Monday, May 24, 2010

A 'Religious' Problem

For the third time this week, someone said to me, "I'm not really a religious person," so I'd like to respond to what might be a common misunderstanding of the Christian religion. It made me wonder how a "religious" person is different from a regular person. If these three friends represented only anecdotal accounts, it wouldn't be worth blogging about, but I fear it represents an underlying assumption that's widely held.

Last month, famous biologist and UCI professor Dr. Francisco Ayala donated $1.5 million dollars to a UCI genetics program. Dr. Ayala was awarded the Templeton Prize in March which comes with the cash prize matching this gift he gave to the University. The Templeton Foundation was impressed by Ayala's work in solving the problem of faith and science. In reference to this, Ayala told the press "We don't have belief in evolution; belief is accepting something for which we have no evidence" ($1.5 Million Dollar Prize Donated to UCI, Orange County Register, April 22, 2010, Local 3) So, according to Ayala, once we relegate faith to the private and personal realm, and we allow science to determine the reality of our daily lives, the problem goes away. In short, science is objective; religious belief is not.

Is religion something we need to approach differently than other things in life like what we believe about the food we choose to eat or oncoming traffic we try to avoid? Do we need to accept claims of faith without any evidence while other decisions need to be verified by science? Or should religious beliefs no longer be given a free pass despite the evidence? In response to Dr. Ayala and my three friends, I suggest we consider three reasons why ignoring the evidence is an unnecessary, and even dangerous, proposition when it comes to spiritual things.

#1 Testability :
While some religious traditions lack a verifiable starting point, the fundamental claims of Christianity fall firmly in line with other alleged events in world history. Any amount of study into the various world religions shows how different their main claims are. Sure, certain moral truths may transcend across many faiths, but the origins and moral justifications are radically different, even contradictory. So, before we get started, it needs to be clear that our present concern examines Christianity on it's own merits rather than bundling it along with all other religions as critics often do. But first, let's see how testable Naturalism and Postmodernism are.

Naturalism prides itself on testing everything empirically by means of the scientific method. This philosophy has serious limits. First of all, the test only applies to observable and repeatable events in nature. Therefore, by definition, Naturalism cannot make a determination on supernatural events. Nor can it say anything about the fields of philosophy, ethics, or even history. This should take nothing away from the value empirical research, but just to show it cannot be used to make moral or religious decisions one way or the other. Naturalism can't accept or deny the existance of God. What's worse, Naturalism itself cannot be tested by its own criteria. The claim that the scientific method is the best way to determine truth, can't be tested empirically. So we need to import non-Naturalistic ideas to support Naturalism which defeats it from the start.
The Postmodernism rejection of our ability to discern objective reality in any meaningful way has obvious problems. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism share this basic theory that the real world is ultimately illusional. Postmodernism's criteria for truth is complicated and circular. If Postmodernism denies truth exists in the first place, it would be meaningless to establish a way to find it. But even if Postmodernism established a criteria for establishing truth, it would be going against the very foundations of Postmodernism which denies truth can be found. Therefore, if Postmodernism could ever show itself to be the best criteria for discovering truth, Postmodernism would be refuted.

For Christianity, the testable claim is the resurrection of Jesus. Put simply, if this event didn't happen, the faith turns out to be a big embarrassment. In Paul's words, we would be "most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19b). A robust defense has been echoed enough elsewhere (as in books like Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, The Son Rises, The Jesus Legend, and The Resurrection of the Son of God,) and in Aaron Brake's recent essay. So, my purpose here is only to point out that the claims can be tested. If this weren't the case, we wouldn't expect that atheist scholars accept facts surrounding the gospel accounts as much as they do.

#2 Explicability:
One thing that binds us all together is that we're all in the same boat. Sure, our particular circumstances and geography may differ, but we're similar in the sense that we're given a limited amount of time on earth with the ability to ask the big questions of life. The world is full of beauty and people we love, but we know everyone is flawed and subject to pain. The differences in which various worldviews account for these basic facts of human existence are vast. To keep things simple, we'll examine three main ones: Postmodernism, Naturalism, and Christianity.

