Saturday, December 6, 2008

500+1: Bad Answers to a Good Question, part 1.

The Christians and I seem to be agreeing for the most part about this: There are a vast number of claims being made about the existence of supernatural beings by people in history that are false and that are incompatible with Christianity. Our reasons are different, it appears, but the 500 gods on the list aren’t real, and lots of the other supernatural claims that people make have turned out to be false. The Christian has a problem, however, because they need some non-ad hoc, non-circular, and reasonable way to draw a line between the supernatural claims that they think are true and the ones that aren’t. My argument has been that none of them exist.

So I’m asking a perfectly legitimate question of the Christian: Given that the claims of so many other religious believers about the existence of a supernatural being have turned out to be false, why should we think that the Christian God is any different?

Many of the answers that I am getting, when they are not outright personal attacks on me or other attempts to change the topic entirely, seem to fall into a few categories. For now, I’ll just address a couple of the worst reactions I am getting:
Internal Answer 1: “I can feel it in my mind.” I have a special revelation that my God is real. I have some religious experiences that inform me that my God is the one, true God and all of the others, even though those people say the same thing, are false.

Problems: Even if you’ve had these sorts of religious experiences or heard voices in your head, or had what you thought was a communiction with an invisible, magical, supernatural being, you can’t reasonably expect the rest of us to think that this is a satisfying answer to the problem that has been posed. You’re special revelations don’t give us any more reason to believe that the Christian God is the one true God any more than someone’s having a special religious experience is adequate justification for thinking there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Your magic voices in your head aren’t grounds for me to think that the Christian God is different from the others. That just tells me, again, that you’re convinced on some inaccessible and internal basis that your right without any appeal to independent or external corroboration. We knew that you prefer Christianity, but we were looking for some reasons to think it’s different.

Imagine having a trial for a murderer and using the accused man’s own avowals of his innocence as the ultimate test of this guilt. “I am sure in my mind that I am not guilty, your honor,” he says. “Oh, well, in that case, take the handcuffs off of him and let him go,” says the judge.

And this all fails to note that lots of the believers in the other traditions have the very same intense, personal, private feelings that their god is the one, true god. Suppose some atheists also insist that they have some special areligious experiences in their thoughts that gives them a special revelation that there are no gods whatsoever? Would you think that is a satisfying reason to reject Christianity?
Furthermore, even if you’ve had these sorts of experiences, you should be highly suspicious even of their adequacy to provide you with justification for the exclusivity or reality claims. Special feelings in your mind, even if they feel really, really poignant and authentic aren’t adequate grounds by themselves, especially when the matters in question are so important. The question is: why is the Christian God any more likely to be real than all of the others that are not? None of us should accept “because it really really feels like that is true in my mind” as an answer.

Internal Answer 2: The doctrines of Christianity give us reasons to deny that the other gods exist. God said to have no other god before me. He said he was the one, true God. Those other religions are inferior, pagan pursuits that are based on the wrong god.

Problem: This response is as circular as the last one, only with a slightly larger diameter. The question at hand is, given that every other god claim seems to be mistaken, why should we think Christianity is any different? The answer can’t be, because Christianity itself insists that it’s different. Lots of them say that. Again, this is like the murder trial example. But now, suppose that a mobster is on trial, but instead of asking him if he’s guilty, we check with all of his fellow racketeers, murderers, and drug dealers who were his partners about his guilt. Then when they all insist that he’s innocent, we let him go.

So the problem that I have posed is, given that there are so many thousands or even millions of supernatural claims that have turned out to be mistaken, what reasons do we have for thinking that the supernatural claims of Christianity are any different. What we’ve seen here is that it’s not a sufficient to answer that you can feel it in your head or that the institution itself insists that it’s the only real religion.


Casey said...

I've heard you talking about this with other students and professors but I'm still not clear personally on one objection. You may cover this in the next part and that's fine, but here it goes:

Caloric, Phlogiston, luminous aether, epicycles, flat earth, the four humors, four elements, etc. I could name 500 "dead" scientific theories. So why believe that String Theory is correct? Science accepts that Phlogiston could end up being correct but until we get new evidence then we are to reject it.

"But these were all supernatural claims which have failed"

And these are all natural claims that have failed

"But we have gained information each time, and we're closer to the truth"

The same could be said for religious claims coming closer to understanding God's true nature.

"But there are a number of rivaling religious claims, and historically religious figures didn't act as if everyone was getting closer to the truth"

There are, similarly, a number of scientific theories which rival each other currently and historically each proponent of a scientific theory thought they had it figured out to some extent.

"But science is supposed to get things wrong, it's built into the system"

Why not grant the same fallibility to religious claims.

Now, this does still pose a problem to the theist since this analogy suggests the theist should be confidant that their religion is right as much as a scientist is confidant that a particular theory is right, which is a significant blow to the extent faith should play.

Matt McCormick said...

Great comment, Casey. You've put your finger on another objection that I've been getting. I used your rendition of it to write another entry. Thanks.


Deloceano said...

Hi Matt, yes, Caseys "devil's advocate" - or in this case "god's advocate" question does reflect an objection raised by Christians quite often. The context Ive encountered it in is in dealing with creationists who state the whole "evolution is only a theory" bit. That is easy enough to deal with as it just comes down to a simple misunderstanding of the word theory, and the nature of evolutionary thought, but they often go on to say that because we don't know what information will become available in the future, there is no way of knowing whether evolutionary theory will be proved wrong, therefore as much faith is required in evolutionary theory as in religion.

Of course, it's easy to see how you could drive a truck through the gaping hole in this "logic", and that it also destroys their own argument that faith is a virtue, but I would be keen to see how you would respond to this objection and Casey's.

You mentioned that you wrote another entry dealing with this, but didn't mention which entry - Just wondering where you deal with it?

Željko Tadić - zike said...

@Casey and the rest of the guys...
Everything that's said is a reason to give it a second thought, but...

Mostly, science turns out to be true, to really bring us closer to truth, and gives a practical use of it's inventions, while religion mostly turns out to be just another dogma, another unsupported claims, not based on single evidence. Many times science was proven to be wrong is some fields but it's encouraging that wrong things in science were unrevealed by... take a guess... Science and scientists, thank you.

Remember, emperor has no clothes.