What is faith?

Prompted by Rowan Williams saying that neo-atheist fundamentalists aren’t attacking the religion ++Rowan actually believes in, the Barefoot Bum has a good bit on the role of the term “faith” in discussions with believers.

Getting killed on the next zebra crossing

The argument goes something like this: religious faith is sometimes taken by atheists to mean “belief without evidence” (Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion, for example). “Ah, no,” say believers, “that’s not what faith means, our belief is based on the evidence”. There follows an interlude for examination of this evidence, which turns out not to be so impressive. “Did we say based on? We meant compatible with,” say the believers. “That’s not good enough”, says the Bum, “all sorts of things are compatible with the evidence if you’re prepared to add ad hoc stuff to shore up the core beliefs you really don’t want to get rid of, but then those core beliefs are held without regard to evidence”. “But,” say believers, “you yourself have some core beliefs you hold without regard to evidence”. “Well,” says the Bum, “I don’t think so, but anyway, you’ve just conceded that I was right about faith, haven’t you?” “Oh dear,” say the believers, “we hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

Six impossible things before breakfast

The believers’ final attempt to parry the Bum is similar to an apologetic argument I’ve seen, whereby the believer says “If you have an unevidenced belief that your senses aren’t under the control of the Matrix or of a cartesiandaemon, why not round it off by believing in my religion?” This is an odd argument: the believer mentions beliefs you might doubt if you’re a radical sceptic (you’ll recall that you risk becoming a radical sceptic if you’re a university-educated Catholic), but which most people accept because it’s impractical not to. It turns out that belief in gods is something we can get by without. (On a related note, the folks over at Iron Chariots have a reasonable article on the proposition that atheism is based on faith).

Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Three parts of faith

There’s another thing missing from the popular atheist definition of faith. At least for Christians, faith has an element of trust as well as acceptance of facts. After all, even the demons believe.

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton separates faith into three parts: content (faith in what?), assent (affirmation that the content is true) and trust (the part that the demons lack). Patton blames the lack of assent (which requires an examination of the evidence) for the loss of faith of the ex-Christians he’s encountered. He goes so far as to say that the statement “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart” is stupid. Patton seems quite different from other Christians, who say that the main reason they believe is the internal feeling of God’s presence, what they call the witness of the Holy Spirit. One can perhaps forgive atheists for using “faith” in a way Christians don’t like if the Christians themselves aren’t sure what it’s about.

The virtue of faith

A thought which should occur to anyone who reads Less Wrong: you can make people reluctant to give up religious faith by making them think that having faith is virtuous. And this is what we find: in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with). Rather, say:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe “the sky is blue”.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe “the sky is not blue”.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Richard Carrier vs William Lane Craig

Richard Carrier recently debated with William Lane Craig. That’s them in the picture, you see (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one’s which). The topic was the Resurrection of Jesus. You can listen here, though the audio is a bit crappy, or watch the debate on Youtube.

Carrier doesn’t think he did very well. He correctly says that he was a lot less organised than Craig and couldn’t keep up with all the things he’d need to rebut. As I’ve previously noted, Craig has a lot of arguments and a very polished delivery.

<lj-cut text=”Summary of the arguments”>Craig’s main points are that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; Jesus’s tomb was empty; the tomb was discovered empty by women; Mark’s story is simple and lacks theological embellishment (unlike Matthew’s, presumably?); and finally that the earliest Jewish response, that the disciples stole the body, recorded in Matthew, pre-supposes the empty tomb. He backs these points up with references to NT scholars and historians.

Carrier’s response takes issue with Craig’s evidence. He attacks both the NT gospels and Paul’s letters. He notes that Paul says Jesus was raised and appeared to people (1 Cor 15), not specifically that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Appearances can be hallucinations. Looking at Acts and Paul’s letters, it seems the early Christians did have visions. Paul himself says his gospel came from God, not men. Carrier is not saying the early Christians were mentally ill, but rather, that hallucinations in the sane are common in some people, who may even find them comforting (Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World also makes the point that hallucinations are more common than we think and don’t mean that the person experiencing them is crazy). We know these hallucinations have a role in other religions, so why not Christianity? So far, fair enough.

Carrier then argued that that gospel accounts were full of myths, that is, stories told to express a point rather than being historical narrative. He outlined a theory that the release of Barabbas was an allegory for the scapegoat ceremony on Yom Kippur. This has been noted by scholars and also by Christian believers. Though the Christians would argue that just because something is an allegory doesn’t mean it didn’t also happen, Carrier claims that the gospels are chock full of these sorts of things, and so we cannot tell what they record as history.

