“My Faith is the evidence of things unseen”

July 16, 2011

This post’s title comes from the song “Mind’s Eye” by DC Talk. Before I address this line, however, here is an excerpt from the first verse of that song:

Can you catch the wind?
See a breeze?
Its presence is revealed by the leaves on a tree
An image of my faith in the unseen

This analogy fails miserably. No one needs to have faith in the wind, because anyone who has ever been outside can feel the wind. Furthermore, the wind is something that scientists can study, understand, and make predictions about; if it were not so, we would not have tornado warnings here in Kansas. If the Christian God exists, then we most certainly cannot say these things about Him. So this analogy merely serves to highlight the difference between faith and science.

So what about the line with which I titled this post? It resembles the second half of Hebrews 11:1, though modern Bible translations use words such as “conviction” (ESV) and “assurance” (NIV) rather than “evidence” (as the KJV does). Still, what does it mean to say, “My faith is the evidence of things unseen”? Does it mean that the faith that Christians have in their God is itself evidence that He is real? Does it mean that there could not possibly be so many Christians if this God were not real? Then what about other religions? Christianity is not the only religion with a substantial number of believers.

Given that we have multiple religions with substantial numbers of believers, and that each of these claims that it alone is true, how can one rationally decide which one really is true? If any of these religions is true, it must have extraordinary evidence to back it up. My brother David told me, in response to my previous post, that the way Jesus changes people’s lives is extraordinary. But stories of positive, long-term change are suspect because we are only beginning to truly understand the human mind. When something happens in the mind that we do not understand, we should not say, “It’s God.” It would be much better to simply answer, “I don’t know.”

So it seems to me that the evidence for Christianity is still sorely lacking. Rhetoric certainly can persuade a lapsed believer to believe again, but that is not rational belief based on evidence.

Must we submit to the demands of Christianity merely on faith?

June 29, 2011

The church I’ve been attending lately places great emphasis on what it calls “community groups”. These are small groups where people meet in the group leader’s home to hang out, eat together, discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon, talk to each other about what’s going on in their lives, and pray for each other. In the community group meeting I attended tonight, a recurring theme was the importance of spending considerable time reading and studying the Bible. Also, in the sermon on Sunday, the pastor pointed out that Jesus doesn’t merely want us to devote our lives to worship and serve Him; He demands it. And this got me thinking that before submitting to such demands, we should require solid evidence that the claims which the Bible makes about itself and about God are true. In other words, it seems to me that we can’t reasonably be expected to submit to the demands of Christianity merely on the basis of faith, which is belief in the absence of evidence.

What really got me thinking about this was that one guy in our group talked about how he was struggling to prioritize several things in his life, including Bible study, prayer, serving God (through the church I guess), spending time with his wife, his job, and his own physical health. And I wondered, what if all this time he’s spending on Christianity is all for nothing — just a big waste? Multiply that by the many thousands, maybe millions, of very devoted Christians in the world, and it becomes a much bigger waste, if Christianity is false. Some may say that even if Christianity is false, it’s not harmful. But it seems to me that if Christianity is false, then it is indeed harmful, in terms of the collective waste of valuable human effort and time.

So it seems to me that if we’re going to devote our lives to something that makes such great demands of us, then we need something more than faith; we need evidence that the claims of Christianity are true. And given the extraordinary claims of Christianity, we need not just any evidence, but extraordinary evidence. So do we have such evidence? The ever-present emphasis on the importance of faith suggests that we do not.

Christians, what am I missing?

What do I believe?

May 14, 2011

I’ve been asked what I currently believe, since I’m putting forward arguments against Christianity.  That’s a fair question, so here goes.

Let’s start with foundational presuppositions.  All beliefs should be consistent with observable reality, consistent with deductions that we can logically make from observable reality, and internally consistent.  In other words, all beliefs should be based on evidence and logic.  This is a valid presupposition, because we judge all ordinary, non-religious claims by these criteria.  We should be equally skeptical and rigorous with regard to the most important questions in life.  I also take as a presupposition that our ignorance on certain subjects does not entitle us to fall back on a particular set of unsubstantiated claims about God, the afterlife, or particular historical events.

With regard to morality, humanity is still figuring this out, but it seems to me that the best standard for morality is the collective, long-term well-being of conscious creatures, particularly humans and some animals.  The minimization of harm or suffering is particularly important.  I may have difficulty defending this foundation for morality, but again, our lack of knowledge does not entitle us to fill that gap with unsubstantiated claims about God and his law.

