which would require more time than I can spare, I will only suggest that since the outsider test is an epistemic methodological ideal, rather than an analysis of the evidence for or against any particular religious claim, it can't tell us who was right one way or another. Yet clearly there is a correct answer to the question. That is, Jesus either was the Messiah or he was not. It may have been, and I believe was, the many who were guilty of confirmation bias and the few who stood outside the tradition and recognized the truth of Jesus' claims. Regardless, if you honestly believed that majority opinion were a reliable tie-breaker for deciding between competing metaphysical claims, you would not be an atheist.

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