Craig says in his comments prior to the debate that for the purpose of debating the Resurrection, it doesn’t matter whether the gospels are completely reliable (Craig thinks they are, but wisely doesn’t attempt to defend inerrancy in debate), because we accept that historical sources may contain errors and truths. But Carrier’s argument is that the gospels are chock-full of symbolic tales, so it’s unlikely that any given account is historical: the gospels are not just a mixture of history and myth, but mostly myth.

Carrier talks about a hypothetical world where Jesus appeared to lots of people in lots of places after his resurrection, with records of appearances in many countries. Carrier thinks that in that world he would have much greater chance of accepting that Jesus was raised, so the fact that we’re not in that world is better explained by atheism than Christianity. Craig initially refuses to address this, saying that the question of what God would do is a theological one, not a historical one. When pressed in the Q&A, Craig says that there are Christianities where it makes sense that Jesus didn’t appear all over the world: for example, one might be a universalist, that is, a Christian who believes nobody goes to hell. Of course, Craig’s not a universalist. He’s a Molinist, so he believes God knows what would have happened in every possible circumstance. If Jesus didn’t appear all over the world, Craig says it must be because doing so wouldn’t make more Christians. Craig seems fond of saying that having more evidence for God’s existence wouldn’t make more people become Christians: see, for example, this thread where robhu linked to an article of Craig’s. Yet Carrier seems to be saying he would believe in the resurrection in the hypothetical world, and a lot of ex-Christian atheists say they left the church when they realised there wasn’t enough evidence for their beliefs.

So much for Craig, what about Carrier? In Are You a Solar Deity?, Yvain cautions against theories which can be applied to anything (the specific example Yvain uses is related to religious myths, in fact). Some of Carrier’s examples of myth seem a bit of a stretch. He needs to do more work to show that the gospels are generally unreliable, more than he has time for in a debate, it seems. He’s written a book outlining his theories, but I don’t think he’s carried out a Spot the Fakes test. I’m not convinced the gospels are mostly myth.

On the other hand, the gospels do contain mythologised history based on Old Testament passages. Christians without a prior commitment to Biblical inerrancy recognise this, as do other readers. For example, scribb1e noticed when she read through the Old Testament. (If you’re an inerrantist, you can accommodate this evidence into your web of belief in other ways, for example by saying that the OT passages were foreshadowing). Craig concedes this for the sake of argument, but says we still extract history from unreliable sources. True, but historians don’t extract belief in miracles from other sources either, do they? The apologist is right to argue that the gospels should not be treated more strictly than other historical documents, but historians don’t believe that Vespasian cured the blind, either. Without the presumption that the source is totally reliable, they’re going to treat miracles as the unreliable part.

That steers things back into the territory of the Ehrman vs Craig debate I’ve mentioned previously. When you’ve watched enough of these debates, you realise there are standard openings, like in chess. If you’re an evangelist and someone says to you that historians don’t accept your religion’s miracle, you counter by accusing the historians of metaphysical naturalism and hence of begging the question. Your sensible sceptic will say that this has nothing to do with grand philosophical statements about how everything supervenes on the physical, and more about the way everyone, even Christians, agrees that miracles are pretty uncommon. You need a lot of evidence to back up a miraculous claim, and in the case of the Resurrection, if you really start with a low prior probability, there just isn’t enough evidence.

Notice that Craig never puts numbers into his equation when he’s beating Ehrman with it (not that this would have helped Ehrman, because he’s an arts graduate, poor soul). Craig doesn’t seem very sure what his prior would be. Barefoot Bum and I argued about this, because I’d not noticed Craig talks about it in two places in the Ehrman debate: at one point he says it’s “terribly low” but then, as the Bum notes, he later says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead. That seems fair enough, but as an evangelist, shouldn’t Craig be concerned with how people come to believe in that sort of God? Not by examining the evidence for the Resurrection, it seems.

Still, Craig duffed Carrier up. Let’s not lose heart: over at Evangelical Agnosticism they talk about the rare atheists who don’t get duffed up by Craig. Paul Draper did well, and is well worth a listen. Also, Craig’s debating with Christopher Hitchens on 4th April, which will be entertaining, if nothing else.