If we were to accept Postmodernism, debating anything becomes meaningless. When no belief is true or false, there is nothing that can be affirmed. After all, what sense would it make to believe in a proposition if it's denial is equally true? Even when a new-age guru claims to have all the answers, the postmodern/eastern worldview also rejects the possibility that he's actually right about any of them. In Postmodernism, we can't even begin to ask the big questions of life because, according to its own criteria, our perception of reality itself is called into question.

Naturalism, or the belief in only natural processes, rejects anything supernatural outright. Accordingly, believers in Naturalism are forced by their presuppositions to find natural means to explain all phenomenon. As a result, any claims to the miraculous are rejected with the assumption that some natural cause is always to blame. The origin of the universe (space, time, matter) is most commonly explained by either the steady state (universe just always existed) or multiverse (our universe was born from a previous one) theories. However, the latest discoveries in cosmology, astrophysics, and long standing laws of logic in direct contradiction to these theories. Accounts of the resurrection of Jesus also pose a problem for them. The historical reliability of Christian Scripture, the teachings and sufferings of people claiming to see Jesus alive after his death, and the growth of the Christian faith cannot be explained by adequate natural processes. The purpose of life and moral distinctions are meaningless if all begins and ends within a purely natural world. So, while naturalism improves upon Postmodernism in that it at least offers an explanation, we need to see how these other two views stack up against Christianity.

The traditional Christian claim is that God, the creator of the universe, reflects the perfect standard of goodness by his very nature, created mankind so that they may seek him and reign with him forever, and became a human person to fulfill his promise to conquer all evil. While each of these claims must have adequate reasons, the material is there to directly answer life's biggest questions: origin of the universe, purpose of mankind, and the source of objective moral values. Again, these arguments have been made extensively elsewhere, but perhaps a quick view of their correlates demonstrates their plausibility.

If the universe had a beginning as the overwhelming evidence suggests the existance of an agent who transcends nature. Any such agent capable of creating the universe must possess such attributes as timeless, non-contingent, volitional, immaterial, and all-powerful. Though these attributes have been granted to God by theologians for millenia, modern science and logic shows them to be absolutely necessary. Any cause of the universe must possess these characteristics. Based on what we know of our universe today, the traditional God of theism is a prime suspect.

If nothing beyond nature exists, no purpose exists. We are all just part of a process left only to our own opinion of worth. For in the end, all are doomed to destruction for no ultimate purpose beyond what we make for ourselves. But if Jesus came to invite us into God's kingdom, then our purpose is known. That Jesus announced the coming kingdom of God is undisputed in New Testament scholarship today. So the question is: was he right? Jesus was known, even by his critics as possessing supernatural powers. His greatest sign, and climax of the New Testament Scriptures, was his resurrection from the dead. If he rose from the dead in vindication of his claims, then we are justified in believing him about God's purpose for mankind. Paul tells us Jesus was the "first fruits" indicating our destiny is to follow him into everlasting life.

If there is no perfectly moral standard, there is no evil. For evil is the derision from the good. It's true that good and evil could be thought of in a subjective sense, but that would limit meaning to the arbitrary whim of individuals. There would be no determinate way of deciding who was right and who is wrong when it comes to moral questions. But we know evil exists. We see some things that are morally apalling and morally praiseworthy. Cultures where women are oppressed versus those where women are treated fairly wouldn't have any moral difference unless we have an objective standard to measure them. For instance, Paul explains that to God, there is no inequality between men and women. Therefore, it would be objectively wrong to treat them unfairly. Christianity provides an explanation for moral values.

#3 Livability:
Perhaps the best way to know if someone believes something is watching how they behave. We all know the familiar truism our mothers' taught: "actions speak louder than words." The illustration was made most clear to me after hearing about a stunt man applauded for walking a wheel barrow across a tight rope above Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1860, Jean Francois Gravelot asked the crowd if he should try to repeat the stunt by walking back to the other side, and they cheered back, "You can do it!" "We believe in you!" Then, when Gravelot looked towards the crowd and asked, "Who will sit in the wheel barrow?", the cheers fell silent. It's easier said than done.

