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A couple of the blogs I read recently had discussions on the resurrection of Jesus: Common Sense Atheism and Parchment and Pen.

The wrong kind of God

In the comment thread over at Comment Sense Atheism, I wondered about the role of natural theology (that is, stuff like the Kalam Cosmological Argument) in preparing the ground for belief in the resurrection. When William Lane Craig debated against Bart Ehrman, Craig said “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.” According to Ayer (that is, the commenter over at Common Sense Atheism, not the logical positivist), “Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.”

There’s an unwarranted assumption here. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the Kalam argument is valid. This gets us as far as deism. To get to Christianity, we need the resurrection, as Ayer says. But if God didn’t do it, the resurrection is fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume that God is the sort of god who might raise Jesus from the dead. But why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the only available “evidence” that God is that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing we’re seeking to prove. I’ve not seen an argument from Craig (or any other apologist) which avoids this apparent circularity.

Simple explanations

So we’re stuck with being deists, which is a bit boring: as far as I know, they don’t have any choons. Perhaps we might instead argue that the New Testament evidence is sufficient on its own: it shows Jesus rose, and hence (if we’re feeling charitable about it) that there’s a god of the right sort, Christianity is true, greatest hits of Charles Wesley here we come.

This was what the Parchment and Pen posting was about. C Michael Patton argues that alternative explanations are less simple than just accepting that Jesus rose from the dead. There was a thread on the local newsgroup, cam.misc, where another Christian made the same argument.

I remembered that Heinlein once said the simplest explanation is always “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.” What’s wrong with that explanation? It hides complexity behind language, as Alex Selby explains. I ended up saying that the Christian account is “simpler” in some sense, but not in a sense that lends it credibility. In this sense, the “simplest” explanation for what you see in Derren Brown’s stage shows is that mind reading really works and he’s a master at it: all that other stuff he does to achieve the effects is extremely convoluted in comparison. Alex doesn’t think we should describe that sense as simple. I can see his point, and perhaps I should have said that the Christian account feels simpler, rather than that it is.

At this point, a popular apologetic move is to accuse your opponent of assuming naturalism, materialism, scientism and other bad -isms (remember: if you have no other arguments, you can always play Spot The Worldview). I’m not sure whether that’s a valid move. I think you’d need an argument that using this informational Occam’s Razor won’t do the job in the case of non-material stuff, which again, I haven’t seen anyone attempt.

The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” [Is this sounding familiar?] So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

Friends have been playing with Spotify, which it turns out has a whole load of Matt Redman songs (imagine U2 singing about how Jesus is their boyfriend, and you’ve got it). I heard Redman at Soul Survivor when I went, many years ago. Though the charismatic services were a little bit scary at first, the whole thing fired me up to the extent that I alarmed my parents on my return by saying I was thinking of training for the ministry (I could have been the next John W. Loftus). At one of those services, I ended up wondering whether I should ask for prayer for healing. Looking back, I can perhaps understand how the Neumanns thought it was better to pray than phone an ambulance. The question of what, if anything, God is up to these days is a tricky one, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Praise the Prophets

A while ago, the Word of Dawkins came unto me, and the Spirit of Rationality rested upon me, and I spake forth, saying: “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them.” Prophetic, no? (You may say that I’d read about similar cases in the past, but I think you’re bringing a question-begging assumption of metaphysical naturalism to my text).

Rowan Williams has a map. He recently told everyone not to expect God to do much about global warming (by the way, Newsthump’s version of the story is good fun). Likewise, in the Neumanns’ situation, most Christians would call a doctor. So, I don’t think God is going to stop global warming or heal diabetics (much less amputees), and, for the most part, Christians don’t either. Of course, I don’t attempt to excuse the absence of the dragon by telling the story of the man on the roof of his house in the flood. But when you consider what we anticipate will happen, we’re not so very different after all.

Wasted youth

Dead parrotWhen I was a Christian, it seemed there was an unspoken understanding on these matters. God made all that is, seen and unseen; Jesus did all those miracles you read about in the New Testament; the statistical likelihood was that Jesus would, in the fullness of time, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring fresh supplies of lemon-soaked paper napkins. God could do anything. Still, right now, you were more likely to see answers to prayer about work stress and for courage to evangelise your friends than answers to prayers for people to be healed of cancer. Or at least, it was best not to be too surprised that prayers for the big stuff might be “answered in a different way”. (That is, if someone dies, they don’t have cancer any more. No, really, this is not a joke). There were people who asked annoying questions about why God didn’t do more, dissatisfied customers if you will, but I just found them irritating. God obviously existed, so why couldn’t they just realise that?