Regarding the origin of the universe, that’s a matter of current speculation among scientists.  That doesn’t entitle us to argue that God, however we define him, must be the first cause, because there’s no reason why the universe itself couldn’t be the first cause.  If God can be eternal, then so can the universe.  Or perhaps there’s a larger cosmos of multiple universes; like I said, this is quite speculative.

Regarding the origin of life on earth, this is also an area of current speculation, but it seems reasonable to suppose that given the mind-boggling number of stars in the universe, at least one star system has at least one planet on which a primitive form of life began by chance, then evolved.

Evolution itself is not merely dependent on chance.  I think we can all accept that natural selection leads to micro-evolution; macro-evolution is just micro-evolution over a long period of time, along with long-term geographic isolation of populations which leads to distinct species.  Lines of evidence for evolution include the fossil record (incomplete as it is), common ancestry (verifiable based on DNA), vestigial organs inherited from ancestors, “bad design”, and the geographic distribution of species.

Regarding the origin of the human mind, all current evidence shows that it, too, came about through evolution.  This suggests that our minds are quite fallible, and I’m sure all of us would agree with that.  The theory of evolution can also help explain our moral intuitions, though it cannot tell us how we ought to behave.

One more thing about evolution:  The fact that our understanding of evolution has gaps does not entitle us to assume that there was an intelligent designer.  And if we do assume there’s an intelligent designer, we cannot jump to the conclusion that this designer is the deity described by any of our religions.

So as things stand right now, it seems that I must reject the idea that the Bible is true, because it doesn’t satisfy the criteria with which I started.  The Bible shows all the signs of being a hodgepodge of documents which are inconsistent with each other, sometimes inconsistent with themselves, and written by people whose understanding of the world and of morality was much less advanced than our own.  Furthermore, one would expect more extrabiblical evidence for the historical claims of the Bible; as it is now, I don’t know if there’s any extrabiblical evidence.  Therefore, it seems to me that it’s absurd to think that this collection of documents is the revelation of an omniscient God.  I’d be happy to be corrected with regard to this view of the Bible, but it seems to me that even a mildly high view of the Bible can only be a response to evidence for its high status, not a presupposition.

Finally, with regard to ultimate meaning and purpose, it seems to me that obsession over these things is a deadly drain on mental resources, and totally unnecessary.  Based on my first presupposition, there is no reason to believe in an afterlife, since there is no evidence for it.  Based on my proposed foundation for morality, it seems that the best possible purpose for life is to increase and prolong the well-being of conscious creatures, including ourselves.  We can come up with a variety of ways to go about this, as long as we don’t go about inflicting harm on others, or ourselves.  Sure, the universe may be destined for oblivion, but we can make our lives worth living in the meantime.

Does God want anyone to die a nonbeliever?

May 14, 2011

Those who reject Christianity often talk about the fact that so many billions of people have died believing another religion.  This is called the problem of the unevangelized.  This problem matters, because it shows that at least one claim in the Bible doesn’t line up with reality.

Consider 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV):

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

The clear message here is that God does not want anyone to die a nonbeliever.  The problem is that God has failed at this, billions of times.  This begs the question:  Is God sovereign?  In other words, is God in complete control as Christians say he is?  We must not try to get God off the hook for this, with arguments from human free will, or revelation of God through nature and conscience.  But let’s look at these arguments anyway.

Regarding the argument from human free will, I don’t know of any evidence for this in the Bible; it is more likely a more recent idea.  In any case, if God really didn’t want anyone to die a nonbeliever, he could leave more evidence for himself, such that no one could reasonably deny his existence or the Bible’s claims about Jesus.  Then it would truly be the case that anyone who rejects Christianity is doing so because he or she would rather live a life of sin than submit to God.  But this is not the case; good people can reasonably reject Christianity as absurd, even if they once truly believed it, as Dan Barker and John W. Loftus did.

The argument of general revelation through nature and conscience does have biblical support.  However, the only conclusions one can draw from nature and conscience are that there might be a creator, and that there is such a thing as right and wrong.  Other religions can explain these two things just as well as Christianity can.  To get from this sort of general understanding to a belief in the Christian God, one must have strong evidence.  It seems to me that we don’t have any such evidence.