When it comes to living consistently, Postmoderns fail miserably. No one goes through life expecting everything to be an illusion. There are consequences to getting things wrong and we all know it. Crossing the street without looking, drinking motor oil instead of milk, or burning money in lieu of firewood are each significant errors and come with real consequences. However, if the postmodernist is to examine life as he does religion, this is the behavior we would expect to see. But obviously no one does this.

Naturalists are no more consistent when it comes to applying their behavior consistently across religious and daily life. We all behave as though there is a distinction between shaking hands and punching someone in the face. We also act as though there is some ultimate meaning to our existence. But if no moral standard exists, and if there's no objective purpose for our lives, why do we pretend there is? If morality serves only as an innate illusion to fool us into better survival habits, as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse suggests, we still don't have an answer. Naturalists often arbitrarily assert the concept of survival as some sort of ultimate good. But unless some transcendant standard gives value to it, the goal of survival remains without objective meaning as well.

Christianity begs us to approach its claims as we would any other investigation. Surely, we are have biased perspectives that come with presuppositions. But that doesn't mean we can't know anything at all. It just means we need to be willing to enter the investigation ready to abandon ideas that turn out to be implausible.

Conclusion:
I don't know about you, but if Francisco Ayala is right about religious belief having no evidence, I want to know why anyone believes in religion at all. It seems to me, you can only really believe in something if you have reasons for that belief. As it turns out, being a "religious" person doesn't amount to much unless the believing just means hoping. To the contrary, Christian belief doesn't require such wishful thinking, but rather is more testable, explicable, and livable than the two of the other major worldviews today. So next time you hear someone refer to a "religious" person, ask them how religious beliefs are different than any other belief.

We should all be bothered by such naive statements made by influential people as Dr. Ayala. If Ayala's claims about religious belief are as ridiculous as they seem from this assessment, why is he given such accolades? If a medical doctor praised the habits of an overweight, drug-addicted, stuntman by commending his lifestyle, we would strip him of his medical license. If an accountant advises his client to stop paying taxes, we would report him to the CPA board. So, when an educated theologian, philosopher, and scientist similarly religious belief regardless of it's truthfulness, perhaps we should strip him of the Templeton Prize. At the very least, we must not make the same mistake ourselves.

8 comments:

David B. Ellis said...

Though I could write a long comment on all I find wrong with this post I'll start with just one:

Naturalism, or the belief in only natural processes, rejects anything supernatural a priori (outright).

Naturalism is not necessarily (or even frequently) an a priori rejection of the supernatural. In my case, and that of most naturalists, it's a posteriori.

A priori, by the way does NOT mean outright (outright generally being defined as "completely, wholly or without reservation").

The terms a priori ("prior to") and a posteriori ("subsequent to") are used in philosophy (epistemology) to distinguish two types of knowledge, justifications or arguments. A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience (for example 'All bachelors are unmarried'); a posteriori knowledge or justification is dependent on experience or empirical evidence (for example 'Some bachelors are very happy').

Dan Grossenbach said...

David,
It's great to see critical readers responding to our work. I appreciate your insight, but hope you can explain it. I know you wanted to be brief, but it's important that your concern is clear.

If naturalists don't dismiss supernatural claims a priori, but rather posteriori, what criteria is used to make the decision about miracle claims? It's unclear to me how naturalism's reliance on the scientific method can test what's outside of nature. As Greg Koukl likes to say this would be like trying to weigh a chicken with a yard stick. The criteria just doesn't fit for the test.

What's more, it sounds like you're referring to Hume's argument against miracles by experience. Surely we know that historical events that happen outside of our experience are no less real. So rejecting on experience is also unwarranted.

But even if I'm wrong about the problems with posteriori assumptions based on empirical and experiential evidence, what evidence supports your posteriori assumption that nothing outside of nature exists? As you know, atheism or agnosticism don't win by default since there is no neutral ground in this issue.

I hope you also let us know what other parts of this post trouble you. I assume neither of us wants to be responsible for spreading false information. You don't need to write a long post, but if you're going to say there's lots of errors here, it's only fair to tell us where they are.

David B. Ellis said...