The Neumanns did without this tacit understanding, which is unfortunate because having the understanding means you have the map: it’s what allows Christians to get along in polite society without, say, being jailed for killing their children. Rather, just as Elijah did, the Neumanns anticipated-as-if God would act. They believed Biblical promises on prayer, as reiterated by their supporters here and here.

So what went wrong? Well, regular readers will know that God isn’t real, though Christians can hardly say so. The usual excuse won’t do, alas: it can’t be that the Neumanns lacked faith. A family with sufficient faith to gather to pray around their ailing child as she lies on her deathbed is surely an example for Christians everywhere, even the ones who believe in doctors. Likewise, even if God has provided doctors, it seems mean-spirited for God to penalise the Neumanns for not using them: which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? We must look for better excuses.

Things not seen

Perhaps those Bible verses aren’t intended to be the promises they seem to be (though they seem pretty clear to me, so if you encounter this argument, I hope you will chastise the person making it for twisting the Scriptures). Perhaps, as the Neumanns apparently believe, God foreknew that the kid would eventually turn away from Jesus, and took her home early to prevent it (though I’m disappointed by their liberalism, in that after their child died, they didn’t slit the throats of the local pastors and turn instead to Baal, Satan or Dawkins, which would have been a more biblical response). Still, both these explanations are at least possible, and if the maintenance of your belief is itself a virtue, that possibility should suffice. As recent convert Sam Harris says:

These people [that is, neo-militant rationalist atheists like Jerry Coyne] are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible – and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue – and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.

Perhaps God is not deceased, but merely pining for the fjords. This, too, is possible. And the heart rejoices…

Some theists are not far from the Republic of Heaven, it seems. Even now, I have hopes that they may turn to rationality.

First, there’s Terry Eagleton, who said in an interview in New Humanist that “If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”

Secondly, Richard Morgan (a Christian re-convert who was formerly a regular over at Dawkins’s site) has suggested that New Atheism may all be part of God’s plan. I have encouraged Richard to return to Dawkins in this thread. I said:

I wonder just how many de-converts who return to Christianity were ever really atheists at all. I mean, they may have looked like atheists, but were they proper atheists, like I myself am? How could they have been? Remember, posting on the Dawkins site doesn’t make you an atheist any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.

It is clear to me that these people never really had a personal relationship with Dawkins (by which I mean they read his books and sort of felt they must be true: obviously one should not be atheologically naive enough to expect any sort of clear two-way communication in a personal relationship. I did once email him, and I have every confidence he read it, plus I once got a comment on my blog and an email from Jerry Coyne, which is practically as good, surely?)

Speaking of atheological naivete, these people’s ignorance of atheism is shocking: they formerly believed in a caricatured Dawkins who advocated biological determinism and “scientism”; and they departed from orthodoxy in their concentration on Dawkins to the exclusion of the other Three Persons of the Horsemen. Doubtless some of this reflects the parlous state of teaching in atheist communities other than the ones I’m in, but I think these people have some responsibility to educate themselves. Had they even read more sophisticated atheological works? Are they familiar with Dennett on belief, Hume on miracles and on design, or Loftus on “the outsider test”? Surely not.

Richard, even now it is not too late for you. Just screw up your face and try harder, dammit.



If you’ve been moved by what you’ve heard here, there’ll be someone waiting in the comments section at the end to engage in rational debate with you. Thanks.

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”.

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

Even the atheists agree: William Craig thrashed Christopher Hitchens in their recent debate. In The West Wing, we see Bartlet preparing for a debate as real politicians do, by practising against someone playing his opposition, presumably having studied the other guy first. Craig is formidable, but his arguments don’t change, so it’s odd that his opponents apparently don’t take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. Transcripts and audio of his previous debates are available, and his arguments are also in his book, Reasonable Faith. Chris Hallquist responded convincingly to the arguments in Reasonable Faith: a review like that should be a starting point for anyone debating with Craig.