How can Christians square this problem with claims of God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and love for the world?  I think the most reasonable conclusion is that Christianity is a fiction, and an internally inconsistent one at that.

Remember that I am merely judging the claims that some people made about God and rejecting them as absurd.  Christians have done this with the claims of other religions; I’m applying the same standard of rationality to one more religion.

Christians, am I missing something here?

Slavery in the Bible

May 13, 2011

Those who reject Christianity have been quick to argue that the Bible is not a good guide to morality because it condones slavery. The more I think about this issue, the more I have to agree with them.  This question matters because Christians argue that God, as described in the Bible, is the only real foundation for morality.  So what kind of morality do we get from the God of the Bible?

Consider Exodus 21:20-21 (ESV):

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

This clearly condones brutality to slaves. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as in the American South, but it seems to me that it wasn’t far behind — and since when do we judge a supposed guide for morality against one of the worst counter-examples in history? Christian apologists sometimes argue that this passage needs to be understood in the context of the Ancient Near East, or that God’s way of dealing with sin was to let man continue in it. But this portrays God as a moral compromiser, and part of the core message of Christianity is that God is absolutely not a moral compromiser.

Christians often say that passages like this need to be considered in context. But this passage is actually *more* absurd when taken in context. I know that many, probably most, of my readers know about the biblical account of Israel’s history. So just think for a moment about the pivotal event in this history, and see if you can guess why it would be a problem, in light of this event, to condone slavery.

See what I’m getting at?

OK, I’ll spell it out. The Israelites had just come out of brutal, oppressive slavery in Egypt; you can read it for yourself in the first several chapters of Exodus. All these people were encamped around Mount Sinai, ready for their lives to take a dramatic turn for the better, so no one could argue that God didn’t want to shake things up for the slaves in this society, since these people *were* slaves not long ago. In fact, one would expect God to say something like, “I just brought you out of slavery in Egypt. You remember all too well what it was like to be a slave. You shall not do to others what you would not have them do to you. Therefore, you shall not have slaves.” Incidentally, why isn’t the golden rule in the ten commandments?

(Note: I’m not saying that the biblical account of Israel’s history is true; I’m simply using it to show that the Bible is grossly inconsistent with itself.)

Keep in mind that I’m not judging God, because I don’t currently know of any evidence to suppose that God exists. Rather, I’m judging the claims that people made about God, and rejecting these claims as absurd. Christians do this with the claims of other religions; I know of no good reason to regard Christianity as any more likely to be true. Christianity may be more appealing in some regards, but that doesn’t make it any more likely to be true.

To my Christian readers, am I missing something here?

On Keeping Religion Private

May 1, 2011

In chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_, Keller discusses three proposed methods of solving the problems brought about by the exclusivity of religions: outlawing religion, condemning religion, and keeping religion private. He argues that the last of these is impossible. In particular, he argues that it is impossible to discard one’s deepest convictions about purpose and values when discussing public policy. I agree with that; the only way to keep religion private would be to exclude religious people altogether from discussions of public policy.

Keller also argues that there is no universal foundation for secular claims about morality. He cites two examples: whether or not to eliminate safety nets for the poor, and how easy or hard divorce should be. I’m not surprised that secularists have deep disagreements on issues such as these, and I have no reason to argue that they don’t. But it doesn’t follow that any of the traditional religions, including Christianity, is therefore a reasonable default position.

In the first paragraph I mentioned the possibility of excluding all religious people from public policy discussions. Of course, by Keller’s broad definition of religion, everyone would be excluded from such discussions. So perhaps the right word in this context is not religion, but dogma. In common usage, a dogma is a firmly asserted principle that generally isn’t subject to revision, even in the light of evidence and reason. Dogmatism is often equated with stubbornness. Each of the major religions has some set of dogmas, but secularists can also be dogmatic. So perhaps dogma itself, in all its forms, needs to be excluded from public policy discussions.

As an aside, I think that both individualism and socialism can be held dogmatically. As always, evidence is important. So in the case of divorce laws, which Keller touched on, we must consider the overwhelming evidence that divorce is harmful to children, and let that inform our laws, rather than any firm stance on individualism or socialism.