If naturalists don't dismiss supernatural claims a priori, but rather posteriori, what criteria is used to make the decision about miracle claims?


I am a naturalist in the sense that I am absent any belief in that set of propositions (God, gods, angels, reincarnation, astrology, magic, an afterlife, etc) that are generally given the label "supernatural".

And I am absent belief in these things because I don't think we have credible evidence (or any other rational grounds) for thinking that they are real. Evidence---that's a word that goes with a posteriori beliefs. Not a priori ones.


If naturalists don't dismiss supernatural claims a priori, but rather posteriori, what criteria is used to make the decision about miracle claims?


The same sort we apply to claims about events in the world in general. Someone accuses X of murdering Y. We gather evidence and reason about whether the evidence available indicates guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or not.

Some claim prophet X can predicted the future. We gather evidence and reason about how well it supports the claim.


It's unclear to me how naturalism's reliance on the scientific method can test what's outside of nature.


If the supernatural exists but never interacts with our world then, obviously, we have no way of knowing it exists. Again, refer to the variety of naturalism I subscribe to. It does not consist of my knowing or assuming that nothing supernatural exists. It consists of the opinion that we have no reasonable basis for being convinced of the existence of those things. This is not a ruling out of the supernatural---it's merely a refraining from belief until sound basis for belief is to be had.

And, so far, I've seen nothing that comes even close.


As Greg Koukl likes to say this would be like trying to weigh a chicken with a yard stick. The criteria just doesn't fit for the test.


Are you unfamiliar with the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal? Or Thomas and the risen Jesus's wounds? The Bible is full of stories in which people encounter very good empirical evidence for a supernatural claim.



What's more, it sounds like you're referring to Hume's argument against miracles by experience.


I'm stating my own views, not Hume's, and you should not assume that Hume and I are in total agreement.


Surely we know that historical events that happen outside of our experience are no less real. So rejecting on experience is also unwarranted.


I did not claim that only my direct personal observation of a miracle would be good grounds for believing in one. Experience includes studying historical documents, talking to witnesses, etc. I simply think the Christian religion is in the same boat as every other in this respect---the historical and other evidences are not even close to sufficient to make belief reasonable.


But even if I'm wrong about the problems with posteriori assumptions based on empirical and experiential evidence, what evidence supports your posteriori assumption that nothing outside of nature exists?


Again, I do not make that assumption. I simply lack the belief that it does---now and until good evidence for it is on offer. Just as I lack a belief in alien abduction stories (or intelligent aliens of any sort) until good evidence is on offer.


As you know, atheism or agnosticism don't win by default since there is no neutral ground in this issue.


I'm afraid I neither know that nor agree with the sentiment---please enlighten me.

When a claim that X exists or X is real is made it is up to the person making the claim to support it. In the absence of reasonable grounds for believing a claim refraining from belief is the reasonable course.

I see no reason this sensible criteria should not be applied to theism as it would be to other claims. But if you have an argument otherwise I'd like to hear it.

David B. Ellis said...


You don't need to write a long post, but if you're going to say there's lots of errors here, it's only fair to tell us where they are.


I would have to write a long post just to list all the things I disagree with so I'm only going to give some representative examples:


For Christianity, the testable claim is the resurrection of Jesus.

The origin of the universe (space, time, matter) is most commonly explained by either the steady state (universe just always existed) or multiverse (our universe was born from a previous one) theories. However, the latest discoveries in cosmology, astrophysics, and long standing laws of logic in direct contradiction to these theories.

Accounts of the resurrection of Jesus also pose a problem for them. The historical reliability of Christian Scripture, the teachings and sufferings of people claiming to see Jesus alive after his death, and the growth of the Christian faith cannot be explained by adequate natural processes.

If nothing beyond nature exists, no purpose exists.


I could go on but I would be doing little but quoting nearly everything you said (it would be faster to list the things I agree with rather than then ones I disagreed with).

Regardless, each of the topics mentioned would be a long conversation all it's own. One thing at a time.

Dan Grossenbach said...