Anyhoo, Hallquist’s review of Craig’s book brought back some memories of my time in evangelicalism, specifically about how I was taught to do evangelism. (Reminder: Evangelicalism is a particular subset of Christianity, emphasising the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for personal repentance and faith; people who believe in evangelicalism are evangelicals. Evangelism is the process of making converts; people who try to make converts are evangelists. Clear? Then off we go.)

When I tap on the dashboard, I want you to recite “Two Ways to Live” as quickly and as safely as possible

Sometimes non-Christians are disturbed to learn that evangelicals commonly receive training in evangelism, as if such training were somehow cheating. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about wanting to be better at evangelism, especially if you value the sort of propositional consistency I’ve mentioned previously: evangelicals who evangelise are anticipating-as-if there’s a Hell, rather than merely speaking-as-if they believe it (I’ve previously mentioned an evangelical evangelist who definitely anticipates-as-if there’s a Hell).

The training provided to a typical church-goer doesn’t cover spanking ill-prepared atheists in formal debates, but rather the every-day evangelism which is the responsibility of every Christian. It might start off with overcoming the British reticence about religion to get Christians to casually mention to friends and colleagues what they do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church itself would put on fun events (film screenings, dinner parties, Ceroc nights) to which you could bring non-Christian friends, and there’d be a “short talk about Jesus” in the middle. Once people know you’re a Christian, you might get to talk to them about it, so the training goes on to having conversations about Christianity with non-Christians, maybe learning some sort of salvation schema like Two Ways to Live and some answers to common questions.

What kicked off memories of this was Hallquist’s review of Chapter 1 of Craig’s book. I remember being told to try to move the conversation away from issues like theodicy or the reliability of the Bible, to personal issues of sin and repentance. If you watch the BBC documentary on Deborah Drapper, you’ll see her doing this several times, using Ray Comfort’s Are you a good person? script. If you’d like to see Christopher Hitchens win for a change, you can also listen to an unfortunate Christian trying the script on him.

Bad faith

The advice to move the argument to personal issues reflects the common evangelical belief that philosophical debates and requests for evidence are a smokescreen: the non-Christian knows there’s a God really but just doesn’t want to worship him. One Biblical source for this belief is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where Paul says that God’s nature is clear from creation, so that people who don’t worship him have no excuse (verse 20).

Hallquist quotes Craig:

[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. — William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, my hyperlink

Craig advises Christians to ask objectors “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” This is something like the rationalist technique of getting to the core of disagreements by asking “Is that your true rejection?” (see also The Least Convenient Possible World). However, Craig departs from the rationalist use of this technique in that he seems to argue it cannot legitimately be applied in reverse (“If I substantiated that objection, would you be ready to leave Christianity?”). He also takes the stance that non-Christians are culpably arguing in bad faith.

Hallquist’s review does a better job of arguing against Craig than I can, so you should read that if you come across assertions that Christianity is evidenced by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, or indeed, if you should happen to get into a debate with William Lane Craig. Rather, as is traditional, let’s end by drawing out some practical applications, and then go in peace.

Evangelism training

  • One of the less memorable new phrases invented by Neal Stephenson in Anathem is Hypotrochian Transquaestiation, which means “to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other”. Watch out for this, for example, in the switch from discussion of the existence of God to whether you are a good person.
  • Cognitive biases exist, and seeking a person’s true rejection is a useful technique if the debate seems to be going nowhere. However, it cuts both ways, so…
  • Beware of your conversational role. If you’ve accepted a passive role as potential buyer and the evangelist’s active role as sales-person, there are thoughts which won’t occur to you (like the seeking the evangelist’s true rejection).
  • If you’re aiming for dialogue rather than the buyer role, it’s probably not worth discussing things with someone who sees every argument you raise as evidence of your culpable self-deception. Craig’s position on an atheist’s motivations together with his experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as a fully general counterargument to anything the atheist says (but note that knowing Craig is in possession of this argument doesn’t itself invalidate his specific arguments). If you find yourself in conversation with an evangelical evangelist, it is worth asking whether they agree with Craig.
    • One exception where it would be worth arguing is if there are people watching, as in a public debate, online, or if you found yourself at one of those evangelistic dinner parties.