Likewise, if the evidence shows us that the Bible is not the Word of God, then we must not dogmatically insist on deferring to the Bible in matters of public policy. True, we don’t yet have a universally accepted standard of secular morality to use in place of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth about morality. While we try to figure out that truth, we can still do our best to base our policies on evidence and reason.

In the end, for anyone who views religious faith as a problem, attempts to keep religion private are only dealing with the symptoms, not the root problem. Of the three proposals Keller discussed for dealing with the problem of religious exclusivity, I suspect the only one that will work is some version of number 2, condemning religion. But it seems to me that the antidote to religious exclusivity is not pluralism or relativism; it’s reason, with a healthy dose of caution and humility.

On Condemning Religion

May 1, 2011

In the section in chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_ about condemning religion, Keller discusses several axioms which are used to condemn all exclusive religious claims as unenlightened. It seems to me that all of these axioms come down to relativism, pluralism, or over-generalizations about truth claims. I am in full agreement with him about the inconsistency in these axioms, as I think any rationalist would be.

Keller writes, “Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true.” That may be true of some skeptics, but not all. Some skeptics, myself included, don’t doubt Christianity because of its exclusivity, but because of the lack of evidence to back it up.

So it appears that this is another instance of the dichotomy between religion and relativism. Keller seems to overlook a third possibility here, namely skepticism based on lack of evidence. I’d like to suggest a new axiom to add to Keller’s list: All of the major religions are very unlikely to be true, because they al lack evidence. THerefore, none of these improbable truth claims should be the center of our lives, let alone our societies.

As always, I welcome comments.

“There Can’t Be Just One True Religion”

May 1, 2011

The above is the title of chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_, and the first of the arguments against Christianity that Keller addresses. I’ve never had a problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity; the truth is the truth, no matter how exclusive it is. I’m not a relativist or pluralist, so it’s obvious to me that if one religion which makes exclusive claims is true, then other religions must be false. So I probably won’t have much to say on this chapter, though I may post on some of Keller’s sub-points as I go.

Faith Hidden Within Reasoning?

May 1, 2011

“But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt belief A except from a position of faith in belief B.” — _The Reason for God_, Introduction

Maybe he’s right on this point, but let’s dig deeper; I’m not even sure what my conclusion will be here.

First we need to define faith. From Dictionary.com, it seems to me that the best definition in this context is, “belief that is not based on proof.” The Bible seems to agree with this definition, e.g. Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29.

Let’s suppose Keller is right when he says that everyone has some set of core beliefs for which there is no proof. It does not necessarily follow that it is valid to believe the claims of the Bible without proof. I think it’s safe to say that none of us in this discussion are relativists, so none of us would argue that all faiths are equally valid. For example, most (if not all) of my readers would agree that Islam is an especially dangerous faith, because there’s no escaping the fact that it advocates violence. So even if we concede that everyone has faith in something, there’s no denying that some beliefs are better than others, and there must be some criteria for determining which beliefs are the best. What might these criteria be?

As I understand it, here is the main criterion used by rationalists: All of our beliefs must be compatible with observable reality. Observable reality includes the findings of scientists and historians, as well as any facts on the world that anyone can perceive. Keller might argue that this criterion comes down to faith in one’s own ability to observe reality and judge beliefs accordingly. To that I would respond that our minds are indeed limited, but that we obviously have some ability to observe reality, collect facts, judge new claims against those facts, and act accordingly; that ability has gotten us a long way, especially since scientific inquiry began in earnest a few centuries ago.

Scientists have rigorous standards for judging truth claims regarding the physical world. We should be no less rigorous in judging truth claims about the most important questions in life, such as origins, morality, purpose, and whether there is a God who expects anything in particular of us. If we all must have at least one belief that has no proof, maybe that belief should be this: that all other beliefs must be based on evidence. In everyday life, in science, and in modern legal systems, we expect truth claims to be backed by evidence. So again, why not apply the same standard to the most important questions?

I conclude that faith in the importance of evidence is probably better than faith in any specific set of historical and metaphysical claims. So if there is a type of faith hidden within reason, it’s certainly not the faith one normally talks about.

On this Blog’s Name

May 1, 2011

(This probably should have been the first post.)

I guess this blog’s name might seem odd. I took it from a phrase in an email that my brother Andrew sent me recently. He closed that email with the sentence, “Keep wrestling for the truth.” The phrase “wrestling for the truth” seemed appropriate for a blog like this, so here it is.