Absent beliefs don't help us here and turn out to be little more than imaginary. Dogs lack the belief in God too, but that doesn't mean they assert atheism is true like you do. Give yourself a little more credit, Dave. You think atheism is a better alternative to theism, don't you? Atheism claims it's most reasonable to assume God doesn't exist while theism thinks he probably does. If these views are to mean anything, both must be based on reasons that tip the scales into belief of at least 50.1% probability. Even agnosticism requires some positive assertion that the question of God isn't knowable. But that claim itself requires reasons to accept it. No one gets off free here. Beliefs (atheism, theism, or agnosticism) must have reasons to be reasonable.

I don't believe in Zeus, but that doesn' make me an atheist. It's just one belief among an infinite number of other concrete an abstract propositions I don't assent to - like apples on Mars or a tumor in my body. Such non-beliefs are infinite and ultimately meaningless. We don't make our decisions based on what we don't know but rather on what we DO know. Saying I don't know God exists isn't a claim to knowledge. It's a claim of ignorance (just like I'm ignorant of any tumors in my body).

I'm glad you brought up the example of an investigation as I agree that we need to approach historical claims of miracles like we would any other alleged event. I'm a part-time apologist, but also a professional investigator so you're speaking my language.

Yes, the stories of Elijah and Thomas (as well as Pharoah, Judas, who disbelieved despite the evidence) do describe empirical tests. Why then do you question them? When we hear of someone being killed by eating a wild berry, we don't need to have empirical evidence ourselves before accepting this belief. We operate on testimony evidence all the time. In fact, never in seven years of criminal investigations have I seen the crime take place myself. We ALWAYS rely on testimony or other facts. Even if I would witness the crime first hand, the judge or jury never does. Even in cases where DNA, fingerprints, and other evidence are necessary, we rely on the testimony of the forensics experts rather than repeating the tests in the court room. Testimony is more than sufficient even for "beyond a reasonable doubt." Most of our daily decisions never even reach that standard of proof.

Historical testimony going back 2,000 years or more has its obvious differences to investigating contemporary events, but like our legal system, historians almost exclusively rely on testimony alone in determining facts of the past. Considering the evidence for the resurrection based on the standard criteria for authenticity, what reason do you have for rejecting the resurrection of Jesus? Obviously you have some reason, but is it consistent with the evidence and standards of historical investigation?

Just repeating the phrase "there's not enough evidence" is merely a statement that describes your dissatisfaction with the positive evidence for theism. It doesn't justify your case or say anything objective about the evidence itself. A criminal defense attorney may "lack the belief" his client is guilty, but would be irresponsible to rest his case there. A good attorney attacks the evidence and provides reasons why it fails to meet the legal standard. We need to do the same thing by accepted historical standards in assessing what happened in Jerusalem that day.

The fact that Jesus claimed our eternal destiny hinges on our response to him demands we make an informed decision. When a fire alarm sounds, we can say it's a false alarm or we can run out of the building, but one thing we cannot say is that the fire is "just a belief I lack."

David B. Ellis said...


Absent beliefs don't help us here and turn out to be little more than imaginary. Dogs lack the belief in God too, but that doesn't mean they assert atheism is true like you do.


What I assert is that we don't have good reason to believe in God and, for that reason, I'm a nonbeliever.

I don't assert that God doesn't exist.

And yes:


You think atheism is a better alternative to theism, don't you?


I think it much more likely that no deities (including the Christian God) exist than that they do. My reason is the same as my reason for being a defacto naturalist in regard to all supernatural claims---all my experience and long, careful consideration of the subject indicates that naturalism is the best fit for the evidence (in other words I hold it as the inference to the best explanation).

However, that is not a position I hold as firmly as that we have no rational ground for being convinced (as is almost inevitable---the former is a stronger claim).


Beliefs (atheism, theism, or agnosticism) must have reasons to be reasonable.


Yes, the first, and primary, reason for being a nonbeliever in theism is, as already said, that we don't have good grounds for thinking it true. All other reasons I have for being a naturalist and nontheist come in as distant, secondary grounds.

Which is why I give this reason as my central one. It's not that I don't think their are others---and others on which I might make a stronger claim. But this is the primary and most important one in my thinking on the subject of supernaturalism in general as well as the particular case of Christian theism.