A while back Andrew Brown over at the Grauniad posted a list of the 6 Points of New Atheism. There was a bit of a bun-fight among the atheists about this, because, though Brown’s an atheist, he was criticising Dawkins Our Leader. It got even more fun when Dawkins turned up in the comments. (My own contribution was to treat the 6 Points as one of those internet quiz memes: I score 2.5/6 for New Atheism, which makes me slightly more Old Skool than New, I suppose). It’s a bit like that Southpark episode where the Unified Atheist League fights the Allied Atheist Allegiance. What’s the fuss about? Here’s part of it.

Most Christians say God is omniscient and omnipresent. Yet the Christian woman whom Yellow blogged about, the one who wrote to a Christian problem page with her self-pleasuring problem, clearly doesn’t really believe God is present and watching her all the time. But she at least believes that believing those things is virtuous for a Christian. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this latter sort of faith belief in belief.

This doesn’t just apply to religion. palmer1984 posted a poll which suggest similar things apply to moral beliefs. It is virtuous to say that we should care for people in other countries as much as we do for those in our own, but most people don’t really believe it.

Some people, especially those with a scientific education (or a certain sort of evangelical Christian background), think of belief as affirmation of a set of propositions. To those people, it’s obvious that these propositions should not be internally contradictory or conflict with reality. But, as Saunt Yudkowsky observes “it is a physical fact that you can write “The sky is green!” next to a picture of a blue sky without the paper bursting into flames”. The same applies inside our heads. Dr Vilayanur Ramachandan’s fascinating experiments on anosognosia patients seem to show that explaining why a belief is valid and changing your beliefs are separate systems in the brain.

I take Yudkowsky’s point that speaking of belief doesn’t capture the psychology here precisely because “beliefs” are often taken to be propositional sentences, but our brains don’t deal in those much. Instead of talking about what someone “really believes”, I suppose he’d prefer to say that the woman speaks-as-if she believes God is omnipotent and omnipresent, but, at least in some instances, behaves-as-if God is not.

Brown says he’s annoyed with neo-atheist rationalist fundamentalist sceptics because neo-atheists think that all brains work like theirs or can be convinced to do so, but that thinking is wildly optimistic. This is the point of Brown’s Freud vs God post, which you should all go and read. See you in 5 minutes.

Back? Brown’s getting this stuff from Dennett and from anthropologists who study religion, such as Pascal Boyer. Boyer details his views over at a sceptics’ website, where he tells sceptics off for their narrow understanding of religion. Another anthropologist, Scott Atran, does a similar thing on edge.org, responding to Sam Harris and others in the wake of the Beyond Belief conference back in 2006.

The anthropologists say that religious beliefs should not be understood as propositional statements about the world, however much they resemble them. What of God’s omnipresence and omniscience? One thing religious people do with this belief is check whether an action is morally right by imagining what their model of God would think of it. This might be done retrospectively, if a religious context provokes thoughts of God. They certainly don’t anticipate-as-if God is in the room and watching.

Brown has linked the ideas of the anthropologists with the observation that most people don’t try to formulate coherent propositions on anything, including religion. I don’t know whether the anthropologists would agree with this, I’d need to read more of their stuff to tell. It’s clear that most religious people do try to draw a map of the real world. As Yudkowsky illustrates with his dragon-believer example, most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them; or as heroes of the faith for showing such belief, like the monks and martyrs. I’d paraphrase Brown’s argument as “most people don’t see the virtue of having one map for all occasions, or of being able to articulate it”.

Of course, if you’re a religious believer, you might find the anthropologists’ approach a little patronising. Some of you seem to have beliefs which are propositions about how the world is. As I said over on robhu‘s journal a while back, Dawkins at least does believers the courtesy of taking them at their word. What do you think?

I’m talking about doubt in a few places at the moment. The feeds of my comments don’t cover stuff outside LJ (I was using CoComment, but decided that was too risky), so here’s where the action is:

Over at Hermant the Friendly Atheist‘s place, top Christian evangelist Lee Strobel turns the tables on us, and invites other Christian authors to ask atheists hard questions about atheism. You can see my responses over there. Greta Christina has some good thoughts on the questions.

The most interesting questions were Plantinga‘s stuff on whether having brains which evolved means we can’t trust them, and Mike Licona‘s question: what would make you doubt your atheism?

Lily the Peaceful Atheist (by the way, what’s with all these atheists being nice and fluffy? I want to be a fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militant like my hero, Richard Dawkins) talks about doubting atheism in a two part posting (part 1, part 2). She’s not impressed with Strobel and friends, but rather, talks about the “emotional doubts” of the ex-Christian: the fear of death, and the feelings evoked by Christian music. I understand those sorts of feelings, having had them myself. Still, I’m enough of a scientist (and enough of an evangelical) to want facts rather than emotion.