I don't believe in Zeus, but that doesn' make me an atheist....Such non-beliefs are infinite and ultimately meaningless


The issue isn't trivial at all. The criteria by which you separate the infinity of logically possible things you don't accept from those you do has massive and far-reaching implications. And it is precisely is this matter, that of epistemological methods, that our disagreement lies.

David B. Ellis said...


Yes, the stories of Elijah and Thomas (as well as Pharoah, Judas, who disbelieved despite the evidence) do describe empirical tests. Why then do you question them?


Didn't your mother ever tell you "don't believe everything you read". The fact that someone wrote a story about someone seeing good evidence for a supernatural claim is not, in and of itself, good grounds for believing in the supernatural.

Or do you believe every supernatural claim written about by ancient historians? For example those listed by Richard Carrier in his essay on supernatural claims in the Roman Empire:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.html

---"Suetonius, another biographer writing a generation after Plutarch, reports that even the emperor Vespasian once cured the blind and lame..."

---"Likewise, statues with healing powers were common attractions for sick people of this era. Lucian mentions the famous healing powers of a statue of Polydamas, an athlete, at Olympia, as well as the statue of Theagenes at Thasos (Council of the Gods 12). Both are again mentioned by Pausanias, in his "tour guide" of the Roman world (6.5.4-9, 11.2-9). Lucian also mentions the curative powers of the statue of a certain General Pellichos (Philopseudes 18-20)."

---"But above all these, the "pagans" had Asclepius, their own healing savior, centuries before, and after, the ministry of Christ. Surviving testimonies to his influence and healing power throughout the classical age are common enough to fill a two-volume book (Edelstein and Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, in two volumes, 1945--entries 423-450 contain the most vivid testimonials)."

---"...Apollonius of Tyana, is often called the "pagan Christ," since he also lived during the first century, and performed a similar ministry of miracle-working....Naturally, his story is one that no doubt grew into more and more fantastic legends over time, until he becomes an even more impressive miracle-worker than Jesus in the largest surviving work on him, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratus around 220 A.D."


When we hear of someone being killed by eating a wild berry, we don't need to have empirical evidence ourselves before accepting this belief.


Obviously, if someone tells you a berry is poisonous this is reason for sensible precaution.

On the other hand, if someone tells you that old woman Smith down the road is a witch and caused your neighbor's miscarriage through magic, would you just take their word for it?

Why or why not?


Just repeating the phrase "there's not enough evidence" is merely a statement that describes your dissatisfaction with the positive evidence for theism.


True. When I say that I'm stating my opinion. I'm not asking you to take my word for it and I'm willing to go into as much detail on why as you can stand (and probably more).

Dan Grossenbach said...

Wow, glad to see such enthusiasm, David. I've been busy preparing for our first baby so this reply was delayed. Anyway, I'm afraid we've strayed from the scope of my post a bit, but I wanted to address the relevent points you raised.

First off, you keep repeating the phrase, or something like it, that "There's not enough evidence," but fail to give reasons why the evidence we do have is insufficient. If you've reflected on Christianity as much as you claim, I'm curious to hear what your hypothesis is for the following four things:

1) The disciples' belief and public teaching in the resurrection of Jesus despite suffering and great motivation not to.
2) The martyrdom for Christ by a former skeptic and enemy in the cases of James and Paul
3) Why women were the alleged witnesses of the empty tomb
4) How Christianity arose despite all available powers against it and a life of suffering for it's early adherants.

Yes, my mother also warned me against believing in fairy tales. That's why we try our best to find out what probably happened using historical investigative methods with objective criteria. This is nothing new and is why atheists who study this stuff have trouble providing naturalistic theories more plausible than the God hypothesis. We must face these facts which are well established by secular historical scholarship.

If these things you've put forth are just your opinion, as you say, why should it matter. I like ice cream and triathlons but who cares? What apologists (Christian and athiest alike) use for proofs are arguments, not opinions. You don't cross the street because it's your opinion that a car isn't coming, but because make a conclusion based on an argument of evidence and sound reasoning.

Any thoughts?