I said that I ought to be able to doubt atheism, and also other long held beliefs. The problem with saying “I want to doubt” is that it’s a noble statement, but if that’s all it is, it’s useless. As gjm11 says, half the problem is knowing what to doubt. With that in mind, I thought I’d ask you lot:

What should I doubt?

This doesn’t have to be religion/atheism, of course, although you’re welcome to suggest that if you like (<evil grin>).

Here’s a list of stuff I think about religion, philosophy, science and politics, so you can tell me where you think I could be wrong. Anonymous comments are allowed edited: but please sign yourself with some kind of nickname so I can tell you apart from other anonymous commenters.

<lj-cut text=”Stuff I think. Prepare to be alienated.”>Religion/philosophy: The sort of god that I used to believe in almost certainly doesn’t exist. Jesus probably existed, but God’s not saying much these days, so who cares? Non-evangelical sorts of god are too vague to bother with. Philosophically, I am a tentative materialist, and an interventionist moral relativist.

Science: global warming is real and caused by humans, but I don’t know what I personally should do about it. I don’t fly much because it’s dull and the security theatre is frustrating (“Time to spare, go by air” © my Dad), but I do drive to work. David Mackay’s book made me think we should build more nuclear power stations. Homeopathy works by the placebo effect. The MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Ben Goldacre is god.

Politically, I’m left wing in that I’m in favour of a social safety net, the NHS, and so on. That said, New Labour have become high-handed and irrational wrt ID cards and other civil liberties issues, and on that basis I won’t shed too many tears when they lose the next election. Capitalism seems to be the least bad way of organising stuff. The Communists and whatnot I see in blogland seem to relish the moment when they’ll take power and hang the oppressors: like Christians talking about hell, the fact that this will never happen doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. I am not a cultural relativist in the usual sense of that phrase.

I think the US-influenced identity politics that seems so popular here on LiveJournal is often bulshytt, and more interested in piety than achieving its stated goals (see also). As a white, male etc. etc., getting into discussions about it is like stepping on the third rail: unless I’m talking to someone I already know to be rational, it’s not worth the trouble. That said, I think certain classes of people have systematic advantages over others, but sometimes the concept of privilege is misused in the same way that the opposition misuses evolutionary psychology. Men and women are different at the biological level and this influences brains, but popular reporting of this stuff never talks about standard deviations and whatnot.

So, fire away 🙂

One of my friends did that “grab the nearest book to you and post the Nth sentence on page M” meme. I grabbed the nearest book (Keller’s The Reason for God) and her sentence was the same as mine! This is clearly a sign from God that I should finish my review of the book (the first part of my review is already generating a lot of discussion in the comments). So, here goes. As in the previous part, we’re following the book’s chapters.

Intermission

<lj-cut>In the Intermission between the two halves of the book, Keller talks about standards of proof. He says that the New Atheists have accepted “strong rationalism”, which he says is the view that no-one should believe anything unless it is proved so strongly, by logic or empirical evidence, that no sane person could disagree. What Keller calls strong rationalism seems to be what the rest of us know as logical positivism.

I can only think that he has not read the books he criticises, since Dawkins at least is pretty clear that he thinks belief should be proportional to evidence (hence his preference for the atheist bus sign to read “There is almost certainly no God” not “There is no God”), not that there is some threshold of evidence below which all beliefs should be rejected. Despite Keller’s claims that the New Atheists subscribe to verificationism, I doubt that the Dennett and company would reject Karl Popper’s insights on falsifiability, say. You get the impression that Keller’s an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to this philosophy stuff, eagerly on the look out for big names who at least appear to back his position.

In place of strong rationalism, Keller advocates something he calls critical rationalism. This seems to be something like abduction or inference to the best explanation: we observe a bunch of stuff (the clues that Keller will later talk about, of which more below) and that God would be an explanation for that stuff, therefore it’s reasonable to say God exists. It seems to me that Keller must do more work to avoid this becoming something like Heinlein’s objection to Occam’s Razor: that the best explanation is “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.”

I’m a bit of an amateur too, as it happens, so I’ll leave the epistemology there, and refer you to the professionals, or at least, the professionals in training: Chris Hallquist’s review concentrates specifically on the philosophical problems with Keller’s book. Let’s look at some of Keller’s specific arguments.

The Reasons for Faith

The Clues of God

This chapter deals with hints that God exists, as Keller correctly points out that this is a necessary pre-cursor to Christianity. He deals in clues, as he accepts that these arguments are not conclusive, although he thinks some of them are strong. Let’s look at Keller’s clues:

<lj-cut>The Big Bang

The Big Bang is the first clue. Some Christians (notably William Lane Craig) have identified this with creation of the universe from nothing, and ask what caused it, reasoning that the cause must be outside the universe, since the Big Bang represents the start of space and time. These Christians are over-reaching: the Bang represents a place where theories break down. Sean Carroll is a researcher at the cutting edge who argues that popular science books also over-reach here.

Fine tuning

The second clue is fine tuning, which goes something like: Slight differences in the physical constants would make the universe inhospitable to life. It’s unlikely that the universe got hospitable by itself, therefore someone must have made it hospitable. We call that someone “God”.

I did have a whole section on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and Linde’s eternal inflation here, but then I realised I was committing the same error as Keller, namely, drawing on a highly speculative cosmology to make my point. We just don’t know enough to argue with any certainty that fine tuning was required. For instance, perhaps those “constants” we’re treating as free parameters in a fine tuning argument aren’t so free after all.

Instead, since Keller’s argument is “this is what we would expect if there were a God”, we should respond “is there anything about which you wouldn’t say that?” (Philosophy fans, note that a disciple of the New Atheists has just abandoned “strong rationality” and backed falsificationism: I expect they’ll take away my Dawkins fan club membership card next). Why did God create a universe which is largely hostile to our sort of life, just to house the Earth in one corner, a pale blue dot? Returning to the problems with Keller’s idea of theistic evolution (which I mentioned last time), if you’re a Christian, when you speak of the cosmic implications of the Fall or the Second Coming, do you imagine they apply to the entire universe? Personally, if there were a God, I’d expect a smaller cosmos, possibly the original Christian cosmos, where ideas of a friendly universe made for us and cosmological consequences of sin make a great deal more sense.

The regularity of nature

The third clue is the regularity of nature. Keller refers to the problem of induction, as pondered by Hume. How do you know yesterday will be like today, or that any regularity you discover will continue? Well, you don’t, but if you’re a Bayesian, I guess you’re able to count each sunrise as evidence, if not proof. It seems odd to talk about this as evidence specifically for theism, though: if you’re some sort of Platonist, you could argue that the regularities were evidence for the world of forms, if you’re a Many Worlds fan, you could argue that conscious observers can only exist and continue to exist in regular worlds, and so on.

Beauty

The fourth clue is the existence of beauty. Keller’s argument is that beauty makes us feel life is significant, therefore God exists. Keller’s other argument here is that the existence of an appetite suggests the existence of the thing it is an appetite for. This all strikes me as so much wishful thinking. Applying the Rake disposes of the argument, because it is entirely composed of things we wish were true.

The Clue Killer

Keller moves on to what he calls the Clue Killer, evolution. Keller says that evolution is claimed as the killer argument against all of the previous clues, because naturalistic accounts of religion (see Pascal Boyer’s summary of these) would say that people only find the clues convincing because of cognitive bias. Keller says that naturalists are happy to believe that religious beliefs arise from cognitive biases, but what about the evolutionists’ belief in evolution? He moves into the Argument from Reason, pointing to arguments from Plantinga and others that if evolution is true, we can’t trust our reason. After all, if deception had survival value, our brains would deceive us. How can we trust anything, including the conclusions of evolutionary theory?

Keller writes: “It seems evolutionary theorists have to do one of two things. They could backtrack and admit that we can trust what our minds tell us about things, including God. If we find arguments or clues to God’s existence that seem compelling to us, well, maybe he’s really there. Or else they could go forward and admit that we can’t trust our minds about anything.”

This seems to take the argument too far in a direction that, as far as I’m aware, the professionals like Plantinga don’t take it. I’ve not seen them saying that acceptance of evolution or a naturalistic account of religion are specific examples of cognitive bias. Rather, if I’ve understood them correctly, the pros are saying that naturalism undermines the whole project of rationality, since physical things cannot be said to have justified beliefs. Keller presents a false dichotomy between accepting things which “seem compelling to us” and giving up on reason. Why not try believing in stuff we have evidence for? Keller himself said at the beginning of the chapter that the Clues were not compelling, so it doesn’t seem right to object to naturalists saying people give these clues too much weight because of a pre-disposition to believe in God.

The theistic alternative is not particularly satisfying either. If God gave us the capability to reason, then he was not completely successful, because we know about biases and we see disagreements even between reasonable people. If we follow these sorts of arguments through, as Barefoot Bum does here, we end up concluding that the theistic account doesn’t explain anything, because it ends up just making a list of how people’s minds work and saying “God wants that”, which gives no explanatory advantage over just listing how people’s minds work.

Keller goes on to talk about the “final clue”, namely, that believing in God explains all of the previous clues. Perhaps, but only if you’re prepared to regard God as basic enough to be the place where the buck stops in these explanations, without requiring an explanation for God. There are people who find that sort of explanation satisfying, but there are others, like me, who regard it as giving up. The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.

The knowledge of God

Keller argues that we already know God exists, deep down. Not, as the New Testament says, from what has been made, but, as C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament says, from our moral sense.

<lj-cut>We feel that morality should be universal, morality can only be universal if there’s a God, therefore God exists. There’s been some debate about this argument on my journal and on Rob’s recently. I think I’ve said most of what I’d like to say in one of those two places. To summarise, even without examining the questionable justification for the second premise, the Rake does away with this again, in the absence of any other reason for believing in a universal morality, because it’s just a statement of how we wish the world to be.

Keller moves on to practical arguments. If you would intervene in another culture’s treatment of women, say, then you’re implicitly believing in a universal morality, says Keller. This appears to be an argument that the alternatives are timid relativism (“We can’t tell them to stop, it’s their culture”, as the New Yorkers might say) and theism. I’d advocate Charles Napier’s approach: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

Keller speaks of the “who sez” response to moral claims. Moral claims are things we ought to do but don’t always. For them to be effective against the people who don’t do what they ought to, we need both a source of morality and an enforcer. Despite their complaints that the only alternative to theistic morality is a belief that might makes right, a lot of the Christian arguments against an atheistic morality boil down to the absence of an ultimate enforcer (otherwise we can have moral realism without God, if we’re moral Platonists, say). We have social disapproval, police and prisons, and armies for the Nazis, but they won’t always mean that the side we consider to be good wins out. This means the bad guys can win, which can’t be true. Can it?

Well, yes it can. The mere fact that we might wish it were otherwise does not make it so. To me, that’s an argument for less timid relativism. We can and should use persuasion and eventually even force. Who sez? I do, and I’d better be able to convince a whole load of other people, or I’m pissing in the wind, regardless of how right I am.

The problem of sin

Keller identifies sin as placing something other than God at the centre of our lives. Keller claims that anything other than God placed there will ultimately let us down, and the worship of these things may even lead to harming ourselves or others. Keller talks about identity, and how investing our identity in something leads us to despise people with a different identity (whether it is politics, race, or interestingly, religion).

<lj-cut>Keller’s claim that anything other than God as our cause will ultimately let us down isn’t backed by evidence other than literary quotations, alas. I’m not sure why we should believe it. After all, some people even feel let down by God.

He goes on to mention the Biblical account of the cosmic consequences of sin. Given his earlier acceptance of (guided) evolution and modern cosmology, it’s not clear what this means. Is the Earth broken? Or the whole universe? As I mentioned when talking about theistic evolution, was there a Fall which introduced death (and how did stuff evolve before that)? He admittedly does describe this cosmic effect as mysterious, but this seems a fairly big hole in this cosmology.

Keller’s theories about identity are another repetition of that evangelical common-place, the idea that everyone worships something. Keller previously asserted this worship is the cause of people going to Hell if that something is not God. As I said to apdraper2000 I don’t believe the common-place is true. Some people don’t really have a cause, they just drift along, and the word “worship” seems to imply a passion that’s lacking in those people. Most people have a variety of stuff they like, but I’d be hard pressed to say they worshipped it.

For people that do have a passion, a cause, I think the important thing is to realise its faults, and avoid the Happy Death Spiral. If slights to the Big Idea are slights to yourself or worse, if your gut reaction to arguments against it is anger and arguments for it is a hit of joy, if everyone who disagrees with you is automatically an idiot, then you’re heading off the deep end. There is a time for anger (if someone wants to hurt people who hold your idea, say), but sometimes such reactions are a danger sign. Either you’re too tired of people who disagree with you and need a rest from engaging with them, or you’re entering the Death Spiral. I see no evidence that Christianity is a sure-fire way to avoid that problem, quite the reverse in fact.

It seems odd to put this chapter in the section of the book about reasons and evidence for God, because it doesn’t seem to contain either, it’s just a re-iteration of what C.S. Lewis thinks about sin.

Religion and the Gospel

Keller says that Christianity is not a religion. What he means is that Christianity says you’re not saved by doing the right thing and earning merit with God. The nice thing about this chapter is that Keller speaks to people who’ve experienced what he calls Pharisaiac Christianity (recall that in the New Testament, the Pharisees are the self-righteous hypocrites, possibly because they were engaged in founding modern Judaism to the exclusion of Christians at the time the gospels were written).

<lj-cut>Religion, says Keller, is about what you’ve done. If you’re doing well by your religion’s standards, you look down on others (he neatly points out that this can either mean calling them bigots if you’re liberal, or immoral if you’re conservative). If you’re doing badly, you’re overcome with guilt. Keller says the right motivation for religion (sorry, Christianity) is gratitude to God rather than guilt or fear.

I can’t actually see anything wrong with this chapter as a presentation of what Christianity should be like. The problem is that most evangelical churches aren’t preaching Keller’s Christianity when they’re not explicitly doing their gospel presentations (read The Post Evangelical for stories of how people found evangelicalism stultifying in the UK, and bradhicks‘s Christians in the Hands of an Angry God for how a lot of evangelicals are in league with Satan in the USA). That, and, you know, there isn’t a God. Apart from that, this stuff is how a good religion would be. If he’s managing to get that across at his church in New York, it’s no wonder it’s doing so well.

Still, there’s not an awful lot of evidence that Christianity is true in this chapter, either.

The Resurrection

Keller says that the Resurrection is pretty much the only explanation for the beginnings of Christianity. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s work, he argues that people in the 1st century weren’t simpletons who believed in any old nonsense, that the resurrection of the body of a single person was something neither Jews or Pagans believed could happen, that nothing else can account for the sudden change of the disciples from a frightened rabble into bold preachers.

Finally, we’ve found a chapter about evidence, but it’s not evidence most of us are qualified to judge. Convincing people that the Resurrection happened is a popular apologetic technique among evangelicals, yet according to the Christians who commented on the first part of this review, God doesn’t require us to become experts in ancient literature. But how else can someone judge this evidence? We can look to other experts rather than becoming experts ourselves, I suppose, but they disagree, so I don’t think the evidence can be as clear cut as Keller says. gjm11 tells a parable which points out the problems with Keller’s argument which are apparent even to non-experts.

And the rest

I’m afraid I got bored at this point. The rest of the book is an explanation of orthodox Christian doctrines without much evidence in, er, evidence, followed by an altar call. So, Jesus’s death on the Cross is necessary for forgiveness because we all recognise that forgiveness costs the forgiver; the Trinity makes the statement that God is love meaningful, and never mind that the Bible is equivocal on it and it’s impossible to talk about without committing some heresy or other. Finally, if you want to know more, why not go to church?

Summing up

The second half of the book is mostly a statement of what Keller considers Christianity is, without much evidence that it’s true. Elsewhere, robhu said that he thought that, though rational arguments have a role, the main way that people come to Christianity was to hear the good news about Jesus (what Christians call the “gospel”) and respond to it, so that his main evangelistic method as a Christian was to present the gospel.

The gospel as evangelicals understand it is composed of factual claims. A bare presentation of the gospel (which is quite similar to Keller’s book, since it turns out that he spends most of the second half of his book saying what Christianity is) asks people to accept those factual claims based not on good evidence, but on an inner conviction, a feeling that the claims are right. To the extent that someone does this, they’ve abandoned even the everyday rationality which we use to judge other claims (that Daz washes whiter, or that the used car had one careful owner). Clearly this works on some people (including me, at one point), but I suspect it’s because rationality is a discipline that most people don’t learn, or even see the value of applying to religion. As far as I’m concerned, Keller fails to offer good reasons for God.